Citizen Hong

Fear and loathing, murder and mayhem, exclusion and assimilation: one man’s American journey, set against the “tong wars” in 1920s Minneapolis.

On October 3, 1925, the Minneapolis police force received orders to “swamp down” on the Chinese population in the city.

“I want you captains to instruct every man to investigate every Chinese on his beat,” police chief Frank Brunskill commanded, in a speech reprinted in the Minneapolis Journal. “If naturalization papers cannot be shown, arrest and mark them held for the government. If you see Chinese riding around the streets in automobiles, halt them and ask for citizenship papers. If they cannot display them, arrest them. Now put on your hats and go after them, and bar none.”

The raids began at noon, as the police sealed off the streets around the “Chinese colonies,” a handful of downtown storefronts that served as the informal headquarters for the city’s 300 to 400 Chinese. Policemen smashed down doors, “shouldered their way into stores for blocks,” seized Chinese residents, and brought them to the paddy wagons that waited at the curb.

Traffic held up by the raids included Saturday afternoon football fans, and “scores of fenders were bent and crushed as motorists jockeyed their cars into position for a view,” the newspaper reported. Others parked their cars and wandered into the arrest zone to watch the action. Soon, hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and the surrounding rooftops. “A mother and four little children occupied ringside seats on the roof of a building across the street,” reads the Journal report. “The children applauded gleefully as one after another Chinese were led from the building and loaded into patrol wagons.”

By midnight, police had arrested 113 Chinese residents and brought them to the jailhouse, where immigration officials checked their paperwork to determine whether they had a legal right to be in the country. About half of them were released that day, while the rest, who were unlucky enough to not have their paperwork on them when arrested, were held pending further investigation.

By the end of the next day, authorities claimed to have interrogated every Chinese resident in the city. Minneapolis police boasted that theirs was “the largest roundup of Orientals ever recorded between New York and the Pacific coast.” In fact, this dubious achievement belongs to Cleveland, where, just weeks earlier, police had arrested 450 Chinese, condemned that city’s Chinatown, and ordered the buildings razed.

In the fall of 1925, similar raids had been carried out in cities across the nation, including Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. In New York City, some 1,500 Chinese had been seized and more than 100 deported in weeklong raids at the end of September. The raids were so frequent and crippling to the Chinese immigrant community that they came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.”

In each of these cities, the official rationale for the raids was the same: halting the “tong wars” among competing Chinese secret societies. These included the Hip Sing and the On Leong, the two tongs that, throughout 1924 and 1925, waged a battle that ranged across the country and claimed the lives of more than two dozen men.

Since the turn of the last century, the tongs had been widely viewed as criminal gangs that ran extortion rackets and controlled such Chinese vice trades as opium, gambling, and prostitution. The shootings cemented an already well-polished stereotype of the role of the tongs in the Chinese immigrant community (the first “tong war” film came out in 1917, and the subject has been a Hollywood staple ever since). The “inscrutable Oriental”; the “furtive, skulking” tong assassin; the crazed “opium eaters”; the depraved “highbinder” gambling dens; and similar grainy images cast secret societies like the Hip Sing and On Leong as a cross between the Italian mafia and a street gang.

There’s evidence to support the view of tongs as a criminal enterprise, but the full truth is quite a bit more complicated—especially in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the Chinese immigrant populations were small and close-knit. And anyone following today’s debate over the rights of legal and illegal immigrants would do well to study the history of the Chinese in America and the groups known popularly as tongs.

A prominent leader of the Minneapolis branch of the Hip Sing association during the 1925 raids was the dapper, well-spoken Frank Hong. According to his son Walter, Frank Hong was a charismatic, westernized Chinese American. He organized support in the Midwest for the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen and was among the first wave of Chinese to cut off the queue and adopt Western dress. “It was not unusual,” his son remembers, “that as soon as Frank started to express an opinion, all went silent.”

Frank Hong was born in San Francisco in 1887. His father was a laborer in a cannery. When Hong was 6 years old, his parents made the return trip to China, leaving young Frank with an uncle. He never saw them again.

Such stories were not uncommon. Virtually every aspect of the Chinese immigrant community was shaped by a set of immigration laws passed in 1882. The name of the legislation—the Chinese Exclusion Act—gives a clear sense of its intent. The laws barred Chinese laborers from entering the country and effectively cut off the tens of thousands of laborers who were already here from re-entering, if they ever left. Under the Exclusion Act, only two narrow segments of the Chinese population were allowed in the country: merchants and those with debts to American creditors. Chinese women could enter the United States only as the brides of merchants.

Many families, the Hongs among them, were divided by the exclusion laws. Husbands left wives in China; parents left children in the United States. The Chinese coined the term lao huachiao—“old, overseas Chinese”—to describe the aged laborers, too old or poor to return to China, who were stranded for years by the exclusion laws and destined to die apart from their families.

This society of bachelor Chinese immigrants faced a dual isolation; they were cut off from clan and family ties in China by American immigration policy, and from the wider American culture by overt, sometimes violent, discrimination.

To cope with these circumstances, the Chinese organized various mutual-aid societies, usually based on clan relationships. These groups helped newcomers find jobs and housing, send money back home, and pool resources to invest in businesses or put toward such social services as health care, support for the lao huachiao, and burial. As a young adult, Frank Hong was involved in several of these mutual-aid groups, and later, under his leadership in Minneapolis, the Hip Sing tong took on some of these same functions.

The Exclusion Act had been passed during a period of particularly violent attacks against the Chinese. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese laborers returned to the cities of the Pacific Coast, where recession loomed. As the laborers competed for low-skill jobs amid worsening economic conditions, the flames of anti-Chinese sentiment were fanned. In 1871, an armed white mob attacked Los Angeles’s Chinatown and lynched about 20 men. In 1877, San Francisco’s Chinatown was sacked. In Denver, a mob looted Chinese stores and homes in 1880, leaving one man dead and scores injured. In 1885, whites massacred 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and another mob attacked Seattle’s Chinatown, killing three.

The escalating violence along the Pacific Coast drove many Chinese—including Frank Hong’s uncle—to seek a better life inland. He moved to Chicago, taking Frank with him. Frank lived in Chicago for several years, working as a laundryman, before settling in Minneapolis, where he opened a dry-goods store and managed the Golden Pheasant, a popular downtown restaurant.

Because Frank Hong had achieved the coveted status of “merchant” under the Exclusion Act, he could travel back to China and re-enter the United States. Technically, Hong should have been considered a citizen, as he had been born on U.S. soil. But immigration officials were reluctant to grant citizenship to Chinese Americans. In Hong’s case, it would have been next to impossible to prove that he had been born in San Francisco. As a merchant, however, he could legally plan a trip to China to find a wife, and shortly after he moved to Minneapolis, Hong took steps to do so.

Travel involved a complicated bureaucratic process. Hong went to the immigration office in St. Paul and was interviewed. The transcript of the interview would be sent to his port of re-entry, so that officials there could quiz him upon his return to be sure he wasn’t entering the country illegally. These interview questions, designed to staunch the substantial flow of illegal immigrants, could be exacting. In what section of the graveyard is your grandmother’s grave? Did the street where you grew up have electric lights on poles or on the buildings? Illegal immigrants who purchased someone else’s identity papers would have to memorize pages of such trivia to slip past the suspicious immigration authorities. Surprisingly, many of them succeeded.

Hong’s interview went relatively well, although in later years he raised suspicions when he failed to remember the birth dates of all eight of his children. (“There are so many,” he quipped, “it’s hard to keep track.”) Hong apparently had earned some stature in the local community—his dossier includes a personal letter of introduction from the St. Paul immigration inspector, a rarity in the exclusion files of Chinese immigrants.

Legal and illegal Chinese alike lived under the constant threat of deportation. The record of Chinese Americans in Minnesota is rife with suspicions, trials, and deportations of people who failed to master the complexity of the immigration laws.

In 1905, for example, the Minneapolis Journal reported that area Chinese were being “duped” into purchasing phony immigration papers by a Chicago business. When the deception was discovered, the purchasers were arrested by local police, and at least one of them was deported.

In the same year, five Chinese from rural Minnesota and Wisconsin were deported for possessing altered “chock chees”—the certificates of identity issued by the immigration service. “The speed with which the government agents work,” one report boasted, “is shown in the arrest and trial of Jim Ginn. He was a night cook in a Chinese restaurant at Cass Lake and had gone to bed at 7 a.m., January 20. He was awakened and arrested at 11:30, put on the train for Duluth at noon, arrived there at 6:45, was taken before the commissioner at 7 and ordered deported at 7:15.”

Newspaper stories about the deportations were often written in a tone of open contempt. The Minneapolis Journal compared one trial to “a scene from a new comic opera,” mocked the “musical gutturals” of the accused, who testified through an interpreter, and ridiculed a witness’s accent, clothing, and “goatee of seven snowy hairs.”

In Hong’s case, he could show that he was part-owner of the dry-goods store, and he produced two white witnesses to vouch for him, so he was allowed to set sail for China from Seattle in February 1921. Immigration officials in Seattle, however, sounded a warning note: “It is possible that this applicant is unlawfully within the country, because it is not the practice of the Chinese to remain away from their home country as this applicant claims to have done. The statement that he left San Francisco when but six years of age and went to Chicago with an uncle is not credited.”

Minneapolis’s Chinese population was similar, in some ways, to its migrant labor population—the largely Scandinavian loggers, farm hands, and railroad workers who made their home in the city’s skid row. Both groups constituted a young, hard-working bachelor culture that was misunderstood by and ostracized from the wider middle-class realms of Minneapolis society.

Many of the roughly 400 Chinese who lived in the city at the time ran hand-laundries, which were relatively inexpensive to establish and were maintained through loose partnerships, often among family members. Sorting, washing, drying, and ironing clothes was tedious work. The day began at dawn and lasted late into the night, six (frequently seven) days a week. As Paul Siu documents in his classic study The Chinese Laundryman, many Chinese felt trapped by the work but were reluctant to quit, since options for other employment were extremely limited. The laundry represented a slim hope for the future—whether that hope lay in the cost of a return ticket to China or in economic advancement. “To be a laundryman is to be just a slave,” one laundryman told Siu. “I work 14 hours a day and…if I ever stop working, those at home must stop eating. I feel backaches all the time. I am not an old man yet, but I feel old.”

Most Minneapolis laundrymen lived in their shops. At best, the living quarters were a back room with a bed and a cooking stove—and they could be considerably worse. During the influenza outbreak of 1919, the Minneapolis Health Department evicted 150 Chinese who were living in seven downtown buildings, 20 to a basement “in tiers of cots.”

Many in this hard-working, isolated, bachelor society turned to the tongs for diversion and support. When Frank Hong returned to Minneapolis in 1921 with his bride, his dry-goods store, the Hong Yuen, became a hub of Chinese culture in the city. By then, the Hip Sing had established a branch in Minneapolis, and Hong ascended to a leadership role. The rooms above his storefront served as the Hip Sing headquarters. After a long day, many laundry workers would head down to Hong’s store and, if the shop had closed, tap on the glass to be let in. They would play games, share meals, and chat, often well past midnight.

 The members of the Hip Sing assisted one another in navigating the maze of the exclusion laws. Records from the archives of U.S. immigration offices show that Minneapolis members of the Hip Sing and the On Leong collaborated in providing the merchant status or debts that could ensure members’ permission to travel to China and back again.

The tongs also may have played a role in illegal immigration. “There was a great deal of corruption, and an underground economy surrounding illegal immigration,” says Erika Lee, a historian at the University of Minnesota who has studied the Exclusion Act. Transnational networks of smugglers worked with corrupt immigration officials to circumvent the exclusion laws. “Chinese were highly involved in selling papers or acting as go-betweens,” Lee says.

According to some sources, the tongs also controlled where businesses could locate and extorted tribute money from those under their protection. In Minneapolis, competition between the On Leong and Hip Sing first flared over real estate. In 1921, the On Leong gained control of the leases of several buildings near Third Street and Fourth Avenue that constituted what was then known as the “Chinese colony.” Frank Hong’s store was in one of these buildings. Following rent increases, Hong and several other members of the Hip Sing packed up and moved to a new location a few blocks away. The two enclaves continued to serve as the social heart of the Minnesota Chinese community—though they were now officially divided along tong lines.

On a hot night in August 1925, two Chinese men stepped into the Rose Café on Hennepin Avenue, just before closing time. The restaurant was nearly empty. They each ordered a glass of milk, and one of them had a slice of pie. Soon they parted ways. One man left the restaurant. The other opened the door to the kitchen and fired five bullets at close range into Low Suey, the Chinese cook, who died instantly. One bullet hit the arm of Louise Chuck, a waitress. Mary Richards, the dishwasher, fainted.

The shooter tossed his gun into a corner and ran out the front door onto Hennepin Avenue. At just before midnight, the streets were crowded with theatergoers and other night owls. The killer disappeared into the crowd.

The murder in Minneapolis was part of a coordinated attack. On the same night, a restaurant worker in New York City was shot in the stomach and killed. Others were shot in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. It was the bloodiest night of the two-year “tong war” that embroiled the Chinese community from coast to coast and brought about the dreaded Reign of Terror.

The roots of the conflict are not entirely clear. Some blamed rent gouging, territorial encroachment, and violations of business agreements. But the cause cited most consistently was politics. Eng Ying Gong, the national secretary of the Hip Sing (who wrote his memoirs with a newspaper reporter in 1930), claimed the troubles started when younger members of the On Leong, “profiting by their knowledge of American vote canvassing methods,” ousted the tong’s old guard. The old-timers retaliated by switching their allegiance to the Hip Sing—stealing some $50,000 in On Leong cash in the process. This conflict rapidly escalated into violence, and spread to most cities in which the two tongs had branches.

For its size and location, Minneapolis played a surprisingly prominent role. New York City had the most shooting incidents blamed on the tong war—16 in two years. Minneapolis was second, with 9 shootings attributed to the war. One reason may be that the Hip Sing planned to hold its 1925 national meeting here.

For 12 months, beginning in October 1924, waves of violence overtook the Chinese communities in a dozen cities. Local and national cease-fire pacts between the two tongs, usually negotiated by neutral Chinese welfare associations, brought occasional respite from the shooting, but time after time, hostilities broke out anew. In Minneapolis, 11 Chinese were targeted by gunmen; 4 of them were killed.

Frank Hong and other leaders of the tongs took an active role in managing the effects of the violence. They spoke to reporters, collected money for attorneys, and even paid frequent visits to the handful of Minnesota Chinese who were convicted of crimes related to the tong war.

All Chinese, not only those in the tongs, were affected by the conflict. Business in Chinese stores frequently ground to a halt in the cities affected. In the larger cities, such as New York and Chicago, the Chinese sections of town essentially closed down. Business came to a “standstill,” Gong writes. “Telegrams began to pour into both tong headquarters from Hong Kong where the business depression was keenly felt.” Moreover, as the conflict dragged on, the police resorted to ever-harsher tactics and applied them indiscriminately.

In Minneapolis, Mayor George Leach pursued a contradictory policy toward the Chinese. While stating publicly that he thought the trouble derived from outsiders—“I do not believe that the Chinese here participated in the killings,” he told reporters—he held the local Chinese community responsible for the ongoing conflict. “The Chinese of Minneapolis can stop this trouble,” he said at talks he held in August 1925 with Frank Hong and leaders of the On Leong tong, as well as attorneys representing both groups. “Any time you Chinese decide nobody is going to be hurt, nobody will be hurt.”

Finally, the mayor threatened mass action against the Chinese, should the killings continue. As long as the tongs “agree[d] to keep the peace,” he said, he had no plans to launch a “general crusade” against the Chinese community. But he let the threat hang over the talks. “No one is going to make Minneapolis a battlefield,” he insisted. “There is not going to be any war here. If necessary, we will drive all the Chinese out of the city.”

Local branches of both tongs blamed the war on outsiders. It’s difficult to tell, however, just how genuine such protests were. After all, Hong’s organization planned to hold its 1925 convention in Minneapolis, and it’s likely that Hong had some pull with the national organization.

In any case, as the shootings continued in cities across the country, police departments, including Minneapolis’s, began enforcing the Reign of Terror, with house-to-house searches, mass arrests, and threats of deportation for a significant portion of the Chinese people in the country, whether they were tong members or not.

In the years that followed the raids of 1925, tong killings continued, but not with the intensity seen during the 12 preceding months.

The raids themselves were ineffective. Only two people in Minneapolis were ever imprisoned for any of the deaths that occurred during 1924 and 1925, and neither of them was netted in the raids. Nor were any Chinese deported as a result of the police action.

Instead, it was the gradual assimilation of the Chinese into the broader culture—and the eventual repeal of the exclusion laws—that spelled the end of the tongs.

A number of principals in the Minneapolis tong war of the 1920s managed to establish themselves as merchants, so that by the time the exclusion laws were repealed in the 1940s, they were poised to become bona fide, middle-class American citizens. Indeed, a few had already achieved that status.

In 1930, Frank Hong bumped into an old man who had known his father in San Francisco and could testify to the fact that he had been born in the United States and thus was eligible for citizenship. Hong brought the man to the St. Paul immigration office but received a dismissive denial from the authorities.

“The foundation of this case,” the immigrant inspector wrote in his report, “is similar to practically all others of the same class, in that the applicant never had any brothers or sisters; never attended public school; parents either dead or not in the United States; able to furnish a witness living in his vicinity that knows of the birth in San Francisco; and furnishes nothing upon which a check-up of his birth in this country can be made. There is no evidence that the applicant was born in this country.”

Frank Hong hired an attorney and filed an appeal, the gist of which challenged the entire structure of the exclusion laws: “Fraud will not be presumed, and there is no suggestion in this record of any facts suggestive of fraud,” the attorney wrote in his brief.

“The desire of Mr. Hong to have his citizenship established is based almost entirely upon sentiment,” it continues. “He has lived all of his life in the United States, his children were all born in Minneapolis and are being educated as Americans. He is a prosperous businessman, identified financially and personally with this community. Whether he is adjudicated a citizen or not means nothing whatever to him from a financial point of view. But, he desires to have the record established that he is a citizen of the United States and not a wayfarer in a foreign land.”

His appeal was successful. On January 14, 1931, Frank Hong became an American citizen.

Joseph Hart is a freelance writer and associate editor of Utne Reader. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his family.