On a warm September night, a gunman walked into a West Side restaurant, greeted the manager, and shot him three times. Hours after the murder, Chicago cops were still trying to figure out if the shooting was gang-related, the Chicago Tribune reported.
This may sound a lot like Chicago in 2018. But the murder actually happened in 1936. The alleged gangs were Chinese — and the killer was after my family.
That’s one of the reasons I recently took on a Curious City question about the history of Chicago’s Chinese gangs — also called tongs. The questioner didn’t leave their name, but they wanted to know how these powerful gangs got started, what they did, and what happened to them.
I wanted to know the answers to these questions to help me finally understand why my family members were targeted for murder back in 1936. But as I dug into the history of Chicago’s Chinese gangs, I realized that my family’s story offers insight into the social structure and unwritten rules that defined Chicago’s Chinese-American community during much of the 20th century.
How did these Chinese gangs get started in Chicago?
It turns out that the tongs my family got caught up with in Chicago actually originated as secret societies in China. They were divided into two main factions: the On Leong and the Hip Sing. These rival gangs first arrived in the U.S. in the 1860s with Chinese railroad workers. They operated in cities from San Francisco to Chicago to New York, and in just about any town with a large Chinese population.
Part of their role was to provide protection for members within Chinese immigrant communities. This protection was essential when low-wage Chinese workers came under attack for bringing down railway worker pay, says Gangland Chicago author Richard Lindberg.
“As a means of self-protection, the Chinese community organized extensions of the tongs of Imperial China here,” he says. “And then they divided along traditional tong lines of the Hip Sing and the On Leong, which were the principal rivals of 17th-century China.”
In his book, Lindberg writes extensively about the operations of Italian and Irish gangs, but says he found much less open information on Chinese gangs.
“Asian crime in Chicago is not well-documented simply because it was conducted under the veil of secrecy for most of its history,” Lindberg says.
Historian Huping Ling offers one of the few detailed accounts of Chicago tongs in her book, Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870. She describes On Leong as a “self reliant, quasi-legal and social organization of Chinese immigrants.” Ling says Chinese immigrants relied on organizations like On Leong and Hip Sing because they “received little protection from the homeland government or the host country authorities.”
Not just crime, but also social services
While these gangs were most closely associated with crime, Ling points out they also operated as social service agencies in the Chinese community. Among other things, they helped with translation, education, burials, business licenses, and immigrant resettlement. They also served as de-facto courts, resolving a wide range of community and family disputes.
While I’m not sure if my family ever relied on the tongs for these services, Chicago arts advocate Nancy Tom says hers did. In the 1950s she married into the prominent Tom family, who served as business and civic leaders in Chinatown and beyond. At that time, she says, the On Leong was a central force their community.
“If anyone got into trouble or anything, they would go to the On Leong and they would protect them, but all of it was for a fee,” Tom, 82, recalled. “[If], say, an uncle was stealing from another uncle, they would settle all of that. So they were useful for everything.”
Tom says her own mother-in-law turned to the On Leong when there was an inheritance dispute after the death of the patriarch in their family. She says the community simply had more faith in these institutions than the American courts.
“They didn’t trust the outside,” Tom says. “They didn’t trust because they didn’t understand what was going on. So [they thought] it would be better to fight with your own, within your own community. They felt more secure.”
The dark side: rules and violence
As I learned all of these things about Chicago’s tongs and their roles in keeping order and peace, I had a hard time reconciling that image with the brutal gangs allegedly involved in gambling, drugs, and the murder of my family members — specifically my great-great uncle John and grandpa Harry Eng in 1936.
But then I learned about something called the tong’s “one-mile rule.” It prohibited restaurants and laundries from opening too close to each other, and, in my family’s case, it explained a lot about how keeping order and committing murder could go hand-in-hand.
Newspaper accounts of the 1936 murder say that my great-great uncle John and my grandpa Harry opened a restaurant called the Paradise Inn in West Garfield Park, right around the corner from an existing Chinese restaurant called — get this — The New Paradise restaurant.
When I asked my 90-year-old Uncle George about the case a few years ago, before he passed away, he said that our restaurant was in flagrant violation of the one-mile rule. And when something like this happened, he said, the wronged party could go to their tong boss and complain.
“They’d say, ‘Hey boss, look at that. I was making money and the other guy just came in and chopped it up. Go and kill him.’ Then a guy would go in, get an order of chop suey, and bang — it happened so often,” said Uncle George, who married my father’s sister and was an elder in the Hip Sing tong.
But he also noted that tongs often gave violators warnings to close their business before they escalated matters. But Uncle George said my grandfather and his Uncle John ignored the warnings.
“So they just got somebody to go and kill someone,” he alleged. “At that time the target was [grandpa] Harry Eng, but then somebody inside the store stayed there — John Eng — and they killed him instead.”
So what stopped the gang from continuing to hunt down my grandpa Harry after that September night in 1936? Uncle George said that shortly after the murder, my grandpa was visited by On Leong representatives who wanted to have a “friendly discussion.”
“They said, ‘Hey Harry, you better join my tong and we can protect you.’ And Harry accepted the suggestion,” he recalled.
So in 1936, my grandfather joined the On Leong, the gang that allegedly authorized a hit on him and his uncle. It may seem like a weird move, but it allowed him to live another 30 years, create a successful restaurant group, and a have a family with six kids, including my dad.
And, as a bonus, that meant I got to be born.
So what happened to the tongs?
Uncle George said the U.S. tong wars — fueled by gambling issues, territory disputes, and revenge — continued off and on for a few more decades. But in the mid-’60s, leaders decided to hold a national peace summit in Washington, D.C. It brought together tong leaders from across the U.S., including from Chicago.
“We said to each other, ‘You’re On Leong big shots and I am a Hip Sing big shot, so we should talk and not kill each other anymore,’” Uncle George remembered. “So in 1960-something, we get to Washington, D.C. to have a meeting. We talked about why we had to kill each other, and that we are coming to America to make some money and a living, and so we should settle down without all this killing.”
After the peace summit, he said, the tongs also decided to stop protecting members who violated the truce. “We decided that we would let the American government take care of them and let the guy go to jail.”
This summit ushered in an era of relative peace, with some notable exceptions. But generally the On Leong kept to its territory in the South Side Chinatown, and the Hip Sing operated out of its base in the North Side Chinatown at Argyle and Broadway.
This would all change in 1988, when, with an informants help, the FBI raided both tongs and shut down their gambling operations. The raids led to convictions of Chinese tong leaders and investigations of Chicago cops, an alderman, and a judge who abetted their activities.
Uncle George said the raids and closure of their private casinos took a toll on membership.
“To be honest, those organizations depended a lot on gambling to make money,” he said. “People liked to join to enjoy that kind of life. But now the government said you cannot have the Chinese gambling shops. So it got pretty hard to get people in the On Leong and Hip Sing because there was no more gambling.”
In the intervening years, other institutions in Chicago have taken on some of the tongs’ traditional roles. Organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Chinese American Service League, Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and Chinese Mutual Aid Association have filled in many of the business and social service needs.
Municipal courts and police now play a bigger role in the lives of Chinese-Americans, community members say. And on the gambling side, mainstream casinos have targeted Chinese consumers with Asian entertainment and food, as well as convenient buses from Chinatown to their poker tables and slot machines in Indiana.
But that’s not to say the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs have completely disappeared.
“They didn’t really go away, they’re both still here,” Ling says. “They’ve just become one of the many community organizations in the area.”
Indeed, both still occupy buildings in their respective Chinatowns. Hip Sing offices sit next to the Argyle El stop, and the On Leong occupies a small building around the corner from its once grand headquarters on Wentworth Avenue — now a community building called the Pui Tak Center.
But are they still involved in the same activities?
Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says his department doesn’t publicly comment on any of its ongoing gang investigations — Asian or otherwise. And when I called and stopped by the two organizations, they didn’t answer the phone or respond to my questions.
As for my own family, as far as I know, our connection to the tongs ended with my Uncle George. I don’t even have any family elders left to ask. The last of that generation passed away in the last decade. And their kids, who are senior citizens themselves, don’t know much about these admittedly secret societies.
After a recent lunch with my cousin Winston (Uncle George’s son) in Uptown, I asked if he’d walk over to the Hip Sing Association building with me. We rang all the buzzers, but no one answered the doors. Winston said he used to drive his dad, who was well into his 80s, to the building regularly for Hip Sing meetings.
“But did you ever go up and see what was going on?” I asked.
“Not really, I usually waited downstairs,” he said. “And when I went up, it was mostly just a lot of older Chinese guys smoking cigarettes and hanging out.”
More about our reporter
Monica Eng is a veteran Chicago journalist and WBEZ reporter whose great-grandfather Joe Eng came to Chicago around 1920. Within a few years, he opened restaurants in West Garfield Park, including The Chicken Shop and a “dine and dance” ballroom called the Golden Pumpkin.
After losing all the businesses after the stock market crash, Joe launched new restaurants in the early ’30s with his relatives, his daughters, and son Harry Eng. These included the Paradise Inn on the West Side, the ornate Hoe Sai Gai on Randolph Street, and House of Eng on Walton Street.
Monica has never formally worked in restaurants, but has written about hundreds in her years as a food journalist at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. She continues to explore food, health, and history on her Chewing podcast.