Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1886 Tong gangster
Subject: tong gangster
Culture: Cantonese Chinese
Setting: tong wars, America mid 19th - early 20thc

Context (Event Photos, Period Sources)

* Badey 1988 p1.10-1.11
"The English word 'Tong' has its roots in the Chinese word 'Tang'.  Tang is the Chinese term for the English word 'party'.  In 1610, a group of political reformers were referred to as a 'Tang'; that is, an organized clique subversive to both imperial authority and the current bureaucratic process.  Many Chinese immigrated to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century.  They thought of America as 'The land of the golden mountain.'  Their dreams were to come to this country to work in the mines.  The majority of them arrived as poor, single men who had no friends in the new homelands.  They found themselves along and strangers in an inhospitable land.  Soon they joined Chinese working groups that formed up along the lines of their labor.  There were laundry Tongs, medicine Tongs, and many others based on work and even on places of birth.  Nothing was mysterious or sinister about the Tongs and joining a Tong meant the members were part of a friendly and fraternal association where they could seek protection and guidance.
    "From these initial loosely knit fraternal and social organizations the Tongs slowly began to develop into organizations with a structured leadership.  With structure, leadership, and increased membership, the Tongs changed course slightly.  They became involved in their own de facto governments where they decided issues, resolved disputes, and acted as a quasi control body over many of the Chinese in America.
    "By the 1880's, the Tongs began to call themselves Benevolent Associations.  A critical point, to be noted at this time, is that membership in the Tongs was always limited to persons of Chinese descent.  Through limiting membership in this manner, the conversion to the Benevolent Associations went little noted by the non-Chinese in the communities.  When their strength was finally acknowledged by non-Chinese, the Tongs were already strongly structured and in place."

​* Tsai 1986 p54-55
"It is not clear when true tong wars began in America, but by the late 1880s, the word 'tong' had come to have negative connotations outside of Chinatowns. Actually, in the long list of Chinese tong organizations a large number remained altogether free from intersociety feuds and unlawful activities. These were often referred to as the non-fighting tongs. Even so, it was difficult for outsiders to distinguish a militant tong form a pacific one. This difficulty was complicated by overlapping membership, since many people belonged to more than one tong. A respectable merchant, for instance, had automatic membership in one of the Six Companies; he probably held membership also in one or two benevolent tongs and at least one clan tong. He might also join a secret society tong for protection against fighting tongs. Economic motives and the preservation of clan prestige were the most important causes of tong violence. Accounts of battles arising from these causes were indeed numerous. In early May 1869, for example, a battle occurred between two rival groups of Chinese railroad workers near Camp Victory in Utah. The dispute erupted over a $15 debt owed by a member of one tong to a member of a rival tong. After the usual braggadocio, both parties sailed in, at a given signal, armed with every conceivable weapon. Several shots were fired and all indications of the outbreak of a riot appeared until a superintendent of the Central Pacific restored order and averted a major disturbance.
    "The tong wars began escalating in the 1880s. For several years the Six Companies attempted to make peace among the tongs, but to no avail. The problems eventually drew the attention of Chinese officials when a vicious San Francisco tong feud in 1886 resulted in heavy loss of lives and property. The Chinese legation in Washington issued a proclamation warning that if 'gangsters' continued these senseless feuds, the guilty would be deported to China and their relatives in Guangdong would also be held responsible. The proclamation did little to quell the increasing violence in Chinatowns; more and more Chinese were jailed because of their involvement in the intertong strife. Once consul-general named Zuo Geng decided to spy on the troublemakers and tipped off American officials to aid in arrests and quick convictions. Another, named He You, resorted to the radical method, which authorized Chinese officials to jail the gangsters' relatives in Guangdong for crimes allegedly committed in America. Measures such as these helped to combat the tong wars and, by 1900, violence in America's Chinatowns had declined dramatically. Furthermore, by the turn of the century, there were more native-born Chinese Americans and they were less easily intimidated by criminal elements. Since 1921, tong wars have been practically nonexistent in American Chinese communities With the passing of the fighting tongs, a new era of healthier growth in Chinatowns had begun."


* Judkins 2013-03-25 online (describing San Francisco tongs,1877-1878)
"When reviewing the data we find both that Chinese Tong members were no less likely to carry modern firearms than Caucasian suspects during the same years. Yet while these individuals had access to very large numbers of modern handguns, various types of daggers, knives and short swords (including at least one explicit mention of hudiedaos) continued to be carried in large numbers. It would appear that rather than choosing either 'traditional' weapons or 'modern' ones, gangsters and Tong members of San Francisco collectively decided on 'both.'
    "[...] When thinking about the 'Old West' it is easy to get caught up in the mythos of the gun. Rarely do we stop to remember that a new Colt revolver might cost the equivalent of many months wages for the average worker. These items were expensive enough that not everyone could freely buy them.
    "Yet these economic constraints notwithstanding, it is truly remarkable how commonly they were found in the hands of criminals in San Francisco compared too much cheaper weapons like Bowie knives or daggers. Just under half of all of the weapons in the police evidence locker (43%) were firearms. Of these 100% were handguns. Interestingly not a single rifle or shotgun was being held as evidence when the 'Schedule F' inventory was made in 1878. ...
    "There was some variety among the handguns listed. The inventory contained a handful of single-shot, cartridge loading, guns. There was also a lone black powder revolver and one derringer. Everything else was a modern revolver. The most popular gun appears to have been the Colt, followed by Smith and Wesson, various European makes and lastly Remington."


​* Judkins 2013-03-25 online (describing San Francisco tongs,1877-1878)
"About a third of the weapons confiscated were 'knives.' This category was never fully explained in the source material, but it seems to indicate a weapon with a single edged and fixed blade. Of course the Bowie knife was still quite popular in the American West and South after the Civil War. These would have been a common personal weapons or even a fashion statement. Such knives also served other utilitarian functions and so one could probably make the argument they were 'multipurpose blades.' The police occasionally confiscated 'pocket knives' as well, but classified them different from the main body of 'knives.' Fixed bladed, single edged, knives appear to have made up about 30% of the confiscated weapons in police possession.
    "The last category, 'Fighting Knives[,]' is a composite category created by myself to indicate a range of more 'tactical' weapons that the police occasionally came across and took note of. These include specialized blades and fighting knives that fell outside of the norm established by the multipurpose Bowie knife. Examples of 'Fighting Knives' include long or short double edged daggers, hudiedao or Butterfly Swords (occasionally carried by Chinese Tong enforcers), and anyone carrying or fighting with a pair of blades. As one might expect these more specialized weapons were less common, but as a category they still made up 27% of all weapons held by the police in 1878."

* Coe, Connolly, Harding, Harris, Larocca, Richardson, North, Spring, & Wilkinson 1993 p112 (Frederick Wilkinson, "American swords and knives" p104-121)
"Many 'Chinese' knives were ... produced in San Francisco for the Chinese immigrants brought to work in the mines and on the railways. These were hybrid weapons, with conventional American blades and Chinese hilts. The reeded grip was black, with a central swelling. The same narrow vertical ridges appear on the hilts of many nineteenth-century Chinese swords."

* Judkins 2016-09-25 online (describing butterfly swords)
"Rather than being a marker of self-discipline and martial excellence, these swords were most often associated with the periodic breakouts of violence that rocked both the East and West Coast Chinatowns. Whereas British military observers in the 1840s had found the Chinese use of these swords to be paradoxical and quaint, American audiences viewed them as symbols of everything that was untrustworthy and dangerous about the nation’s steadily growing Chinese population. In many ways the spread of the image of the butterfly sword went hand in hand with the spread of the Yellow Panic and the news coverage that supported it."