I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A one-block long street in Manhattan became known as “Bloody Angle,” as rival Chinese gangs fought for control of various criminal activities. It runs south from Pell Street with a sharp hook taking it to Bowery in Chinatown. The street was named after a Dutch immigrant who ran a distillery there in the 18th century.
New York’s Chinatown
Chinese immigrants flocked to the American West Coast during the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. But, it wasn’t long before violence directed at their communities drove them east.
By 1870, large numbers of Chinese people had arrived in New York City where they found refuge of a sort. Continued discrimination caused them to cluster together in an area of lower Manhattan.
Laws barred them from citizenship and its benefits, so they set up their own support infrastructure, helping one another with health care, jobs, and housing. Rebecca Ngu, (This Is New York) writes that “Underneath this umbrella, there were roughly three kinds of associations: The fongs, people from similar districts in China; the tongs, business or trade associations; and family clan name associations.”
Most of the tongs were peaceful, mutual aid societies but a few stepped outside the law; that’s where the trouble started in the early 1900s.
Chinese Criminal Gangs
Tong secret societies date back to the seventeenth century and the start of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Members were outlaws who vowed to bring back the prior Ming Dynasty of 1368 to 1644. These societies came to America with migrants.
Shut out of mainstream society by discriminatory laws in the United States some Chinese men turned to crime to make a living. The tong fraternal organizations were the gathering place for gangs that ran prostitution, gambling, and the illicit drug trade.
Two of the most prominent tongs were Hip Sing and On Leong. Unable to get along with each other and share the profits of their lucrative criminal activities, the competitive tongs fought for control of all the spoils.
Seth Ferranti (Vice News) reports that “With hatchets and meat cleavers, pistols, and automatic weapons and even bombs, these men turned swaths of America’s largest city into a killing zone.”
The First Tong Wars
From the start of the twentieth century to about 1930, war among the tongs flared up and then went dormant for a while. However, once started, a war was difficult to stop because each act of violence had to be responded to as a matter of honour and saving face.
In August 1900, a man called Lung Kin was shot and killed in Chinatown. Lung was a Hip Sing tong member and his murderer Gong Wing Chung was from the On Leong tong. In the world of the tongs such an affront had to be avenged, so a few weeks later Ah Fee, an On Leong, was bumped off. Honour had been preserved and everybody could go back to the important business of crime―for a while.
At 5 Doyers Street, there was a Chinese theatre. One evening in August 1905, a Hip Sing gunman walked into the theatre and threw a lit string of firecrackers onto the stage. This was the signal for his fellow assassins to open fire on the seating area set aside for members of the On Leong tong. Four of the targeted men died and the crime was never solved.
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A Continuing Cycle of Violence
Reprisals followed with shootings and hatchet murders, but this upset the city fathers who were seeing their cut of the vice trade diminishing. The punters stopped going into Chinatown in search of opium and prostitutes for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Obviously, the streets had to be made safe for the illicit trades to prosper.
Ward boss Big Tom Foley was sent into Chinatown to restore order. A peace was brokered that separated the two gangs, with Doyers Street being declared neutral ground. The suspension of hostilities didn’t last long.
The Murder of Bow Kum
In 1909, men associated with the Hip Sing tong marched into the apartment Chin Lem on Mott Street. They killed Bow Kum, described variously as Chin Lem’s wife or concubine. The murder was over a disagreement about who owned Bow who had earlier been sold into slavery in San Francisco. The attackers mutilated Bow’s body and triggered the next flare-up between the gangs.
The neutral ground of Doyers Street became the battleground. When it was all over, the body count was about 50 and a lot of them were found on Doyers Street. Tong members would wait around the bend in the street for some hapless man from an opposing gang to turn the corner. Hatchets would go to work leaving the victim bleeding in the street as the attackers fled into the area’s many underground tunnels.
The End of the Tong Wars
Scott D. Seligman is the author of Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York’s Chinatown. In his 2016 book, he says the violence eventually subsided because of the Great Depression.
With unemployment at record high levels, there were fewer people looking to buy the services the tongs were offering. In addition, the violence had made the area a no-go place for tourists.
Also, the crooked politicians of Tammany Hall and the cops on the take were being cleaned up. The protection the tongs had enjoyed was disappearing, although the associations themselves have not gone away.
The street violence has been contained and Doyers Street is now a safe place for a stroll.
In 1994, Jane Lii wrote in The New York Times that “Law-enforcement officials say more people have died violently at Bloody Angle, the crook at Doyers Street near Pell, than at any other intersection in America.”
- In the early days of the New York City tongs the weapons of choice were knives, cleavers, and hatchets. It’s thought the term “hatchet man” has its origin in this.
- Izzy Baline was a singing waiter in one of the Doyers Street taverns. He turned his talent to songwriting and produced more than 1,000 tunes, such as "Blue Skies," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," and "God Bless America." We know him better as Irving Berlin.
- Herbert Asbury (1889–1963) was an American journalist who specialized in crime stories set around the time period of this article. He described Doyers Street as “a crazy street, and there has never been any excuse for it.”
- “We Unearth the Secrets of NYC’s ‘Murder Alley’ — the Dangerous Streets Where Notorious Gang Warfare Once Lived.” Jessa Schroeder, New York Daily News, September 30, 2016.
- “6 Fascinating Facts about the History of Manhattan’s Chinatown.” Rebecca Ngu, This is New York, February 12, 2016
- “The Chinese American Gang Wars That Rocked New York.” Seth Ferranti, Vice News, July 6, 2016.
- “The Chinese Theater Massacre.” Infamous New York, September 1, 2013.
- “The Tong Wars: How New York’s 1900s Chinatown Descended into Violence, Bloodshed and Savvy Politics.” Jeff Chu, South China Morning Post, August 18, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 27, 2019:
What a name, "Bloody Angle". I never knew the story of Irving Berlin.