News & Tall Tales. 1800s.

San Francisco Gold Rush 1849.

Highbinders and Their Wars

Highbinders (Hatchet Men) were basically spies and corrupt politicians who banded together in secret societies to blackmail, murder, etc., and to keep track of the actions of Chinese societies such as tongs. The Highbinders were enforcers and assassins of the Tongs. The Highbinders were often recruited from the lower classes of Chinese American society and were typically also uneducated. What is interesting about the Highbinders was their choice of weapons, an odd mix of the old world and new. Commonly the Highbinders used an assortment of Chinese melee weapons such as short swords, knives, daggers, and clubs. One popular traditional weapon was a type of short cutlass, often wielded in pairs, called the butterfly sword.

Highbinders also tended to wear a chain mail shirt under their clothing. A favorite weapon of the Highbinders was the hatchet to both assassinate a target, then use the weapon as a tool to dispose of the body (chop it up). Because of this, Highbinders were often also nicknamed “hatchetmen." While the Highbinders were skilled with melee weapons, the Highbinders also adopted modern firearms such as revolvers, rifles, and shotguns.

By 1880 there were numerous Tongs located in San Francisco alone. The Tongs were initially associations formed within Chinese immigrant communities in the 1800s to assist the Chinese with legal, monetary, and protective services. Soon tongs became criminal enterprises, trafficking in drugs, prostitution, gambling and slavery.

Like many mafia organizations, it was not long before they began to intrude on one another’s turf. The Hop Sing is a Chinese American Tong.

Between 1880 and 1913 the West Coast was embroiled in the Tong Wars." During this period, scores of Chinese gangsters were killed in a period of months. During the The Bing On tong Wah Sin San Fan Tong War seven were killed and eight were wounded. In the mining town of Weaverville, California, a pitched battle between 260 Tongs led to the deaths of 8 men with dozens wounded. For the most part, the police and law enforcement stayed out of the Tong s way, not wanting to get involved in affairs that did not involve white people. However, whenever the police did get involved, they would usually quickly back off when the Tongs started targeting police officers.

May 27, 1876, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

Developments Concerning the Chinese Mission Interesting Testimony Officer Rogers' Report

The Senate Committee, appointed to investigate the Chinese immigration question, resumed its labors yesterday in the hall of the Board of Supervisors. Senators Rogers, Donovan and Pierson were present. No business was transacted in the morning, and the Committee adjourned until two o'clock p. m. At that hour, F. L,. Gordon was called and duly sworn: I know, by hearsay, of persons being killed by Chinese hired assassins; I know of these; I have been publishing a Chinese paper in this city; am not now; did so for three years; never have been in China; have done a general trading with the Chinese of this city for some time; I know of eleven Chinamen being brought from San Francisco to Vallejo to swear that a Chinaman had not shot another; the other side sent down and got fourteen or fifteen.

Ah Sue, of the Wong Tong Slng Society, violated the rule of his Company; he knew there was a reward offered for his death; he was shot on Washington alley and died almost instantly; I heard that name of the members of the Society had offered the reward; believe it was $800: it was placarded around Chinatown. Another case is that of a Chinaman on Jackson street: he had some debtors and they told him to go to a certain room and they would pay him: he did so and was killed: there was a reward offered for his death. A man in Spofford alley was told that if he gave any testimony against another, he would be killed. Mr. Lock and myself went with him and waited for developments: nothing happened then, but afterward he was badly cut. This happened a year ago.

A Pocket Knife Worth One Hundred and Twenty Five Dollars

The witness then related the following Interesting story: A Chinaman called upon a Chinese prostitute and loaned her his pocketknife. Alter she had finished using it, she laid it on the table. Before leaving, the Chinaman called for his knife, and the woman couldn't find It. The man said it cost him $125, and he would call the next night for the money if she couldn't find the knife. The woman sent for Mr. Lock, the Interpreter in the Police Court. I accompanied Lock to her home. We told her not to be afraid: that the man belonged to a blackmailing society. She gave Lock $2.50 and told him to buy as good a knife as he could for the money. He did so. The man refused to receive the new knife; said his was an old one and had one blade broken, and be wanted it back. He then reduced his price to $80, and she, having no money, pawned her clothes for $12, and gave it to him. He wanted the balance that night. We waited until 3 o'clock in the morning for him to come, but he did not. Shortly after we left he came in and cut her with a knife. She attempted to crawl under the bed, when he cut her again. The next day we found the man on Clay street and had him arrested. He was bailed out by Chinamen, and two or three days after that he cut her again. As he left the house he threatened to kill everybody in the house if they testified against him. He said he had plenty of friends.

Mr. Gordon related an incident of a personal character. He was assisting to protect some persons from the demands demands of one of the blackmailing societies, and had been notified that he would be laid in wait for by Chinese when he was leaving the home. He opened the door suddenly and discovered five men armed with lion bars. He then stepped out, and drawing his revolver, asked them what they wanted. They concluded that they did not want any cold lead in theirs, and left in a hurry.

A heavy Chinese gambler made a " losing," and levied on his wife for her Jewelry. She wanted him to stay at home, and started in to make some tea for him. This not suiting his ideas exactly, he knocked her down and kicked her in the abdomen. She was enceinte at the time, and died a few days after, from the effects of the beating. The man was never brought to justice.

The Chinaman belonging to the Wong Tong Sing Society was killed because he collected money (by blackmail), and, instead of turning it over into the General Fund, appropriated it to his own use, thereby violating the rules of the Society.

A Reward for His Head

Six hundred dollars were offered for the death of Gordon, under the following circumstances: When he was running the Chinese paper, the Wash House Society agreed to give him a certain number notices. The amount due upon them would be $2400. They called a meeting and reconsidered their action, but could not get behind the written agreements which they had entered into. They then procured the posting up of several notices to the following effect: "Any able-bodied man that wishes to get rich suddenly can do so by putting Sun Mun Gee Qui out of the way. By doing this he will receive $600 -- and thus make money easily." They also offered $250 for the death of a Chinaman employed by Gordon. He got frightened and left town. This was in March last.

Gordon farther testified that there were about 1800 Chinese prostitutes in the city. Those who are patronized by whites are considered of the lowest order, and Chinamen will not associate with them.

Gibson's Mission

In regard to the Rev. Otis Gibson's Mission, Mr. Mr. Gordon said that be had heard that Gibson charged the women for board and fire wood. He knew of one instance where he had charged a man $60, who wanted to get a woman out for the purpose of marrying her. He knew of Gibson getting as much as $10 for marrying a couple; the woman confessed that they are not allowed to see any person, not even relatives; they do housework, and fine needle work, and make from five to seven cents per day; they get four sticks about a foot and half long and two inches thick, each per day: they are provided with pork, rice, fish and tea, and cook their own food: the woman mentioned above as having been cut by the highbinder," went to the Mission for protection: Gordon went to see her (or the purpose of getting her to identify the man who stabbed her, but Gibson would not allow him. He said it was against the rules. Gibson once allowed a Chinaman, a keeper of prostitutes, to have a woman, who had been living at the Mission, for the sum of $110. She was immediately taken to a house of prostitution. The women are compelled to remain at the Mission for twelve months. Some would like to get away. Recently a woman escaped, Chow Qui, who had been there over that time and had not been allowed to depart. Her board bad not been paid. She slept for ten nights on the bare floor in Chinatown, being afraid to return for her blankets, lest she should be detained.

In justice to the Rev. Otis Gibson, it mast be understood that in giving his testimony the witness frequently stated points which were received as heresay merely.

Lee Kan, an employe of the Bank of California, was next called. He has been in this country since 1852, reads, writes and speaks English fluently. There was nothing in his testimony worth publishing which has not already appeared in print.

Officer Rogers' Report

Before the Committee adjourned to sit in Sacramento, they requested Officer Rogers to gather certain data. His report, in compliance with the request, was presented after Lee Kan had been dismissed. The following is a synopsis of it: There are about 3300 Chinamen employed in the branches of cigar making, earning from forty to ninety cents, and in some instances one dollar per day: about 114,698,000 cigars have been manufactured by the Chinese in the First Congressional District during the past twelve months. Cigarettes are manufactured from the butts of cigars picked up in the street in front of bar rooms and cellars.

There are about three hundred laundries in this city, averaging five men each. Some employ double sets of hands, and run day and night. There are fifteen hundred Chinamen employed in houses owned exclusively by Chinese, and as many more in the larger establishments carried on by the whites.

About three hundred are employed in peddling fruit, vegetables and fish, and in selling, laces, tape and small wares, cigars, human hair, etc., at prices with which retail establishments cannot compete. There are about thirty manufactories of men's clothing carried on by the Chinese. They have eleven slipper manufactories, where the heavy work is done by men and the light work by women at their homes during the day.

In regard to the shoe and gaiter monopoly, Rogers reports: A very large number of men are employed, and an immense amount of material is manufactured into merchandise of this nature, of which my limited time does not allow me to give you the full details: but there is no doubt but what eight-tenths of the ladies' and children's gaiters and shoes made in this city are of Chinese manufacture.

Ladles and Children's underwear, of every character, is made up by Chinamen and Chinawomen.

There are about thirty Chinese lodging-houses, known as such. From six to one hundred men will sleep in apartments without any ventilation Whatever.

As domestics, about 5,000 Chinamen are employed in the city. There are from 150 to 200 houses of ill-fame. During the day, the women work upon shirts, slippers, men's clothing, women's underwear, etc., They get no pay from their owners for this work. Chinamen are also employed largely in the manufacture of shirts.

Mr. Rogers further sets forth the evils of opium-smoking, but throws no new light on the subject.

The Committee adjourned to meet at 11 a.m. today.

January 15, 1900, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California

Arbitration on the Highbinder War.

Suey Sings Will Pay $200 for Each Man They Killed, but Their Rivals Ask Much More

The arbitration committee which has been appointed to adjust the differences that caused the tong war between the Hop Sings and the Suey Sings met yesterday afternoon and evening in the headquarters of the See Yup Society at the corner of Clay street and "Waverly place. It consisted of three members of other tongs and representatives of the warring factions were present. Until a late hour last night nothing in the nature of a peaceful adjustment had been made and the consensus of opinion among the Chinamen is that bullets will fly in the Chinese quarter shortly after the holidays, or before if the police protection is weakened.

The attitude of the Hop Sing Society before and even after the treaty was signed has been extremely warlike. They lost four men on account of their minority of forces, and just as the armistice was declared they were preparing to take their revenge. A temporary cessation of hostilities was forced upon them by the merchants on account of holiday trade, and they consented to it with much reluctance. On the day the treaty was made an attempt was made to murder one of their men in Marsyville, and this action enraged them so that for the past few days they have endeavored to secure possession of the compact they signed In order to destroy it. In the event that they were unsuccessful they intended to again plunge into hostilities regardless of their pledge.

When the committee met yesterday the Suey Sings were ready with an offer to pay the Hop Singers $200 for each of four men who were killed by them. This proposition the Hop Sings refused to listen to. and after much threatening on the part of the merchants in case they decided to continue hostilities, placed the price at $500 per man, which is considered exorbitant in tong wars, and which. It is believed, they knew their rivals would never consent to pay. The high figure not being accepted, the Hop Sings now have an excuse to continue the war.

May 30, 1901, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California

Hip Sing Highbinders Thirst for the Blood of Fong Ling.

Special Dispatch to The Call.

San Jose, May 19.--The Hip Sing Tong Highbinders have their hatchets and guns out for Fong Ling, their erstwhile chieftain, and should he be found no quarter will be shown him. This turning of the faithful on their leader is due to Fong's surreptitiously departing with several thousand dollars the tong had collected from various merchants. Estimates place the defection at from $3000 to $16,000, but the former sum is probably nearer correct. Fong's record is a bad one and nearly all the Chinese highbinder wars of this city are charged to him. He is now believed to be on a steamer on his way to China. The police are glad to get rid of him and the clamoring hatchetmen. receive little consolation from the authorities.

Fong had full charge of all the finances of the Hip Sing Tong. An investigation was caused by Fong not paying some attorney fees that were incurred in defending the Highbinders. The president of the society evidently feared the exposure and fled. Further investigation showed no returns had been made to the San Francisco branch, and very few bills paid and that Fong was short thousands of dollars.

September 27, 1905, San Francisco Call

Louis Poy, one of the most desperate and feared Highbinders in Chinatown, was shot and instantly killed last night in Ross Alley near Jackson Street by Highbinders. The murders had their plans well laid and made their escape without leaving a clue.

Highbinder Meets Death by the Code August 25, 1905.

Poy was walking along-Ross alley at about 7 o'clock in the evening when two Highbinders stepped out of a doorway, and one of them fired point blank into the victim's head. The bullet entered his right temple and he fell face forward to the street. To be sure of their prey they stood over their victim and fired two more shots at Poy as he lay lifeless on the sidewalk. One of them entered his back and the other penetrated his hand. The Highbinders made their escape through a pawnshop nearby.

Detective McMahon, Sergeant Ross and Policeman George Downey were on the scene a few minutes afterward. It was evident that the plot was well laid as the homicides made good their escape. The only evidence left behind was the 44-caliber revolver which was used to do the deed.

Poy lived with his mother and sister at 742 Washington street, and was 26 years old. He was considered one of the most desperate Highbinders and had been one of the ringleaders in many tong wars that have occurred in the Chinese quarter for the last eight years. He was a member of the Suey Sing Tong for many years until a few months ago, when he and twenty other Highbinders were expelled from the organization.

The Chinese in America: A Narrative HistoryHighbinders.
Iris Chang Highbinder Wars.Chinese in America.
The first significant Chinese immigration to the United States began in the 1850s, when refugees from the Taiping War and rural poverty heard of "the Golden Mountain" across the Pacific. They reached California, and few returned home, but the universally acknowledged hard work of those who stayed and survived founded a great deal more than the restaurants and laundries that formed the commercial core. Chinese immigrants building the Central Pacific Railroad used their knowledge of explosives to excavate tunnels (and discourage Irish harassment).

Chinese workers also married within the Irish community, spread across America and survived the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880, which lost much of its impact when San Francisco's birth records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906 and no one could prove that a person of Chinese descent was not native born. Chang finds 20th-century Chinese-Americans navigating a rocky road between identity and assimilation, surviving new waves of immigrants from a troubled China and more recently from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many Chinese millionaires maintain homes on both sides of the Pacific, while "parachute children" (Chinese teenagers living independently in America) are a significant phenomenon. Unfortuantely, old-fashioned racism -- among any race -- is not dead; Jerry Yang founded Yahoo!, but scientist Wen Ho Lee was, according to Chang, persecuted as much for being Chinese as for anything else.

Highbinder Wars.Tongs, Gangs, and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America
Peter HustonTongs, Gangs, Triads.
This book explores the Chinese tradition of tongs, gangs, triads and secret societies and their frequent involvement in organized crime, as well as their more recent and growing collusion with Chinatown street gangs. The book also shows the correlation to Chinese culture and history in general.

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American DreamChinatown's Underworld.Chinatown Underworld.
Patrick Radden Keefe investigates a secret world run by a surprising criminal: a charismatic middle-aged grandmother, Highbinders.who from a tiny noodle shop in New York’s Chinatown managed a multi-million dollar business smuggling people.

Keefe reveals the inner workings of Sister Ping’s complex empire and recounts the decade-long FBI investigation that eventually brought her down. He follows an often incompetent and sometimes corrupt INS as it pursues desperate immigrants risking everything to come to America.

The Naval Order of the United States has a history dating from 1890. Membership includes a wide range of individuals, many with highly distinguished career paths.

The San Francisco Commandery meets the first Monday of each month at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club in San Francisco, California and holds two formal dinners each year.

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.




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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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