Posts Tagged ‘Chinatown’

The brutal murder of a Chinatown wife

June 26, 2009

The vicious killing of a Chinese “slave girl” named Bow Kum shocked New York City in 1909 and sparked a year-long Tong war and hard-won truce that required intervention from the Chinese government. 

Born in China in 1888, Bow Kum was sold for a few dollars by her father and brought to San Francisco, where she was sold again for $3,000 to Low Hee Tong, a leader of the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs.

Mottstreet19202When Low Hee Tong was arrested four years later, Kum was taken in by Christian missionaries who helped Chinese girls escape the brutal life of gangs. 

A man named Tchin Len promised to make her his wife, so the missionaries handed her over, and Len brought Kum to New York City. Len was a member of On Leong Tong, a bitter rival of Hip Sing and Four Brothers.

Pellstreet1900They settled at 17 Mott Street. By this time, Low Hee Tong was out of jail. He tracked Kum down and demanded that Len repay him $3,000. Len refused; the Hip Sing and Four Brothers tongs got involved and told Len to pay up. He didn’t.

On August 15, Kum was found on the floor of her Mott Street room, stabbed multiple times in the heart with some fingers cut off. Two Tong henchmen were tried for her murder, but they were acquitted.

The top photo shows Mott Street around 1910; the bottom photo is Pell Street at the turn of the last century. 

Angels with dirty faces on Madison Street

June 11, 2009

These little cherubs have been stationed outside this tenement in Lower Manhattan for probably a century at least. They’re a very sweet sight on an otherwise rundown city block.


No wonder they’re covered in grime: the building they’re carved into is just feet away from elevated subway tracks.

The dragons guarding a Chinatown tenement

March 12, 2009

They’re grimy and could use a fresh coat of paint, but these dragon-shaped handrails at the entrance to a Chinatown walk-up are pretty neat:


Chinatown’s Hip Sing headquarters

October 8, 2008

This early 20th century postcard depicts a placid scene on Pell Street. But not far from the Chop Suey restaurant at number 36 stood 15, home base for the notorious Hip Sing tong—one of the ruthless Chinese-American criminal associations that fought for control of Chinatown and the booming opium trade in the neighborhood’s early days.

Hip Sing and similar tongs formed in New York, San Francisco, and other major cities to protect Chinese immigrants from the racism and exploitation they encountered upon arriving in the U.S. in the late 1800s. (Exhibit A: the Chinese-American Exclusion Act of 1896.) But they eventually became violent gangs that ran prostitution rings, gambling dens, and drug rackets.

Chinese food beyond chop suey

July 21, 2008

New York’s love affair with Chinese food goes back at least a century, as these postcards attest.  

The back of this next postcard, for Ding Ho, reads, “The most modern Chinese Restaurant in the Times Square Section, serving American and Cantonese dinners at popular prices.”

I get the sense that these two establishments served relatively authentic cuisine. But most places apparently didn’t. Valentine’s City of New York, a guidebook published in 1920, felt the need to warn out-of-towners that the city’s Chinese restaurants were tourist traps:

“Few homegrown Chinese take nourishment in these places, because they feel kind of out of place and they hate to break in on the nice white people from uptown and Brooklyn. But the waiters are all Chinese, for the same reason that the walls have Chinese dragon tapestry. The lights are shrouded in fantastic shades, and the place is redolent with the perfume of fire cracker punk, which exhales a not unpleasant odor.”