The Tong Wars

Amid the prejudice of the mid-1920s, Cleveland became the front line in a bloody fight between two Chinese secret societies. After a gruesome murder, authorities rounded up almost every Chinese person in the city. Despite the infamous mass arrests, t
Yee Chock lay on his bunk, his head nearly severed from his body. Blood-darkened knives, hammers and a cleaver littered his tiny attic room. A wooden plank dotted with bloody fingerprints stood against the wall. Next to the dead man rested his opium pipe, wisps of burnt-flower smoke still trailing from it.

The tong wars had claimed another victim.

After a year circling the country, the vengeful cycle of shootings, stabbings and hatchet murders between two Chinese secret societies (known as tongs) had returned to the same Cleveland street where the first gunman had fired his pistol.

It was 11 o’clock the night of Sept. 22, 1925. The cops sized up Mark Ham, the 65-year-old laundryman who’d alerted them to the murder. Ham said he’d seen the killers slip from the building and escape down an alleyway. He said he could identify them.

So police drove Ham from Cleveland’s Chinatown, a block of tall, old storefronts on Ontario Street in the county courthouse’s shadow, out to East 55th Street and Prospect Avenue. They pulled up at a three-story building with a sign on the facade identifying it as the headquarters of the Hip Sing tong.

Ham and the dead man both belonged to the rival On Leong tong. The murderers, Ham said, were Hip Sings.

Inside the headquarters, Ham pointed to one dark-clothed man, about five-foot-four, in his mid- to late 20s — and said he was one of the killers. He fingered two others as possible accomplices. “Several Chinamen held for investigation,” a sergeant typed later on his report.

The other Hip Sings protested: The three men had been with them all night.

Cleveland was the nation’s fifth largest city, filling with new immigrants, new smoky factories and miles of new homes on new streets. Its 800,000 people were schooled in Prohibition hypocrisies, their neighborhoods dotted with speakeasies and gambling joints protected by bribed cops. As the Van Sweringen brothers were building Shaker Heights and the Terminal Tower, across the city, Italian, Jewish and Irish mobsters such as “Big Joe” Lonardo, Moe Dalitz and Thomas McGinty were assembling darker empires built on bootlegging and booze-smuggling.

On his first day in office, Barry sent out “ax squads” to destroy illegal slot machines. He later joined in liquor raids, even smashing a still himself, and fired lazy and crooked police. An Irishman with a fleshy face behind little glasses, he was so loud his nickname was “Barry the Roarer.”

Faced with a Chinatown murder, Barry wanted to drive the tongs out of the city. The On Leong and Hip Sing had begun as fraternal organizations — “tong” means lodge or hall — but they had violent histories. They’d gotten involved in gambling and prostitution in California by the 1880s, smuggled Chinese into America in defiance of racist immigration restrictions and murdered each other while competing for business and property in San Francisco in the 1890s and across the country in 1912. During a decade of peace, the tongs had become more professional. But in 1924, a shooting and an extortion plot in Cleveland’s Chinatown had set off another nationwide killing spree.

Now, the morning after Chock’s death, Barry ordered police chief Jacob Graul to arrest “every Chinaman in the city of Cleveland.” The cops rushed to Ontario Street, burst into its stores and apartments, and hauled away every Chinese person they found. Word spread, and hundreds of Clevelanders came to watch the raids. “Every few minutes a shout would go up that ‘they’ve got another!’ ” theCleveland Times reported, “and a few minutes later a policeman would come from one of the buildings dragging a frightened Oriental to be transferred to city jail.” Photographers from the city’s four newspapers climbed fire escapes to shoot the scene. The police filled their wagons and shut down every Chinese business in the city.

“The Chinese are a clannish sort,” Barry told a reporter. “It’s no use questioning them, because they can’t talk English. But they know who did the killing, and every Chinaman we can get our hands on is going to stay in jail until the slayers are turned up.”

Gawkers rushed into Ontario Street’s emptied buildings to see the secrets of mysterious Chinatown, rumored to be filled with hidden passageways and opium dens. Some sneaked into the On Leong tong headquarters, found the temple altar full of glittering relics, and stole them.

Police arrested 612 of the city’s 700 Chinese. At the central police station that night, cells were packed with restaurant workers, merchants, junior high school boys, laundrymen and college students. With no room to lie down, they spent the night standing. Others, waiting to be booked, slept on benches in a spare courtroom. All were fingerprinted and photographed. Federal agents interrogated them about their immigration status.

On Ontario Street, Barry led fire wardens and police through the stores and tea shops. One front door was locked.

“Kick it in,” Barry ordered. Two big detectives busted the door down, and the squad rushed into the store’s front room, filled with the odor of spiced nuts and fruits. In back, and in the basement and attic, the inspectors found small, smelly rooms full of cots, clothing, lottery tickets and sometimes opium pipes. They discovered a gambling room: Mah-jongg tiles covered the table, and at its end, a large knife sat atop an iron money box.

As the cops searched a tiny kitchen, Barry pulled the lid off a bin and looked inside. He found rice.

“There was no romance or mystery left when Barry and his men had completed their explorations,” wrote aPlain Dealer reporter. “There were not even any of the secret tunnels or hiding places commonly attributed to the district. There was nothing but squalor and inconceivable barrenness.” Barry ordered the entire Ontario Street Chinatown torn to the ground.

“These buildings will be condemned,” he promised. “Most of them should have been condemned long ago.” He said it was for the residents’ own good.

“We’ll force outof the country every Chinese who cannot show he was born in the United States,” the safety director promised. “We’re through trying to make peace.” Barry saw the 700 Chinese in Cleveland as an alien presence. His prejudices were common then.

In the mid-1920s, Americans hated and feared immigrants more than in any other era. The Ku Klux Klan, anti-immigrant as well as antiblack, openly controlled a large voting bloc in the Ohio Legislature. Congress had severely limited immigration by all nationalities except northern Europeans and barred Asian women from entering the country — supposedly to fight mail-order-bride exploitation.

Cleveland’s Chinese community had grown from 275 people in 1920 to 700 in 1925. Only about 50 were women. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, federal law since 1882, kept the Chinese population small and segregated. Chinese merchants, teachers and students could emigrate to the U.S., but could not become citizens. Only merchants could bring wives from China. Working-class Chinese men led lonely lives in America, most earning a living either in Chinese restaurants or in laundries, where hours were long and the heat and pace of work harsh. Many younger workers were illegal immigrants who claimed their birth records had been lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake fire.

Given the times, it was no surprise that Barry thought he could jail Cleveland’s Chinese without charges, without rights. But outraged Clevelanders protested the mass arrests. Citizens lectured police on the street. All four newspapers denounced the raids in editorials.

The Rev. William Hiram Foulkes, pastor of the Old Stone Church, wrote to city manager William R. Hopkins: “The spectacle of a city like Cleveland dragging to jail men, women and children of all types and occupations, students and merchants, simply because they belong to the Chinese race, is pitiful.”

The day after the raids, lawyers for imprisoned Chinese pleaded their case before appeals court judges Manuel Levine and Willis Vickery. From memory, Levine recited part of chapter 18 of Genesis: “Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked?” he asked.

“This chapter should be a lesson to the police department,” Levine said. “Director Barry could profit much by reading it over several times. He wants to destroy a city of Chinese for the sake of possibly 10 criminals among them.”

The judges ordered the prisoners released. “Black, yellow or white, no one can be held without legal right,” Levine said.

The jails emptied. Chinese business owners filed court papers to block condemnation of their properties. Soon, 150 Chinese demanded that the city manager fire Barry and apologize. The Chinese minister to the United States protested, describing the arrests as “high handed” and “unwarranted.” The U.S. Secretary of State demanded an explanation.

Meanwhile, the detectives investigating Yee Chock’s murder had questioned the Hip Sing men Mark Ham had accused —and then turned their suspicions to Ham himself. After three days of questioning, they got Ham to sign a confession.

Ham now said three On Leong members had murdered Chock — sacrificing one of their own to discredit the Hip Sing. Ham said he had been promised a high-paying job at a gambling house if he acted as lookout, then pretended to discover the body, then framed the rival tong.

The prosecutor announced he would try Ham for murder.

The tong wars hadstarted more than a year earlier, as a war within the On Leong tong.A faction of younger tong members had come to Cleveland merchant Yee Hee Kee, asking for support in a power grab. Kee, the On Leong’s national secretary-treasurer, refused: The leaders they wanted to overthrow were his friends. At a meeting in Boston, the upstart faction expelled Kee, national president Chin Jack Lem and several other men on charges of misspent funds.

In May 1924, Kee was walking down Ontario Street after midnight, heading back to his import store. As he approached his door, four Chinese men passed him on the sidewalk. One said hello. Kee replied, then turned to go inside.

The four men pulled guns. Bullets pierced Kee’s back, hip, gut and left hand.

The men ran. One threw his .38-caliber pistol into the gutter. Kee stumbled into a restaurant, collapsed onto a chair, then got up and staggered to his shop. He fell, unconscious, at its door.

Kee survived, but spent months recovering in Lakeside Hospital. The gunmen were never caught. Months later, Kee left the hospital, and was never seen again.

Police didn’t realize it yet, but the bullets that hit Kee were the first shots of a new tong war. And Cleveland was going to be the front line.


In July 1924,hundreds of Chinese merchants boarded trains headed for Cleveland. The On Leong tong’s national convention was set to open in the local tong headquarters on Ontario Street.

The night before its opening, William P. Lee, the new national secretary of the On Leong tong, requested an urgent meeting with safety director Barry.

The “mayor” of Chicago’s Chinatown, born and educated in America, the former correspondent for theChicago Daily News was learned and eloquent, bespectacled and professional. He told Barry that rival Chinese from other cities had appeared in Cleveland. They were gunmen, Lee warned Barry, aiming to attack the convention or rob the conventioneers. The On Leong needed police protection.

Alarmed, Barry sent police out with Lee. They broke down locked doors on Ontario Street and arrested everyone Lee pointed out, 31 Chinese in all.

“Fearing a display of violence, Chief Graul ordered the police machine gun to be brought out,” theCleveland Times reported. “All suspicious characters who could not identify themselves to the satisfaction of the police were taken to the station.” Some detainees gave addresses in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The cops confiscated two opium pipes and several revolvers.

Before the convention’s end, Lee and local On Leong leaders came to Barry again. This time, they said they’d been victims of an extortion plot carried out by Chin Jack Lem and others expelled from the tong. Local On Leong president Wong Sing told police that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to sign away the tong’s $70,000 property.

Cleveland police booked eight men on extortion charges. William Lee led detectives to Chin’s Chicago home, where he was arrested. He jumped bail. Within three months, murder swept through the nation’s Chinatowns: a shooting in a New York City restaurant, assassinations in Pittsburgh and Chicago, 15 Chinese men killed in six weeks.

Police in New York summoned that city’s On Leong and Hip Sing leaders for a peace summit. Both sides blamed the Chin Jack Lem affair for the murders. The On Leong charged that the Hip Sing had accepted Chin and his gang as members. The Hip Sing denied it.

Tongmen fromaround the country came to Cleveland to watch Chin and his allies go on trial. William Lee sat in the courtroom every day, conferring often with prosecutors, handing court employees cigars and warning of Hip Sing revenge after the verdict.

Chin’s alleged accomplices went on trial first, in December 1924. “They were gunmen and potential murderers,” argued William T. Cassidy, a young prosecutor who’d tried the city’s most notorious murderers of the 1920s, from cop killer John Leonard Whitfield to husband-poisoner Catherine Eva Kaber.

The defense attorney claimed his clients had been set up. “They are men with On Leong prices on their heads,” he said.

The state’s witnesses were all On Leong members. “Chin Jack Lem grabbed Wong Sing by the collar, and others put revolvers in his face,” one testified. “Then Wong Sing said, ‘All right. I will sign.’ ” But two lawyers testified for the defense that they’d witnessed the signing of the deed and seen no guns.

The jury deliberated 30 hours, then found the defendants guilty. The judge gave them three to 25 years in prison. William Lee threw a victory dinner at the Golden Pheasant restaurant on Prospect Avenue, with Cassidy as a guest.

Two weeks later, police hauled Chin Jack Lem to town from New York, where he’d been arrested. He lived up to the gangster reputation, showing off his bulletproof steel vest for newspaper photographers. In accented English, he told reporters the On Leong had framed him. Then, lamenting that his arrest kept him from providing for his sons, he started to cry — surprising a Cleveland
Press reporter, who didn’t expect Chinese to show emotion.

Chin went on trial in February 1925. He raged at William Lee, sitting in the gallery. “I taught him all he knows,” he told reporters. “Now he turns against me.” The state called the same witnesses, plus a detective who’d seen Chin in Cleveland and Chin’s Chicago landlord, who said he’d been offered a bribe to provide an alibi. Chin was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years. Six months later, a new round of murders swept the country’s Chinatowns. Police in Boston and New York responded by arresting hundreds of Chinese at once. When Yee Chock was found murdered in Cleveland, Barry did the same.

No other city rose up to defend its Chinese population like Cleveland did. And once freed, the 612 jailed Chinese stood up for themselves.

H. Kingsey Wong, owner of the Golden Pheasant restaurant, released a statement on behalf of Chinese merchants who weren’t part of a tong. “We want the people of Cleveland to know that the good Chinese are just as much shocked at the murder as they were and are just as anxious as the police to clean it up,” Wong said. “It doesn’t seem right to be thrown in jail like a crook.”

Five days after the raids, 150 Chinese residents of Cleveland met at the China Lily restaurant on East Ninth Street and issued a manifesto written by James K. Shen, a doctor at Lakeside Hospital. “Men, women and children, students, teachers and merchants, were arrested and treated in a manner worse than that dealt to criminal suspects,” Shen wrote. The manifesto called for Barry to be fired, for Hopkins to apologize to all Chinese not part of a tong, for the police to destroy the fingerprints and photos they’d collected and for merchants to be compensated for damage to their raided businesses.

Barry and Hopkins refused to apologize. In long negotiations mediated by the Chamber of Commerce, Hopkins made few concessions. He said only that he was sorry college students had been rounded up. He claimed 90 percent of the city’s Chinese residents belonged to a tong —even though they’d proved him wrong by turning to a doctor and restaurateur, not the tongs, to state their grievances.

Hopkins and Barry were emboldened by Mark Ham’s confession. Barry insisted he’d had a perfectly sound reason to arrest 612 Chinese: to compare all their fingerprints to the bloody marks on the stick in the murdered man’s attic. The judges who’d let the prisoners go had kept police from catching the real killer, Barry proclaimed. Lee Gim, whom Ham had named as the murder plot’s ringleader, had been one of the first released.

Ham’s new statement cast suspicion on the same On Leong leaders the authorities used to help prosecute Chin Jack Lem. Barry and the prosecutor’s office now had to consider the possibility that the On Leong, who had cast themselves as victims of Chin’s gangster plotting, were capable of an even greater crime: committing a murder just to frame their enemies for it.

Two Hip Sing leaders soon corroborated part of Ham’s story. They reported seeing Lee Gim the night of the murder, riding in a taxi with a local On Leong leader.

The On Leong denied it. William Lee promised Barry the tong would find Lee Gim and turn him over to police.

Two months afterthe mass arrests, a thousand Hip Sing held their national convention at their East 55th Street headquarters. They forbade their members from further involvement in the Chin Jack Lem affair. In a sign of peace, several On Leong attended the closing banquet. There, Cleveland Hip Sing leader Wong Bowe declared that some good had come of Barry’s mass arrests — overgenerous forgiveness, perhaps, but also a sign that the Hip Sing were glad police attention had turned to their rivals.

Mark Ham’s trial started the next day. County prosecutor Edward C. Stanton tried the case personally, seeking the death penalty. He based his case on Ham’s confession indicting the On Leong. The defense argued that police had coerced the confession, and that Ham’s first statement, blaming the Hip Sing, was true.

Ham’s attorney tried to get the confession thrown out. “A Chinese cannot be sworn in a religion in which he does not believe,” he said. “To make a confession sacred to Mark Ham, a chicken should have been killed. That is the Chinese form of oath-binding.” The motion was denied.

Mid-trial, Wong Bowe of the Hip Sing went to Barry’s office and said he knew where Chock’s killers were hiding: Lee Gim at a Chinese laundry in Chicago, another man at a New York restaurant.

“How did you know where we could find them?” Barry asked.

“We have ways,” Wong shrugged.

Barry doubted Wong. What about William Lee’s promise to find Lee Gim? Wong replied it was only “bluffing talk.”

At the courthouse, two witnesses wounded Ham’s defense. One said he’d seen Ham standing watch outside Chock’s apartment at the time of the killing. The other testified he’d seen Ham go upstairs to the murder scene twice.

On the stand, Ham claimed police had forced him to confess. Interpreters for the prosecution and defense argued over several of his statements, finally agreeing on: “Two detectives beat me up,” “I was told that if I did not say something to release the Hip Sing men, I would be killed in jail,” and “The detectives told me to sign.”

The court adjourned for the day. An hour later, Ham called his lawyer and translator to his cell. As he’d left the courtroom, he said, a Chinese man had leaned toward him and whispered, “If you go free, we will kill you.”

Ham said there was no use hoping for a not-guilty verdict. He was going to die either way. His attorney told him to ignore the threat. Ham paced in his cell all night, unable to sleep. Early in the morning, he went to bed. Under the sheets, he tied part of a linen blanket into a rope. When the sheriff’s deputy by his cell got up to make his rounds, Ham threw the linen around an overhead pipe and hanged himself.

His death was announced in court that morning. The judge wrote “Defendant deceased” in the entry book and dismissed the jury. Stanton called Ham’s suicide a confession of guilt. Police said they would keep searching for the other killers, but they were never found.

Cleveland’s Chinese never got the apology they demanded, though the police did destroy their fingerprints. Two days after Ham’s death, a frustrated Dr. Shen donated his 12-page account of the raids and their aftermath to the Cleveland library.

A few months later, aCleveland Press reporter left an unsigned, 11-page memo in the paper’s “Chinese” file. The memo, titled “Chinese frameup,” accused William Lee of framing Chin Jack Lem and the other extortion defendants. The reporter described the July 1924 arrests during the On Leong convention in a very different light than the papers had then.

“Lee proved influential enough to have a large number of coppers put under his direction,” wrote the reporter. “Lee told police what doors to kick in and what men to arrest. Something like 40 were taken to Central Station. Lee circulated around among them making proposals and those that agreed to his proposals were released by police at Lee’s request. ... The men now in Ohio pen were not released by Lee. They were the ones on whose head he had previously put a price.”

The reporter implied that the On Leong had bribed Cassidy to prosecute Chin and his allies. “Around the prosecutor’s office the opinion was general that Cassidy had been ‘retained’ and that this was his case. As a result everyone else kept hands off.” Early in 1924, the reporter had heard, Cassidy had gotten a six-month advance on his salary and was losing heavy bets on horse races. But in 1925, after trying the tong cases, he quit his job and gave a speech before the On Leong in Rhode Island. “He was given a $1,500 diamond ring and he’s wearing it today,” the reporter wrote. “He was able to resign from the prosecutor’s office and take an extended trip to Europe.

“If this story doesn’t spell frameup from start to finish there never was one,” the reporter concluded. “One of these days the story may break. It’s worth investigating anyway even if the framed men are only Chinese. They’re human.”

The story did break, two years later. In late 1927, prosecutor Stanton wrote to the State Board of Clemency, saying that defendants in the 1924 extortion trial might have been framed.Citing “possible trickery by enemies of the convicts,” he said the alleged victims’ stories “may not have been genuine.” The men were paroled in 1928 after serving their three-year minimum sentences.

Stanton didn’t vouch for Chin Jack Lem, but his sentence was commuted by Gov. George White in November 1931 on the condition that he stay out of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. Six years later, Chin was shot to death in Chicago’s Chinatown. “Chinese ducked into their shops and homes when [Chin] came down the street, so great was their fear of him,” the Chicago Tribune wrote, citing police.

Cleveland’s Ontario Street Chinatown, saved from Barry’s condemnation by the landowners’ prompt lawsuits, was torn down in 1929 to make room for a post office building. The justice center and county administration building stand there now. The On Leong tong moved its headquarters to Rockwell Avenue, just north of Superior Avenue, near East 21st Street. The building still stands today, though it’s seen better days, and the On Leong still exists as a merchant’s association.

Cleveland never saw another tong war. The bloodshed inspired by Chin Jack Lem and company was the last nationwide battle between the On Leong and Hip Sing. Both tongs still exist today, and law enforcement charged an official in New York’s On Leong tong with murder and racketeering activity in the 1990s. But the tongs’ influence waned as Chinese immigrants grew more successful and integrated into American culture, and as new waves of Asian immigrants arrived after the Chinese Exclusion Acts were abolished in 1943 and racial bias in immigration quotas was ended in 1965.

James T. Cassidy spent much of the 1930s in a drunken haze. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1940 and mounted a political comeback in 1947, winning election as a county judge. On the bench, he became famous for going easy on drunken drivers, housing-code scofflaws and wife beaters; in 1963, thePress called him “Cleveland’s most lenient jurist.” Voters rejected his 1967 reelection bid. He died in 1972. Toward his career’s end, when Cassidy reminisced with reporters about his legendary 1920s prosecutions, he left the tong cases out.

William Hopkins served as city manager until 1930. His 1961 obituaries credited him with a huge role in modernizing Cleveland. The city airfield he championed is now named Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in his honor.

When Edwin Barry died in 1944, his Plain Dealer obituary called him “a fighting Irishman if there ever was one” and devoted five paragraphs to his roundup of Cleveland’s Chinese. ThePress obit’s one paragraph on the raids said they “caused a wave of national indignation.” An editorial in the same edition was kinder. “Ed Barry often said that if you did your duty honestly, the public would forgive and forget your mistakes,” it read. “He could prove that out of his own experience.”
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