Mai Wah Society


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At least two highly publicized pitched battles between Chinese had captured the Western imagination. A pitched battle occurred in 1854 in Tuolumne County, California over a mining claim between the Yum Wo and Sam Yup Companies. The pitched battle with gongs and drums, pikes and shields involved more than 500 Chinese and 2,000 spectators. A similar battle occurred in Virginia City, Montana in 1881, again in a dispute over a mining claim.

Because they made good newspaper copy, many conflicts between Chinese, even crimes with Chinese victims were labeled as tong wars.

A brief item in the August 22, 1901 edition of the Anaconda Standard titled "Good-Bye to Pigtails," mentioned the formation of a Chinese Reform Society of Butte to educate members of the Chinese community on "modern ways" which included cutting off queues and wearing their shirts tucked into their pants.

It wasn't long until a major issue facing the Chinese was the growing gap between traditional Chinese and the first generation of Chinese-Americans to have lived their lives in America and in Butte.

A murder in China Alley over a gambling dispute and a trial in 1909 exposed how wide the rift had grown between them by then. According to the coverage of the trial provided by the Butte Miner on November 14, 1909, "In its last stages the trial seemed to resolve itself into a fight between the educated Chinese wearing American clothes and no queues and the Chinese who understood little English and preserved most of their national characteristics."

A witness for the defense, a modern Chinese identified as Waugh Gee who had been educated in American schools was able to turn the County Attorney into his straight man when the prosecutor tried to discredit his testimony for the defense. Under examination, Gee referred to the murder victim as "the deceased."

When County Attorney Walker asked Gee who told him to use the word deceased, in an effort to find out who had been "trimming up that testimony" Gee replied over the objections of the defense attorney, "I went to American schools for seven years, and there is where I learned it."

When Walker retorted, "I went to school longer than that before I learned that rather technical word," Gee shot back with a smile "I guess you did not go to the same school that I did."

In the same newspaper account the reporter, intending to describe the victim as an opium addict instead describes him in the subhead for the section as a "Victim of Opinion" which may have been closer to the truth.

Public violence flared again in 1912 as a result of a dispute over gambling. According to a report in the November 30, 1912 edition of the Butte Miner, "Reform Movement Hits Butte's Chinatown," six Chinese filed suit against gambling operations after learning that they could petition to recover gambling losses. The story reports that the lines are clearly drawn between the pro-gambling and anti-gambling groups.

"The two factions in Chinatown have been taking issue on many subjects during the past 18 months. A factional fight has occurred on everything where difference of opinion has occurred, and the lines have been sharply drawn."

As the legal wrangling continued, and at least one judgement went against the pro-gambling faction, a terrific explosion rocked Chinatown on the night of November 8, 1914.

The story in the November 9 edition of the Anaconda Standard describes in graphic detail how a Dr. Hum Mon Tau was blown up by his own bomb as he showed it to a friend less than 30 minutes after arriving in Butte by train from Omaha. From the nature of the crime scene, police surmised that he was showing the bomb that he had brought in an old telescope when the nitroglycerin exploded.

The doctor was a relative of Hum Yen who was a defendant in three civil suits and one criminal case that had resulted from the gambling dispute. The article also reveals that the anti-gambling faction had been aiding the police by providing details about gambling operations for raids and in identifying opium dealers. Most likely, the bomb was intended for the leaders of the anti-gambling faction but exploded prematurely.

Butte's Tong War

The long standing dispute erupted in violence again in 1921 although its specific origins are not clear.

Most likely this long standing factional dispute within the community over gambling mushroomed into a Tong War with national repercussions.

As established Tong organizations were drawn into the dispute, the two rival groups struggled for the allegiance and financial support of Butte's Chinese.

There is a story in a 1928 thesis by Ching Chao Wu, that the tong war erupted when a rival tong, the Bing Kung Tong tried to establish itself in Butte over the objections of the established Hip Sing Tong. Wu tells a bloody tale of how one after another four newly elected presidents of the Bing Kung Tong were gunned down on the street as they emerged from the election meeting. All four were murdered between 7 and 11 pm. Both Tongs had been notified in Seattle by long distance telephone and the next morning three Hip Sing Tong members had been killed in Seattle. By 9 am, the whole country was in a Tong War.

This story is repeated by Rose Hum Lee in her book about Butte's Chinatown and attributed to Wu. Unfortunately, I can't find any evidence in the papers of the day that such a fantastic bloodbath ever took place.

Instead, what the papers show is that the Tong War began with the murder of Chong Sing, a Chinese businessman who had begun organizing independent Chinese businesses who were not interested in tithing to the Hip Sing Tong. According to one account, this group had formed a group called the Canton Club.

Either it was a rumor or he was really organizing a chapter of the Bing Kung, but either way he paid for his independence on the night of October 13, 1921, when he was shot dead outside his shop at 222 S. Wyoming Street.

When the court appointed another Chinese man, Hum Mon Sen, to handle Chong Sing's estate, the murderers assumed that he would carry on in the effort to establish a chapter of the Bing Kung tong. On the night of February 13, 1922, Hum Mon Sen was shot in front of his herb shop in China Alley by a highbinder who witnesses said wore a beaver cowboy hat. The newspaper photo above shows the alley, with the corner of the Wah Chong Tai in the distance.

The Butte Miner reported on February 17, 1922 titled "All Butte in Chinese Tong War" that "men may go shirtless or sockless and clean waists for the women folks will be an utter impossibility for a week or more."

On April 20th, 1922 another murder took place in the Wah Chong Tai Company as Lum Mon stood among several others inside the busy mercantile. A young man behind Lum Mon said, "You're just the man I want to see."

When Lum Mon turned, the man grabbed his coat and shot him as he leaned against a counter. A suspect was soon arrested and the police were able to piece together what happened. The murder had been a revenge killing amongst Bing Kung members. Lum Mon, a member of the Bing Kung tong, was believed to have "sold out" to the Hip Sing tong and was condemned to death for that betrayal by his own tong fellows.

Another shooting in Billings was attributed to this dispute and 27 murders in all in San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, and Chicago were linked to the dispute between the Bing Kung and the Hip Sing that began with the murder of Chong Sing in Butte. In June of 1922 the Bing Kung and the Hip Sing announced that they had established a truce.

For several years later every crime that involved a Chinese victim was said to be a new flare-up of a Tong War.

In 1927, a recurrence of Tong violence was feared when Toy Sing, allied with the Hip Sings, was shot to death in his living quarters directly across the street from the Wah Chong Tai Company at 16 West Mercury Street.

Both the Bing Kung and Hip Sings made a highly public display by holding separate feasts and then visiting one another to celebrate the Chinese New Year to allay public fears that another Tong War may be erupting.

By then, only a few more than 200 Chinese remained in Butte and that population would continue to shrink as more moved to coastal cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. This reflected a trend in the overall population of Butte which by 1920 had dropped to 60,313. Thousands more would leave in the following decade.

In Rose Hum Lee's 1960 book, The Chinese in the United States of America, she wrote, "The Chinese are in the final analysis human beings with likes and dislikes, fears and hostilities, bold schemes and shameful conspiracies, enterprising ventures and unfulfilled aims."

In other words, they had much in common with all of us.

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