Friday, November 7, 2014

A Shakedown in San Francisco

Highbinders? They come in crowds?
I learned a bit of old slang today. The word is “highbinder,” and according to Wiktionary, originally referred to a specific gang in New York City of the early nineteenth century, but later came to refer to Chinese criminal gangs.[1] It’s in this second meaning that I encountered it. However, another work, The Crooked Ladder, suggests that “highbinders” were the paid assassins of Tong gangs in New York and San Francisco.[2] A little further research showed that the word was once a familiar term that has fallen into disuse.

It’s not clear to me exactly when this story actually happened, as I have found reports with dates from November 5th through the 7th, 1888. Maybe as early as the 4th. Certainly those papers who are giving it a later date are wrong. The story deals with a shakedown within the Chinese community of San Francisco, but other than that it happened in Chinatown, no specific address is given, though a map of Chinatown from the 1880s locates the bordellos with Chinese prostitutes at the northern end, while those with white prostitutes were at the southern end. One article specifies that the inhabitants were “a number of Chinese women,” so it is more likely that the building was in the northern part of Chinatown.

Given a variety of matters, it seems unlikely that I could make any specific identification of the individuals involved. Even with a known death date for one person, nothing shows up in the records. Ironically, the one place where I can find any information about the incident is the San Francisco newspapers.[3] The Los Angeles Daily Herald has the fullest account of what happened in San Francisco’s Chinatown, on (perhaps) the 5th or 6th of November, 1888. Their article was published on the 6th, datelined for the 5th. I stumbled upon this story because of articles published on the 7th, datelined the 6th.

Typically, at this point I would give the text of an article or an extract, but in this case, different articles have differing details, and it would be nice to make a hybrid of these articles. I’m going to make some assumptions, but also pull things together. It is also entirely possible that the newspapers have the names in Chinese order, and in shortening them to surnames, chose the wrong name.

On the evening of November 4, 1888, a Chinese man sought accommodations for the night at the establishment run by Gim Hop[4] and Won Ju,[5] a “house of ill repute,” something of a combination brothel and cheap hotel. He left instructions to be wakened at 5 a.m.[6] As he made his preparations to leave, the woman in charge of the prostitutes took down the barricades and opened the front door for him. He grabbed her throat, threw her to one side, and let in a gang of highbinders who had waiting for him. The attack had been planned because the proprietors of the “disreputable dive” had failed to pay the gang protection money. The gang had blackened their faces to avoid being identified.

The leader of the highbinders, Chin Hin,[7] threw cayenne pepper into the woman’s face, temporarily blinding her. She struggled with them, nevertheless, rousing the house, but the gang of about ten highbinders gained entry. Sum Fong, Wong Ju’s wife, joined the struggle, but was struck on the head with an iron bar and lost consciousness.

Hin entered the room of one of the proprietors, Wong Ju. Mr. Ju was armed, but struck in the face with the iron bar, and failed to stop Mr. Hin, though his shot damaged some of Mr. Hin’s fingers, and a second assailant managed to get the gun from Mr. Ju. At same time, the other proprietor, Gim Hop, attempted to escape the building, but a highbinder named Wong Gan Tu[8] was standing guard at the rear door. Mr. Tu was there to prevent any escapes. Mr. Tu fired at Mr. Hop, but missed. Mr. Hop fired back, fatally wounding Mr. Tu. Here I’ll quote the Wichita Eagle:
It was a ghastly spectacle that greeted the police when they arrived. Too [I’ve written his name as “Tu”] was lying across the doorway, with his revolver clutched in a death grip and blood pouring from a terrible wound in his abdomen, while inside the house blood was splashed over the walls, and Wong Ju and his wife were horribly battered by Hin’s iron bar.
While the Eagle says that the police arrived, the Los Angeles Herald says that it was only one policeman, Officer Gillen, and a private citizen, Gus Berg, who entered the house. We can guess what Officer Gillen doing, but why was Mr. Berg wandering around Chinatown at slightly past 5 a.m.?

Officer Gillen struggled with Mr. Hin, who tried to tried to choke the officer, but was eventually handcuffed. The other highbinders fled, leaving their two fellows behind. The police everyone to the station.

San Francisco would continue to deal with Chinese gangs for decades. There was still Tong warfare two dozen years later in 1912.[9] It was a long trip before Chinatown became a friendly tourist destination.

  1. Highbinder.  ↩
  2. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream, James M. O’Kane, 1992.  ↩
  3. It may have been covered in newspapers not included in the web site Chronicling America.  ↩
  4. Also possibly Wong Gang Hop.  ↩
  5. Variously Won or Wong and Jun or Jew, I’ve chosen Ju.  ↩
  6. Who knew that they had wake-up calls in bordellos? Probably historians who specialize in the history of prostitution.  ↩
  7. Chin or Shin.  ↩
  8. This name is given as Wong Too and Wong Loo as well.  ↩
  9. Index to Dates of Current Events, Occurring or Reported January-June 1912.  ↩

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