Mobsters in America – The Vicious Killing of Bow Kum Started the Tong Wars in NY City’s Chinatown


The On Leong Tong in Chinatown started warring in 1899 with the smaller Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs, who had joined forces against the powerful On Leong, in a battle for the immense illegal profits generated in Chinatown from gambling and drug dealing. There were sporadic killings all throughout the first decade of the 20th Century, but the blood began flowing more rapidly in 1909, and it was sparked by the vicious murder of a Chinese slave girl named Bow Kum, known as “The Little Flower.”

Kum was sold by her father for a few paltry yen in the Canton Region of China, then brought to the United States, where she was sold at the slave-trade market in San Francisco for the huge sum of three thousand dollars. The buyer was Low Hee Tong, a high ranking member of the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs. Tong lived with Kum for four years, but then the San Francisco police discovered the illegal servitude. When Tong could not produce a marriage license, Kum was taken away from Tong and placed in a Christian mission run by Donaldina Cameron, a Scotswoman, famous for helping young Chinese slave girls escape from the terrible tongs. Soon gardener Tchin Lee, a member of the On Leong Tong, married Kum and took her to New York City.

Tong was furious he lost the services of his female slave, but more furious over the loss of his three thousand dollars. As a result, Tong demanded that Lee give him back the money he spent on purchasing Kum. Lee refused. Tong then listed his grievances in a letter to the Hip Sing and Four Brother Tongs in New York City. Lee’s Tongs agreed with him and demanded that the On Leongs force Tong to return Lee’s money. Their request was denied, and immediately the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs flew the red flag from their building on Pell Street, indicating they were declaring war against the On Leongs.

On August 15, 1909, a Hip Sing assassin broke into Tong’s apartment at 17 Mott Street. The assassin stabbed Kum three times in the chest, cut off several of her fingers, then mutilated her torso. This started a bloody war that resulted in over fifty killings in just a few short months.

In late 1909, Captain William Hodgins, the Commander of the 5th Precinct on Elizabeth Street, interceded and tried to make peace between the waring factions. He approached the On Leongs first and they agreed to end the war, but only if the other two tongs gave them, as reparations, a Chinese flag, a roasted pig and ten thousand packs of fireworks. The two smaller tongs considered this a huge insult and the killings intensified for another year.

In late 1910, the American government got involved, and the Chinese Minister in Washington D.C. appointed a committee of forty Chinese merchants, teachers and students to mediate the Tong Wars. An agreement was forged between the On Leongs and Hip Sing Tongs, but the Four Brother Tong refused to participate, so the killings continued, but not at the same pace as before.

Kerosene was thrown on the fire, when in 1912, a new Tong, the Kim Lan Wui Saw Tong, suddenly appeared in New York City, and in a battle for the illegal buck, they declared war on the other three tongs. This was an exercise in futility, as the three older Tongs, instead of fighting among themselves, turned all their venom on the upstart and out-maned Kim Lan Wui Saw Tong.

Bodies continued to pile up in Chinatown, bringing outside business into the area almost to a halt. Finally, the Chinese government in mainland China, in conjunction with the New York City police, forced the waring factions to formally agree to halt the hostilities. The treaty was signed on May 22, 1913, by the Chinese Merchant’s Association. Peace and prosperity returned to the Chinatown area, since tourists were no longer afraid to enter Chinatown and get caught in the cross hairs of the daily gunfire.

That is, until 1924, when the bloody Tong Wars started all over again.

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