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Old Chinatown: Crime & Vice

Golden Dragon Massacre, Chinatown Crime
Chinatown crime scene: Golden Dragon Massacre, 1977

San Francisco has the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. and one of the oldest in the West. Chinese first began moving to the city in 1849, as news of “Gam Saan” (Gold Mountain) spread around the world and reached China, firing the imaginations of thousands of young men who were struggling after years of prolonged drought and political instability following the First Opium War. Most of the Chinese came from the Pearl River Delta, in the South of China and, at first, they were welcomed, but when more followed, including twenty thousand in 1852, sentiment rapidly changed.

Soon the Chinese found themselves confined to an area near Portsmouth Square, which became known as Chinatown. These early immigrants encountered huge discrimination and, often unable to integrate and find work and opportunities elsewhere, increasingly had to get more creative in order to make a living.

As time went on many of these ‘creative industries’ became criminal enterprises such as gambling and opium dens and prostitution. In turn this led to the rise of Chinese gangs, or Tongs, that organized Chinatown crime and fought running battles with each other through the streets, making things even tougher for the regular Chinese immigrants. Welcome to nineteenth century San Francisco Chinatown!

Prostitution in Chinatown

Most of the Forty-Niners or Argonauts, as the prospectors were called, were men, and this contributed to a high demand for prostitutes in San Francisco. Incredibly, in 1850 only 8% of the city’s residents were female. Most of the women were married to, or family members of, men who were traveling to California, but there were also driven and ambitious single women.

The mortality rate for Forty-Niners was around 20%, so quite a few wives became widows and had to find the means to survive in a tough environment – that also offered a lot of opportunity. Most brothel owners were men, but two women achieved significant notoriety as madams of Chinatown parlor houses.

Ah Toy was one of the first Chinese people to arrive in San Francisco, getting here in 1849. Her husband had died crossing the Pacific from Hong Kong and she apparently became the mistress of the ship’s captain. Clearly someone to spot an opportunity when one presents itself, she quickly realized that in a Gold Rush town selling sex is great business.

In 1850, she opened two brothels at 34 and 36 Waverly Place (then called Pike Street). She soon became involved in sex-trafficking, bringing girls as young as eleven years old from China to work for her as prostitute-slaves. However, she became very adept at defending her interests, even in so far as going to court several times to protect herself from exploitation. 

Unfortunately for her, in 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese people could not testify in court (extending the existing ban on African Americans and First Americans). This, coupled with new anti-prostitution laws that came into force the same year, made things much harder for Toy to operate.

In 1856 she sold up and returned to China a wealthy woman, although she returned to San Jose a decade later and lived out her days there, dying just a few months shy of her hundredth birthday, in 1928. 

Another Chinatown crime figure was also a madam. Belle Cora, née Ryan, was from an Irish-American background and was born and raised in Baltimore. Later, when she was around twenty years old, she moved to New Orleans, where she met a river-boat gambler called Charles Cora. The two of them came to California in 1849 and lived in gold country for a while, where Charles made a living as a gambler and Belle ran a bordello.

She arrived in San Francisco and immediately opened a brothel on Waverly Place, right opposite Toy’s establishments – it was very well connected to the commercial district and wharf by Commercial Street after all. Belle’s brothel catered to the high society of San Francisco, including aldermen, judges, the mayor and members of the legislature.

That it was a classy joint was testified to by no less a figure than Reverend William Taylor, recounting the parlor house as being furnished with redwood, velvet, silk, damask and beautiful paintings, with music provided by pianoforte, harp and melodeon. Naturally he was told all this by someone that he had “no reason to doubt”, never having seen it himself.

One night in November 1855 Belle went to the American Theater with her husband. They were seated next to U.S. Marshal William Richardson and his wife, who objected saying that the best seats should be reserved for more respectable folk. When the manager refused to intervene William and his wife left, with William casting aspersions on Belle as being nothing more than a prostitute. The next evening Charles shot William on Clay Street, killing him immediately.

Charles was arrested at the scene and thrown in the County Jail. There was a huge outpouring of grief and outrage over William’s death, with $15,000 being raised for his wife and children by local citizens. Belle, however, was not discouraged and hired the top lawyer in San Francisco, Edward Baker, paying him $30,000 in gold to defend her husband.

When the case went to court, early in 1856, she even bribed the chief witness to say that William had pulled a knife on Charles and therefore he had to act in self-defense. The trial ended with a hung jury.

However, exasperated by the lawlessness that pervaded San Francisco at the time, three thousand of its men had formed a Vigilance Committee (which is where the term ‘vigilante’ originated) to take justice into their own merciful hands. On May 22 Charles and another man, James Casey (who’d shot and killed newspaper editor James King), were sentenced to death by the Committee.

There was only time for a brief wedding ceremony to marry Charles and Belle before he was taken by the mob and hung, along with Casey, from a building on Sacramento Street in front of a rapt crowd of twenty thousand.

In spite of all this Belle continued in business until 1862, when she died of pneumonia, at the age of just thirty-five years old. She and Charles are buried next to each other at Mission Dolores.

Rise of the Tongs

In the mid-1850’s the Chinese in San Francisco began to form organizations, known as Benevolent Societies or Tongs. The word tong means “gathering place” or “hall” and they were designed to help new immigrants integrate into the U.S., find work and a place to live, but over time many of these organizations became criminal enterprises, in large part because of the hostility and discrimination that the Chinese faced from much of white American society.

By the mid-1860’s between twenty and thirty Tongs, numbering anywhere from fifty to 1,500 members, controlled most of the Chinatown crime.

The structure was similar to the Cosa Nostra, with the leader, known as the ‘Dragonhead’, having a body of ‘soldiers’ (boo how doy) under his command. There were also many euphemisms to describe their work: to kill someone was to “wash their body” (in blood), a rifle was a “dog” and a pistol was a “puppy”. Ammunition was “dog food” and the order to open fire was given as “let the dogs bark!”

Each Tong specialized in different criminal activities. Some ran gambling dens, some brothels, while others controlled the lucrative sex-trafficking of females. 

The trade in slave girls was very profitable for those Tongs; the average price for a girl at auction was $850, with some females being sold for as much as $2,000 (having been purchased in China for $90 to $300). The girls were acquired through various means – some were sold by their families, some were lured with promises of work and some were kidnapped. Most of them were between ten and sixteen years old and they had a life expectancy of just five years.

During the 1870’s and 80’s the population of sex workers in Chinatown grew to more than 1,800, accounting for an incredible 70% of the total Chinese female population.

Still other Tongs controlled parts of the lucrative opium trade. Opium was first brought to San Francisco on the clipper Ocean Pearl in 1861 and it soon made inroads with the Chinese – and wider – population of the city. It’s estimated that by the 1870’s up to 40% of the Chinese population were using opium and nearly 20% were addicted to it. The unrelenting toughness of their lives and the total impossibility of ever starting a family in SF were undoubtedly two of the causes.

Most of the opium dens were in the back of laundry shops, with the doors and any other openings tightly sealed, both to prevent drafts that would make the opium lamps flicker and the distinctive smell to escape.

Laws were passed in an attempt to end the trade and use of opium, such as the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which banned the importation of opium to the U.S., and there was a city ordinance in 1875 banning opium dens, but none of them made much of a difference to Chinatown crime.

As a British journalist wrote in the 1880’s: 

Occasionally, when the police are short of funds, they make a descent on some of the dens but, as a rule, the proprietors are left unmolested. 

By the late 1880’s it’s estimated that there were about three hundred opium dens in San Francisco, most of them in Chinatown, serving roughly three thousand addicts. One reason for the laissez-faire approach of the SFPD was that the Tongs were paying them off. Another was that, while some white people did frequent the dens, most of the habitual users (and addicts) were Chinese.

There’s a considerable amount of mystique, and even glamor, associated with opium dens, partly because of the writings of authors like Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Charles Dickens, but here’s how one contemporary described a den in Chinatown:

The air is sultry and oppressive. A stupefying smoke fills the hovel through the gloom of which the feeble yellow light of three or four opium lamps struggles hopelessly to penetrate. There are two or three wooden beds covered with matting and each is furnished with lamp and pipe. Three Chinamen lie in different stages of stupefaction. The room is about fifteen feet by ten feet, ceiling and walls black with years of smoke.

We have been in this den about five minutes and no one has spoken a word. It is like being in a sepulcher with the dead.

Reverend Frederic Masters, 1890

Tong Wars

With so many Tongs trying to co-exist in such a small area, and so much at stake in terms of the financial rewards, it’s hardly surprising that fights frequently broke out between the rival gangs. Often violence would erupt over a woman the two Tongs were competing over, since Chinese sex slaves were such a valuable and scarce resource. Perhaps one Tong was selling a girl to another and they couldn’t agree on a price. Turf wars, where the Tongs would fight over territory or the control over a lucrative business, such as a den or brothel, became common.

One of the most notorious gang fights occurred in 1879, when fifty men from two Tongs fought a running battle through Waverly Place over the ownership of a slave girl, leaving four men dead and several more wounded. It became known as the Battle of Waverly Place.

The Tongs also fought people and organizations which were trying to curtail or end their activities. One of their main enemies was known as the Six Companies, which was a legitimate Chinese cooperative association. It fought against prostitution and was successful in repatriating many girls to China. It also tried to get many of the boo how doy sent back to the old country, but in this it was less successful, due to corruption. 

Another enemy of Chinatown crime was a missionary called Donaldina Cameron, known as ‘Fahn Quai’ (White Devil) to the Tongs. She ran the Presbyterian Mission in San Francisco and ceaselessly worked to free sex slaves for many years.

In the end it’s estimated that she saved as many as twenty girls, although she insisted on the girl’s converting to Christianity and continuing to reside at the Home, so her record is somewhat controversial now.

A New Chinatown

The two major things that ended the Tong Wars were the Great Fire of 1906, which destroyed most Chinatown (along with the rest of the city) and the so-called graft trials of 1907. In a series of court cases the city’s mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and the notoriously corrupt political boss, Abe Ruef, were convicted of bribery and sentenced to prison (although Schmitz later won an appeal). They were known to take payoffs from Tongs, including from gambling and prostitution operations.

On top of that the SFPD Chief, William Biggy, mysteriously disappeared while taking a launch across the Bay one night in December 1908. His body was found two weeks later, and the death was ruled a suicide by the coroner, but few believed that the Catholic Biggy would have killed himself. This led to a cleaning up of the police, that left them less open to bribery and corruption.

The same forces were at work in the clean-up of the old Barbary Coast nearby. The police would no longer just turn a blind eye to prostitution and vice, whether in Chinatown or other parts of San Francisco.

When Chinatown was rebuilt (as the first to have Chinese designs incorporated) the vast majority of opium dens, brothels and gambling houses did not return and the power of the Tongs was broken.

Return of the Tongs

In 1965 Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended the prioritization of white immigrants to the U.S. This led to a big rise in immigration from China once again (it had fallen to very low levels since the turn of the twentieth century) and reinvigorated Chinatown, which had been experiencing a decline in population for several decades. It did however create other issues and led to a revival of the dormant Tongs.

On September 4, 1977, members of a Chinatown Tong called Joe Boys walked into the Golden Dragon on Washington Street (now the Imperial Palace restaurant). They planned to kill members of the rival Wah Ching gang, who were eating there, and sprayed the restaurant with bullets.

The assassins missed the gang members completely, but ended up killing five other diners, including two tourists, and injured eleven other bystanders. It was one of the deadliest incidents in San Francisco history and led to the creation of the San Francisco Police Gang Task Force, which focused much of its resources on Chinatown.

From time to time violence has sprung up since then. In 1995, members of the Jackson Street Boys started shooting at each other on the street in Chinatown in broad daylight. Seven innocent bystanders were hit, though fortunately no one was killed. Nevertheless, violence of this type is extremely rare nowadays and Chinatown is a very safe neighborhood, which is popular with residents and tourists.

Chinatown Crime: Alleys and Backstreets

Historically Chinatown crime and vice mostly occurred in the alleys and side streets, mainly because the city followed a policy of ‘containment’, which meant the police aimed to keep crime off the main thoroughfares and hidden in the narrow back-streets (that’s the main reason that Maiden Lane, a side-street off Union Square, also became a red light district).

Some alleys were lined with gambling parlors, some with opium dens and most of them had brothels.


Almost every building was a bordello.


Known as the ‘Street of the Painted Balconies’, it was also full of parlor houses although it’s now one of the prettiest and most charming alleys in Chinatown.


The slave auctions were usually held in basements here.


Well-known for its numerous opium dens.


The Street of the Gamblers. These establishments had reinforced doors – and often a series of them – to slow down the police, giving the establishments time to hide incriminating evidence. There were also tunnels running underneath the alley to connect the buildings, which were used to foil police raids. Ross Alley had its fair share of opium dens as well.


Almost every house on the block between Grant and Kearny Streets was a bordello. The brothels at 736 and 742 (the ‘Parisian Mansion’) were two of the last to close after the Red Light Abatement Act of 1913.

Final Thoughts on Chinatown Crime and Vice

Today Chinatown officially covers twenty-four city blocks, with the current boundaries more or less being Kearny, Broadway, Powell and Bush Streets. It’s the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan, with approximately fifteen thousand residents in 2020.

Part of the reason why the area has remained so distinct and homogenous is that historically it was the one neighborhood to be deeded by the city and property owners to allow Chinese people to inherit and inhabit dwellings. 

For a visitor that’s a major part of its charm. It’s not a tourist, Disney, Chinatown – it’s a living breathing one, precisely because so many Chinese people actually live here. The opium dens, gambling hell-holes and brothels are obviously long gone, and it’s not even a neighborhood that’s rich in nightlife (apart from Buddha Lounge and Li Po’s, which are both worth a visit, and one or two other bars), but it has some of the best, most authentic Chinese food in the city and is a must-see when visiting San Francisco.

Chinatown crime is a particular focus of our Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime tour, which runs every Saturday night at 6 pm, and explores the area.

If you have any feedback on Old Chinatown: Crime & Vice please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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