Subversive Loyalties: How Chinese Organized Crime Brokered Political Relationships with Tammany Hall

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:50 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Heather Ruth Lee, New York University Shanghai
In the late nineteenth century, the stairs of 14 Mott Street in New York City led to Mon Far Low, a two-story restaurant specializing in Chinese fine dining. Candle-burning lanterns dangled from the ceiling, Confucius wisdom adorned the walls, and pearl inlaid tables and chairs cradled customers enjoying extravagant meals. My paper reveals how New York’s most powerful Chinese gang transformed Chinese restaurants from a marginal, immigrant institution into a national, mass consumer business. The story begins in the 1870s, when thousands of unemployed, Chinese men found economic opportunities and respite in New York after fleeing from growing anti-Chinese movement in the American West. Still, poverty and discrimination cast long shadows on life in their new home. At the turn of the century, gangsters brokered relationships at restaurants to bolster the Chinese position in urban politics and economy. Beneath the refined veneer of Chinese banquet halls lay a knotted story of Chinese organized crime. In the private rooms of Mon Far Low Restaurant, the On Leong gang plotted to seize control of Chinatown’s economy. The first and most powerful Chinese gang in New York, it specialized in gambling, opium, and human smuggling. On Leong members established Mon Far Low to entertain important guests who defended its monopoly from rival gangs. Over the years, judges, lawyers, police, and politicians dined at Mon Far Low to cement deals and alliances over Chinatown’s underground economy. The On Leong established a dining culture that became an independent industry by the early twentieth century. This research explains origins of today’s mass consumer Chinese restaurant industry in New York’s late-nineteenth century shadow economy, through which American, Irish, and Chinese gang leaders profited from the legal and economic marginality of the average Chinese immigrants.