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Chinatown Tong Wars of the 1920s

The violence of the 1920's was not restricted to bootleggers. Shortly after the World War I Armistice, San Francisco's Chinatown erupted in another kind of gangland warfare. While Chief White's cleanup campaign had succeeded in wiping out the last vestiges of the Barbary Coast, the Tongs had continued to operate brothels, gambling parlors, and opium dens, and even trafficked in Chinese "slave girls." Photograph of San Francisco Police Inspector John Manion

Police Chief Daniel O'Brien, who replaced Chief White in 1920, appointed Inspector Jack Manion to take over the Chinatown Squad. Manion whose tough persona inspired much of the pulp detective fiction of the 1920's and 30's, was credited with the pacification of the district. He developed a network of informants and used them to conclude a truce among the Tongs.

Dan McKlem joined the force in 1925 and drew one of his first assignments in Chinatown. As McKlem remembered, "Manion was a boyhood associate of O'Brien's, and O'Brien picked him to take over Chinatown after he (Manion) had some success with the Black Hand in North Beach, which was the same as the Mafia in those days. Two of us would work north of Washington [Street], and two would work south, and there were two "straw bosses," named Johnny Conley and Jack O'Donnell. Your effectiveness depended on your contacts with the Chinese. They had to take a liking to you or they wouldn't give you the time of day. And even then, there were some things they just wouldn't tell you."

McKlem continued: "I remember in the last of the Tong Wars there was a guy named Wong Quong, who was killed on January 6, 1926, in Ross Alley. And on April 20, Ju Shuck was killed in the back of the Chinese Theatre [at 420] Jackson. They were all from different Tongs, an we knew they'd been killed because of a war, but we could never figure out just who did it. The Chinese were a secretive lot anyway, by and large, but none of them could talk about a murder like that. They would have been violating the code."

In spite of the difficulties posed by both the nature of Tong code and the veil of secrecy which hung over Chinatown during this period (to say nothing of the language barrier), Manion was able to bring the leaders of the Tongs together for a meeting which eventually resulted in a peace treaty. Slowly but surely, Manion's informants provided him with enough material to shut down the slave traffic and to severely curtail illegal gambling and drug activity.

After 10 years in Chinatown, Manion had become such an institution that the Chinese community adamantly refused to let him return to the Bureau of Inspectors. Bowing to popular demand Manion asked to, and the department let him, remain in Chinatown until his retirement in May 1946.

Drug use in the 1920's was not restricted to opium dens of the Chinese Tongs. Heroin, a new drug formulated to help addicts of opium break their habit, had begun to appear in San Francisco. Retired Officer Charles Foster recalled his first experience with heroin users.

"There was this guy named Kelly," said Officer Foster, "who went on a rampage one night in the 1920's. He got himself all hopped-up and got a gun and jumped into a cab, and he told the driver to take him to Potrero Hill. There was this old guy there just getting dressed up to go to a restaurant for dinner. He was walking down the sidewalk toward the Mission, just minding his own business, and Kelly jumped out of the cab and shot him, for no reason. Then he went on a rampage. He took over the cab and took off over the Hill, and he shot two more people in the chest down around 11th and Folsom. He drove all over town, and he took a shot at Chief O'Brien down around Fisherman's Wharf, although I don't think he knew who he was. The Chief just happened to be there on his way to dinner. Finally, they tracked him down in some cheap rooming house South of Market, and they got him after a shoot-out. That was the first I ever heard of hop, but we sure heard a lot more about it after that. That was the start of the whole thing."

Modernization, 1920-1940, or Return to Police Dept. Exhibit Page

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