The late 1800s were a tough time to be Chinese in Oregon. Welcomed into the state in the railroad-building years when the demand for cheap muscle was limitless, they were, by the early 1880s, starting to face widespread resentment.
The language barrier was high enough to make it very hard to assimilate. Towns and cities started passing “sundown laws” requiring Chinese residents to be off the streets at nightfall. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, and then renewed.
By the mid-1880s, the Chinese residents of Oregon all knew the justice system was virtually rigged against them. They could be robbed, beaten, or even murdered, without the perpetrators ever being held to account, if those perpetrators were European-Americans. They were, in other words, on their own.
So the frontier Chinese Oregonians did what any sensible group of people would do under the circumstances: They mobbed up.
That is, of course, oversimplifying things a bit. But the similarities between a Chinese tong and a Sicilian mafia family are notable.
The tongs, or “highbinder societies” as they were also called, were something like what you might get if the Crips merged with the International Order of Odd Fellows: a fraternal association based on family connections both natural and adoptive, with fierce loyalty and sometimes a disturbing willingness to spill blood.
And by 1886, that had happened often enough that the dime novels of the day were already entertaining their young readers with gripping stories of “tong wars” and “white slavery.”
In Portland, though, one didn’t have to be a regular Old King Brady reader to know something about “tong wars.” As Portland started to develop into one of the most critical importation points for opium smuggling, the tongs of Stumptown were getting increasingly active, jockeying for a bigger slice of the action. And nearly 75 percent of Chinese residents belonged to one tong or another; so when fights broke out, they were hard to keep a lid on.
And that’s what was going on in the Portland of late 1887, when a 20-year-old Chinese cook named Lee Yik got in a fight with his boss, the head cook at the Saddle Rock Restaurant in Portland, who was a member of a rival tong. Yik promptly quit; but some time later, the head cook’s cousin, Chee Gong, saw the Saddle Rock Restaurant’s owner talking to Yik. Angrily, Chee Gong reported what he’d seen, and every member of his tong, including the head cook, quit the Saddle Rock in protest.
So the owner hired Lee Yik back, and Yik got to play Santa Claus to his brothers in the Luen Tu tong with the jobs of the rival tong members who’d quit.
But, of course, the other tong was hardly going to be willing to leave it at that. The ball was now in their court, and they intended to play it.
They made their play at Lee Toy’s Chinese vaudeville theater, on the corner of Second and Alder, on the evening of Nov. 6. Yik was watching the show, up close near the stage; and at one point five of the players on the stage simply leaped into the crowd and started beating him.
It’s highly unlikely that the rival tong wanted to do more than just give Yik a beating. But someone — no one really knew who — got excited and pulled a knife. By the time order had been restored, Yik was mortally wounded, and the police had been summoned.
Lee Yik was able to identify two of his five assailants: Fong Long Dick, and Chee Gong. Police managed to come up with three more names, although it’s still not clear that they got the right guys — Ching Ling, Yee Long and Chee Son.
Of the suspects, police were only able to arrest three: Fong Long Dick, Chee Gong, and Ching Ling.
By that time, Yik had died of his wounds, so it was a murder case. The court promptly empaneled a jury — 12 men, not a single one of them Chinese — and got busy hustling up a trio of convictions.
After two days of desultory justice culminating in a 40-minute jury deliberation, they got two of them; the third took an extra week. All three were sentenced to hang.
Their attorneys, of course, appealed, and at the last minute, 11 months later, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that all three would have to be re-tried.
The second time around, Ching Ling was acquitted, and Fong Long Dick was sentenced to life in prison (but was pardoned out just nine days later).
Chee Gong was not so lucky.
But, looking over the records, luck doesn’t seem to have had much to do with it. As historian Diane Goeres-Gardner points out, it’s rather unusual for multiple witnesses to have stories that match up perfectly point by point … almost as if they were working from the same script, furnished to them in advance.
And, in fact, after the inevitable conviction by a jury of 12 white Portlanders of northern European ancestry, a number of Chinese residents prepared affidavits swearing that they had been forced to testify against Chee Gong.
But by this time, the conviction was on the books, and Gong’s only hope was that the governor would pardon him. The governor, at that time, was Sylvester Pennoyer … who won the governorship in part by taking over an anti-Chinese protest and whipping it into a slogan-chanting, brick-throwing street riot. He certainly wasn’t going to help any Chinese guy out.
And so, at 12:25 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1889, Chee Gong stood on the scaffold, prepared to take a rap that was pretty obviously pinned on him. Invited to speak, he told the crowd that although he was innocent, the member of his “family” — the tong — who had committed the crime had disappeared, and blood had to answer the blood, and his blood had been selected for the sacrifice.
Whether he committed the crime or not, by taking the rap as he did, Chee Gong probably ended the tit-for-tat exchange that could have escalated into an actual tong war. Of course, that wasn’t the end of highbinder-society violence in Portland; but the leaders of the tongs knew well that if they kept too high a profile, bad things would happen. They were careful to keep a lid on things, to prevent other Portlanders from cracking down on them and interfering with their opium-smuggling and other quasi-legal operations.
So Chee Gong was hanged, and his body goggled at and tittered over by street urchins as the hearse carried it to Lone Pine Cemetery for burial. Seid Back, the most prominent Chinese merchant at the time (who, by the way, would be a key player in the opium-smuggling scandal of 1893, in partnership with Oregon Republican Party chairman James Lotan), paid for his burial expenses.
(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, Nov. 1887 and Aug. 1889)
— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.