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Godfathers of Chicago's Chinatown: An Interview with Author Harrison Fillmore
Even in a town notorious for gangsters like Al Capone, much of Chicago's lawless lore has remained uncharted. Chicago's Chinatown, in particular, was home to a vast criminal enterprise, strictly bound by old country rituals, rules and traditions. Few know of Moy Dong Chew, aka "Opium Dong,'? one of Chinatown's original godfathers, much less Frank Moy, his fedora-wearing predecessor. While incidents like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre dominated newspaper headlines, the Tong Wars were being waged in the shadows.
Author Harrison Fillmore relates the long and sordid history of Chinatown's underbelly from the early 1880s to the late 1980s when a Federal Indictment essentially ended organized crime's grip on their good citizens.
So, this is kind of a buy one, get one free episode today in that Harrison, you are joining us alongside a researcher that you have worked with on the production of this volume. Jim, you'll say hi to us.
... to have both you guys on. This is a fascinating book. This is a truly compelling journey into a part of the country and a part of our country's history that is not often explored. And you guys have done an amazing job telling that story.
Harrison has been involved in professional law enforcement for a long, long time, as I have been. I am actually a criminal prosecutor and have been for — I can't do the math, 26 years or something like that.
Harrison and I have been involved in numerous projects, movies. We actually were partners on a TV show together that we were partners with Harold Ramis to write a actual fictional crime show. This was like 10 or 12 years ago, Harrison, something like that.
But like so, I had a movie come out a couple years ago, and certainly Greg is somebody that helped me with the shaping of that script. Previous play of mine that ran in Chicago that was a crime story, and Greg was a big part of shaping that for me.
And of course, right now, we're always writing at least two projects at all times. And so, this project is his project, not my project. And this is something that he just had me take a look at and just try to help put shape to it. So, most of the work on this is certainly his.
Because it's definitely true. All I did was just read it and act in this particular case, as just an editorial voice, because this particular project really is 99% Harrison and me just coming in and helping the shape of the narrative, really. That's all.
The book is ancient history. It's organized crime from years and years ago. Now, it's safe. Now, you need to go to those restaurants. You got to check out Three Happiness. Any place with a lazy Susan that serves duck. That's where you go eat.
I was in my living room because all my friends, we were so overwrought that we couldn't even watch it together. We were just all on a conference call. Like we were so out of our minds that we couldn't actually be in the same room.
I will never forget the photos of just the entire city spilling out into the streets and just partying all night long. I mean, that really was truly historic in that moment. I'm still so happy for you guys even being a Braves fan.
Yeah, it really was because almost everything that you could say about the mafia and the outfit has been said. And this is just one of those really interesting, the colorful characters. And it is a story that really hasn't been told.
And, Ben, Greg would never say this, but he's probably as knowledgeable about organized crime in Chicago, both right now, and historically as there is, as that exists in the world. That's not an exaggeration in terms of the professional work that he's done.
I think he's like an undisputed expert about certainly street gangs in Chicago. There's no question about that. So, his ability to take that knowledge and apply it in historical context makes perfect sense.
So, let me ask you guys, this is a collaborative endeavor, and you mentioned a little bit about the process by which this manuscript kind of came to be. I guess would you say a little bit more about what each of y'all brought to the table?
Or Jim, were you also, providing some of the legal expertise (you mentioned you're a prosecutor) that would sort of help to inform a case and then, Harrison, you would have the investigative aspect? How did that sort of back and forth work?
There were some interviews, I know Jimmy had made some calls, talked to a couple people on the street just for a little balance. And just a better look at what's actually happening day to day and how it's considered in the Chinatown community.
But yeah, it was a lot of legal representation by Jimmy. A lot of legal explanations of how the court system works and stuff like that. But yeah, I did a lot of the research and he did a lot of the editing.
Yeah. He gleaned a lot of this information. I think a lot of this information is unique to ... the great thing about this book is you're going to be reading things, I believe that have never been seen anywhere else and probably couldn't be seen anywhere else because declassified information that probably a lot of eyes haven't had the opportunity to look at at all.
Yeah. Reminds me, of course, when the Stasi files in former occupied Germany, were released and suddenly you had these sort of waves of researchers heading over to Berlin to sort of learn were they being snooped on, or were their family members being snooped on, or who was doing the snooping? That sort of thing. It's fascinating.
And I was curious how your expertise, you have a lot of people relations that you developed over the years, but where did the language issue of reading, studying, picking up on sort of the unique Chinese dialects and sort of internal codes arrive in this book?
Relying on translations. I think what makes it an interesting topic and why it probably hasn't been seen before is that Chinatown's unique relationship with law enforcement that made it probably a pretty difficult story to tell as well. I don't know what you have to say about that Greg.
Not only the language barrier, but just some of the cultural barriers where they just did not go to law enforcement for any problems. And in a way, that's how these Tongs got so powerful. They were, in essence, their own police department, their own jurisdictions.
But a guy was murdered at a card game. And this is in Chinatown, and this is residents of Chinatown that you're speaking to, and the thing just happened. And you'll ask a direct question to witnesses, and they look at you like you literally have three heads.
Their distrust of me was so deep seated, I had never really experienced anything like that. Because I had experienced a lot of hostility from witnesses, but never this pure, I can't say anything to anyone.
And I always assume that comes from what it was like growing up for maybe a lot of these folks in China as well, which is so culturally different relationship with authority than we would have here. I don't know if that is true or not, but that was always just my instinct.
Well, one of these tensions which runs like a thread throughout the entire fabric of the book. And in some cases you have things opening up and in some cases you have things completely shutting down in those relations.
Now, the main premise, almost sort of the opening gambit of triads here is that there is an overlooked history in Chicago. I mean, you argue from the jump that this entire history has been overlooked, overshadowed by the Italian outfit, the Czech outfit, the other ethnicities that had their own organized units.
So, it wasn't a spread of Italian Americans throughout the whole city, even though they began in smaller neighborhoods. I mean, that could be part of it. But yeah, I don’t know if I can answer the why.
Remember, Greg, reaching out to a person who had spent their entire career in law enforcement and had spent their entire life living in Chinatown to this day. So, he's older, and so he knew a lot of the players involved. And he said certain things about it.
And it's the interesting thing about it has, Ben, not fear. It's not like, "I think this, guys, it's going to back up on me. I fear for my ..." That's not what it is. It's just like, "I don't think it's my place to speak."
That's more what I felt like from a lot of these folks. Like, "It's not my place to speak on this subject." You know what I mean? "People Would think I'm being a big shot or something, or acting like I know something or something if I were to speak to you or whatever."
Let's look at it from a different perspective then. Let's sort of flip the coin on the other side. I mean, how was it that these Tongs arrived in the United States and in the Chicago area to begin with then? What was their actual point of entry into that area?
Well, I know actually, a lot of it was Chicago was safer than the streets of San Francisco. There was a lot of violence out west in the mining towns and railroad workers. And they kind of found a safe spot.
I think there was a quote by one of the godfathers, the opium dog who said, "The Chicagoans found us peculiar, but they liked us. They didn't hate us and call us rat eaters and all sorts of other things that were common at the time. They thought we were interesting. But they generally welcomed us with open arms."
And I suppose, Greg, compared on the West coast, the overt xenophobic, even laws that were passed as a reaction to the Chinese on the West coast. It's talked about in the books, the Chinese codes and stuff like that. The Midwest where they're just considered peculiar is maybe a nice change.
You write that even before they entered this country, you can trace some of the ancestry of the Tongs to kind of around the 17th century in mainland China, that there are some records which indicate there were sort of organized the sort of groups of monks who were protecting certain areas.
So, yeah, I think it's interesting. Ceremonially, I think there were a ton of the old traditions that came over. They began as benevolent groups. It was a place for Chinese to assemble, maybe find jobs, maybe education, things like that.
It was almost like ... I'm going to use a lot of the mafia and outfit references, but the Unione Siciliana, where they were about getting jobs for guys. They were a political faction. I think that's the way these Tongs began.
Interestingly enough, their ceremonies for induction into these Tongs, to be essentially a maid member, like somebody in named Mafia, some of the traditions and ceremonies were eerily similar to what the mafia has been known to do or at least documented to do. Where the burning of the mass card and saying a pledge.
So, yeah, I think they brought a lot of the old school traditions. I think it began to fade as much as any of the traditions would fade as far as turning more into a criminal element than really a benevolent association.
Yeah. Greg would have a much better idea of the tracing of the history, because he did a lot more of the legwork on that. But I think that it seems to be a continuous thread to me that certainly, the old world mindset of the people was the hardest thing to get to fade.
Now, I don't want to be flippant here, but as I read your account, it did kind of strike me that here you have a lot of sort of ancient adornment. You have the rituals and the incense and so forth. But if you take a sort of hard look at the actual structure of these organizations, it's also, a business, right?
I mean, they're also, operating like corporations. You have the head guy, the CEO, you have the chief financial officer, you have an accountant. You have an HR guy, the guy who's responsible for sort of recruitment. They might have-
Now, what I was curious about though was you have this fascinating thread of numerology, which enters into the discussion how important the numbers for titles and positions were. Can you just say a little bit about that?
Yeah. So, the numerology, there's a lot of superstition going there. And even some of the extortion payments, they go by the English currency, so it's a flat 100 say to keep your business in line, a $100 a month.
It honestly felt like you're sort of reading the 10 Commandments, but on steroids. It's sort of like, "If I fail to protect the widow of my brother, may I die by thousands of knives," that sort of thing.
It's a lot to take in. But it's also, I was curious, you have these 36 oaths. And then you have the entry level recruit that has to swear these 36 oaths is listed as a 49. That's kind of their marker number as in their hierarchy.
Now, once an initiate got past the oath taking and so forth, at what point would someone achieve the equivalent of in the outfit, what we would've called like a maid man? How long would it take you to become sort of untouchable? Or was there ever really that point in the Chinatown community?
Mostly it came down to whether you were an earner or not much like the outfit. The more money you earn, the more money you got, the more businesses you extorted meant your rank within the unit, the On Leong on went up, or the Hip Sing went up.
Quite a few of the presidents or ranking members were very successful restaurant guys or business guys. So, they were in their own right, kind of coming up through the organization. So, really it came down to if you were earning, if you were making money for the larger organization.
Yeah, I'm not certain if that would actually be a status. You will notice that none of the past godfathers, they all died of natural causes. They weren't whacking each other like a traditional organized crime.
And he was the guy that was kind of challenging the status quo and it ended up flipping allegiances. And the book kind of explains it, but he was probably the highest ranking guy that was whacked on the streets of Chinatown.
When you see you have instances of Young Turks sort of attacking more of the established organization. You saw it not by an attack on — like you'd see in some more traditional American organized crime, like an attack on like say when Gotti took out Castellano or something like that.
True. And that's how it kind of screwed up Chinatown's organized crime in the end, was somebody from the outside, somebody from New York, Nicky Louie coming in and challenging the status quo and kind of screwed up everything for everybody at the time.
And yet there's always this negotiation, even as the gangs are kind of amassing power, and amassing influence, and amassing businesses under their wing and so forth, you also see them engaging in this fairly delicate dance with the Chicago PD.
And I wanted to ask you a little bit about the early days of their engagement because you write that at first as sort of prominent businessmen were gaining influence in Chicago's Chinatown, relations could be okay, but then things began to sour a little bit.
Yeah. I think a lot of it was no harm, no foul. They're keeping it in their community. And then as soon as opium started seeping through to other neighborhoods and other clientele, that's when it became a scheduled narcotic.
I think there's a quote by a police captain who says, "We leave them alone. They're spending their money, but then when they start fighting with hatchets, that's when we got to get involved." Something to that effect.
So, yeah, I think for the most part, their relationship with law enforcement is only affected when it starts getting violent and out of control. Other than that, it was pretty quiet in Chinatown. What'd you think, Jimmy?
Predictably, insular communities like this and their relationship with law enforcement, and this being the most insular community, they're always going to have a decent relationship as long as they stay within the blocks that are assigned to them.
And there's a segment on page 39 of your book, Harrison, where you actually kind of detail the moment at which the Tongs began to split into factions. You began with sort of the On Leong Tong and then a rival faction arises out of what they would argue would be necessity.
But originally, it was downtown, and it was just outside of Levee district in Tenderloin district, in the place they called Old Cheyenne, because it was such a violent, violent, wild west kind of shootout place.
And that became essentially the second Chinatown, or new Chinatown, or little Chinatown it was called. And finally, the last bashing of the SROs and a couple of taverns slash opium dens in that downtown Chinatown were gone.
Federal government took over a couple of blocks to build their MCC, their prison. And that took out quite a few of the old businesses that were left. There's a couple buildings left down there, but there's very little sign of the original Chicago Chinatown.
For a community that's just organically crops up as communities do, to literally just pick up and deliberately move to a different part of the city and establish a Chinatown that is very still firmly entrenched there at 22nd Wentworth, if you visit there, it's very distinctly Chinatown there.
I don't know if that's a kind of a historical first in the United States for a group to just pick up and move to a mile away or so, and just start a new place deliberately so. But that kind of shows the power of the On Leong I think to be able to do that.
Yeah. And I think I mentioned it that at the time it seemed like the On Leong was tucking their tail and running, kind of leaving their neighborhood, leaving the old Chinatown, when in essence it was brilliant because they built their own things. They took over, they began tourism.
But Sam Moy, he kind of takes the cake. Now, he was a pioneer, he was an innovator. He bridged worlds very, very successfully, both the western and the ancient traditional eastern world. He was a fixer, he was a gangster, he was a chef, he was an interpreter, he was a smuggler. I mean, he kind of did it all. I mean, what a guy, right? What a guy.
Yeah. He was known for his flashy suits. He'd wear what they would call in the newspapers western wear. He liked the limelight. He liked being the center of attention. And meanwhile smuggling, being involved with human trafficking, and opium dens, and a lot of gambling.
And he was, like you said, a fixer. He would travel to nation if there were labor conflicts, or if there was a murder trial, or things of that nature. He wasn't afraid to get involved. And, yeah, colorful character alright.
And then he wasn't afraid of the limelight. He was okay rubbing shoulders with politicians where leaders and community leaders before that were not. He was okay with talking to the newspapers. He loved having his picture drawn in the old newspapers, I think.
And just his outlandish clothes, his bright yellow suits and the things just to call attention to himself as the king of celestials. I think that's what would happen for years to come. When you become the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, you have this role to play and it's straddling organized crime and law enforcement
You make your money the way you make your money, but if there's someone who's really in trouble in your community, you have to also be the guy that's going to step up and try to actually do something about that problem. You have to be a community leader as well.
Yeah. No, and he's the one that quashed two hits on two policemen. There was a contract out on two policemen that were raiding gambling houses, and Sam Moy stepped in and quashed them and made sure the detectives were safe.
And we're going to come back to that next week as we start to look at the rivalries that emerged between the On Leong and the Hip Sing. But for now, Harrison, Jim, thank you guys for joining us, and we will see you-