Yesterday’s Crimes: The Chinatown Boss in Chainmail

Little Pete was the king of Chinatown in the 1890s, but he learned the hard way that his fellow Chinese immigrants preferred to be ruled by committee.

The first group of Chinese arrived in the city that would become San Francisco way back in 1848. The first known battle in Chinatown didn’t happen until Spring 1875, and it was over what you’d imagine; a woman, which were a rarity in S.F. in those days. Her name was Kum Lo, but she was better known by her working name — the Golden Peach. Low Sing, a member of the powerful Suey Sing Tong, loved her so much that he planned to buy her freedom. But Ming Long of the Kwong Duck Tong wanted the Golden Peach for himself, so he whacked Sing with a hatchet and left him to die at the corner of Waverly Place and Ross Alley.

The Suey Sing wanted retribution for their fallen comrade, so they posted a challenge on the corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street. The Kwong Ducks accepted, and men from both factions spent the next day sharpening their axes and curved snickersnee blades. In all, 25 men from the Suey Sing Tong met 25 of the Kwong Duck’s best fighters just before midnight at the scene of the crime.

“Hatchets waved and knives flashed and half a hundred men met in the middle of the street,” Eng Ying Gong and Bruce Grant wrote in “Tong War!”, a pulpy 1930 tome on Chinatown gangs.”Skulls were split and abdomens ripped.”

As the men fought — allegedly with more brutality than focus — neither side gained much of an advantage, until the Suey Sing made one big charge forcing the Kwong Duck hatchet men to flee. The police arrived a few seconds later, sending the Suey Sing men on a retreat of their own despite their bloody victory. In all, three Kwong Duck men and one Suey Sing combatant died from their wounds.

Watching the brawl from the window of his parents’ Waverly Place apartment was 11-year-old Fung Jing Toy. In the days that followed, the young immigrant from China’s Guangdong province (then Canton) replayed the melee in his mind. He imagined how a different thrust here or parry there could have changed its outcome. By the 1890s, his eye for strategy transformed him into Little Pete, the king of Chinatown. The problem for Little Pete, however, was that Chinatown preferred to be ruled by committee.

During Little Pete’s decade-long criminal reign over Chinatown, the San Francisco Call reported that he “instigated Chinese murders, imported women, ran gambling games, swindled people at the races and bribed juries in a way that white men would never undertake.” That closing bit of racism is especially rich when you consider that the son of the Call’s publisher shot the publisher of the Chronicle only a few years before this was written.

Little Pete learned English by studying at the Methodist Chinese mission, which gave him “a peculiar faculty for making friends among white people” according to the Call. It also allowed him to rise from translator to boss of the Sam Yup Company, one of the six companies that ran Chinatown. He became the protégé of prominent criminal lawyer Thomas Riordan, and forged an alliance with blind political boss Christopher Buckley, whom Little Pete referred to as “the Blind White Devil.” 

With these associations extending his power beyond the confines of Chinatown, Little Pete was able to import Chinese women to work as sex slaves in his brothels, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also used the city’s white police force to shut down his rivals’ casinos, opium dens, and brothels. When they reopened, Little Pete’s Sam Yup men were in charge. 

His rough handling of Chinatown’s other powerbrokers earned Little Pete so much enmity from the rival See Yups and other groups that he walked the streets wearing a coat of chainmail armor with a steel dome inside his hat. He also never left his apartment above his shoe factory without a trio of white bodyguards.

But Little Pete finally went too far when he gave fake badges to some of his racetrack thugs so they could bust up the See Yup headquarters while posing as police detectives. Even though Little Pete’s gweilo goons were trounced by a See Yup badass called Hot Stuff, the damage was done. Little Pete had to die, so the See Yups placed a bounty of $3,000 on his head.

Drawn by the prospect of earning the equivalent of at least $77,000 in today’s money (online inflation calculators only go back to 1914), aspiring assassins Lem Jung and Chew Tin Gop staked out Little Pete and waited for their chance.

They finally got it on Jan 23, 1897 at 9 p.m. when Little Pete went downstairs from his spacious apartment to the barbershop at 817 Washington St. — right across the street from the location of the Golden Dragon Massacre 80 years later.

Little Pete only had one of his bodyguards with him, and sent him down the street to get a newspaper so he could see the racing forms. Murphy, the bodyguard, advised against this, but Little Pete insisted.

“That’s all right,” Little Pete said. “I’ll take care of myself.”

With Murphy running down a newsboy on Washington Street, Jung and Gop burst into the barbershop. As the barber washed Little Pete’s long hair, Jung said, “I am going to give you a birthday celebration!”

“Before anybody could comprehend what the visitors meant one of them drew a revolver and fired four times with great rapidity,” the Call reported. “One shot penetrated the right eye and one entered the brain just above it.”

The barber fainted. Knowing that Little Pete wore body armor, Jung lunged at him, and jammed his .45 automatic down the gang boss’s shirt and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered Little Pete’s left breast and tore through his heart, lungs and right kidney.

The impact of the blast caused the barbershop’s lights to flicker out, and the glare of the muzzle flash at close range blinded Jung further. Gop lead his partner to Ross Alley where they tossed their pistols presaging a scene out of The Godfather, only no Italians were involved. Aided by grateful See Yups, Jung and Gop fled to Oregon and then back to China where they reportedly lived the rest of their lives as very wealthy men.

Tensions between the See Yups and Sam Yups remained so high following the murder of Little Pete that police flooded Chinatown in advance of the Lunar New Year celebration a week later. With cops crowding every street corner, several street vendors and furniture repairmen were arrested for obstructing the sidewalks. The chief of police even banned the use and sale of fireworks ,making it a rare Lunar New Year festival unaccompanied by the pop-pop-pop of strings of firecrackers.

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