November 10: The Tong Wars Come to Connecticut


In the late 19th century and early 20th century, as Chinese immigrants flocked to American shores in increasing numbers, insular Chinese-American communities known as “Chinatowns” sprang up in large coastal cities like San Francisco and New York.  Here, recent immigrants could more freely speak their native language and observe Chinese customs while adapting to life in the United States.  Unfortunately, these communities also provided a haven for organized crime and feuds between rival Chinese factions, or “tongs,” that often followed Chinese immigrants to American cities.

Even though there was no formal “Chinatown” community in any of Connecticut’s cities, the state’s proximity to New York — where the “tong wars” of the early 20th century had a strong foothold — meant that the violence of these feuds occasionally spilled over into Connecticut territory.  Such was the case in March of 1927, when two members of the On Leong tong arrived in Hartford with the intent to murder a Connecticut Chinese immigrant they suspected of belonging to a rival tong.  Once in Hartford, the two hitmen took a taxi to Manchester, where they confronted 36-year-old Ong Ging Hem in his family’s Chinese laundromat and shot him dead before taking a series of taxis to New Haven, where they were apprehended by authorities.

Connecticut State’s Attorney Hugh Alcorn, concerned that a resurgence of the New York-area tong feuds would threaten Connecticut residents, sought swift and severe justice for the two accused gunmen.  “A speedy conviction while [this] war is raging, and the exaction of the death penalty, will serve as a lesson to Chinese gunmen in this section,” he told a Hartford Courant reporter the following day.  Thanks to an abundance of evidence, including several eyewitnesses and incriminating fingerprints on the murder weapon, Ching Lung and Soo Hoo Wing were quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

On November 10, 1927, two days after their sentence was carried out at the State Prison in Wethersfield, Hartford residents witnessed an incredible cross-cultural spectacle, as the two men were feted with an elaborate funeral procession financed by their fellow tongmen.  En route to the Zion Hill Cemetery, the sharply-dressed Governor’s Foot Guard Band played Haydn’s funeral march and was followed by an imposing group of 70 members of the On Leong tong.  The procession combined with Roman Catholic hymns and rites performed by a Hartford priest (Wing’s wife was a practicing Catholic) with intricate ancient Chinese rituals performed graveside, involving offerings of food, tea, and flowers.  The entire ceremony, described in the Courant as “strange to Hartford eyes,” was a fitting representation of the rapid increase in ethnic diversity experienced throughout the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Memorable as the occasion was, Connecticut residents were no doubt relieved to see this episode of the tong wars come to a close in what they hoped was the last gasp of a violent old-world conflict, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Nancy Schoeffler, “A Tong War Murder at a Manchester Laundry,” Hartford Courant