Through the Viewfinder: A Photograph of Chinese Men at Ferguson Alley, Los Angeles, ca. 1890s, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we move to this third part based on a ca. 1890s photograph of Chinese men at Ferguson Alley, likely at the intersection of the narrow thoroughfare with Los Angeles Street, just southeast of the Plaza, in the Angel City’s Chinatown, we turn to a topic that was often reported on, and often sensationalized, in the press, the internecine conflict among the companies, or tongs, of which many Chinese were members.

These associations provided benefits like some of the benevolent societies that other ethnic groups had in the community, such as health assistance, paying for funeral expenses, and recreation, though these companies were originally based on the regions of China from which members came. Rivalries that may have developed in the home country and carried over in America or which developed locally could often lead, however, to violence, including conflicts that arose over the control of opium dens, gambling establishments and brothels.

Los Angeles Times, 4 February 1895.

The Chinese, of course, were hardly the only ethnic groups or communities with these problems, but, given the massive anti-Chinese sentiment that existed in the late 19th century, including in Los Angeles, reports, whether accurate or not, about the tongs and the battles within them were played up to bolster these feelings. The terrible massacre of a teenage boy and seventeen men among the Chinese of Los Angeles in October 1871 took place amid what was often called a “tong war,” but the sheer frenzy that animated the hundreds of white and Latino men who committed the mass lynching was about far more than the battle between the Chinese companies.

Two decades or more later, the tongs were discussed in often lurid terms in the Angel City press and one of the more dramatic instances took place on 19 February 1895 when Lou Suey, said to have been part of the Hop Sing tong, left his Los Angeles Street store and headed for an Alameda Street restaurant by walking down Ferguson Alley. Ahead of him, it was reported by the Los Angeles Times of the following day, was Wong Chee, said to be the head of the Bing On tong, and three “retainers.” Stopping for a moment, Lou Suey turned to run as Wong Chee called out to shoot his rival and Wong Wing Fack, called a “highbinder,” a term generally used for an assassin or thug, fired a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, hitting the former in the back.

Los Angeles Herald, 20 February 1895.

Lon Suey was taken to a room on Alameda Street where he told a Times reporter what took place before he was conveyed to the city’s receiving hospital for treatment. He stated that the gun was handed over to Wong Chung, who ran down a small side alley and was later caught with the weapon. Wong Wing Fack slipped into Wong Chee’s “harem,” while Wong Wen was apprehended in a closet or shed in a rear yard, but Wong Chee managed to evade capture. Lon Suey identified Wong Wing Fack in person after the arrest and then revealed the cause of the incident:

Suey said his last shooting was the result of the arrest of the eight keepers of houses of prostitution a few days ago. They were all of Bing On Tong, and the highbinders have all been in a foment ever since, feeling that their chief source of revenue was about to be cut off. The rewards of $200 a piece for the murder of Lou Suey and Charley Goon were raised to $600, and men were armed to hunt them down. Suey and Goon have gone unarmed, fearing to get into trouble for carrying concealed weapons.

The wound was considered very serious and the paper ended its report by stating that “he may linger along for days or weeks, but his spirit being injured, there is little hope for his recovery.”

Times, 21 February 1895.

The Los Angeles Herald, also of the 20th, provided its own account and with more dramatic effect, as it stated that “the quick, sharp report of a revolver rang out in Ferguson alley” and “three Chinamen ran wildly down the alley, leaving another one stretched upon the ground in its midst, screaming with pain.” Named as Lon Suey, the wounded man was, the paper observed, “one of the most harmless and inoffensive denizens of Chinatown,” and he was the owner of a store and restaurant, but “through some injudicious information given to police officers against brothel keepers, brought upon himself the disaster of yesterday.”

The Herald added that the victim was taken to the hospital in a police wagon with three suspects in tow and then these latter jailed. It said that the merchant was in the center of the alley when he was attacked, upon which “the prompt appearance of officers upon the scene” led to the quick nabbing of the three men. The paper added that Wong Chee was sighted within a few minutes alighting from a streetcar on Spring Street in front of the Nadeau Hotel, “it being evidently his intention to prove an alibi,” though it was noted that, as he was “well known to the police as an old offender” and apparently recognized by witnesses at the scene of the shooting, officers were on the hunt for him. In describing the wounds and condition of the victim, the paper concluded that paralysis of the lower limbs was the result of the ball being lodged in the vertebrae.

A letter purportedly sent to alleged white witnesses to the Lou Suey killing warning them about testifying in resulting murder cases, but which almost certainly were created by the young men themselves—they were later indicted for trying to bribe defense counsel Henry T. Gage, who was California’s governor from 1899-1903, but the matter was dropped. Herald, 16 June 1895.

In a piece on the 21st, titled “Rumors of War,” the Times stated that “the Chinese quarter is in a ferment of excitement” since the attack and that “all sorts of rumors of war are afloat among its denizens.” Said to be led by Charley Goon and Lou Suey, the Hop Sing company “has been industriously keeping the peace, and has greatly aided the police in capturing the men of the Bing On faction, to whom are attributed most of the recent assaults upon Hop Sing men.” Notably, these acts of aggression were reported to have taken place “since the removal of the old Chinatown squad of police to other beats” and the Wing On tong purportedly was “not content with bringing several new women into the quarter” but added more blackmail to their activities.

The paper commented that, “despairing of police protection,” the Hop Sing company reportedly let it be known “that blood will be shed at every opportunity” and that “Wong Chee . . . will be the first victim of the demon of revenge he has conjured up.” The Times went on to observe that “the highbinders of both factions are clamoring to get at each other, but fear to engage in open warfare with the risk of being thrown into jail.” Beyond this, it was added, “most of the women slaves in Chinatown are owned by members of the Wong family,” and the aforementioned arrests led it to seek revenge on Lou Suey and the Hop Sing tong. A deputy district attorney told the paper in an interview,

Trouble has been brewing in that quarter of town for some time . . . and the outbreak was not at all in the nature of a surprise . . . These men, the [investigating] officers claim, are the instigators of all the murderous rows which create uproars among the celestials, and they expressed the belief that if members of that particular class of Chinese society were arrested on charges of vagrancy the trouble would be at an end.

Yet, after a series of conflicts in January, the office decided not to put out arrest warrants “as the natural result would be to heighten the factional feeling” but there was another effort by police officers to secure approval for the apprehension of suspects and ten warrants were issued but officers were warned not to focus only on one company, but pick up men from both.

Herald, 19 June 1895.

In fact, the 4 February edition of the Times reported on a celebration among the Wing On company after Wong Chee was acquitted of perjury charges in a matter brought on a complaint from the Hop Sing and it was added that bounties were put on three men, including Lou Suey, called “Wah Suey,” though Wong Chee claimed the celebration was “merely a wind-up of the [Chinese] New Year’s festivities.” When the eight men were nabbed before the shooting, however, most were from the Wong Chee company, despite the official’s assertion that “the officers had undoubtedly been careful in the work.”

The deputy DA concluded by telling the Times that, in the search among the “crooks and corners of Chinatown for Wong Chee, they ran across the most curious conglomeration of weapons imaginable. Among the seized pieces were “revolvers that resembled small cannons,” knives of various lengths, iron bars, clubs, hatchets, brass knuckles “and various coats of mail.” One piece that stood out and said to have been found in an opium den was a piece of gas pipe some fourteen inches long, filled with shot, plugged at the ends and wrapped in strips of red cloth and cord.

Los Angeles Express, 31 July 1895.

After Lou Suey died from his wound, as expected, three of the men were indicted and tried. One, later identified as Wong Chuey, but who was apparently the Wong Chung mentioned above and said to be the gunman rather than Wong Wing Fack, was convicted on a murder charge and sentenced to life at San Quentin. It was reported by the Herald in its 19 June edition, in an article about the shooting of a white witness, who survived the assassination attempt, from that trial, that Lou Suey also provided federal officials information that led to the seizure of a significant amount of opium in San Francisco a few days prior to his being shot. Asserting that, following the conviction of Wong Chung, the Wing On tong “lost all sense of prudence, stating,

Intimidation with witnesses of Chinese nationality is so common that no attention is paid to it, but when the highbinders commenced to threaten white people who had been connected with the trial, the matter assumed unpleasant proportions . . . several parties [reported the paper] . . . received threatening letters consisting of skulls and crossbones, daggers and guns.

Alexander Burness and Sam Reddick were two men who were said to have received these ominous documents and the pair, along with Burness’ brother, were walking home to the Prospect Park area of north Boyle Heights from attending a show at the Orpheum Theatre and crossed the Los Angeles River through the Aliso Street bridge when a shot was fired through some castor bean bushes on the roadside. It was reported that the only reason Burness survived was because the bullet was slowed by its passage through a novel the man had in his coat—the book was titled The Shadow of a Sin, by English writer Charlotte M. Brame—and hit the buckle of his suspender before falling to the ground.

Times, 5 September 1895.

In subsequent proceedings, however, matters changed significantly. Wong Wing, after a ten-day trial, was acquitted and, while the Los Angeles Express of 31 July reported that his face was impassive when the verdict was read, “Wong Chee’ face beamed with the happiness that filled his heart.” This was because, as the paper concluded in its coverage, “it is not improbable that the case against Wong Chee will be dismissed,” though prosecutors plowed ahead. Notably, the lead counsel for the defendants was future Governor Henry T. Gage, who was contacted in late June by Burness, Reddick and private detective Harry “Jack” Coyne and who, purportedly, offered to have the former pair forego testifying against his clients if they were given some money “to go to some seaside resort” and then “stay away for several years.” It was also reported that the three men contrived the claim they witnessed the shooting and that the alleged assassination attempt was a ruse perpetrated by them—the bullet in Burness’ coat was said to have been made by his own .22 caliber pistol and they apeared to have concocted the ominous letters and drawings. Not surprisingly, neither was called to testify.

In fact, on 4 September, as the Times recorded the next day, the tong leader “is again out of jeopardy of an elongated neck” as the district attorney’s office moved for dismissal of the case because “the evidence was believed to be insufficient for conviction. The paper commented that “the case is another example of how difficult it is to obtain a conviction in a Chinese criminal case, even when the evidence at first appears to be conclusive.” Murder cases generally, though, were challenging for many reasons, including the mandate for a unanimous verdict, not to mention the question of reliable witness testimony, the matter of circumstantial as opposed to direct evidence, and more. A week later, the charges against Burness and Reddick in the bribery matter were dropped, also on the question of insufficient evidence.

Another early 20th century snapshot from the Homestead’s collection of a portion of Chinatown, this being in what is now the Union Station area across Alameda Street from where Ferguson Alley once was located.

With this remarkable series of events, sensationalized as they were covered in the Los Angeles press, emblematic of much of the media coverage of the Chinese community at the time, we will return tomorrow with the fourth part of this post and more on Ferguson Alley and the Los Angeles Chinatown during the 1890s, see be sure to check back for that.

Leave a Reply