Joe Bruno on the Mob – Tong Wars – The Murder of Chinese Comedian Ah Hoon

Sometimes a comedian can be dead funny, but after one of his on-stage performances, Chinese comedian Ah Hoon turned up quite dead instead.

The Tong Wars started in Chinatown in 1899, with the powerful On Leong Tong dominating the gambling and drug interests in the Chinatown area of downtown Manhattan. The smaller Hip Sing Tong and the Four Brothers Tongs, joined forces and engaged in violent confrontations with the On Leong Tong over the rights to their illegal activities. Dead bodies littered the streets, on Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets almost daily.

Ah Hoon was a famous Chinese comedian who was featured often at the Chinese Theater at 5-7 Doyers, right in the middle of the Tong War Zone. The Chinese Theater was a venue, not only for the Chinese, but for English speaking audiences too, who were brave enough to venture into an area where gunpowder constantly permeated the air. Ah Hoon was an associate of the On Leong Tong, and the content of his jokes, in which he constantly disparaged the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs, made it seem like he thought he was bullet proof.

Things started to get hairy for Ah Hoon, when the Reverend Huie Kim, the pastor of the Christian Morning Star Mission on Doyers Street, warned Ah Hoon that his jokes were not funny with certain people, and that he could get badly hurt if he kept telling these jokes on stage. Ah Hoon thumbed his nose at the good reverend, and soon after the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs formerly declared war on the On Leong Tong, Ah Hoon stepped up the frequency and the ferocity of his jokes. This did not sit well with the Hip Sing and Four Brothers Tongs, so they announced publicly that they were going to kill Ah Hoon. To make sure Ah Hoon got the message, they sent a emissary to Ah Hoon giving him the exact time and date he was to be murdered.

Ah Hoon took the threat seriously, but it was Hoochy-Coochy Mary, who lived on the floor below Ah Hoon, in a boarding house on Chatham Square, who ran to the police and begged them to protect the fingered comedian. On December 30, 1909, Police Sergeant John D. Coughlin and two patrolmen accompanied Ah Hoon to his performance the the Chinese Theater. The word had spread quickly on the streets of Chinatown, and the theater was packed. Standing-room-only tickets were also sold out, and there was a large crowd outside, not too happy at being turned away from what they thought would be the great show of a public execution.

Seeing the police presence inside and outside the theater, the Hip Sing decided to back down on their word, and at the end of the show, Ah Hoon was still standing and unbloodied. Sergeant Coughlin and his two underlings hustled Ah Hoon out of the theater, though a hidden underground tunnel, to his dwelling on Chatham Square. Ah Hoon went up to his room, and a group of heavily-armed On Leong Tong killers stood guard outside his door, while dozens others milled on the street outside his building, looking for any impending attack. Ah Hoon went to sleep, but did not wake up the following morning.

Hoochy-Coochy Mary heard a shot in the middle of the night and ran upstairs to alert the On Leong Tong bodyguards. When they broke though the door, they found Ah Hoon dead on his bed, with a bullet in his heart. There was only one window in his room and it faced a blank wall five feet away. The Hip Sing assassins had entered a tenement a few buildings down and jumped across three roofs to the roof next door to Ah Hoon’s building. They lowered the killer on a boatswain’s chair tied to a rope, down the narrow alley to Ah Hoon’s window. The killer entered the room quietly and shot Ah Hoon dead. Then he exited the room in the same manner he had entered. The Hip Sing was so overjoyed at the success of their mission, they held a parade the next day in the streets of Chinatown.

On New Year’s night 1910, two days after the murder of Ah Hoon, the Chinese Theater was packed to the rafters again. In the middle of the performance, someone threw packs of lit firecrackers into the air. People panicked and fled the theater quickly, except for five On Leong Tong members who were shot dead during the distraction of the fireworks. No one was arrested for the murders and the Tong Wars continued for another generation.


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