Harper’s Weekly, February 13, 1886, page 103 (Illustrated Article)
The Chinese Quarter of San Francisco has been aptly termed a bit of old China. With its shops resplendent with Oriental red and yellow, its pagoda-like restaurants, its narrow, noisome alleys, its under-ground opium and gambling dens, it furnishes a picture in miniature of the seamy side of life in a Chinese city. But what most writers forget is that Chinatown in the far Western metropolis represents mainly the worst features of Mongolian life, and is as unfair a type of comparison as Mulberry or Baxter Street to-day would be of the life of New York. Nine-tenths of the dwellers in San Francisco’s Chinatown are coolies, ranking as virtual slaves in their own country, and doomed from birth to menial labor of the coarsest kind. No Chinese of rank would tolerate one of them as his body-servant or would permit one to work in any capacity in his household. Outside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco it is doubtful whether one would be able to find a score of Chinese of good family or breeding among the 20,000 herded in Chinatown. Gathered in this way, is it any wonder that the coolies in California include many criminals? Could one take 20,000 white men from the slums of any great city and secure a higher order of intelligence or sobriety than is shown by these pigtailed heathen?
When the Chinese began to flock to California in large numbers, attracted by gold mining and the promise of work on the overland railroad, they formed for mutual protection what are known as the Six Companies. These were fashioned on the principle of trade guilds. The men from Canton, for instance, formed one company, those from Hong-Kong another. The members paid regular dues, for which the society furnished them hospital care when sick, and guaranteed that their bones should be carefully transported to China in case of death. They were also to be aided in any difficulty with Chinese of other companies or with whites. The company rooms were the head-quarters for the members, where they could get the latest news from China. Outgrowths of these companies, but independent of them, are the Highbinders’ societies. These are purely American institutions, like the Six Companies, without counterpart in the old country. They are many in number, and their strength, and the desperate character of their active members, and the swift vengeance which they have dealt out to offenders, have made them feared throughout the Pacific coast. Though known as Freemasons, the Highbinders are really banded together for black-mail and police purposes. If by any factor the confidence of a Highbinder is won, he will have no hesitation in acknowledging that he lives by black-mail. He regards his calling as perfectly legitimate, and in carrying out the orders of his society he would stop at no crime, for he looks on the murder of one who has violated the secrets of his society, or who has received its sentence, as a meritorious bit of work.
The mother society among the Highbinders is the Chee Kung Tong, which occupies a substantial three-story building on Spofford Alley, in the heart of the Chinese Quarter of San Francisco. The society owns the building and is regularly incorporated. Ascending a flight of stairs, one comes to the large assembly-hall, a room sixty by twenty-five feet, well furnished in Chinese style. Around the sides of the room are ranged heavy carved oak chairs, the wood of which looks like ebony in shadow, and in strong light shows the rich color of old rose-wood. In the centre of the room is a table, and at one side are arrangements for making tea. On the walls are hung Chinese paintings and mottoes from Confucius. Just at the head of the stair way is a long tablet of boxwood, on which are inscribed the names of the 1200 charter members of the society, with the amounts which they originally contributed. In the rear of the apartment is a small office which contains the usual couch, covered with clean matting and provided with an opium layout; on the walls are the names of the officers and of the police force for the half-year. Four "headmen" are elected semiannually, whose word is law, as well as thirty-three "hatchet-men," as the guard detailed to execute the decrees of the society is called. The Chee Kung is the most powerful of all the societies, and has 4500 members in San Francisco, and 15,000 in all the American colonies where Chinese have penetrated. Their rolls show that they have branches in 390 towns in the United States, Spanish American, and Cuba. A singular fact is that many members of the minor societies still belong to the Chee Kung.
The initiation for membership is very rigid, and has been witnessed by a few American detectives in whom the Chinese have learned to place confidence. The candidate kneels and, with a large Chinese sword placed across his throat, and the point of another pressed against the nape of his neck, joins in the chanting of an oath before the sacred symbols of the society—an oath which binds him to obey the society, to renounce all ties of kindred, and to swear to obey its commands without question at any time. Trials of accused persons are held at stated intervals, and the sentence is executed on the spot. The implement of punishment resembles a saw-horse—a log about six feet long, with four short legs. Over this the victim is bound, and the executioner, with a club which resembles a base-ball bat, gives the requisite number of blows on the back and legs. On the floor above where this torture is practiced is the joss of the society.
The influence of the head society is far-reaching, and it is doubtful whether its leaders would heed any order from a lesser source than the Chinese Consul. It is even said that the Consul’s order has sometimes been overruled, as there are men in the Chee Kung Tong who acknowledge no allegiance to China. The doctrine is that the society must be obeyed first. So when the Council of Judges decide that a Chinese has committed an act which merits death, the hatchet-men are instructed to kill him wherever found. If he escapes from San Francisco, there is small prospect of evading his pursuers, as his name and description are sent to all the 390 branch organizations throughout the country. It is dangerous for any Chinaman to harbor the fugitive or aid him in any way. He cannot return to China unless he is unusually clever in disguising himself, for the shipping ports are closely watched by the society’s agents. This sleepless espionage undermines the courage of the bravest man. It is through terror of this fearful menace that so many reputable Chinese become members of the society. Outside the Chee Kung they would be targets for black-mail; inside the circle, they are protected from all harm.
The lesser societies of Highbinders in San Francisco have from 200 to 600 members each. Their lodge-rooms are fitted up plainly, though each is a copy of the original so far as the joss is concerned.

Naturally these societies become nests of criminals. The hatchet-men are usually outlaws. Even the best of the Chinese have small regard for human life, as their laws tolerate the purchase of a substitute by a wealthy criminal condemned to execution, and the compromise of a murder by a money payment to the relatives of the victim. Trained in this way, the Highbinder is as reckless of human life as the slave-hunting Arab of the Soudan. There have been cases of murder in Chinatown, done for private revenge by hired Highbinders, for the small sum of twenty dollars, and the cheapness in which human life is held by these people is a constant marvel. The deadliness of the revenge of the Highbinder when he fancies he has been wronged is illustrated by an incident which occurred last year in San Francisco. A white saloon-keeper in the Chinese Quarter, named Dempsey, resented an insult offered to his partner’s wife by a Chinese Highbinder by throwing the offending cooly into the street. He was warned to be on his guard, as the man was a notorious desperado. Two days later Dempsey, in broad daylight, while drawing a glass of beer, was stabbed fatally by the Chinese; who coolly walked out of the saloon, and escaped. Though the police used every effort to force the society to give him up, the murderer still remains at large.

The Highbinder is almost entirely beyond the pale of American law. His secret hiding-places defy the ingenuity of the police; he holds an oath in court in contempt; he can get a score of witnesses in his society to swear to anything which he desires; he has been the chief cause of the difficulty in the enforcement of the Restriction Act in San Francisco. The great body of the Chinese in California are peaceful and law-abiding, but the few hundred active Highbinders form a powerful element of unrest, and are a constant menace to public safety.

Wong Ah Bang, now in San Quentin prison for a term of ten years for assault with intent to murder, was a Chinese Highbinder who took service as a cook in an American family. He no doubt counted on robbing the family when a convenient opportunity occurred, but in the mean time he was offered a good sum to kill a Chinese. He killed the man, and the circumstantial evidence was strong against him, but the family with which he worked testified that he could not have been absent on the night of the murder without their knowledge, and this alibi saved him. Subsequently he attempted another murder, and was caught, and convicted on January 20, 1883.

Chung Ah Kit is a professional kidnapper of women who was sent to San Quentin for five years, in 1882, for kidnapping a Chinese girl and holding her for a large ransom.

Lee Ah Fook is one of the ablest of the Highbinders. He belongs to the Suey Ong Tong, and acts as interpreter for his society in the courts. He was known to be accessory to a murder in 1880, but he escaped through perjured testimony. His most recent exploit was to secure the arrest of six Chinese women on the ground that they had been illegally landed. This was done in revenge for the failure of the owners of the women to pay him $40 a head as tribute-money. He speaks good English, and there is a world of intelligence in his one serviceable eye.
The weapons of the Highbinder are all brought from China, with the exception of the hatchet and the pistol. The illustrations shows a collection of Chinese knives and swords taken from criminals, and now in the possession of the San Francisco police. The murderous weapon is what is called the double sword. Two swords, each about two feet long, are worn in a single scabbard. A Chinese draws these, one in each hand, and chops his way through a crowd of enemies. Only one side is sharpened, but the blade, like that of all the Chinese knives, is ground to a razor edge. An effective weapon at close quarters is the two-edged knife, usually worn in a leather sheath. The handle is of brass, generally richly ornamented, while the blade is of the finest steel. Most of the assassinations in Chinatown have been committed with this weapon, one blow being sufficient to ensure a mortal wound. The cleaver used by the Highbinders is smaller and lighter than the ordinary butcher’s cleaver. The iron club, about a foot and a half long, is enclosed in a sheath, and worn at the side like a sword. Another weapon is a curious sword with a large guard for the hand. The hatchet is usually of American make, but ground as sharp as a razor.
The coat of mail shown is the sketch, which was taken from a Chinese Highbinder, is of cloth, heavily padded with layers of rice paper that make it proof against a bullet, or even a rifle ball. This garment is worn by the most desperate men when they undertake a peculiarly dangerous bit of assassination. More common than this is the leather wristlet. This comes halfway up to the elbow, and pieces of iron inserted in the leather serve to ward off even a heavy stroke of a sword or hatchet.
Harper’s Weekly, February 13, 1886, page 103 (Illustrated Article)

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