Introduction: Charlie Chin introduces us to Dr. Gong, a Chinese herbalist in New York Chinatown, with this tantalizing tale. Watch for more Dr. Gong stories in coming months.
The old Chinese woman was screaming hysterically and pointing back at the tenement building. The old woman didn’t speak English and Patrolman Gillesby could not understand her, but he guessed something bad must have just happened. He tried to calm the crying woman.
“Is something wrong? Is somebody hurt? “ The old woman motioned for him to come inside, Gillesby had no choice but to follow the crying woman up a flight of rickety stairs to the second floor apartment. Some of the other tenants were clustered in the hall around a door. Gillesby waved them back and then drew his service revolver. He entered slowly with his gun drawn. There was no one in the sitting room, but in the bedroom of the little apartment was a young oriental woman lying on the floor. Her eyes were frozen wide open with terror, but they were also dry and lifeless. A quick glance told two things, the purple bruises on her throat said she had been violently strangled, and where her right hand should have been, was a bloody stump. Gillesby holstered his gun, and then shooed back the curious people in the hallway who were trying to catch a glimpse of what had happen.
Remembering his duty, he pulled out a pencil stub, his logbook, and jotted down, “March 10, 1911, 10:30 am, Dead Oriental, female, 124 Mulberry Street, apartment 25. He went out to the curious tenants in the hall, using hand gestures and simple English, he warned the crowd.
“Nobody go in there. This place too much bad. Door keep closed. You sabe?” Some heads nodded, but others seemed confused. He then indicated the old woman should stay there. Walking briskly, he headed over to precinct station on Elisabeth Street. As he walked past the duty desk, he saw the new Sergeant, Sean Carter was coming down the stairs. Gillesby explained,
“Sargent, I got a dead Chink girl over on Mulberry Street. Some of the other tenants tried to tell me what happened but I don’t understand that Chink gibberish and they don’t speak English. What should I do?” Carter commented,
“I learned some of the language when I served in the army, but not enough to translate. He looked around the admitting room and front desk. With a loud voice he announced,
“We need a man who can translate. Can anybody here speak Chinese?” One of the other officers suggested,
“Nobody here can, but there’s a Chinese doctor over on 16 Mott whose English is really good. He talks like a White man. Get him to translate.”
“What’s his name?”
“They call him Doctor Gong. Better hurry. He’s always busy.” Sargent Carter pointed to a nearby patrolman.
“What’s your name?”
“Get over to 16 Mott and bring this man named Gong over to Mulberry Street.” The patrolman put on his hat and walked out the door. A minute later, Gillesby and Carter left together. Sargent Carter was anxious to get the feel of this new assignment right away. As they walked over to the crime scene, Gillesby was curious.
“Sargent Carter, they say you asked for this Chinatown assignment?” Carter answered in a brisk fashion,
“The captain thought it would be a good idea. When I served in the army, ten years ago, I was with the American Expedition Forces when we rescued the Westerners trapped at the Peking Forbidden City in 1900. “
“Is that where you picked up some of that China talk?
“A little, but to tell the truth, the lingo they speak here in Chinatown is like another language.” The two men reached the building and found a crowd outside. As they approached, their police uniforms caused members of the neighborhood crowd to slowly drift away.
Kam Wah Chung, Chinese herbalist, John Day, Oregon.
Three blocks away Patrolman Wheeler found Dr. Gong’s office on 16 Mott Street. He entered and without an introduction, Wheeler announced to the little round face man that he was to stop what he was doing and come with him. The little man smiled and softly explained in English,
“I’m just about finished with this patient. Please be so kind as to wait one minute and I’ll be right with you.” Wheeler took a long look at the patient whose hand was being bandaged. It was a young Chinese man without a queue dressed in western clothes. Wheeler sniffed,
“What wrong with him?” Gong gently swabbed the injury with a salve and answered,
“This man is Mr. Yee Toy, a highly respected man among our people. He says he burned his hand while cooking.” The two Chinese men gave each other a meaningful glance. Dr. Gong tied a linen bandage on the hand and sat back. Wheeler shrugged, half of these Chinamen worked in Chop Suey joints, so it made sense.
“Well finish up with him and come with me, Chop Chop.” The patient stood up and bowed to Dr. Gong and Wheeler and then left without saying a word. Dr. Gong put on a washed blue silk jacket and slung a medium size teak wood medicine chest with a leather strap over his shoulder. They walked over to Trinity Alley and the small crowd on Mulberry Street. Wheeler saluted Sargent Carter and then turned to introduce the man he had brought.
“Sargent Carter, this is Gong. He’s a sort of doctor for the Chinamen and speaks English very good.” The oriental man smiled at the patronizing tone of the introduction.
“Actually, I’m an herbalist.” He glanced at the man who introduced him and emphasize his next spoken words.
“And yes, I can speak English very well. I was born in Sacramento and raised in San Francisco, California. I am a citizen of this country. My office is around the corner on Mott Street. How may I be of service?” Carter recognized the importance of the man by his dress and manner. But something occurred to Carter.
“I thought Chinese were not allowed to become American citizens.” The man smiled again,
‘By the benefit of the fourteenth Amendment of the constitution, since I was born here, I am by American law, a citizen.”
“So, it was your father who came to the United States?”
“Yes, on the building of the Trans-continental Railroad. Upon its completion, he returned to his former occupation of merchant and herbalist, so in time he was allowed to bring a wife to join him. By family tradition, I am also an herbalist.”
Pell St., New York Chinatown, 1900s.
It occurred to Carter that a man who could translate Chinese to English would be invaluable. He tried to remember what he learned ten years before in Peking.
“Ni Hao Ma?, Shir Fu. Wor shao sing Carter.” The little man’s smile became wider, and he chuckled.
“So, you can speak the Mandarin Sir. That’s very good, but I’m afraid it won’t be of much help in this place. Most of the people here are Southern Chinese and speak a rough dialect of the farms and fields. Carter gestured towards the old woman.
“Perhaps you can tell me what she is saying.” She was brought over, and Doctor Gong went about the business of interviewing her. For a moment he stood back and pondered what he had heard. He then informed Sargent Carter.
“She was friendly with the victim but hadn’t seen the girl for two days. She heard nothing last night and today when she went in to check on the girl, she found her dead and lying on the floor. Sargent Carter, perhaps we should go upstairs and view the situation?” Carter stationed Gillespie at the front door and turned to go upstairs. The apartment door was still closed, nobody had been in there since Gillespie had left. They walked slowly into the perfumed rooms and found the body of the lifeless girl in the bedroom. Doctor Gong took in the whole room slowly and his eyes came to rest on an odd-looking musical instrument at the base of the bed. He nodded to himself and whispered some words.
“Kui hai pipa doy.” Carter turned and asked,
“What was that?”
“I said she was a Pi Pa Girl.”
“Pi Pa Girl?” Doctor Gong looked at the ceiling and searched for the right words.
“Sargent Carter, that instrument on the floor is a Pi Pa, a Chinese mandolin. Young women play it and sing.”
“So, she was a musician?” Doctor Gong looked amused.
“Perhaps little more than that. She was a woman who entertains men for money. You understand?” Carter understood. And judging by the nice furnishings in the apartment, she was an expensive one.
“Does the old woman have any idea who might have done this?”
“No, she said she heard nothing. Even if she did, she is frightened and won’t say.” Carter thought out loud,
“Maybe it was a rival Hooker.” Doctor Gong leaned over the prone figure on the floor, and without touching it, carefully inspected the body of the girl. He offered his opinion,
“I don’t think so. A rival Pi Pa girl would have cut her face to ruin her beauty so she could not work anymore. It doesn’t look like anything has been taken, and there is not much blood on the floor. Whoever killed her, cut off her hand after she was dead and took it away with them to show someone else. It would be proof that they had done the deed. This appears to be a revenge murder.”
“What did the girl do?” Dr. Gong slowly shook his head.
“It is most likely she didn’t do anything. She is young and pretty, and very valuable. If her owner was angry with her, he would just sell her to somebody else. Her murder must have been to punish another person.” Sargent Carter was already making notes. He glanced up at the Doctor.
“How do you figure?” Doctor Gong’s face became very serious. He took a breath and explained,
“Sargent Carter, if you really want to hurt somebody, you destroy something that they treasure. If you can find out who was her best customer was, then you’ll know who they were trying to punish.” With that statement Doctor Gong grabbed the leather strap of his herb chest and swung it over his shoulder and walked towards the door. Carter realized that this Dr. Gong was man he could not afford to insult.
“You have been a great help Doctor Gong, thank you.” The little man bowed politely and adjusted the strap of his medicine chest. As he went out the door, he quipped over his shoulder,
“I suspect you will have more evidence very shortly.” Carter looked up from his notes,
“How so?” Doctor Gong was already going down the stairs. His voice rang down the hall.
“The one they wanted to punish; I think he will act quickly to protect his reputation. I will be surprised if you don’t find a few more bodies.” Carter chewed on that thought and then wrapped up the scene, telling Gillispie to see if any there were any other witnesses and call the morgue.
Chinese herblists and pharmacy. Los Angeles Chinatown, circa 1900s. Photographer: C.C. Pierce
In the evening of that day a hobo most people called “Jersey Joe,” was looking for a place to sleep under the Manhattan Bridge. He hadn’t eaten all day. He was about to lay down when he stopped. Somebody had been cooking nearby. He knew that scent, it was roast pork. If he could find who it was, maybe he could bum a meal. But as he got further under the bridge, he saw that there was no hobo campfire, just the smoldering bodies of two Chinese men. Somebody had tied them up, filed their mouths with rags so their screams couldn’t be heard, and then poured kerosene over their clothes and set them on fire. It would have been a slow and painful death.
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).