East Wind ezine is pleased to present Charlie Chin’s latest stories. Charlie brings his signature humor, warmth and affection to three stories that span decades and diverse Asian American experiences. This is part one in that series. To learn more about Charlie Chin, see the interview we did with Charlie in January 2020: Charlie Chin, Troubadour.
Here are a few words about Men of Respect from Charlie: This is an excerpt of a much longer piece. Growing up in America back in the 1950’s I was fascinated by the western movies and their Anglo heroes and bad men like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. What I didn’t know was that there were Chinese gunslingers who were far more deadly yet unknown to the general public. Sing Dak and Yee Toy were two of them.
New York Chinatown circa 1899.
The month of April was unusually warm in 1898. Yee Toy took advantage of it. He had gotten into the habit of coming in to New York City on Mondays. It was his only day off from his Long Island job as a cook for the Kirkwood family. He would stop by a cousin’s store in Chinatown, pick up his mail, catch up on the latest gossip, and do a little window shopping in the narrow streets. He was inspecting a window display of shirt studs when something brought him out of his thoughts.
It was a hard object thrust into his lower back. He heard four or five metallic clicks. It didn’t occur to him that it was the trigger of a handgun. Without thinking Yee toy spun around and pinned the arms of the man behind him with a bear hug. In the struggle Yee Toy grabbed the gun out of the hands of would be attacker. The man was surprised when his weapon had not fired, and then when his gun was taken, he was frozen in confusion.
The youthful target was supposed to be an easy job. This Yee Toy was very slender of build and so fair of skin, that his school friends had nicknamed him, “Girl Face.” But this spindly youth had steel for a spine and anger doubled his strength. The first blow of Yee Toy’s fist knocked the attacker down. Enraged at the idea that somebody had tried to kill him, Yee Toy straddled the fallen man on the ground and began beating him about the head with the butt of the hand gun he had just taken.
The sound of a street policeman’s frantic whistle blowing brought Yee Toy out of his rage and caused him to look around. The small crowd that had gathered around Yee Toy and the prone gunman disappeared into the doorways and alleys as more police arrived. Both men were taken into custody and brought to the Elizabeth Street Police Station. The desk sergeant questioned both men. The attacker spoke no English and Yee Toy explained he had been attacked without warning. As a character reference, he gave the police sergeant his employer’s card. The sergeant noted that the boy was employed by a respectable family, and that the youth was of a clean and honest appearance. Upon questioning he heard a story of how Yee Toy had just come to town on his day off and was attacked for no reason. To check his story, another policeman took the gun into the back alley, there he fired the revolver twice into a pile of scrap wood. It worked perfectly. Since one of the two Chinese boys spoke no English, and the other seemed to be servant of white family and was not pressing charges, it was decided that the gun was to be kept in the police evidence locker, and the men were to be released.
As they were unceremoniously taken outside to the street, the other Chinese man hunched over in his cotton jacket, shot a tight-eyed glance at Yee Toy, and scurried off down the corner to Canal Street. Yee Toy was left standing alone on Elizabeth Street. With no other place to go, he walked back over to his cousin’s store on Mott Street. There several other members of the Yee clan had gathered. When they saw Yee Toy walk in, they all smiled and congratulated him on his good luck. Some of the older members even offered him a seat, even though he was still a youth. They made him tell the story of what happen over and over again as other Clan members came by to see the man who couldn’t be shot.
Doyers Street, New York Chinatown. Photo from City Museum of New York.
Two things came to Yee Toy as he repeatedly told the story. It had never occurred to him to be scared, and he very much liked the attention and respect that the incident brought to him. The story of the gun that didn’t fire was all around Chinatown by nightfall. His older cousin Ah Tien, who owned the grocery store, confided to Yee Toy that he didn’t know why but somebody must have put a price on Yee Toy’s head. Because of this, he could do one of two things, get out of New York City and not come back until things had quieted down or get a gun and learn how to use it.
Yee Toy was not interested in hiding out on Long Island for several months, and he saw how learning how to use a gun could bring him the respect he saw in the eyes of the others when the story was told of the gun that didn’t fire.
Getting a gun was no problem. They available legally at many stores, and if no questions were asked, they were always for sale on the street. But how to use it. Yee Toy asked around Chinatown and soon found out that the best shot and most feared “man of respect,” was Sing Dak.
Sing Dak was a short, dark, squat man, born in China and raised in Oakland, California. His chubby face hid his true nature. It was told that in a dispute over money owed to his dead father’s store, he had approached a man he knew in Oakland, Chinatown. The man had borrowed heavily and still had a sizeable debt outstanding to his father. The man was a well-known gambler and was insulted that he was being asked for the money he owed in front of his companions.
To keep from losing dignity he snarled, “Go away you city dog,” implying Sihg Dak didn’t know who his father was, and then he slapped Sing Dak in the face publicly. Sing Dak clenched his fists in response but said nothing. The gamblers laughed at him as he walked away. He didn’t walk very far, just over to gunsmith’s shop where he bought two Colt Single Action Army revolvers and a box of shells. He back to his room, filled an envelope with what little money his father had left, wrote a note to his mother that she should consider him dead from this time on, and mailed the money and note back to China.
Two days later, four Chinese men were found dead in a gambling house room. They were killed as they played cards. The shooting happened so quickly, the men still had their cards clutched in their hands. One of the men was the unlucky man who had slapped Sing Dak’s face in public. Nobody was sure who had shot them, but from then on, when Sing Dak walked into a store or meeting hall, other men grew quiet.
A few months later, Sing Dak was seen walking down Clay Street in San Francisco Chinatown. When a self-important merchant felt insulted because Sing Dak had not bowed and given him the kind of respect he thought he was due, the merchant motioned for his bodyguard to force Sing Dak to kneel on the sidewalk in difference. As the body guard approached Sing Dak, Sing Dak calmly drew a revolver from his waistband and shot the bodyguard in the face. The bits of brain and scalp from the explosion in the dead man head splattered on the fine silk robe of the merchant and left him stunned. Sing Dak turned on his heel and walked down Waverly Place.
Chinese merchant. San Francisco Chinatown. Photo by Arnold Genthe.
In a hurried meeting of the merchants association the next day, two of the best “Salaried Soldiers” were given the task of not only killing this upstart but also making it particularly gruesome. They accepted their assignment and promised to return in a day or two with one of Sing Dak’s fingers as proof of their work.
Instead, two days later a neatly sealed, large-mouth jar of rice whiskey was found on the doorstep of the association hall and marinating in it two severed trigger fingers of the “Soldiers” who were never to seen again.
Sing Dak’s reputation caused several associations to hire him as a “Salaried Soldier” when there were disputes. He was very good at what he did. For his part, Sing Dak realized that most of the “Soldiers” who were used in these disputes, had only been farmers back in China and often knew nothing about firearms. Their favorite weapon was the always handy Chinese kitchen cleaver. If they did use a gun, it was usually a rusty antique. They would squat down in the street, close their eyes, and keep blasting away in the direction of the target in hopes of hitting something. Sing Dak recognize that this was inefficient and a waste of bullets. He never fired his weapon unless he was sure of the target, and when he was sure of his target, he never missed.
In time, just the knowledge that Sing Dak had been hired by a clan was enough to bring about the decision to parley and come to a compromise. Within a few short years, Sing Dak worked himself out of a job. Maintaining the professional practice of not killing anybody who belonged to an association that he worked for, the available “jobs” became less and less, he decided to try his luck on the East Coast, in New York City’s Chinatown.
When he arrived, he discovered his reputation had preceded him. Even Chinese men in the outlying laundries in Brooklyn and the Bronx had heard of “The Hangman’s Noose.” A name he was given because it was said that whenever Sing Dak showed up, somebody died.
San Francisco Chinatown, 1900. Photo by Arnold Genthe.
He was hired by the Hip Sing Tong and given the job of silencing the actor and comedian, Ah Hoong. Ah Hoong had insulted the Hip Sing Tong but was protected by the On Leong Tong. He was difficult target because there was always On Leong “Soldiers” around him.
Sing Dak did nothing for several weeks. He wandered the back alleys and streets of Manhattan Chinatown to see where they led. A few times he even visited the theater where Ah Hoong performed and watched the show. The “Soldiers” at the door carefully checked audience members for weapons but Sing Dak often just had a bag of peanuts in his pocket that he would shell and snack on during the show.
What most people didn’t know was that he was also assembling a group of “Soldiers” at the same time. They met in a small room on Division Street. There Sing Dak would roll out a hand drawn map on the table and review as much of his plan as they needed to know for the moment. The theater was in Doyers alley, just where it had a little bend. At one end of the alley was Pell Street, on the other, The Bowery, and in the middle a covered arcade that led to Mott Street. Each man had to show how he entered and then how he planned to leave the little theater on Doyers Alley.
Sing Dak inspected the personal guns of his “Soldiers,” and drilled them on taking guns apart, cleaning the parts and barrel, and the re-assembling the weapon on the table. On Sundays, they took the ferry across New York City harbor to Staten Island. Once they were far away enough from houses and streets, he had them repeatedly load, aim, and fire at empty tin cans as targets. It was this constant drilling and practice that gave him his second nickname, “Scientific.”
One day Ah Hing, one of Sing Dak’s men informed him that a boy had answered the call for “Soldiers” and he had been the Yee Clan member that people said couldn’t be shot with gun. Sing Dak was interested in meeting him. The boy was brought up to the Division Street room for Sing Dak’s inspection. In the tenement room filled with cigarette smoke and a half dozen men playing card games, Sing Dak sat behind the wooden table laden with maps and guns. He motioned for Ah Hing to bring Yee Toy closer to the table. As Yee Toy step forward, Sing Dak abruptly stood up, gabbed one of the guns on the table, and cocking the hammer with his thumb, held it up to Yee Toys head. The other men in the room became silent and drew away from Yee Toy so as not to be wounded by mistake. Sing Dak intoned in a serious voice, “My people tell me you’re a spy for the On Leong Tong. So you understand I have to kill you.” The boy didn’t flinch. He slowly turned to face Sing Dak and commented with unblinking eyes, “I’m not a spy. But I understand if you have to do what you think is right.” Sing Dak pulled the trigger and hammer fell on an empty chamber. No shot was fired. The other men in the room exhaled as one and relaxed. A few chuckled.
Sing Dak asked, “How did you know that gun wasn’t loaded?”
With a tone of voice that implied he didn’t much care for this game, Yee Toy commented, “I didn’t.” Sing Dak thought,“ I could use a man like this.”
And so, in a dingy little room, on the second floor of Division Street, an unholy partnership started. In the end, over 50 souls were to be dispatched to another world by the duo that came to be known as “Scientific and the Girl Face Killer.”
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).