Although tongs were originally created for mutual support and protection, especially from other local ethnic groups hostile to the rapid rate of Chinese immigration, their activities often flouted the law or became outright criminal. Worldwide, Tongs are also known as hui, hongmen, and triads, and were all descended from the Tiandihui, a secret society established to overthrow the Qing dynasty in China in the 18th century.
The early days of New York's Chinatown were dominated by Chinese "Tongs" (now sometimes rendered neutrally as "associations"), and each of these associations was aligned with a street gang, such as the On Leong Tong which operated out of its territory in Mott Street. Established in November, 1893, this tong fought a violent and bloody war for control of Chinatown's rackets and businesses with the Hip Sing Tong. In recent years the On Leong Tong has been linked to the Ghost Shadows street gang led by Wing Yeung Chan. Currently, there are over 30,000 registered On Leong members, the majority of them with a commercial or industrial background.
The the 1930's and 40's, On Leong rivals, the Hip Sings were involved in drug and trafficking operations, forming alliances with tongs in Chinese American communities throughout the United States in major cities such as Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, which despite extensive attention and raids by the authorities, is still believed to be trading in narcotics.
The Ghost Shadows, prominent in NYC's Chinatown from the late 1980's, was believed to be under the control of the On Leong Tong, and was often engaged in bloody turf wars with other Chinatown gangs. Their activities include extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and gambling and had links with Italian-American Mafia families. The gang suffered some setbacks in 1995, when boss Wing Yeung Chan was indicted on murder and racketeering charges and secretly started 'spilling the beans.'
None of this need worry a visitor to this unique part of NYC, from taking in the vibrant street environment, buying some 'themed' memento's, or sampling the delicious and varied regional Chinese cuisine available in profusion. Just avoid remarking loudly that you can see many business opportunities in the area and wouldn't mind grabbing a chunk of the action or you could find yourself meeting up with the local tongs sooner than you think!