SHIRLEY SUI LING TAM
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in
1925: A Case Study of a Racist Measure
and the Chinese Response
On September 22, 1925, a Chinese waiter named Yee Chock was found
dead with his head chopped off in the Chinatown section of Cleveland,
Ohio. Identifying such a hatchet murder as being connected with rivalry
among tongs (a kind of Chinese association in America), the Safety Director
of Cleveland, Edwin D. Barry, ordered a wholesale arrest of all the Chinese
in Cleveland the next day. Shops and homes in the Chinatown were broken
into without warrants by policemen. On September 23 and 24 sanitary and
fire wardens checked the Cleveland Chinatown, and on September 24 the
Immigration Department sorted out Chinese with illegal residential status
While the Police and Immigration Department of Cleveland tried to
associate nearly every Chinese with the murder and regarded the roundup as
an opportunity to clean up the vice district in the Chinatown, the local
Clevelanders did not respond in a similar manner. They disapproved of the
extralegal roundup and expressed much sympathy and support for the
victims. The Chinese in Cleveland, unlike the submissive stereotype imposed
upon them, sought compensation or redress through legal channels and held
mass meetings to air their grievances.
The response of both the Americans and Chinese in Cleveland presents a
different picture from that generally described in the studies about the
Chinese in America.1 Present studies on the development of Chinese-
American society between the 1840s and 1940s are basically divided into
two parts. One school of thought believes that Chinese Americans
encountered difficulties because the Chinese were bound by their own
traditions and were not willing to adopt American ways of life, and their
behavior was determined by the ethnic institutions that perpetuate Chinese
Shirley Sui Ling Tam, Ph.D., is an editor of Chinese Christians for Justice Periodical which
covers social issues both in America and abroad.
1. See Shirley Sui Ling Tam's earlier "Police Round-Up of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925:
A Case Study in a Racist Measure and the Chinese Response" (M.A. thesis, Case Western
Reserve University, 1988.)
6 OHIO HISTORY
culture.2 The other school maintains that the American environment, which
included racism and violence, curtailed the normal development of Chinese
society in America.3 Both schools tend to regard either the Chinese
tradition or the American environment as a constant in influencing Chinese-
American society from the 1840s to the 1940s. However, they tend to
overlook the fact that as time passed, both the Chinese and Americans would
develop different modes of behavior and perceptions. Furthermore, the two
schools tend to generalize about the Chinese experience in America, when
more specific regional studies about particular periods and events are
necessary. This paper attempts to correct the shortcomings of these two
schools by focusing on the results of a racist measure on Chinese Americans
in a large Midwestern city in the year 1925.
This paper also demonstrates how detrimental it is to a minority when the
formulation of public policy becomes based on negative and unfounded
images. The wholesale roundups in the Chinatowns in the East and
Midwestern cities in the mid-1920s provide a clear example of how
government officials used the commitment of a single crime as the occasion
for a thorough-going effort to "clean up" their Chinese districts. The raids,
which influenced the indiscriminate arrest of all Chinese, the checking of all
the residents' legal status, and a thorough search of Chinatowns'
commercial and residential buildings, reflected the prevalent impression
that the Chinese were unreliable persons, illegal settlers, and unhygienic
inhabitants.4 The Chinese were particularly hard hit because they were
denied naturalization rights, putting them in an extremely defenseless
situation. To have second generation native-born Chinese was nearly
impossible because of miscegenation laws and the barring of entry to
women. However, the findings as well as the reaction of the Chinese
community after the Cleveland raid showed that the Chinese were not as
pictured by contemporary literature, illustrating the gap between image and
reality as well as the danger of popular belief if translated into public policy.
2. See Gunther B. Barth, Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the U.S., 1850-1870
(Cambridge, Mass., 1964); Stanford M. Lyman, Chinatown and Little Tokyo: Power Conflict
and Community Among Chinese and Japanese Immigrants in America (New York, 1980);
Lyman, Chinese Americans (New York, 1974); Chu Chai, "Administration of Law Among the
Chinese in Chicago," Journal of Criminal Law, 22 (March, 1932), 806-18; Paul C.P. Sui, The
Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation (New York & London, 1987); Rose Hum
Lee, The Chinese in the United States of America (Hong Kong, 1960).
3. Mary R. Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York, 1969); Ching Chiao Wu.
"Chinatowns: A Study of Symbiosis and Assimilation" (Ph.D. dissertation., University of
Chicago, 1928): Roger Daniels, Asian Americans: Chinese and Japanese in the United States
since 1850 (Seattle and London, 1988); Dennis Katsushi Fukumoto, "Chinese and Japanese in
California, 19001920: A Case Study of the Impact of Discrimination" (Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Southern California, 1976).
4. Richard H. Dillon, The Hatchet Man (New York, 1962), 212.
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 7
From California to Cleveland: Chinese-American
History to the 1920s
The 1920s were a watershed in American immigration history. Anti-
foreign sentiment was at a peak, with foreign-born residents regarded as
unwelcome elements of society. America for the first time imposed a quota
on the number of European immigrants. But the situation was even worse
for Asians; they were virtually barred from entering America. The Asian
target in this period was essentially the Japanese, who had come to fill the
labor vacuum after the Chinese were excluded from entering America as
early as 1882. Nevertheless, the Chinese were not spared. Not only were
they the first racial group not permitted to enter America, those Chinese
already here were also victims of extreme nativist sentiment in America.
It is difficult to understand the Chinese in America in the 1920s without
tracing their history here. Formal records of Chinese arrivals begin in
1820.5 A considerable number of Chinese started to come to America in
response to the Gold Rush in California. As more Chinese settled in
America, they grouped together within the cities and formed what later were
called Chinatowns. The Chinese were initially accepted by the local people,
but the situation was very quickly reversed when they began competing
with Californians for jobs. Starting in 1850, California's government
imposed various types of taxes on the Chinese and subjected them to
discriminatory legislation. They were denied rights of naturalization, of
suffrage, and of giving evidence against whites in court, and were excluded
from public schools.6 When they sought jobs in the other fields, they found
the way blocked by various regulations. In 1863 the Chinese were able to
join a work force without opposition by the local people-the construction
of the Central Pacific Railway. After many Caucasians quit due to the
danger involved, these Asians showed outstanding ability and courage in
completing such a hazardous task, performing beyond the expectation of the
owners of the Railway.7 Upon completion of the railroad in 1869, a large
Chinese labor force remained in the market. Some were employed in other
sections of railways, while others moved on to work in mines or factories or
on farms. Their presence in the West became unbearable when the 1872
panic struck America. Unemployed Westerners in many cases regarded the
Chinese as taking their jobs, although not many jobs held by Chinese had
ever attracted Caucasians.
5. William L. Tung, The Chinese in America 1820-1973: A Chronology and Fact Book
(New York, 1974), 7.
6. Coolidge, Chinese Immigration, 80.
7. Stan Steiner, Fusang: The Chinese Who Built America (New York, 1979), 130.
8 OHIO HISTORY
From the 1870s onwards, anti-Chinese Westerners began to press for
exclusionary immigration policies against the Chinese. Politicians,
counting votes, yielded to Sinophobia during state and national elections.
Eventually the 1882 Exclusion Act was passed. From then onwards,
Chinese, except for a few "respectable" exempted classes such as officials,
teachers, students, and merchants, were suspended from entry for ten years.
The same act also denied those Chinese already in America naturalization
rights. The 1882 Exclusion Act was renewed in 1892 and again in 1902, and
finally in 1904 all exclusions and restrictions concerning Chinese were made
permanent. With anti-Chinese sentiment sanctioned by federal authority,
Westerners' hostility reached a boiling point. Already in 1875, violent anti-
Chinese mobs spread from California to other states along the Pacific. Such
violence eventually persuaded many Chinese to escape by moving to the East.
Up to 1920, the American government's immigration policy was mainly
aimed at restricting the entry of Asians. No restriction was specifically
imposed on Europeans. In 1882 and 1885, acts applying to all immigrants
were passed forbidding entry of undesirable elements like prostitutes,
convicts, criminals, lunatics and contract labor. But in the 1920s,
restrictions were applied not just to Asians, but also to Europeans. In 1921,
a Quota Act was put into effect so that the immigration of any nationality
was limited to 3 percent of those residing in the United States according to
the 1910 census of the foreign-born population. In 1924, the annual quota
from any one nation was reduced to 2 percent, and the basis was changed to
that of the 1890 census. The shift of the basis from the 1910 census to the
1890 census was a deliberate attempt to restrict the entry of the Southern
Europeans since their population in America had not taken substantial
shape in the late nineteenth century. At the same time, a special provision
of the Act was added so that all Asian peoples were barred from entry. Even
wives of American citizens were refused admission. Although the Chinese
had been excluded from immigration permanently in 1904, this new act still
affected the Chinese in America because wives of Chinese citizens had not
been excluded before.
American anti-foreign nationalists in the 1920s believed that the great
source of evil lay outside of their own society.8 Besides setting restrictions
on immigration, they aimed at combating crimes which they believed were
associated with foreign residents in America. In this period, Chinese tong
wars broke out in the Midwest and the East Coast. In response, American
city police and federal immigration officers initiated the massive arrest of
Chinese in the Chinatowns.9
8. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Pattern of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New
York, 1975), chapters 10 and 11.
9. "In Chinatown and in China," The Nation, 121 (October 14, 1925), 398.
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 9
Tong Wars in the 1920s
What are "tong wars"? A tong is a kind of Chinese ethnic association.
Like other immigrants, the Chinese established their own associations to
help them adjust to their new environment. Because of regional differences
in local dialects and customs among Chinese in China, the newly arrived
immigrants in California tended to form district associations of their own.
Gradually several district associations joined together, forming the Chinese
Six Companies (representing the six districts in the Guangdong Province of
Southern China from which most Chinese immigrants came) in the 1850s;
after the 1880s this organization became known as the Chinese Consolidated
Benevolent Association. Settlers with the same last name who thus shared
the same ancestors also formed clan (or lineage) associations. The Chinese
Six Companies or Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA),
with most Chinese as members, emerged as the leading Chinese association.
Such associations first appeared in San Francisco, and later were established
in other cities as the Chinese moved to different parts of America.
The "tongs" were formed on a different basis. Chinese joined the tongs
for mutual help and protection against the domination of large clans or
district associations. Chinese dissatisfied with their own associations or not
belonging to any dominant group found the tongs, which were based on
fraternity rather than geographic or family origins, to have great appeal.
The first tong developed in California around 1852-54.10 The tongs were
most active between the enactment of the first Exclusion Act in 1882 and
the last Exclusion Act in 1924.11 After the 1880s, tongs became involved in
smuggling Chinese into America because very few Chinese could make
legal entry under the exclusion laws. The tongs, offering protection to these
illegal immigrants, were able to command loyalty from them. On the other
hand, the CCBA was unable to fight the legislation. In 1892 yet another act,
the Geary Act, named after Thomas J. Geary who was a Democratic
Congressman from California, was passed with new anti-Chinese regulations
including the requirement that every Chinese had to apply for a certificate of
residence within one year; Chinese without certificates were liable to depor-
tation. The CCBA, in protest against the new immigration law, advised the
Chinese not to register as residents; but the Supreme Court declared the Geary
Act constitutional, putting many Chinese following CCBA advice in danger
of being deported. Although the American government extended the grace
period to half a year longer for registration, the CCBA had lost face and the
10. Charles C. Dobie, San Francisco's Chinatown (New York, 1936), 139; William Hoy,
The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco, 1942), 8; Dillion, The Hatchet Man, 185.
11. Lee, The Chinese in the United States of America, 162.
10 OHIO HISTORY
tongs immediately seized the opportunity to assume a leading role in the
Chinese communities. Because of residential and occupational segregation,
Chinese had to compete for limited resources within the confines of
Chinatowns. Competition among tongs always led to rivalries, which became
"tong wars" as described in the American press, spreading from one
Chinatown to the other. Through the efforts of Chinese merchants, the police
and church in America, as well as the Peace Society formed by conscientious
Chinese in 1913, the tong wars gradually came to an end. The last tong wars
occurred in Santa Barbara in 1926 and in Boston in 1933.12
In 1924-1925, serious rivalries broke out between On Leong Tong and
Hip Sing Tong; the On Leong was an East Coast tong while the Hip Sing
commanded national membership.13 The Chinese "On Leong Tong" means
"Chamber of Tranquil Conscientiousness," and "Hip Sing Tong" means
"Hall of Victorious Union."14 The origins of this tong war centered around
a man called Chin Jack Lem. He was the national president of On Leong
Tong, but was expelled for mishandling funds at a national convention of
the tong held in Boston in 1923. Yee Hee Kee, president of the Cleveland
On Leong Tong, and nine other members were also discharged. At first
Chin Jack Lem formed a tong of his own, but later Chin and other expelled
members joined the Hip Sing Tong. But Hip Sing's acceptance of Chin was
a violation of the previous agreement between Hip Sing and On Leong that
neither party would accept the other's expelled members.15
Chin Jack Lem eventually went to Cleveland. In June, 1924, he extorted
property from the On Leong Treasurer, named Wong Sing, in Cleveland by
threatening to shoot him. Chin gained the title to a tract of land in Ohio, an
On Leong property worth at least $70,000, then tried to transfer the money
to Hip Sing. Eventually he was sentenced to imprisonment for extortion,
but only after he started the tong war which lasted from 1924 to 1925.16
The Murder and the Raid in Cleveland
Historically, Cleveland was rarely the scene of tong wars. The first tong
conflict in Cleveland occurred in 1911 after a Hip Sing shot an On Leong.17
12. H.M. Lai and P.P. Choy, Outlines: History of the Chinese in America (San Francisco,
1973), 125; Peichi Liu, A History of the Chinese in the United States of America, II (Taipei,
1981), 660, 645-46.
13. Lee, Chinese in the United States,163.
14. Dobie, San Francisco's Chinatown, 155.
15. Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 23, 1924, February 10, 1925; "Chinese War Here,"
Literary Digest, 83 (December 13, 1924), 13; New York Times, October 20, 1924.
16. Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 19, 1925; "In Chinatown and in China," The Nation,
121 (October 14, 1925), 398; New York Times, August 25, 1925.
17. Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 1, 1912.
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 11
After this incident, no more tong assassinations were recorded until 1924
when the deposed president of On Leong, Yee Hee Kee, was shot nearly to
death.18 Actually Cleveland had only a relatively small Chinese population.
According to the U.S. Census, in which Chinese and Japanese were recorded
collectively, only twenty-three Chinese and Japanese lived in Cleveland in
1880. Thirty-eight were reported in Cleveland in 1890 who had been born
in China while there were 103, 228, and 275 Chinese recorded in 1900,
1910, and 1920, respectively. But by 1925 the number had increased to
700.19 Cleveland's Chinatown did not have as many Chinese district or clan
associations as New York or San Francisco. Up to 1925, the On Leong and
Hip Sing Tongs were the only prominent associations among Cleveland
Chinese. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association had not yet
been established in Cleveland in the 1920s.20
Following the attempted assassination of Yee Hee Kee in 1924, another
Chinese, Yee Chock, was attacked the next year. But, less fortunate than Yee
Hee Kee, he died. Yee Chock, a waiter, was found dead with his head nearly
chopped off at 1283 Ontario Street on the evening of September 22, 1925.21
The On Leong declared that Yee Chock was an On Leong and was killed by
Hip Sing, whereas the Hip Sing proclaimed that the On Leongs had killed him
because he was about to desert to Hip Sing.22 Mark Ham (also named Mock
Hem), an On Leong, was the only witness of the murder. Like his On Leong
fellow members, he claimed that three Hip Sings who were former On Leongs
were the guilty parties, but later he changed his statement by saying that the
three murderers were not Hip Sings but other people. He said that he had
served as 'lookout' for the murderers and made false testimony against Hip
Sings so as to get a job in the gambling house of the On Leong Tong. But then
later, he again repudiated his statement and testified that the Hip Sings were
indeed the murderers. The truth was never revealed because Mark Ham
committed suicide in jail before the trial had reached its final state.23
No matter who the murderers were, the Chinese population in Cleveland
paid a great price. In this period when much urban crime was attributed to the
18. Ibid., August 27, 1924.
19. U.S. Census, 1890, Population, Part I, 673; Ibid., 1920, Volume II, Population, 76.
About 700 Chinese were arrested by the Safety Director of Cleveland on September 23, 1925.
He ordered the police to arrest all Chinese in Cleveland.
20. Wah Hing Fong, ex-chairman and adviser of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent
Association (CCBA), Cleveland, interviewed in Cleveland, Ohio, by the author, February 20,
21. Cleveland, Ohio, Coroner's Office, Casualty Report of Yee Chock, file no. 31587;
Cleveland News, September 23, 1925.
22. Cleveland News, September 23, 1925.
23. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 30, 1925, December 2 and 3, 1925; Cleveland
Press, September 29, 1925, December 2, 1925; Cleveland News, December 2, 1925; Cleveland,
Ohio, Coroner's Office, Casualty Report of Mark Ham, file no. 31935.
12 OHIO HISTORY
foreign-born, all Chinese were held responsible for any crime committed by
their fellow countrymen. As early as in the 1880s San Francisco had initiated
a standard policy in dealing with tong murders-the police would indiscrim-
inately arrest Chinese in the Chinatown; city officials would check the health
and fire safety standards of Chinese quarters; and federal officials would
investigate the residential status of Chinese. The Midwest and the East Coast
followed suit although at a much later date, around the 1920s.24 The reason
for such a gap was probably due to the fact that tong wars in the East started
during the 1900s, while those in the West appeared as early as the 1850s.25
Police forces in the Midwest and the East launched wholesale massive arrests
which were denounced as an "epidemic of lawlessness" in The Nation,
because in the course of the arrests the police did not present warrants.26 In
New York City, 600 Chinese were arrested without warrants on September
14-15, 1925, and 500 were caught four days later; in both cases the police
arrested indiscriminately without warrants.27 The Boston police arrest of
ninety-one Chinese on August 29 of the same year was another example.28
The raid in Cleveland took a similar pattern. The day after the murder,
the Safety Director of Cleveland, Edwin D. Barry, ordered the arrest of all
Chinese in the city.29 About 700 Chinese, including women, children, as
well as university students, were arrested by the Cleveland police.30 In
Cleveland, as elsewhere, the police did not present warrants when they
broke into shops and homes in the Chinatown. Policemen were stationed in
the Chinatown and closed the shops.31 Those Chinese arrested were jailed,
24. Dillon, The Hatchet Man, 218; Tung, Chinese in America, 23. An exception was the
Boston raid in 1903, in which police arrested 234 Chinese to check their resident status. For
a case study of the 1903 Boston raid, see K. Scott Wong," 'The Eagle Seeks a Helpless
Quarry': Chinatown, the Police and the Press, the 1903 Boston Chinatown Raid Revisited."
Amerasia Journal, 22 (1996), 81-103. In 1902, the Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed for
the third time and there was great demand for permanent restriction of Chinese immigration
25. Dobie, San Francisco's Chinatown,139; Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 22, 1934;
New York Times, October 19, 1924.
26. "In Chinatown and in China," The Nation, 121 (October 14, 1925), 398.
27. Ibid., New York Times, September 15 , 16, 19 and 20, 1925.
28. "To Kick Out the Tong Murderers," Literary Digest, 87 (October 3, 1925), 14; "In
Chinatown and in China," The Nation, 121 (October 14, 1925), 398; New York Times, August
29. William Rowland Hopkins papers, 1849-1931, Safety Department Correspondence,
1924-1925, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, Mss 3774.
30. Cleveland News, September 23, 1925, There was some confusion over the number of
Chinese arrested. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported 612 (September 26, 1925), the
Cleveland Press recorded 800 (September 23, 1925), and the Safety Director of Cleveland
estimated the number to be 750. See the minutes of the Foreign Trade Committee of the
Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, pp.10 and 20, The Case Western Reserve Historical Society,
Cleveland, Ohio, Mss 3471.
31. Russell T. Herrick, "The Police Run Wild in Cleveland," The Nation, 121 (October 14,
1925), 401. Actually two more reporters had submitted articles to The Nation criticizing the
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 13
fingerprinted and photographed in the Central Police Station, after which
U.S. Immigration officials investigated their residential status. Despite the
expected big harvest, only thirteen out of all those arrested were discovered
to be illegal immigrants. Sanitary and fire wardens checked the Cleveland
Chinatown on September 23 and 24, resulting in nine buildings being
condemned as not hygienic and below fire safety standards.32
The city officials who conducted the raid, Safety Director Edwin D. Barry
who ordered the arrests and City Manager William R. Hopkins who backed
up Barry's roundup, defended their actions both publicly and privately. Their
arguments reflected the prevalent anti-foreign sentiment as well as the popular
stereotype about Chinese residents in America. They clearly thought that the
tongs were Chinese associations that engaged in criminal activities, that most
Chinese were tong members, and that the tongs tried to control law-abiding
Chinese.33 The city checking of hygienic and fire safety standards in
Chinese quarters reinforced the picture of a dirty and overcrowded
Chinatown. Federal examination of residential status also coincided with
the popular notion that substantial amounts of Chinese entered the country
illegally despite the permanent exclusion immigration policy.
Image and Reality
The belief that tong crime was tightly associated with all Chinese and
that all Chinese were controlled by tongs was proved to be wrong by the
Chinese community in Cleveland. After being released, about 150 Chinese
held a mass meeting on September 28, 1925, five days after the raid in
Chinatown. The meeting was presided over by a Chinese merchant not
claiming any Chinese association or tong relationship.34 The merchant, H.
Kingsey Wong, proprietor of the Golden Pheasant Restaurant, issued a
statement defending those Chinese merchants who had no connection with
the tongs but were nevertheless arrested.35 Although Barry did not
wholesale arrest of the Chinese in Cleveland, but The Nation managed to publish only one. "In
Chinatown and in China," The Nation, 121 (October 14, 1925), 398. Cleveland News and
Cleveland Press, September 23, 1925.
32. Cleveland Press, September 23 and 24, 1925; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 24,
25 and 26, 1925; Herrick, "Police Run Wild," 401. The nine buildings were at 1273, 1277,
1279, 1291, 1295, 1297, 1301, 1305 and 1307 Ontario Street. See figure 1 for the approximate
location of Chinatown in Cleveland in 1925.
33. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25 and 26, 1925; Greater Cleveland Growth
Association, Minutes of the Foreign Trade Committee, September 28, 1925, pp. 4-6, and 10,
the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, Mss 3471. The Committee reassured
Edwin D. Barry, the Safety Director of Cleveland, that there was no reporter in the committee
meeting, and he was encouraged to air his opinion on the roundup.
34. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 29, 1925.
35. Cleveland News, September 29, 1925; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 26, 1925.
14 OHIO HISTORY
apologize for the indiscriminate arrest of all Chinese, he later admitted that
students, women, and children who were not tongs were imprisoned as well
during the raid.36 He simply placed the blame on policemen despite his
order to the Chief of Police Jacob Graul that he was to bring in "every
Chinaman in the City of Cleveland...."37 Nevertheless, the 150 Chinese
attending the mass meeting publicly denied any connection with the tongs.
Associating tong affairs with the whole Chinese population simply failed to
apply to the Cleveland Chinese community.
Due to residential segregation and the threat of mob violence if they
chose to live apart from their countrymen, most Chinese had to stay within
the boundaries of Chinatown. Although most Americans had never been to
Chinatown, even those who had dined or dared to venture into this
mysterious Oriental settlement never knew what the community life was
actually like. Tours into the Chinatown, especially in the West, were mostly
designed to attract curious Americans.38
Nevertheless, the mass media of the 1920s shaped the image of
Chinatown as unhygienic, crowded, and worst of all, seedbeds for crime.39
Dark rooms with no windows and secret winding underpassages suggested
all kinds of criminal activities. The complex tunnels underground and the
peculiar warning signals upon the arrival of strangers, said the media, were
the safest bulwark against any police intrusion. Opium and gambling dens
as well as prostitute hostels could be found behind these intertwining dark
passages. However, Cleveland city officials who investigated the sanitary
and fire safety standards of Chinatown found this untrue. For example, The
Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote:
There was no romance or mystery left when Barry and his men had completed their
explorations. There were not even any of the secret tunnels and hiding places
commonly attributed to the district. There was nothing but squalor and inconceivable
36. Greater Cleveland Growth Association, Minutes of the Foreign Trade Committee, 28
September 1925, pp. 3, 10, the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, Mss 3471.
37. William Rowland Hopkins' Paper, 1849-1931, Safety Department Correspondence,
1924-25, Edwin D. Barry's (Safety Director) order to Jacob Graul (Chief of Police), the
Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, italics by author.
38. For example, "Spectator," Outlook, 65 (August 11, 1900), 859-60: John S. Lopez,
"China for the 'Country Trade,' Harper's Weekly, 53 (March 13, 1909), 12-3; Herbert
Asbury, "Doyers Street," American Mercury, 8 (June, 1926) 228-36.
39. For instance, Frank Marshall White, "The Last Days of Chinatown," Harper's Weekly,
51 (August 17, 1907) 1208-09; Chester H. Rowell, "Chinese and Japanese Immigration-a
Comparison," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 34
(September, 1909) 223-30; Oscar Lewis, "A Transplanted Section of the Orient," Overland
Monthly, 70 (July, 1917), 24-27; Nora Sterry, "Housing Conditions in Chinatown L.A.,"
Journal of Applied Sociology, 7 (November-December, 1922), 70-75.
40. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 24, 1925.
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 15
16 OHIO HISTORY
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 17
Indeed nine buildings were condemned, but there were no official
statements or press reports of any extraordinary features as described in the
sensational tales about Chinese residence in America. The Chinese were
allowed to regain their rights of residency, and they renovated those
buildings that needed it.41
Response of Chinese in Cleveland
The manner in which the Cleveland Chinese reacted to the massive
arrests helped rectify the popular image of Chinese as being unassimilable
and victims of Chinese ethnic institutions.42 Nevertheless, Chinese in
America were regarded as passive to offenses and submissive to their
traditional organizations. They could only solve conflicts, it was said,
through the arbitration of their countrymen without resort to any American
legal means. The Chinese in Cleveland, however, attempted to deal with the
situation on their own initiative, without relying on the ethnic associations
either in Cleveland or in the other cities with a greater Chinese population.
Moreover, they sought redress for their grievances through the American
legal system, filing cases as individuals or under business titles. The
Cleveland Chinese further proved their independence from any Chinese
associations by forming an association of their own.
It was surprising to many that the Chinese in Cleveland had not even
approached the Cleveland Chinese associations in combating the racist
policy. Perhaps it was because the Chinese community in Cleveland was
relatively small and new, and that ethnic institutions had not yet been firmly
established. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, only 275 Chinese lived in
Cleveland; by 1925, the number increased to 700. Thus compared with the
Chinese population in the other American cities, Cleveland's Chinatown was
small. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association did not develop its
chapter in Cleveland in the 1920s, and district and clan associations were not
sufficiently community-wide. Two tongs, the On Leong Tong and the Hip
Sing Tong, were the main Chinese associations in Cleveland.
But historical circumstances made the local Chinese unwilling to rely on
the two tongs. First of all, although there were actually no tong wars in the
whole of Ohio between 1913 and 1924, it was the bloody rivalry between
the two tongs that led to the massive arrest of nearly all Chinese in
Cleveland in 1925. Thus it was understandable that the local Chinese were
reluctant to rely on tongs for redress. Moreover, after the massive arrest of
the Cleveland Chinese, the two tongs, instead of protesting on behalf of
41. Ibid., October 16, 1925; December 18, 1925.
42. Barth, Bitter Strength; Lyman, Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
18 OHIO HISTORY
their fellow countrymen, concentrated on defending themselves by assisting
the police who investigated the murder.43 This further served to alienate the
local Chinese from the tongs. Additionally, although after the raid both the
representatives of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association,
located in New York, and the Chinese Legation in Washington, D.C., came
to Cleveland, there is no evidence that the local Chinese had asked them for
But the Cleveland Chinese were not passive in combating the massive
arrests. Instead of relying on ethnic organizations from within and without,
the local Chinese took a series of actions on their own. When arrested on
September 23, 1925, some of the Chinese quickly sought a writ of habeas
corpus, despite Barry's insistence that all Chinese should stay in jail until
the murderer was found. Consequently, forty-four Chinese that night and
forty-six the next day were freed on writs of habeas corpus. On September
25, 112 habeas corpus actions were filed in common pleas courts; on
September 26, however, over 100 habeas corpus actions heard in common
pleas court were dismissed when it was established that most Chinese had
already been released.45
The merchants also took immediate action two days after the raid.
Although Chinese shops, restaurants and laundries could be reopened, freed
Chinese could not return to the buildings that were condemned. These
buildings were roped off by police, forcing Chinese residents to stay
elsewhere.46 The merchants did not hesitate to request injunctions to
restrain the city government from refusing admittance to their quarters.
Moreover, they did not act under the name of any Chinese association in
Cleveland's Chinatown. They filed the cases as individuals or as groups of
individuals. Of ten injunctions filed, five were by individuals and five were
43. Cleveland Press, September 23, 1925; Cleveland News, September 28, 1925.
44. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 28, 1925, Lee Kee, president of
the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) of New York, declared that his
objective in coming to Cleveland was to prevent further tong conflicts after the murder of Yee
Chock. He did not mention that he came at the request of the local Chinese. According to the
Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1925, it was an American, Walter E. Pagan, who
protested to the Chinese legation in Washington, D.C. The Secretary of the Chinese legation,
Dr. Clarence Kuangson Young, did not mention that he was invited by Cleveland Chinese.
45. Cleveland News, September 25, 1925; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 24-27, 1925:
Safety Director Barry maintained that the Chinese in Cleveland knew who committed the
murder and they must stay in jail until the "slayers" were traced. Cleveland Plain Dealer,
September 24, 1925.
46. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1925.
47. The injunctions sought by the Chinese merchants in Cleveland are found in the Court
House. They did not file their cases under any tongs or other Chinese organizations; rather,
they filed as individuals or groups of individuals. Court House, Cleveland, Ohio, (Microfilm
Department): Chan Fat (File no. 248605; F.D. Wong (File no. 248603); Gar Young (File no.
248601): Kung Chong Co. (File no. 248620); Louis W. Chin, Louis Doon and K.H. Louis,
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 19
As mentioned earlier, about 150 Chinese held a mass meeting upon their
release five days after the raid in Chinatown, and it was presided over by an
individual Chinese merchant not claiming any association membership. A
Chinese physician at Lakeside Hospital drew up a resolution for them which
demanded: first, that Safety Director Barry be dismissed; second, that City
Manager Hopkins apologize; third, that all fingerprints and photographs
taken during the roundup be destroyed; and fourth, that Chinese merchants
who had been forced to close their businesses be compensated for their
losses.48 At the same time, they also formed an association of their own,
called the Chinese Residents' Association.49 One week after the mass
meeting, the Association went one step further when it circulated a letter to
all the Chinese in Cleveland, asking them to report the amount of money,
property or business lost that their arrest and detention had cost them, and
hinting at the possibility of taking legal action.50
The reluctance of local Chinese to submit themselves to the two tongs in
Cleveland broke the long-established myth that the tongs had strong control
of Chinese in Chinatown. The Chinese in Cleveland also demonstrated that
they were ready to utilize the American legal framework, dispelling the
general impression that the Chinese could only settle disputes in a
traditional and passive way with no trace of being assimilated.
Response of Americans in Cleveland
While the police roundup of the Chinese community reflected how the
negative image of Chinese affected public policy, the Chinese actions after
the raid cast doubts on generally accepted myths about traditional Chinese
traits. How strong the popular stereotype of the Chinese was in the minds
of the local Clevelanders could be seen in their response to this racist
measure. But contrary to the hostile attitude of these city officials, many
Cleveland citizens and professional organizations supported the Chinese.
The Cleveland Bar Association appointed a committee to investigate the
legal and constitutional aspects of the arrests. The committee passed a
resolution which declared that the arrests and the taking of photographs and
fingerprints of Chinese without search warrants were violations of
fundamental American principles of law. The resolution called for the
destruction of the arrest records of those found innocent and an official
doing business as the Sam Wah Yick Kee Co. (File no. 248598); Sam Wah Co. (File no.
248606); Wing Wah Chong Co. (File no. 248604): Wong Yee Lai (File no. 248602); Wong Sing
(File no. 248579); Yee Hing Co. (File no. 248607).
48. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 29, 1925.
49. Cleveland News, September 28 and 29, 1925.
50. Ibid., October 7, 1925.
20 OHIO HISTORY
apology to the Chinese community in Cleveland.51
The Foreign Trade Committee of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce
also held a meeting to discuss the matter. Although the Trade Committee
did not disapprove of the arrests, it did invite a representative of China's
Minister to the U.S. and three influential local Chinese to form a
subcommittee to explore further the issues.52
Reverend William H. Foulkes of the Old Stone Church, a Cleveland
Christian church which maintained friendly relations with local Chinese,
wrote an open letter to City Manager Hopkins in which he criticized the
illegal actions as violating Christian ideals and stated that detailed
investigation of the murder did not call for a wholesale roundup.53
Some newspaper reporters also expressed their support of the Chinese
through their editorials and descriptions of the incidents. Three prominent
Cleveland newspapers, the Cleveland News, Cleveland Press and Cleveland
Plain Dealer, did not as a rule depict the Chinese as criminal types. Rather,
the reporters helped expose the injustice inflicted upon the arrested Chinese
and the chaotic, crowded conditions to which they were subjected at the
police headquarters. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recorded that the Chinese
had to spend the night "standing up because the place was too crowded to
lie down," whereas the Cleveland Press quoted a Chinese woman who
complained that her husband had nothing to eat for two days.54 The
Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press editorials were nearly
unanimous in their support of the Chinese. The Cleveland Plain Dealer
criticized the raids as being high-handed and illegal, while the Cleveland
Press denounced the arrests as being discriminatory because no other
nationality in Cleveland had been arrested as a group because one of its
countrymen had been murdered.55
The Cleveland public's support of the Chinese was also noted in the
51. Cleveland News, September 26, 1925; October 31, 1925.
52. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 28, 1925; October 31, 1925.
53. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1925; Minutes of the Foreign Trade Committee,
54. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1925; Cleveland Press, September 28, 1925.
Another example could be found in the Cleveland News, September 23, 1925, which stated
that, "The murderers were being sought from among scores of frightened and silent Orientals
who huddled together in Central Station." In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 24, 1925,
the Chinese kept in the cells of the police station were reported to be "hungry and cold. A
detective, thinking to be growled at a wizened little Chinese shivering...."
55. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 27, 1925. In the Cleveland Press, September 25,
1925, the editor wrote: "In none of these murders [the total number of murders in Cleveland
since January 1925 was 22] except the last one [Yee Chock's murder] have police felt justified
in arresting all the neighbors in the locality of crimes.... It was only in the Chinese murder that
they did they did those things." The editor continued to write on September 26, 1925, "Would
the Cleveland police department have thrown 800 Frenchmen in jail...? We impose on the
Chinese because the Chinese can't help themselves."
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 21
sympathetic The Nation, which stated that "contrary to experience
elsewhere, there was a considerable reaction of indignation on the part of
the public."56 Cleveland citizens protested by visiting newspaper offices,
voicing human rights principles to the traffic policemen in the streets, and
writing to the courts and to local newspapers. According to the letters
addressed to the editors of the three Cleveland newspapers, local people felt
the raids were unconstitutional, discriminatory, and constituted official
Most important of all, the Court of Appeals of the Eighth District of Ohio
backed the Chinese against Barry and Hopkins. Judge Willis Vickery of the
Court said that by unanimous consent the court declared the action of the
police department illegal,58 while two other judges described the arrest as
not legal and high-handed. Judge Manuel V. Levine even quoted Bible
verses to criticize the raids, and Judge John J. Sullivian refused to sit for the
case because of his previous friendship with the local Chinese. The court
also recommended that the Chinese in jail be released and that shops be
reopened one day after the police had ordered them closed.59 As a matter
of fact, even some city officials involved in the arrests also expressed their
discontent with the roundup. Assistant City Law Director Burt Griffin,
representing the city in the court of appeals, admitted in response to a
question by Judge Levine that he could not defend the action of the police
and safety departments.60
Not all Clevelanders sided with the Chinese, but those who backed Barry
and Hopkins generally limited their support to writing to the newspapers.61
Compared to the degree of the pro-Chinese sentiment in Cleveland, theirs
was relatively inactive.
The Clevelanders' favorable response towards the Chinese contrasted
sharply with the discriminatory actions of their city officials and the anti-
foreign feeling at the national level. The Clevelanders' verbal and written
protests clearly demonstrated that not all members of American society
were totally xenophobic.
56. Herrick, "Police Run Wild," 401.
57. Cleveland News, September 25, 29-30, 1925, October 2, 1925; Cleveland Press,
September 26, 1925; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1925, October 3, 1925,
November 15, 1925.
58. "The Arrest of Chinese in Cleveland," Chinese Students Monthly, 21 (January 3, 1926),
59. Cleveland News, September 24, 1925; Cleveland Press, September 24, 1925: Cleveland
Plain Dealer, September 24 and 25, 1925.
60. "The Arrest of Chinese in Cleveland," Chinese Students Monthly, 42.
61. Cleveland News, September 29, 1925; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 27, 1925,
October 24, 1925, November 11, 1925.
22 OHIO HISTORY
The efforts of the Cleveland Chinese were not totally futile. On
September 24, one day after the raid, the court ordered that shops closed by
police be reopened. On September 25 most jailed Chinese were released,
and by the next day all Chinese, except those who were either murder
suspects or illegal immigrants, were allowed to leave the jail. Those freed
Chinese who could not immediately return to their homes or business
premises because the buildings had been condemned by health and fire
safety officials on September 24 were permitted to do so on September 26
and had renovated the buildings by October 1925. There were no more
massive arrests in Cleveland, although a Chinese was hatcheted in
December of the same year,62 and police roundups continued elsewhere as
late as the 1930s.63 The raids on the Cleveland Chinese became a national
issue, and the U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, perhaps sensitive to
possible international repercussions, demanded a report from the city
manager of Cleveland.64 The massive arrests of Chinese attracted the
attention of the national press in 1925, as well as that of later writers.65
The Cleveland police roundup in 1925 was not an isolated incident as
massive arrests took place in other cities. Significantly, the arrests provided
a graphic picture of how anti-Chinese feeling was eventually translated into
public policy. The exclusive immigration policy against Chinese as early as
1882 and the prohibitive immigration policy against Southern Europeans
and Asians in the 1920s reinforced nativist feeling. How Chinese were
treated-the indiscriminate arrests and follow-up inspections of building
structures and their legal status-could be traced back to late-nineteenth
century San Francisco Chinatown. The extension of police harassment of
the Chinese community from the West to the Midwest and the East in the
1920s depicted the flow of Sinophobia as the Chinese moved further away
62. Cleveland News, September 25-26, 1925; Cleveland Press, September 25-26, 1925;
Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25 and 27, 1925, October 16, 1925, December 18, 1925.
63. In April 1926, 700 Chinese were rounded up in Newark. New York Times, April 12,
1926. In 1930, the police authority of New York city threatened to raid Chinatown again.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 26, 1930.
64. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 26-27, 1925. There was no more follow-up
recorded in the press.
65. Herrick, "Police Run Wild," 401: "In Chinatown and in China," The Nation, 398; Sue
Fawn Chung, "From Fu Manchu, Evil Genius, to James Lee Wong, Popular Hero: A Study of
the Chinese-Americans in Popular Periodical Fiction from 1920 to 1940," Journal of Popular
Culture, 10 (Winter, 1976), 534-47; K. Scott Wong, "Eagle Seeks Helpless Quarry," 81-103.
Police Roundup of Chinese in Cleveland in 1925 23
from the Pacific Coast, and the raid also disclosed how the unfavorable
image of Chinese as mysterious, unassimilable aliens and tong members
influenced police actions and federal investigations.
However, the findings after the Cleveland raid and the response of the
local inhabitants and Chinese community defied the popular negative image
of the Chinese community in America. What the local and federal level
governments thought about the Chinese was not substantiated by the
findings. Very few were found to be illegal immigrants, and there were no
secret underground passages in the Chinese building structures as had been
assumed. Most important, the Chinese in Cleveland proved to be
independent of tong influence and, although denied naturalization, were
ready to utilize the American legal system in redressing grievances. Despite
the general belief that Chinese refused to be assimilated and stuck to their
traditional institutions, the Chinese in Cleveland were eager to solve
problems in an American way.
The reaction of the Clevelanders to the fate of the Chinese residents in
their city presented a different picture of the anti-foreign scene in the 1920s.
The bold support shown by the Clevelanders towards the Chinese casts
doubts on whether all Americans rejected the Chinese in America.
Sympathy expressed by Clevelanders towards the Chinese contrasted
sharply with the city government's extralegal action. Their support of the
Chinese also indicates a more positive interracial relationship than generally
pictured by literature about the 1920s.
Equally important, the response of the Chinese and Clevelanders
challenged long-time assumptions about Chinese-American relations. The
growth of the Chinese-American community was not as a rule conditioned
by ethnic associations, and it did not exist within a totally hostile
environment. Thus the Cleveland experience sheds new light on the
evolution of Chinese-American community life.
Finally, the reaction of the Chinese and supportive Americans in
Cleveland to the raid sent a strong message to the city government that
extralegal action was unacceptable to both races. Their combined effort was
fruitful as there were no more raids on the Chinese community thereafter.
But the Cleveland case was also unique in the sense that the Chinese
population in Cleveland was relatively small and there was no community-
wide Chinese association; the small Chinese population might cause less
irritation to the Cleveland Americans. The general feeling in America
towards the Chinese was still hostile, and there were still raids as late as the
1930s on Chinese communities in cities of other states in which the size of
the Chinese population was much larger. Negative images of Chinese were
still popular themes in contemporary literature and the Cleveland story,
although a step in the right direction, was not yet a complete turning point
in race relations.