The On Leong Merchant’s Association
February 4th, 2010Filed under: Exhibitions
On Leong Merchant’s Association, c.1930
The Chinese started coming to Chicago in small numbers after 1870, totaling fewer than 1,200 at the turn of the 20th century. However, until the mid-1940s, federal laws governing Chinese immigration put strict limits on the influx of Chinese laborers, effectively allowing only men to enter with few exceptions. American Chinatowns were populated by growing numbers of Chinese men who sought friendship, familiarity, and support in the associations or clubs that provided the commercial and social structure for the community. These business and family-based associations had a tremendous influence on Chinatown commerce, politics, and daily life.
Some of the most powerful and influential associations were known as tongs and they competed for control of Chinatown. The most powerful tong in Chinatown was the On Leong, but ongoing tensions between the On Leong and its primary rival the Hip Sing spawned the “Tong Wars.” Their sometimes violent conflict brought unwanted attention to this otherwise quiet and discreet community.
Chicago Tribune coverage of the “Tong Wars,” October 23, 1924
After years of conflict the On Leong emerged as the dominant tong in Chinatown. The ornate and colorful On Leong Merchant’s Association building was constructed in 1928 as a symbol of the organization’s strength and leadership.
On Leong Merchant’s Association
The new building was quite large and supported a vast array of functions. Gene Lee, who grew up in Chinatown, remembers the building’s interior, “The On Leong building was a magnificent building: marble stairway, wide, 4-door entrance, big banquets, conventions. I just remember sliding down those carpeted steps as a young boy. Big picture of a tiger as you came up the stairs. Third floor was the temple and the courthouse. Maybe not law-abiding, but [they] certainly dispensed some law.” The courtroom Lee references was for handling local grievances within the community, outside the city’s judicial system.
Some of the association’s revenue came from illegal activities, including traditional Chinese gambling games such as Fan Tan and Pai Gow, a game played with dominos. In 1988, after years of investigation, the FBI, along with the Chicago Police, raided and seized the building and charged the On Leong leadership with gambling violations. In 1991, sixteen of those arrested pled guilty to tax evasion and racketeering charges. In 1993, the building was purchased by the Chinese Christian Union Church for $1.4 million and renamed Pui Tak Center. It was later designated a Chicago Landmark, the only one in Chinatown.
> Plan a visit to experience the My Chinatown exhibition
> Learn more about the history of tongs in Chicago
> View the On Leong Merchant’s Association Building photo in detail
> Learn more about the building’s landmark status