There are only a few remnants of early Chinese-American history left in Omaha. The city’s former Chinatown is almost forgotten.
The building at 1415 Farnam St. (now occupied by Kitchen Table) was for many years the home of the King Joy Oriental Cafe, opened by Leo Wing in 1913. The iconic structure at 315 S. 16th St. (where King Fong Cafe operated for almost a century, from 1920 until 2016 when it closed “for repairs”) remains standing. And there is also the recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places at 1518 Cass St. (added to the federal registry in November 2017), the On Leong Tong House.
Tongs were male-only social organizations for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. Literally, tong translates to “hall” or “gathering place” in Cantonese (the Chinese language spoken by most early Chinese immigrants to the United States). Not everyone in the local Chinese community would have been a member of Omaha’s On Leong Tong, which was essentially a secret society.
The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912 (but some form of the tong might have been present in the city earlier). The tong house moved to the Cass Street location in 1938. Although the tong eventually disbanded in Omaha in 1959, branches of the nationwide organization continue to operate in the form of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association in several U.S. cities with large Chinese populations.
On Leong was one of several tongs operating across the U.S. in Chinatowns at the dawn of the 20th century. The era of tong expansion featured bloody conflict as rival tongs fought to control turf, opium, prostitution, and gambling rackets. Omaha’s Chinese community, for the most part, avoided spillover from the Tong Wars (1880s-1930s) of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. The local branch of On Leong Tong, however, suffered no shortage of historical intrigue.
For the most part, the local story of the On Leong Tong is a story of people acclimating to, struggling, and thriving in a city that looks very different from the Omaha that residents know today. At the tong house, members could socialize while speaking Chinese, celebrate common holidays, and find community.
Omaha’s Chinese community—more so than most other immigrant communities—was alien to the daily life of the city. They were often victims of prejudice and exploitation, and they had no real political representation. What they had—for what it was worth—was a social organization led by businessmen that would carry on their collective rituals, where they could forge their identity and find their power as a local community.
The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912
The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha—sometime after acquiring the land in 1884. When the building was being razed, a World-Herald story (from Dec. 3, 1963) suggests that the building remained in the hands of Anna Wilson until her death in 1911. At that time, and for many years, the street level space would be occupied by Chinese grocers, the first owned by Wing Sing. Across the street to the west sat Omaha’s first fire station. Just to the north at 117 N. 12th St. was Q.W. Lee’s grocery, and the Sing Long grocery was at 123 N. 12th St. Across the road toward Capitol Street, at 122 N. 12th St., was a grocery owned by Wing Tang. These addresses typically had private residences on upper floors, and it is likely that the block was densely populated by a poor and often transient population of mostly Chinese men. A block to the east, at 11th and Capitol streets, was the Sam Hai Laundry, while a large, four-story police headquarters occupied the block between 10th, 11th, Capitol, and Dodge streets.
This is an area that would come to be known, at least for history, as Omaha’s Chinatown. Some local newspaper accounts suggest that Omaha’s Chinatown occupied a four-block area northeast of 12th and Dodge streets. In a Dec. 3, 1961, World-Herald article titled “Gay Dragons Once Danced in a Thriving Chinatown,” journalist Robert McMorris paints a picture sourced from secondhand accounts of the “four-block area” where men wore Manchu-style braids (common during the Qing Dynasty in China) and women walked in “short, mincing steps” (a consequence of the now-discontinued practice of binding girls’ feet) at the turn of the century. Later writing from Edward Morrow on the city’s early Asian community (in a March 5, 1978, Sunday World-Herald Magazine) claims that 200-300 Chinese once resided in “ancient red brick buildings at Eleventh and Dodge” streets.
Old city directories don’t support his claim of Chinatown occupying a four-block area. More likely, Omaha’s Chinatown took up a single block between Dodge and Capitol on 12th Street, with additional concentrations of Chinese restaurants along 14th and Douglas streets and clustered near North 16th Street.
Among the Chinese restaurants grouped together on Douglas Street, the first to open as an upscale establishment—competing for Omaha’s business and night-time entertainment clientele—was the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St., with a large “Chop Suey” sign hanging from the front of the building. Opening in January 1912 by Gin Chin (who would later open King Fong Cafe), it was located on the floor above the Budweiser Bar, just at the east end of Omaha’s theater row, which occupied most of Douglas to 16th streets. The Budweiser Bar was run by Billy Nesselhaus, business partner of Tom Dennison, Omaha’s most notorious gangster, who ran a gambling operation out of the bar below the Mandarin Cafe.
The year after the Mandarin opened, in September 1913, Leo Wing opened the King Joy Cafe, at 1415 Farnam St., in a second-story space above the Farnam Theater. Like the Mandarin House, the King Joy offered American dishes along with its Chinese menu, advertising “steaks and chop suey” in particular, as well as live music in the evenings. Opening night at the King Joy did not go off without incident, but it did land a story in the World-Herald (Sept. 19, 1913). Firecrackers were lit on the balcony of the restaurant that somehow started a fire inside. Patrons ran to the street, fire trucks came, crowds gathered, and traffic was stopped for much of the evening.
In the Douglas Street cluster of Chinese restaurants, there was also Louie Ahko’s at 1419 Douglas St. (moving to 1417 Harney St. in 1917), open since at least 1910, the Canton restaurant at 1404 Douglas St., and the Elite Cafe at 209 S. 14th St. run by Sam Joe. Another Chinese restaurant, the Los Angeles Restaurant owned by Sing Yep, was located at 105 S. 13th St. At 1306 Douglas St. was a restaurant run by Charles Sing, and at 1313 Douglas St. was the Nanking Restaurant run by Wong Ching.
Among the Chinese restaurants concentrated in the vicinity of North 16th Street, Sam Sing had been operating a restaurant at 1516 Webster St. since 1901. (It moved to 1520 Webster St. at some point and would close in 1918 upon Sing’s arrest for bootlegging.) The 1914 city directory lists Joseph Wing as proprietor of a restaurant at 304 N. 16th St. (in the Edward Hotel, later run by Sam Huey as Edward Cafe) and Hung Lew at 517 N. 16th St. In 1918, Leo Wing is listed as proprietor at 517 N. 16th St. and Chin Chung as restaurant owner at 606 N. 16th St. The directory also shows Chinese laundries at 509 and 604 N. 16th St.
Leo Wing was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago
Among the problems facing Chinese merchants in Omaha was a corrupt police department. The police commissioner, John Ryder, would be removed from office in 1914 and forced to switch positions with A.C. Kugel, head of the department of street cleaning and maintenance, for his inability to control the police force. The move came Jan. 19, 1914, three days after the World-Herald criticized Ryder for allowing a “protected house of commercial vice” to remain in operation just a few blocks from police headquarters, at 13th and Dodge streets. The house in question belonged to Hazel McVey of 414 N. 14th St., the sometime romantic partner of Billy Nesselhaus.
On Jan. 31, 1914, Ryder’s last night as police commissioner, a series of secret raids would be made on “every place in town suspect of law violation,” according to the World-Herald. Most were Chinese restaurants, including “All of the lower Douglas Street Chop Suey restaurants.” At the Mandarin, “there were certain evidences that didn’t suit the officers,” so the manager, probably Gin Chin, was arrested and later released on $25 bond. Louie Ahko was also raided and arrested. Across the street at the Canton, two men were arrested and several women were “hustled out of town.” At midnight, the police returned to the Canton, “They didn’t like the looks of the place,” so the proprietor was returned to police headquarters.
The King Joy was also raided, but nothing was found out of order. Louie Ahko and Gin Chin were to appear before a judge Feb. 3. Louie Ahko paid a $25 fine, but Gin Chin did not show up, to the outrage of the city prosecutor, and he forfeited his bond. The charge was “running a disorderly house,” and the evidence was beer found in teapots. But on Feb. 6, Gin was able to show, to the satisfaction of the judge, that the beer was brought in by patrons, which was perfectly legal, and the charges against Gin and Ahko were dropped.
Despite problems, and perhaps because of them, the thriving Chinese-American business community officially organized in 1916 with the founding of the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association. On Nov. 22 of that year, the World-Herald reported, “More than two million firecrackers, yes, two million, were discharged in Omaha last night,” to celebrate the opening of the new hall of the Merchants Association at 111 N. 12th St. There was live music, the Merchants Association band, and a feast to celebrate the event. If there was any symbolism in the event, any message being sent to Omaha, it was delivered by the firecrackers. It took more than a half hour to shoot them all off, on a Tuesday evening, just one block from police headquarters.
The police may have taken offense. Two weeks later the president of the Merchants Association, Leo Wing, was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago to a newly formed tong in Omaha directing the assassination of the two men who did not belong to the tong or the Merchants Association. Wing denied the accusation, claiming that the issue merely involved a minor dispute over an unpaid debt, and it apparently went no further. However, a month after his arrest, the King Joy caught fire, with firemen finding evidence of arson, gasoline, and kindling in the Farnam Theater below. Two months later a midnight explosion and fire, again in the Farnam Theater below, sent King Joy patrons running into the street. No motive or possible perpetrators are mentioned in the news coverage.
The building at 111 N. 12th was never listed as the Chinese Merchants Association in the city directory. In 1914, its sole occupant listed is Wing Sing Grocers.
By 1918, it is Soon Lee Grocer and the Wa Wing Club. For 1923 and 1925 the directory lists Soon Lee Chinese goods and On Leong Chinese goods. Only in 1934 and then in 1936, just before moving to 1518 Cass St., would it be recognized in the directory as a tong house, listed then as On Leong Tong Hall along with Leo Wing.
The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha.
The tong house in Omaha included gambling rooms, mahjong and lotteries, a bunk room where opium smoking could be found, and a shrine room with an altar and a statue of Buddha. No other illegal activities were ever reported by the World-Herald. Nevertheless, individual members would continue to have problems. A spokesperson for the Merchants Association, Gow D. Huie, was arrested in March 1917 for assault with intent to kill, the victim identified as Yen Huie. Gow Huie allegedly “smote him on the head with a cleaver” while the two were working at a Douglas Street restaurant. It seems the two were related and that the charges were dropped. Gow Huie would later open the Mon Yen Lo Cafe at 1508 Howard St. (by 1925), and in 1932 he would take over both the Mandarin Cafe and the Peacock Inn at 1818 Farnam St. He would remain an active community leader until Dec. 7, 1935, when he was arrested on a federal narcotics charge. In the summer of 1936 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, but he disappeared immediately after sentencing and was never heard from again.
During the Depression, many Chinese-Americans would leave Omaha. This may explain why key restaurants changed ownership. Early in 1930 it was announced that Sam Joe opened a new chop suey house at 1415 Farnam St., previously Leo Wing’s King Joy. Gin Chin gave up the Mandarin Cafe in 1932, to be reopened by Gow D. Huie that year as Huie’s Cafe. It may simply be that the Chin and Wing families had fewer relatives to employ. A New Year’s notice of the tong celebration in 1933, with Chin Soo Leong named as president, reported that membership once at 220 had dropped to 50, with most leaving in the past year. The restaurant industry in general was hit hard during the Depression, and it had a dramatic effect on Chinese restaurants in Omaha. Those who worked at the restaurants, those who remained in town, were suffering economically. According to the newly elected spokesperson for the tong, Sam Joe, in a 1936 New Year’s notice, the prior year was the first time any members of the colony had to accept outside charity. A dozen or so went on government relief.
One effect of the economic conditions was reported in the World-Herald on Nov. 1, 1937. The day before, Anna Chin, 7-year-old daughter of Jimmy Chin, died of pneumonia. She had 12 siblings; one of which, Phillis (or Lotus Blossom), had been born six weeks earlier. Her mother had remained sick in bed ever since. Two of her siblings, 4-year-old Billy and 1-year-old Jeanette, were also sick. All lived at 1517 Burt St. Jimmy, a World War I veteran, had worked at the “famed restaurant” Mandarin Cafe with his father, Gin Chin. Both then worked at King Fong’s. The story goes on to point out that Jimmy had to support his family on $40 a month—$12.50 in salary and the rest in tips. He had made double that “until a damaging story had circulated about the place where he works.” Evidently, some sort of rumor had spread about King Fong’s that severely curtailed business.
As an example of the general prejudice faced by tong members, consider the entry in the Nov. 26, 1935 World-Herald. Under a large photo with the header “Sam Joe and Soon Lee explain it all,” the two prominent Chinese-Americans are publicly degraded and humiliated. On the important topic of Japanese aggression against China, the reporter chose to parody their lack of facility with English, transcribing mispronounced words in a few broken sentences, and portray them as stupid and ill-informed. The truth is that both men were hard-working and successful leaders of their community.
On July 16, 1938, the World-Herald reported the dedication of the new tong house at 1518 Cass St. On the exterior of the building was placed a sign in Chinese characters identifying it as the On Leong Tong house. The interior was split into two large rooms. One side was devoted to mahjong and the other a meeting room with a Buddhist shrine.
Current Omaha resident Chu Huey, son of Sam Huey and nephew of Soon Lee, is now in his 80s and remembers the old tong house. He says it was very social space with people (adult men) there every day playing mahjong. Chu Huey arrived from China via Hong Kong in 1951, at 17 years old, and attended Tech High while working for his father at the Edward Cafe. He and friends would sneak into the tong house in the morning and play mahjong and be off to work at Chinese restaurants before adults arrived around lunchtime to play. Mahjong would continue through the afternoon and evening, often ending with a trek south on 16th Street to King Fong’s. If there was anything to celebrate, especially Chinese holidays (the Lunar New Year in particular), festivities would take place at the tong house. It was only on these celebratory occasions that women and children would come. Often new arrivals, with no money and nowhere else to go, would stay at the tong house. Extended family members would then have the obligation of finding them jobs and a place to live.
The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry.
Exactly why the tong moved remains a matter of speculation, but it is clear that the center of the Chinese-American population in Omaha had shifted to North 16th Street by the late 1930s. The established families, the Chins and Hueys in particular, lived several blocks north and west of Omaha’s former Chinatown. Soon Lee, president of the tong (brother of Sam Huey and Sam Joe’s cousin) lived at 1617 Cass St. Sam Huey lived at 1609 Cass St. while running the Edward Cafe a block away at 304 N. 16th St. Across the street from the Hueys at 1610 Cass St. was the Lee Kune laundry, next door to the Midway Tavern, a dance bar. Another Chinese laundry listed in 1938 was run by Lee Moy at 1514 Webster St. In 1939 Quong Wing Industry was located at 319 N. 15th St., perhaps a laundry as well. The Chin family had a large residence at 1817 Davenport St., Jimmy Chin lived at 16th and Burt St., and a few years later the family would have another home at 19th and Burt streets.
Another feature of the neighborhood where the tong had relocated was Cass Elementary School, between 14th and 15th on the north side of Cass Street. Cass School was attended by virtually all children of Chinese-American immigrants. It was, in fact, the most ethnically diverse school in Omaha, reflecting the diversity of the neighboring population (which also included many Swedes and Jews). Mary Simonds, principal in 1912, responded with indignation to the suggestion that her immigrant students were inferior. “I have the very best students in the city,” she said, quoted in the June 2, 1912, edition of the World-Herald.
The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry. Coal-burning smokestacks lined the view to the east. Union Pacific’s shops occupied most of the land from Dodge to Cuming streets, on an angle running from the river to 15th Street. Also included in that area near the river was Asarco (previously Omaha and Grant), Omaha’s now notorious lead smelter and refiner, the world’s largest in the late-19th and early-20th century. This was Omaha’s most noxious business and residential area. Those who would not be welcomed into other areas of the city would end up on near North 16th Street. This was partly exclusion and partly economics. It was also a cheap neighborhood to live in. Numerous inexpensive hotels lined 16th Street and side roads, between Davenport and Cuming: the Edward at 302, the Rex at 605, the Drexel at 618, and the Northwestern at 619 16th St., the California on the southwest corner at California street, and the Park at 1502 Cass St. On Chicago between 15th and 16th streets were the Chicago and the Midland Hotels. On the south end of the neighborhood, Capitol to Davenport on 17th Street was the Flomar Hotel, a block east on 16th Street was the Loyal.
Interspersed between hotels were markets, primarily grocers and hardware stores. And running through the center of neighborhood activity, and responsible for much of it, were streetcars that intersected with the rest of Omaha. It was the liveliest neighborhood business district in the city.
In the post World War II era, as activities in the tong house continued, the World-Herald stopped reporting them. Mahjong was played daily, holidays were celebrated, but membership in the On Leong Tong continued to decline, as did its role for the Chinese-American community in Omaha. Like Gin Chin’s son Carl, who worked as a chemist for the city, the children of tong members would increasingly see themselves as citizens of Omaha, Nebraska, rather than members of an immigrant community. They would speak perfect American English. They would be assimilated, in the sense that they would no longer accept or bear the burden of being treated as aliens in their native land. The function of the tong declined as identity with it became less necessary or useful.
After the death of George Hay in 1959 (who the World-Herald names as one of the last members), the tong disbanded. Chu Huey went on to open his own iconic restaurant, Chu’s Chop Suey House, in 1964, across from Aksarben on Center Street, which remained open until 2002. Chu’s father, Sam Huey died in 1965. Gin Chin died in 1962 at the age of 93, with 36 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. His restaurant, King Fong’s, will be reopening in the near future.
Blue Line Coffee purchased the former tong house at 1518 Cass St. in 2009 to be used as a coffeehouse/diner in anticipation of a planned transit center at 16th and Cass streets. The transit center failed to materialize and plans for the building were put on hold. The building is currently used for storage while under preparations for development. The author of this article, Chris McClellan, is the owner of Blue Line Coffee. McClellan prepared a history of the building (from which this article is excerpted) for Restoration Exchange Omaha’s successful nomination to list the structure with the National Register of Historic Places.
Editor’s Note on Chinese Names
Chinese names traditionally feature family/surname first, followed by given names. In Chinese, Gin Chin’s full name would be presented “Chin Ah Gin.” Gin Chin is an Americanized presentation. Chinese around the world also often take an English first name. In addition, some of the Chinese names featured in Omaha Magazine’s in-depth look at the city’s historic Chinese community are based on early archival accounts (where names might have been distorted due to language barriers, reporting errors, or outright racism).
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine: