A building with ties to the criminal elements in the Chinese community, but also housed an organization set up to protect Chinese immigrants and help them adjust to American life, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The building which began as a laundry later became the headquarters of the On Leong Tong in Omaha, Nebraska from the late 1930s to the 1950s, reported Omaha.com
On Leong Tong served as a mutual aid society for predominantly Chinese male immigrants, offering them housing and employment services.
“The Chinese help each other,” said Betty Chin, of the Nebraska Chinese Association, to Omaha.com. “(The tong) was for immigrants who came over from China who didn’t have jobs or places to live.”
Many also considered Tongs criminal organizations. Rival tongs fought with each other in what is commonly referred to as Tong Wars in the late 19th and 20th century. On Leong clashed with the rival Hip Sing Tong. News accounts link the shooting death of a Chinese cook to his suspected ties to the Hip Sing.
According to the Restoration Exchange, the Chinese arrived in Omaha from California after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. In 1872, two men were listed in Omaha’s directory with Chinese surnames. The Chinese population would grow in the late 19th century and by the early 20th century, several hundred Chinese were believed to live in the city.
The On Leong was the dominant Tong in Omaha. Several Chinese Americans in Omaha today have recollections of the building and its importance. Dennis Chin said his father Carl remembers On Leong Tong as a fraternal organization. Dennis said his grandfather opened a restaurant as an avenue to provide jobs for Chinese immigrants.
Dennis’ grandfather gave the restaurant to another family for free in 1954 on the condition that they continue to provide jobs in the community.
The influence of the Tongs eventually declined and its last remaining member died in 1958. However, according to Wikipedia, the On Leong Tong still operates in New York City under the name The On Leong Chinese Merchants Association. Currently it boasts 30,000 members.
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