The 1906 earthquake and fire unearthed the vast system of secret tunnels beneath Chinatown in San Francisco. Many believe the catacombs stretched throughout the sixteen-block enclave and into North Beach. The leaders of the tongs guarded the whereabouts of entrances to these passageways with their lives. The underpasses hid thriving opium dens (upper left photo), torture and execution chambers as well as escape routes that confounded authorities for decades. Mayor Eugene Schmitz (mayor 1902-1907) and attorney Abe Ruef would use their influence to scare Chinese out of their downtown enclave.
Schmitz was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to five years at San Quentin before the Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. But if racist attacks were a fact of life, so were the tong wars, some of which were rekindled as gang battles in the 1970s. Extortion is still rampant. If you ever spot a red piece of paper attached to a storefront window, it is a signal that that particular owner has paid his/her protection money for the month. I personally worked with a Joe Boys gang member who drove the getaway car and turned state’s evidence in the Golden Dragon Restaurant shooting in 1977. It was part of his probation—performing community service work as my personal consultant while a handful of us dealt with the new influx of Asian gangs at Mission High School. He later confided in me that the tunnels were still used. Many, however, believe this to be urban myth. Side notes: Joe Boys, Wah Ching, and Worms were split apart, dispersing several members who had attended Galileo High after the attempted assassination of the principal there. Also, there is a Muni subway (lower left photo), which is nearing completion, that will connect Moscone Center with Chinatown.