A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 28, 1881:
A murder in Chinatown

chinese man with queue

Newspapers, particularly the often very nasty San Francisco Chronicle, were full of anti-Chinese propaganda in the last decades before the turn of the century. Stories dealing with Chinese people were usually over-heated, pretty racist, and sometimes hard to even get through.

This item was short and straightforward, though, and I might have even skipped over it if I hadn’t noticed an article about the very same case in a legal journal. The tiny bit of testimony from the victim in that piece helps capture the flavour of the parallel world of 1880s Chinatown.

Shooting of a Courtesan in Kum Cook Alley

Between 7:30 and 8 o’clock last evening, while Choy Gum, a Chinese courtesan, was bargaining with a fruitdealer in her room on Kum Cook Alley, a Chinaman named Fong Ah Sing walked up to her door and fired a shot at her through the wicket in the portal. The intended murderer then fled, but was captured on Brenham Place by Sergeant T. W. Fields, who took him to the city prison, whither the wounded woman had been conveyed by Officer Maurice Sullivan. An examination by Police Surgeon Stambaugh showed that the ball had entered the right breast, piercing through the right lung and … inflicting a wound which it seems must be fatal.

Choy Gum identified Sing as the person who fired the shot, and stated that it was done on account of some trouble which had occurred last week. The prisoner, who is said by the arresting officer to be the head man of a notorious highbinders’ society, was charged with assault to murder.

chinese men reading tong signs

Some terminology — highbinders’ society refers to one of the notorious “Tongs”, Chinatown’s powerful, often criminal, and constantly battling secret societies. The word “highbinder” itself came to refer specifically to hired Tong killers, or “hatchet men”, and — though the etymology is murky — may stem from the hit-man fashion of tying the traditional Chinese braid — the queue — out of the way, up on top of the head.

The Chronicle would have never expended much energy on a story like this, but the 1886 legal journal “Pacific Reporter” notes that Fong Ah Sing was a member of a “highbinder’s society” — the Duck Kong Tong — but certainly not the head man. He was actually just their translator.

There were plenty of witnesses at each of Fong Ah Sing’s two trials ready to swear to both his innocence and guilt. Tong members? We can’t know that, but we do know that the most damning evidence came from his dying victim, a woman who worked at a brothel at which Fong Ah Sing was apparently a customer … and this supplies the motive:

“I don’t know any reason that Fong Ah Sing had for shooting me, unless it was that a few days before the shooting I was bathing my feet upstairs over a room in which (he) was sitting, and spilled a little water on the floor, and it leaked through, and fell upon (him). Fong Ah Sing was very angry thereat, and told the proprietor of the house that I must apologize, and make him some present, to prevent bad luck coming upon the house. The proprietor did make some little present to (him), and I considered the matter settled.”

In Chinatown, 1881 … apparently not.

October 27, 1892:
Starr King monument erected

starr king monument golden gate park

Almost thirty years after the death of the reverend Thomas Starr King, a beautiful granite monument was dedicated to the memory of “the Man Who Saved California for the Union”. For decades afterwards, grateful San Franciscans visit the statue on Memorial Day and wreath it with flowers.

Since I’ve already spent a good hour and a half telling Starr King’s Civil War-era story in a pair of podcasts (numbers 59 and 60), I don’t need to dwell on his years of tireless devotion to the pro-Union cause. I will opine, though, that those flowers were richly deserved, and a tradition that ought to be resuscitated.

The monument stands in Golden Gate Park at the entrance to the Music Concourse — you know, where the Academy of Sciences and De Young Museum are located — and its base bears this inscription:

“In him eloquence, strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellow-men.”

October 31, 1963:
Death of the Black Cat Café

black cat cafe

On Halloween night, the “Black Cat Café” — that notorious, flamboyant and most historically significant of San Francisco’s gay nightspots, held a final celebration before closing down for good.

Though Prohibition had shuttered the venerable North Beach establishment in the ’20s, the Black Cat proudly reopened in 1933. Number 710 Montgomery Street quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, and beatniks. Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Ginsberg all patronized the joint, and in fact, the Black Cat played the role of the “Bohemian Bar” in Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

black cat cafe

Following World War II, a new military policy precipitated the sudden discharge of thousands of gay men into the welcoming arms of our liberal city. The Black Cat became a central gathering place, evolving into a kind of bohemian drag bar, but much more than that; a place where poets, sailors, stevedores and suits could shake off convention, creating a wild sense of revolutionary freedom for gay and straight folks alike.

The San Francisco Police Department began a campaign of organized intimidation, raids, and arrests, and the state suspended the bar’s liquor license. On principle, the (straight) owner took the case to all the way to the California Supreme court, which determined that serving drinks to homosexuals was not a crime — one of the earliest legal affirmations of the rights of gay people in the country.

The state responded with a constitutional amendment creating the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — the “ABC” — giving it broad powers to shut down establishments that didn’t toe a straitlaced line.

black cat cafe

Years of harassment followed, but the Black Cat flourished. The star of the drag show was a certain José Sarria, who eventually — though failing in his bid for a spot on the Board of Supervisors — became the first gay man in the country to run for elective office. The bar had evolved again, into a rallying point for a social and political movement.

By 1963, the owner was too tired and broke to keep up the fight. The ABC yanked the Black Cat’s liquor license for good — and what’s worse, on the night before its famous annual Halloween bash. The boisterous party was held anyway, with soda and juice sold at the bar.

The Black Cat closed down permanently the next day, but even a cursory glance around modern San Francisco will tell you that its legacy lives on.