Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wah Mee

How much do you know about Seattle history?

I'll admit, I don't know very much. When Captain Midnight and I first moved here, I discovered a bit of quirky local history through the Seattle Underground Tour, which has quite a bit to say about Seattle's early, roaring days as a logging town and portal to the Alaska gold fields. But other than the billboard reading "Will the last person leaving Seattle -- turn out the lights," the computer boom and subsequent economic revitalization, the grunge movement and runaway coffee culture, I didn't know very much about 20th century Seattle. Thanks to the geekalicious hobby of waymarking, however, I was recently led to another piece of the puzzle.

In addition to software, coffee, commercial jets and premium outdoor equipment, Seattle's other major economic industry during much of the 20th century was vice pandering. There was a time when you could get anything you wanted in Seattle, regardless of its legality, as long as you had the money. Prostitution, drugs and gambling were all readily available to anyone who took an interest. At the height of the Prohibition era, Washington State was home to about 4,000 speakeasies, many of them in the Seattle area. Washington's close proximity to Canada, where alcohol was still legal, made rum-running a relatively easy and lucrative job. The Seattle Police Department was well aware of the vice industries and largely tolerated them, first because vice brought business to the city, and second because many, if not most, of the officers were on the take, accepting significant cash payments from illegal "speaks," gambling dens and brothels in exchange for allowing them to do business unmolested. Occasionally the police would raid a less-than-legitimate business (usually because it had fallen behind in its payments to the police), but for the most part they figured it made more sense -- and more money -- for them to look the other way.

The Wah Mee (the name means "Beautiful China") began its existence as a Chinatown speakeasy, and after Prohibition was repealed it became a private club of sorts -- a bar and gambling joint known only to customers, most of whom were Chinatown restaurateurs. During its heyday it was described as opulent, but by the early '80s the Wah Mee club was beginning to be regarded as a bit seedy. Still, patrons would go there to relax, have a drink, and get in some high-stakes gambling on games of mah jongg and pai gow.

It's easy to imagine what the place must have been like back then: the glass-bricked fa├žade with the single clear brick, so that the doorman could peer through and see who was waiting outside; the double steel doors and club bouncers that patrons had to clear before getting inside; the long sinuous bar, its regulars sipping their drinks and watching local TV; the swishing clatter of black pai gow dominoes being "washed" and wall-stacked between games, or the regular clacking sound of a mah jongg game in progress.

Willie Mak knew there was a lot of money at the Wah Mee club, and that local police were unlikely to get involved in anything that happened there. Mak, a young man with a significant gambling debt and some past shady activities, hatched a plot to rob the Wah Mee on one of its busiest nights. He couldn't pull it off alone, though, so he roped in Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng (the two are unrelated) to help him.

Near midnight on February 18, 1983, Willie and Tony entered the Wah Mee club -- they were able to get in because Willie knew the doorman -- and waited for Benjamin to arrive. It was Chinese New Year and the club was busy, filling with patrons. One old man, a dealer at the club, shared his food with Tony and talked to him for a while. Then, just after midnight, Benjamin showed up and the guns came out. Patrons were forced to the floor, hogtied and robbed at gunpoint. Then, as Tony held the bag in shock -- he later claimed he hadn't known about this part of the plan -- Willie and Benjamin made sure there would be no one left to identify them to police. They shot everyone in the club, execution-style, in the head and neck until they ran out of bullets. The three fled the club, leaving fourteen people for dead.

Only one man survived the massacre -- Wai Chin, the old man who had shared his food with Tony Ng. Perhaps feeling a pang of remorse, Tony hadn't bound Chin as tightly as the others, and during the subsequent massacre Chin was shot in the neck and jaw rather than in the head, as the others were. Later Chin was able to wiggle out of the nylon cords and, bleeding heavily, make his way to the doors of the Wah Mee club, from whence he crawled out of the alley toward King Street. After hospitalization and surgery, he was able to identify all three assailants in the trial, which led to their conviction and imprisonment.

The Wah Mee massacre remains the bloodiest mass murder in Washington history.

It's strange to think that such horrific violence happened in such a peaceful alley, which was Pigeon Central on the day I visited.

The all-but-forgotten doors to the Wah Mee club, about halfway down the alley. After the police investigation and cleanup, the doors were padlocked shut, and as far as anyone knows, they have not been opened since.

The local police had a hard time getting anyone from the neighborhood to talk to them, for a number of reasons. For some there was a language barrier, as many of the district residents speak a language other than English, and many also came from countries with oppressive rulers, where it was suicide to get involved with the police. But there was also a widespread feeling that, by choosing to look the other way and tolerate illegal gambling, the SPD held a measure of culpability for what had happened at the club. Probably more than any other single occurrence, the Wah Mee massacre spurred the police to clean up graft in their ranks.

Local residents who lived here in the 1980s would, understandably, prefer to forget what happened here almost 30 years ago, and many who have moved here since then are completely unaware of the carnage that took place in the alley just 'round the corner. But it did happen -- and the people who died here, I think, ought to be remembered.

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