An Early View of
San Francisco Chinatown


Background: The California Gold Rush that kicked off in 1849 brought a flood of fortune seekers to the state, including many from faraway China. Lured by unscrupulous speculators, the Chinese made the long journey to California only to discover that the hills of gold they had been promised were tapped out.  By 1876, over 100,000 Chinese had emigrated to the Golden State, with most settling in San Francisco.  Absent any gold to hang their hopes on, the Chinese found work in the railroad and garment industries.  Their resourcefulness made them the target of resentment from unemployed locals. Embattled, subject to unfair taxes and inequitable laws, the Chinese did what so many other immigrant groups had done before them: they turned inward.  San Francisco's Chinatown became an insular community with its own language and customs and a deep suspicion of outsiders.

Incident: On December 15, 1879, a policeman happened upon a vampire feeding on a prostitute along San Francisco's waterfront.  The cop chased the vampire off, but it was too late for the woman.  Before expiring, she told the cop that her attacker was Chinese.  In the next two months, attacks occurred in several neighborhoods bordering Chinatown, including Jackson Square, Fisherman's Wharf and Nob Hill.  Each time, witnesses reported that the vampires appeared to be Chinese.  Word of the attacks spread and fueled an already strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the city.  Among the outrageous rumors circulating was a story that the Chinese were harboring vampires in Chinatown as part of a plot to destroy the white population.  On February 20, an angry, torch-wielding mob marched on Chinatown.  Only quick action by the San Francisco police prevented a catastrophe.

Investigation: The hysteria put tremendous pressure on Jim Belmore, head of the FVZA's San Francisco office.  Belmore, a Civil War veteran, had moved west to open the San Francisco office only two years earlier, and now found himself caught in between an angry public and an impenetrable society.  Belmore suspected that the origin of the plague rested somewhere in one of Chinatown's many opium dens.

Opium dens were secret establishments where men would gather to smoke black opium paste and fall into a blissful stupor.  Belmore's attempts to conduct sweeps and stakeouts of the dens were hampered by Chinese organized crime gangs known as Tongs.  The Tongs operated the opium dens, along with brothels and gambling parlors, and they didn't want any law enforcement snooping around their domain.  Belmore needed someone who could help him gain access to the Byzantine world of Chinatown. He needed someone on the inside.

Up to that point, San Francisco city leadership had been hesitant to hire Chinese for federal jobs.  But when Belmore threatened to quit, the mayor allocated money for him to hire one new agent, and Jin Don Song became the first Asian-American member of the FVZA.  Jin Don was an ambitious young man who had made Belmore's acquaintance while serving as a runner/errand boy at the FVZA office.  He grew up in Chinatown and knew its geography and people.  After an abbreviated training program, Jin Don was inducted into the agency, and he quickly was able to discern that the vampire plague was probably originating from the vast network of underground opium dens off of Stout's Alley near Washington Street.

Several nights of stakeouts confirmed Jin Don's theory, and on the morning of March 16, an FVZA battalion headed by Belmore and Jin Don walked down a flight of stairs hidden behind a laundromat and entered the underground opium den complex.  There, they found a baffling maze of dimly lit passageways and small rooms.  In one of those rooms, the FVZA team came upon what appeared to be three opium addicts in a state of sedation.

A Chinese Vampire Prepares to Prey on Two Opium Smokers

But when the team moved closer, the opium smokers began hissing and flashing their fangs.  The team destroyed the vampires with surprising ease.  And so it was, in room after room: drug-addled vampires serving as easy pickings for the FVZA team.  But the clamor and noise gave the less narcotized vampires fair warning, and they were able to ambush the team inside one of the larger rooms.  Jin Don Song was bitten but still managed to lead his comrades to one of the street exits. As there was not yet a vaccine, he had to be euthanized.

Although Agent Belmore was devastated by the loss of his friend, he didn't let his emotions cause him to make hasty decisions. Over the course of the afternoon, Belmore had the underground complex sealed off and the surrounding neighborhood evacuated. With the help of the fire and police departments, his team pumped smoke into the complex. Within minutes, scores of vampires staggered out into Stout's Alley and were destroyed. Once the smoke had cleared, Belmore led his team on another underground sweep. In all, almost 100 vampires were wiped out. The team stayed in the area for another week, during which they destroyed another 50 vampires. By the time they left, Chinatown was secure and the grateful residents presented Belmore with a valuable jade scepter.

Post Mortem: On April 3, 1880, Jin Don Song was given a burial with full military honors.  Although discrimination and persecution against the Chinese continued in San Francisco, Jin Don Song's heroism went a long way to improving relations and making whites recognize the Chinese as part of the community.  Jim Belmore went on to serve as San Francisco director until his retirement in 1900.  By then, there were 25 Chinese-American agents in the San Francisco office.

Comments from Dr. Pecos: In the opium dens of Chinatown, vampires found an almost ideal situation.  They were out of the sunlight, had a steady supply of fresh blood and plenty of places to hide.  However, the opium-laced blood they were drinking caused them to become lethargic and dulled their sharp senses. Normal vampires would never allow agents to enter their lair with such ease.

This early case had a number of unusual aspects, not the least of which was the discovery that vampires, like humans, can develop a taste for drugs.  Modern vampire hunters witnessed this phenomenon many times; urban vampires often displayed a preference for the blood of alcoholics or drug addicts.  This case is also a good example of how the fight against vampirism often led to social reform.  Here, the plague resulted in a crackdown on opium dens.  Finally, the case of the opium vampires should be remembered for the courage of Jin Don Song and the principled stand taken by Jim Belmore.

[Source: The Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency - www.fvza.org]



Throughout the 19th century, rumor had it that a byzantine labyrinth of tunnels had been constructed beneath the streets of Chinatown.

The tunnels supposedly allowed "oriental gangsters" and other sinister types to mysteriously vanish whenever cops kicked in the door to one of their opium dens or slave-girl pens.Various witnesses claimed to have actually passed through these tunnels, and the police and city authorities were convinced that the tunnels existed.  But when Chinatown burned down in the Great Fire of 1906, no tunnels were found amidst the ruins. What happened to the tunnels?

Most historians have concluded that the Chinatown tunnels were a myth.  But other, weirder theories have been proposed.  One has it that since the tunnels could only be entered through trap-door stones in the floors of basements, the evidence of their existence was buried beneath the rubble after the earthquake and fire.  An even weirder theory claims that the tunnels never physically existed, but were locations where magical adepts could be "channeled" or teleported from one spot to another.

The occultists who have proposed this notion claim that the witnesses who have traveled in the tunnels were actually led by Chinese magicians into holes beneath various buildings, where quartz crystals and copper conductors - the lodestones of Chinese spiritual alchemy- were used to focus the operator's psychic energy to the point where teleportation could occur.



Hidden from prying eyes for more than a century, Chinatown's catacombs were enough to give anyone the creeps. Throw in decades of tong wars, and it was like taking a stroll through San Quentin or pre-tourism Alcatraz.  They likely would have remained hidden longer if not for the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire. Among other acts of devastation, the fire obliterated Chinatown and uncovered its many deep dwelling places.

Today, 96 years after the quake, they are the stuff of legend, their history living on in books, newspaper accounts and oral histories, much of which describe a subterranean world right out of your worst nightmare.  "When the high winds blew the ashes away the yawning mouths of tunnels, which the police had long suspected, were revealed," wrote James Russel Wilson in his 1906 book "San Francisco's Horror of Earthquake and Fire."

"Entrance to these passages was so carefully hidden that only the leaders of the tongs, who used the damp dungeons for places of meeting or to plot the death of a victim -- the same room often acting as the execution dungeon once the marked man was taken below the level of the street -- knew and declared," he wrote.  Despite a wealth of written evidence, many in the Chinese-American community challenge the existence of a complete tunnel network.

"A lot of the crime stories of that era were associated with hideouts and tunnels and ways to get in and out," said California Insurance Commissioner Henry Lo, a longtime resident and former judge.  "People tripped and fell into holes and described them as tunnels, but any kind of network for sinister purposes was pretty much fiction," he said.

Lo is supported by many historians and a first-hand account by Jesse Brown Cook, who served as sergeant of the Chinatown police force until 1906, when he was named the city's chief of police.  In his memoirs of the area, he wrote:

"Perhaps it will surprise you to know that there is no such thing as the underground in Chinatown. True, you could go from one cellar to another, but that is all. In order to deceive the people, the Chinese guides would take them in on Grant Avenue, between California and Sacramento Streets, going down into a cellar. From this they would go downstairs into the next cellar, and so on, sometimes going into six or seven. These basements, however, were all connected with the stores on Sacramento Street."

But there are many who favor the urban legend and say that historical records point in their favor. At their longest, according to some, the tunnels stretched all the way through the tiny 16-block enclave and into North Beach. They hid thriving opium dens, torture chambers and escape routes that confounded denizens and police for decades.

As with the one that still exists in New York's Chinatown, the supposed tunnels were unmarked or marked only by signs in Chinese, and connected tong-run gambling houses and theaters upstairs with opium dens and squalid, privately-run debtors prisons down below.  Mostly based on drunken, exaggerated retellings from white San Franciscans, The Examiner and other local papers were filled with lurid accounts of gangs of ferocious yellow men leaping up from the tunnels to rape white women, then disappearing back inside.

The reality was a lot sadder. One of the main factors in building the underground abodes in The City was to provide Chinese Americans with an escape from their oppressors, the frequently brutal police force. Mayor Eugene Schmitz and attorney Abe Ruef, the power behind the throne, were two of The City's most corrupt and racist political figures, and they used their power to try to scare Chinese out of their valuable downtown enclave.  But if racist attacks were a fact of life, so were the tong wars, some of which were rekindled as gang wars in the 1970s. As more immigrants settled in The City's most densely inhabited square mile, tong wars became increasingly violent.

"Hundreds of men went to their deaths each year in Chinatown without an inkling of the tragedies being known to the police," Wilson wrote.  The author believed the dead were buried 100 feet deep.  "Members of the tongs marked for death left friends behind, men who refused to complain to the local authorities, but who, instead sought revenge themselves in the same fiendish manner that death had been meted out to their fellow-members," he wrote.

The darkness ended with the April 18 earthquake and fire. After the dust had cleared, Mayor Schmitz wanted Chinatown relocated to Hunters Point. But China's Empress Dowager, just before she died, made clear how much the United States' largest Chinatown already meant to China and the so-called "Oriental Trade."  The Empress Cixi ordered her deputy ambassador in Washington to ride to San Francisco to pressure city fathers into letting Chinatown rebuild, right where it was. Schmitz and other city fathers agreed, with one proviso: no more catacombs.

With such a rich history, many San Franciscans prefer the storied fictional past to the more mundane basement theory. Modern tunnel aficionados, many of them teenagers in search of excitement, get their kicks by hanging out in sub-basements, getting drunk in musty storerooms, and breathing in the stench of unused or dried-up sewers.

Whether entering Molinari's in North Beach, the House of Shields off Market Street, or in the many hidden basements of Chinatown itself, today's "tunnels" lead under the physical buildings.  The trail inevitably dead-ends at a concrete retaining wall or sewer main, but that does not stop those with a sense of history. If nothing else, walking hunchbacked for miles in search of hidden horrors of the past sure gets the imagination going.

Old Chinatown's Deep, Dark Secrets - By Nick Driver
Published in The San Francisco Examiner 4/18/2002