BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
With the decision coming on whether Tony Ng is granted parole and could possibly be freed in four years, Seattle’s Chinese American community and the International District relive their worst tragedy yet again.
During the night of Feb. 18, 1983, Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, Benjamin Ng and Wai-Chiu “Tony” Ng, all in their early 20s, entered the Wah Mee Club, an after-hours gambling hall on Maynard Alley in the International District. With robbery later established as the motive, the three perpetrators bound the victims and Mak and Benjamin Ng shot to death 12 men and one woman. A fourteenth victim survived, was able to struggle outside and alerted a passerby who called police. The victims – cooks, restaurant workers and owners mostly in their 50s and well known within the Chinese American community – knew their killers.
With the survivor able to identify the perpetrators, Mak and Benjamin Ng were immediately arrested. Tony Ng fled to Canada, where he was apprehended 20 months later in Calgary, Alberta. Mak and Benjamin Ng are currently serving life sentences. Since he was not one of the shooters, Tony Ng was acquitted of murder, but convicted on robbery and assault.
Regarded as the single worst slaying in Washington State history, Donnie Chin, director of the International District Emergency Center, remembered receiving a call from the public during the early dawn hours. When he arrived outside the club, police had already cordoned off the crime scene.
“It was quite a few hours before people knew what was going on,” Chin said.
He called Ron Chew, then editor of the International Examiner and now executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
“Donnie said something terrible had happened,” Chew, 53, recalled. When he arrived, law enforcement officers and onlookers were crowded around the club entrance.
“I quickly found out that some folks I knew had been killed,” he said. He knew Benjamin Ng from the early ‘70s, when both worked at the International District’s Hong Kong Restaurant. Chew remembered Ng standing on a vegetable crate to wash dishes and that Ng “kept to himself.” Chew’s mother and Ng’s mother worked in the same downtown sewing factory, as did a relative of Mak’s.
“Both the victims’ as well as the perpetrators’ families were all known to each other, and this created a huge rift in the community,” Chew said.
Chin and Chew then both scrambled to learn what had occurred and to verify the victims’ identities. Chin remembered the Emergency Center phone “ringing off the hook” with calls from the media and frantic family members of those known to have been at the Wah Mee Club that night. Chew, returning to the Examiner office, was then “inundated by visitors,” mostly TV reporters at the door.
At that point, Chew recalled that “his role became complex.” As a reporter covering the story himself, he said he didn’t want to be “mined for information” and tried to protect the victims’ families from intrusion by the media.
When the magnitude of the crime began to be revealed, Chin remembered thinking that there had been shootings in the International District before, but was shocked by “the amount of it, the savage way this one went down, the intentional murder of people.”
Chew said he had heard stories before about Mak and Benjamin Ng. “That they committed this crime was shocking,” he said, “but I was not surprised they were involved in it.” Police had been investigating the two for homicides that occurred before the Wah Mee incident.
Then came the curious who descended on the site of the Wah Mee Club, snapping photos of it and in front of it. That traffic didn’t end for months, Chin said, and visits by the curious continue today.
“It will always be like that – I never did figure that one out,” he said. “What if a bunch of brothers went to their homes, sticking cameras in their faces, taking pictures of them in their back yards or when they open the door?”
Then also came the media onslaught, from which the bad publicity the International District received resulted in local businesses not recovering for two years, Chin said. He remembered a newspaper reporter asking him if the Emergency Center “provided protection for gambling joints.” He also recalled a TV reporter conducting “man-on-the-street” interviews with International District residents and workers. Because those she attempted to interview did not speak English and refused to talk, the reporter concluded on the air that Chinatown was a “closed type of society.”
However, he said, the reporters “mostly our own color” were more sensitive to the victims’ families, knowing “what to ask and what not to ask.”
The media showed up at funerals for the victims, Chew said, chasing family members for quotes and sound bites. He recalled a daily newspaper’s “Chinatown Massacre” series that included an “awful, gory” photo of the murdered victims still on the floor of the Club.
“Would they show the same insensitivity if the person was a bank president?” Chew asked. He ran an opinion piece in the March 2, 1983 International Examiner, critical of media coverage. In the story, Chew wrote:
“In many cases, the relatives of those who were killed refused to talk to the press and, in several instances, press accounts described their refusal to talk in a manner implying that the families have something to hide.”
“The media was tilted in the wrong direction, portraying the ID as secretive, dangerous, tong warfare going on,” Chew said. “In truth, people were not secretive but scared, with a third perpetrator still on the loose. And people were grieving. I played an unusual role, providing a checkpoint to remind the media of the danger of lapsing into stereotypes that affects a community’s ability to survive.”
Chew also found himself stepping out of his role as a journalist as he transmitted information from the county prosecutor’s office to the victims’ families.
The Wah Mee incident, Chew said, represented “a changing of the Chinese American community.”
“The perpetrators were part of the new immigrant generation; the victims were part of the dying generation – a clash between old Chinatown versus the new,” he said.
As for the incident affecting International District businesses, Chew said: “Business was not so good before [the murders], business was not so good after, business is not so good today. There are larger issues of survivability. The ID is still not perceived as a safe, desirable place to visit,” adding that developments such as the new Wing Luke Asian Museum will provide “pockets of positive activity.”
With the question of Tony Ng being granted parole or not, Chin said the victims’ families had been “abandoned by the parole system” since they did not hear about parole hearings for Ng “years ago.”
“People have passed away,” he said, “and now it’s left to people’s children and grandchildren.”
“Wah Mee will never go away,” Chew said, “as there will be more anniversaries to be marked by the media. For the families, it’s a lingering scar, and a part of history for those less affected.”