Shortly after the Armistice of 1918 brought an end to World War I, an outbreak of violence within San Francisco’s Chinatown attracted national attention, and raised awareness of the off-and-on gangland violence known as the Tong wars. As San Francisco became known as home to the largest Chinese population anywhere outside of Asia, fascination about the insular Chinatown community, and Orientalist inspired flights of fancy based on rumors of its exotic and lurid underbelly became pronounced. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a spate of interest in the prostitution and drug rings that fueled the Tong Wars, and the “hatchet men” who were the enforcers for each Tong. In many ways analogous to Mafia families, Tong stories were popular staples of pulp fiction, and pre-code film. Edward G. Robinson, best known for his tough-guy gangster roles, even played a hatchet man in the 1932 film of the same name.
This greyscale gouache on artist’s paper shows a shows a beautiful maiden, identified as “Bow Kim–Little Sweet Flower–[who] precipitated a bloody war.” It appears as a bookplate in the 1930 book “Tong War!” by Eng Ying Gong and Bruce Grant. We have not been able to learn much about the artist Pedro Llanuza beyond his illustrations for this work, but his skillful art deco presentation and strong command of shading and storytelling speak to his talent and imagination.