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zzWah Mee Massacre

HistoryLink.org Essay 382 : Printer-Friendly Format

On February 18, 1983, three armed, young Chinese American men enter the historic Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown. They walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, leaving 14 people for dead. One of the victims survives and testifies during what were arguably the three highest-profile trials Seattle has ever seen. The Wah Mee was a historic speakeasy and gambling club that dated back to the early 1920s. The club, a romantic, classy enclave patronized mainly by semi-affluent restaurant owners and business people in the Chinese community, hosted some of the highest-stakes gambling that could be found in Seattle and, for that matter, in the entire Pacific Northwest. Winners went home with tens of thousands of dollars after a single night of gambling. Beat cops supplemented their income by tolerating (for a price) illegal gambling in Chinatown. Police allowed the exclusive, Chinese-only members of the Wah Mee Club to preserve an integral part of their history -- gambling -- while also profiting police officers. In early 1983, a young, 22-year-old Chinese American immigrant named Willie Mak racked up a several thousand-dollar gambling debt with one of the gambling clubs where he worked. In an effort to clear his debts, Mak singled out the wealthy Wah Mee as the target for a heist-and-killing like no other in Seattle. Mak enlisted the help of his old high school classmate, Benjamin Ng. Ng's extensive criminal record dated back to his years as a juvenile. Mak also enlisted the help of Tony Ng (no relation to Benjamin Ng) -- a shy, quiet, reserved 24-year-old Chinese American immigrant who worked at his parents' restaurant in North Seattle. Shortly before midnight on February 18, 1983, the three young men entered the Wah Mee Club. They hog-tied and robbed 14 victims before opening fire. One of the victims survived. He freed himself from the nylon cords and staggered out of the club to find help. The survivor, Wai Chin, a 62-year-old dealer of Pai Kau, a gambling game played with Chinese dominoes, identified Willie Mak, Benjamin Ng, and Tony Ng as perpetrators of the massacre. Within hours of the murders, Willie Mak and Benjamin Ng were apprehended. Tony Ng fled the country, hiding out for nearly two years in the Chinatown in Calgary, Alberta. Ng was eventually extradited to the United States, where he stood trial on several counts of aggravated murder and robbery. Willie Mak initially received the death penalty, but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Benjamin Ng also received a life sentence. Tony Ng did not face the death penalty due to a clause in his extradition from Canada to the United States. During his trial, Tony Ng's attorneys argued that their client did not open fire at the Club and that Mak had forced him to participate in the crime. Thus, jurors considered duress as a factor in their decision. They found him guilty of robbery-and-assault -- not murder. Ng continues to appeal his case, arguing that if jurors acquitted him of murder because of the "duress factor," they should have acquitted him of robbery-and-assault, also due to the "duress factor." The 1983 mass-murder was aptly named the "Wah Mee Massacre." The Club is officially dead. Its entrance doors have been padlocked and tagged with graffiti. Still, what happened at the Club is a brutally horrific piece of Pacific Northwest history.

Todd Matthews, "Wah Mee," (1988) on Todd Matthews Website (http://www.wahmee.com).

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Related Topics: Crime | Asian & Pacific Islander Americans |

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Interior of the Wah Mee Club, February 19, 1983
Courtesy Seattle Police Department

Interior of Wah Mee Club after massacre, February 19, 1983
Courtesy Seattle Police Department

Wah Mee Club, ca. 1950
Courtesy Todd Matthews

Maynard Alley (between 7th Avenue S and Maynard Avenue S) with boarded-up entry of the Wah Mee Club, June 2001
Photo by Walt Crowley

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