On February 19, 1983, three armed men enter the Wah Mee Club, a gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown International District, to carry out a bold heist. They leave behind 13 dead, one eyewitness, and a chapter of Pacific Northwest history known as the Wah Mee Massacre. Police will arrest the three men -- one of whom flees to Canada -- and the surviving eyewitness will testify during three high-profile trials. Two assailants will receive life sentences for murder; the third, convicted of robbery and assault, will be paroled after 30 years and deported to Hong Kong. The Wah Mee Club will remain shuttered and padlocked until it is consumed by fire on Christmas Eve 2013.
Wah Mee Beginnings
The Wah Mee Club was located in a ground-floor space of a tenement hotel built in 1909. Beginning in the 1920s, it was one of several clubs that operated in and around Chinatown, offering music, dancing, liquor, and gambling. For many years, a red, neon Wah Mee Club sign hung on the building's side, beckoning visitors to enter the club halfway down Maynard Alley South. "The Wah Mee Club was famous in Seattle," Seattle Weekly's Frank Chin wrote. "You don't speak with any real authority about Seattle of the '30s, '40s, or '50s if you can't say when you first stepped into the electric, smoky Wah Mee" ("Our Life Is War").
John Okada, author of No-No Boy, based his novel's central gambling club on the Wah Mee, a place he frequented during the 1940s. In No-No Boy, the Wah Mee Club is renamed Club Oriental and is described thusly by Okada:
"Halfway down an alley, among the forlorn stairways and innumerable trash cans, was the entrance to the Club Oriental. It was a bottle club, supposedly for members only, but its membership consisted of an ever-growing clientele. Under the guise of a private, licensed club, it opened its door to almost everyone and rang up hefty profits nightly. Up the corridor, flanked on both sides by walls of glass brick, they approached the polished mahogany door. Kenji poked the buzzer and, momentarily, the electric catch buzzed in return. They stepped from the filthy alley and the cool night into the Club Oriental with its soft, dim lights, its long curving bar, its deep carpets, its intimate tables, and its small dance floor" (Okada, 71).
One person with fond memories of the Wah Mee Club was Windsor Olson, a private investigator who visited the club with his wife, Dorie, for late-night cocktails and dancing. "I remember there was only one set of security doors back then," Olson recalled during a 2007 interview. "Once someone buzzed you in, there was a three-foot Buddha on a pedestal just inside the entrance. That Buddha's belly had been rubbed many times for good luck" (Olson interview with author).
For most of its existence, the Wah Mee Club was a hub for gamblers eager to wager up to $1,000 per hand and try their luck at Pai Gow, poker, and mah-jongg. Seattle's longstanding gambling-tolerance policy helped to keep clubs such as the Wah Mee open for decades. A lot of beat cops spent a lot of time at the Wah Mee and other Chinatown gambling clubs and speakeasies. No one asked questions. The cops picked up their kickbacks in exchange for letting the clubs operate in Chinatown.
The late Henry Kay Lock, a figure in Chinatown for most of his long life, once told a journalist, "Chinatown at that time was really a busy, bustling place with all the gambling houses open. There were four houses: Mei Jew, Wah Mee, and two owned by Hop Sing down on 2nd Avenue. There were lots of lottery joints. The police were mostly paid off. I remember Charlie Louie used to be the payoff man. He took care of the gambling joints and paid them off. The gambling business supported quite a few people" (Chew, 41)
By the early 1980s, the Wah Mee had earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s best clubs for high-stakes gambling. Its bank often reached $100,000, and there could be up to $50,000 on the table at any given time (the house collected 5 percent). Entire paychecks could be laid down in a single night.
Security at the Wah Mee was tight. Four rows of glass bricks fronted the entrance. Each brick was opaque except one, which served as a peephole for a club guard to identify guests and decide whether or not to allow visitors past two sets of steel doors leading to the gaming and bar areas. The club's office was equipped with a warning buzzer and a "panic bar" that would set off an alarm. By 1983, the Wah Mee operated Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings and stayed open until 6 a.m. Its patrons were limited to semi-affluent, Chinese American restaurateurs and other small-business owners who were on first name and familiar terms with the club's managers. Although its storied history in the neighborhood bestowed it some level of respect, locals told reporters that the Wah Mee Club circa-1983 was like a B-grade cocktail lounge, comfortable but not opulent.
Three men were responsible for the 1983 robberies at the Wah Mee Club. Two of them carried out the murders.
Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak, 23, had moved with his family from mainland China's Kwangtung Province in 1975. He briefly attended Cleveland High School in Seattle before dropping out and earning his General Equivalency Degree. At the time of the murders at the Wah Mee Club, Mak was living with his parents and siblings in their South Seattle home. He had worked a variety of odd jobs -- busboy, cook, and waiter in Chinese restaurants; laborer at a steelyard; dealer at a couple of Chinatown's after-hours gambling clubs -- and had incurred serious gambling debts by 1983.
Benjamin Ng, 20, was a high school dropout who, like Mak, worked in Chinatown restaurants and gambling clubs. Ng, who was often spotted cruising Chinatown streets in his blue Corvette, had racked up several criminal charges, including robbery, shoplifting, and two incidents involving handguns.
Wai Chiu "Tony" Ng (no relation to Benjamin), 25, lived with his parents in South Seattle. He had arrived in Seattle from Hong Kong with his family in the early 1970s, graduated from Cleveland High School, and enrolled in a vocational auto mechanics program at South Seattle Community College. He worked part-time at his father's restaurant in Lynnwood, and at a car dealership in downtown Seattle. By most accounts, he was quiet, had a girlfriend, and stayed out of trouble. As he would later explain during his trial, Tony Ng agreed to join Mak and Benjamin Ng in robbing the Wah Mee Club because he owed Mak $1,000. Participating in the plan would clear his debt, Ng testified. He claimed to be unaware that murder was part of the plan.
The Robberies and Murders
On the evening of February 18, 1983, Mak met Tony Ng outside the entrance to the Wah Mee Club. The pair weren't strangers to the club, and a security guard buzzed them inside. The two loitered around the club for a half hour. There were seven or eight people in the club, most of whom were sitting at one of the gambling tables. One man tended bar. It was a mellow scene. Gamblers chatted and laughed. Mah-jongg tiles clicked like tap shoes.
Tony Ng, nervous and fidgety, sat at the bar and ordered tea. He recognized Wai Yok Chin -- a Navy veteran who lived with his girlfriend, Rose, in a nearby apartment, and often worked as a dealer at one of the local clubs -- seated next to him. Chin, 61, was a short, frail, Chinese man with salt-and-pepper hair and a slight paunch. Chin had arrived just before midnight, in time to eat a late dinner before he went to work as a Pai Gow dealer. The men nodded at one another. Chin offered Ng a bite of his food -- Chinese-style spareribs and little potatoes ordered from a nearby restaurant -- and they chatted.
Shortly before 12:30 a.m., Benjamin Ng crossed South King Street and entered Maynard Alley. Although the brown paper bag he carried was conspicuous (it was stuffed with precut nylon cords), when Ng buzzed the security door, he was recognized by the guard and allowed inside the club.
"Hands up!" Benjamin Ng shouted. Most people were gathered around two gaming tables, their backs toward the entrance. They turned around to see the commotion and hold up their hands. One of the gunmen burst into the office and pointed a gun at the security guard so that he could continue to identify the arriving guests and buzz them inside. Tony Ng shuffled to the far end of the club and checked a back room for any customers who had wandered off to the restroom before the robbers arrived. Everyone else was ordered to the floor at gunpoint. They moved to the center of the gaming room, around two wide and heavy oak tables, one topped with blue felt, another with green felt. Ashtrays lay on the tabletops, and cheap wooden stools surrounded them. Although fluorescent lights were mounted to the ceilings, they were turned off. Instead, ornamental lanterns cast the room in a yellow-orange glow.
The paper bag was opened, nylon cords were removed. One by one, the victims' hands and feet were tied. As more guests entered the club, they found their friends and fellow gamblers lying on the floor. They, too, were tied up and ordered to the floor with the others. Cooks and waiters were ending their shifts and retiring to the Wah Mee Club for drinks and gambling. In less than 10 minutes, the number of people in the club had nearly doubled.
Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng began emptying the victims' pockets. Wallets, a cash register, and one woman's purse were dumped and pilfered. Some wallets were tossed in a bag, others were emptied and dropped on the floor.
Satisfied with their haul, Tony Ng later testified at his trial that Mak told him to wait in the area between the two security doors. He followed Mak's instructions, carrying a bag stuffed with several thousands of dollars in cash.
Mak and Benjamin Ng, standing on a small set of steps that led from the bar to the gaming area, fired at the victims laid out on the floor below. The security guard was cornered in the office and shot to death. The pair then stepped down to the main floor and moved around the room, firing shots and stepping over blood that was beginning to seep from their victims. More than 30 shots were fired on 14 victims, according to Seattle Police Department detectives. Not one shot missed. According to police, the killers paused several times to reload, and Mak and Benjamin Ng stopped firing only when they ran out of bullets.
According to attorney John Henry Browne, who would later represent one of the shooters, "They fled with about $20,000. In an affidavit, prosecutor William Downing stated that, along with a total of 10 firearms, police recovered more than $10,000 in cash in Benjamin Ng's bedroom, and more than $5,000 in Willie’s bedroom" (Browne, 132).
A Lone Survivor
Even after the Wah Mee Club's heavy security doors slammed closed, and Benjamin Ng, Willie Mak, and Tony Ng fled down Maynard Alley, visitors kept arriving at the club. One person, a cook from Federal Way, rang the doorbell and waited for a security guard to peer through the glass block, nod his head in recognition, and unlock the doors. But this time nothing happened. He rang the doorbell again. He banged on the club's front door. Still no answer. Another man, a cook at a restaurant around the corner, arrived. They tried pulling open the club's doors and peering in through the glass block window. They were confused.
Inside the club and among the bodies lying on the floor, one person stirred -- Wai Yok Chin.
As he later testified, the more noise people made by banging on the door, the more Chin came to, and the more his recollection of the evening slowly materialized. He remembered Tony Ng, the young man who sat with him at the bar; the young man with whom he shared his meal. When Chin was ordered to the floor, it was Tony Ng who bent over to tie up the old man. Lying face down on the floor, Chin twisted his head and glanced up at Ng. "No need to tie so tight," Chin told his assailant, according to his trial testimony. "I'm an old man." Because Tony Ng loosely tied his victim's hands and feet, Chin could now free himself.
Another bit of serendipity: Chin suspected he would be shot; when the two men opened fire, he wriggled beneath one of the gaming tables. The moved helped prevent Mak and Benjamin Ng from firing directly into Chin. He was only wounded.
Slowly, Chin crawled away from the bodies and blood that covered the lower floor and moved toward the exit. He leaned on one of the security doors and, much to his surprise, the heavy doors fell open. He pushed past them and staggered outside the club, the doors locking behind him. Though garbage-strewn, smelly, cold, and damp, Maynard Alley was Chin's haven for the moment. He fell to the ground in front of the two men who had been pounding on the door. The men, in turn, looked in horror at Chin: bullets had ripped through his neck and jaw, and exited through his throat.
"Who did it?" one of the men asked.
"Ng and Mak," Chin croaked. "That's all I can tell. The door locked already. Call ambulance" (trial transcript).
Meanwhile, a Seattle police officer was on patrol in Chinatown when the police radio in his car announced someone had called 911 to report a bloody man was discovered in Maynard Alley South. The officer answered the call and drove toward the Wah Mee Club, where he found two other officers were already on the scene. The officers had spotted a man helping Chin stagger away from the club, up the alley, and onto South King Street. An ambulance was called while Chin, who was seated in the passenger seat of a patrol car and holding a bloody handkerchief to his face, tried to answer questions. Chin's injuries were severe. He could answer only yes or no, and even those answers were barely decipherable because of his thick accent. Chin confirmed to police he had seen the suspects before and he could identify them.
Moments later, the ambulance arrived. A police officer rode with Chin to Harborview Medical Center, where Chin arrived in critical condition. He was placed under heavy police guard and rushed to surgery. The longer he could survive, the more he could tell police what happened at the Wah Mee Club.
The Crime Scene
As the ambulance raced away from the club, lighting up South King Street on its way toward Harborview, police officers turned back down toward Maynard Alley South, spotting what was described as a "trail of blood" leading down the alley and beneath the Wah Mee Club's locked front doors.
The club's heavy double doors were pried open using a steel bar from a fire department aid car. Four officers entered the club and immediately spotted blood in the narrow, dimly lit vestibule between the two sets of double security doors, large drops that ran from inside the club and out into the alley, curving away from the entrance. As they inched farther into the club, they saw the piles of bodies.
"Almost as soon as we entered, we saw a number of people lying face down in a curving row on the floor in the lower room," one of the officers, David Ziskin, would recall in his memoir. "I moved over to them. There were about a dozen victims, all middle-aged Chinese people; at least one was a woman. They had been tied-up in the fashion known on the street as 'hog-tied' — each person's wrists and ankles had been tied together behind their back. I looked at each of them to make sure that no suspects were hiding among the victims. I recognized some of these people. They were businesspeople and members of the community, folks I said hello to in restaurants and on the street" (Ziskin, 198).
Outside the club, narrow Maynard Alley was jammed with police officers, detectives, and now staff from the medical examiner's office. In the 45 minutes or so it took between Chin staggering out of the club and police officers entering, the horror had been sealed behind the thick security doors. Now, word was trickling out to the alley as to just how grim the murder scene was. Chinatown was abuzz. The alley was cordoned off and a crowd of more than 60 loitered around South King Street to watch the commotion.
Police chief Patrick Fitzsimons arrived, along with the department's top detectives. A police sergeant supervised the investigation, with at least a half-dozen veteran detectives accompanying him. "There was so much blood," said one homicide investigator. "We were all afraid of falling in it. It was that thick" ("13 Dead ..."). A colleague confronted another officer, arriving at the scene moments later. Outside the club's entrance, his colleague, without describing the carnage inside, simply said, "You don't want to go in there" ("13 Dead ...").
According to the King County Medical Examiner, the victims died of gunshot wounds to the head, and included John Loui, 48; Moo Min Mar, 52; Jean Mar, 47; Henning Chin, 52; Lung Wing Chin, 60; Hung Fat Gee, 51; Chinn Lee Law, 51; Dewey Mar, 68; George Mar, in his fifties; Jack Mar, 60; Wing Wong, 59; and Gim Lun Wong, 54.
One of the first people to convey to the public the gravity of what happened was a Seattle Times photographer who, after arriving in Chinatown a couple of hours after the murders, slipped into a residential hotel directly across the alley from the club, knocked on a few doors on the second floor, and was finally allowed inside one resident's room. Just before dawn, the photographer leaned out the hotel window and began shooting photographs of police officers, medical examiners, and investigators entering and exiting the club, removing bodies, and loading them into vans. The front-page photo that hit newsstands was iconic.
A Manhunt and Three Trials
Because Wai Chin survived, he could identify Willie Mak and Benjamin Ng, who were arrested within hours of the crimes and charged with multiple counts of robbery and murder. In August 1983, Benjamin Ng was tried and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing 13 people at the Wah Mee Club. Mak's trail, which began on September 20, 1983, and concluded on October 5, 1983, resulted in the death penalty for Mak, who was found guilty of 13 counts of aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree assault. While legal maneuvering spared Benjamin Ng the death penalty, Mak, the ringleader in the view of jurors, was sentenced to death. Eight years later, a Washington State Supreme Court judge overturned that decision, and Mak was resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Meanwhile, Tony Ng remained at large for 20 months. He was finally captured on October 4, 1984, when Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), working in tandem with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), arrested Ng in an apartment in the Chinatown neighborhood of Calgary, Alberta. Ng had been working in a factory and living under the alias Jim Wong. He was captured after FBI investigators received a tip from an unnamed source that Ng was living in Calgary. The FBI contacted the RCMP and asked them to investigate the lead.
Tony Ng later testified he had arrived in Canada less than two weeks after the murders. He admitted that he was at the Wah Mee Club on the night of the massacre. He admitted he tied up many of the victims and stole their money. But he insisted Mak ordered him to wait in the area of the club between the two security doors. Tony Ng said he heard shots and, later, he joined Mak and Benjamin Ng as they fled the club. In exchange for joining the men, Ng said he received $6,000 and his $1,000 debt with Mak was cleared.
Tony Ng was extradited back to Seattle. At his trial, Ng said he tried to back out of the Wah Mee Club robbery, but Mak threatened to kill him and his family if he didn't participate. In April 1985, Tony Ng was found guilty of robbery and assault, but not murder, and sentenced to 30-years-to-life in prison. Despite being considered a model prisoner, Ng, who did not attain U.S. citizenship when he arrived in America in the 1970s, was denied parole five times. He served 30 years before he was released and deported to Hong Kong in 2014.
The massacre's lone survivor and eyewitness, Wai Yok Chin, died in 1993 at age 71. It was later revealed that Chin and his girlfriend, Rose, had been hidden away in a small apartment above Pike Place Market, where they lived under heavy police protection during the trials for Benjamin Ng and Willie Mak -- after all, a third accomplice was still at large.
According to one police officer assigned to protect Chin, the couple spent their daily lives like two retirees: watching television, cooking, doing the laundry, and even playing cards with a sergeant and 12 detectives. The security team grew fond of Chin, affectionately referring to him as "Mr. C," and taking him and Rose on trips to Camano Island State Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Point Defiance Zoo, Northwest Trek, Deception Pass, Leavenworth, Ste. Michelle Winery, and Longacres racetrack.
Taking Chin and Rose on these field trips was an exercise in precision logistics. According to one law enforcement officer, any vehicle that even hinted to be connected to the police department was out of the question. Instead, they used a "tricked out van" with a fancy paint job and a television antenna on the back. It had big bubble windows and the driver sat in a captain's chair. "Mr. Chin and Rose would be in the back," Seattle Police Captain Neil Low recalled. "There would probably be at least four of five of us in there. I seem to recall having to sit behind the captain's chair. There weren't enough seat belts. And, of course, we had our bag of heavy artillery with us, too. We usually went to places well out of the city. We avoided Seattle" (Neil Low interview with author).
Following the murders at the Wah Mee Club, and the attention placed on the Chinatown International District, Seattle police reported gambling declined in late 1983 and 1984 because people were wary of venturing into the neighborhood with wads of cash. But that didn’t last long, as evidenced by a series of raids in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In July 1987, a poker player who was sore after losing $50,000 in a week at a Chinatown gambling club tipped off police. The tipster claimed gamblers risked as much as $600 on a single hand, and the club collected 4 percent of the winnings. Other tipsters came forward, including relatives or friends of people who had lost large amounts. They were concerned about the gambling losses and the possibility of another tragedy like what occurred at the Wah Mee Club. Eventually, police raided the club and seized cash, cards, dice, and poker chips. Ten men and one woman were arrested for illegal gambling.
The following year, the Golden Wheel Club, located around the corner from the Wah Mee, was raided by police. The Golden Wheel had piqued the police department’s interest for years, and law enforcement had even gone so far as to get an undercover officer inside the club to gamble. Under the cover of darkness at 3 a.m., police officers burst into the club and arrested two dealers and 17 gamblers. More than $18,000 in cash was confiscated. According to a police spokesperson, the Golden Wheel Club was much like the Wah Mee Club -- a high-stakes gambling den financed by a half-dozen wealthy people; pots swelled to as much as $4,000 on a single hand; the house collected 10 percent from winning gamblers, and the place was monitored through closed-circuit television cameras and heavy security at the door.
In 1992, Seattle police officers and FBI agents raided six separate Chinatown International District gambling clubs. Collectively, eight people were arrested and more than $12,000 in cash was seized. Again, the clubs were set up similar to the Wah Mee. Gamblers entered through heavily guarded doors; the clubs operated after-hours, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., and Pai Gow and mah-jongg were played, with stakes as high as $10,000.
Meanwhile, the shuttered Wah Mee Club existed in a state of permanent disrepair. The club's doors, padlocked for three decades, hung slightly ajar. The rows of opaque glass blocks that fronted the entrance were covered in a thick layer of dirt, grime, and graffiti. Decades passed without the building receiving a fresh coat of paint: the facade, once painted a rich forest green, turned to a bruised and weathered reptilian crust. The red trim that boldly framed the glass blocks, heavy double doors, and lattice above the entrance faded to the pink color of dying coral.
On Christmas Eve 2013, a fire burned the western half of the building, including the Wah Mee Club space. Sections of the building's roof and floors caved in, and the wall closest to Maynard Alley South, part of the Wah Mee Club, was at risk of collapse. The building's owner demolished the damaged section and rebuilt, turning it into the Louisa Hotel, an apartment building with 84 units of affordable rental housing.