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Spirits Of The Bay | Ross Alley: From Mafia To Mop Tops

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

Its alleys play a big part in making San Francisco’s Chinatown the endlessly fascinating quarter that it remains. There are more than three dozen of them, ranging from narrow nameless walkways that are little more than garbage depositories to established byways that go back to the Gold Rush. Old Chinatown Lane, Spofford, Beckett, Bedford, St. Louis, Trenton, Pelton, Stark, Jason, Duncombe, Adele Court — to a connoisseur of Chinatown, the very names evoke the convoluted romance of this unique quarter.

All of these intricate passageways have their unique appeal. But the oldest of them, and one of the most charming and atmospheric, is Ross Alley. Ross, which runs between Washington and Jackson streets east of Stockton, was originally called Stout’s Alley. It was also known as Old Spanish Alley because of the Californios who lived in the area. The lane is noteworthy for being the scene of two memorable and very different historical episodes.

In the late 19th century, the king of Chinatown’s underworld was a smoothtalking gangster known as “Little Pete.” Little Pete, whose real name was Fung Ching Toy, had risen from humble origins to become the wealthy owner of a shoe factory, then the head of an illegal empire built on gambling and slave girls. Rival gangsters put a $3,000 price on Pete’s head, but he was protected by so-called highbinders — or hatchet men — foot soldiers of fighting tongs, the mafialike organizations that terrorized the mostly law-abiding citizens of Chinatown. Pete wore a suit of chain mail weighing 35 pounds, but to make absolutely sure he was safe, he hired a white bodyguard named C.H. Hunter, knowing that no highbinder would dare kill a white man. Pete lived upstairs from his shoe factory in a well-guarded building on Washington Street, near Ross Alley.

Overconfidence led to Pete’s demise. On the night of January 23, 1897, he told Hunter to go out and buy a newspaper. Hunter protested, but Pete insisted. Then he strolled through the ground floor of his factory, out the door and a few yards east to a barbershop on the corner of Washington Street and Ross Alley.

As Pete sat down in the barber’s chair, two paid assassins who had been trailing the underworld chief saw their opportunity. They rushed in and shot Pete four times at pointblank range, killing him instantly, then ran down Waverley Place and made their escape. The murder was never solved.

On a happier note, late on the evening of August 18, 1964, after the Beatles landed in San Francisco on their first American tour, John Lennon and Ringo Starr slipped away to have drinks at the Rickshaw, a long-defunct bar on Ross Alley. (The Rickshaw was directly across the narrow alley from another vanished bar called Danny’s Dynasty.) When the Rickshaw closed at 2 a.m., Ringo recalled in The Beatles Anthology, “the barman and everyone went out and then we went back in and carried on. I loved all that.”

It can be said without doubt that Ross is the only street in the world where a 19th century Chinatown gangster was gunned down and two members of the Beatles had an incognito after-hours drink.

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