One night in 1983, three young men walked into the Wah Mee Club, the oldest gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown International District, to carry out a bold heist. When they walked away, they left behind 13 dead, one eyewitness, and an indelible mark on Pacific Northwest history. To date, the event remains the worst mass murder in the history of Washington State. Through historic photographs, newspaper reports, court documents, original reporting, and interviews with many people close to the case, Matthews has thoroughly researched and vividly recounted this story in his true crime / regional history e-book Wah Mee.
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Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey (left) discusses the Wah Mee Club with Todd Matthews in Seattle's Hing Hay Park during an episode of Travel Channel's 'Hidden City' television program.
(Photo Courtesy Travel Channel / Hidden City)
FAQ for "Wah Mee":
Can you briefly describe the Wah Mee Club and the murders that occurred there in 1983?
The Wah Mee Club was the oldest after-hours gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown International District. One night in 1983, three young men -- Willie Mak, Benjamin Ng, and Tony Ng -- walked into the club to carry out a bold heist. After tying up and robbing the fourteen patrons inside, Mak and Benjamin Ng proceeded to shoot all of the victims at close range and fled the club. One man survived and identified the pair, who were apprehended quickly. Tony Ng went on the run for nearly two years, and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list; he was eventually captured in Canada. To date, this tragic event remains the worst mass murder in the history of Seattle and Washington State.
Why did you decide to write about it?
Initially, I was fascinated by the history of the Wah Mee Club. It was part of a festive nightclub scene that dated back to Seattle's speakeasies, and its regulars had always been a "who's who" of Seattle's Asian American community. The late John Okada, a Japanese American writer who wrote the novel No-No Boy, could often be found at the club's bar. He even based his novel's key gambling club on the Wah Mee. Another Wah Mee Club regular was Ruby Chow. She ran a restaurant that employed a young Bruce Lee, and later was elected to King County Council. But at the same time, it was also a place where cooks, waiters, and other blue collar workers could relax after a long day of hard work. So the personality of the club itself was a draw for me.
Another factor was the magnitude of the crimes. Between 1983, when the murders occurred, and 1985, when the last perpetrator, Tony Ng, was sent to prison, Seattle was gripped by any news related to the Wah Mee murders. In later years, for better or for worse, other crimes and mass shootings were always compared to the Wah Mee Club murders, so the story remained in the public eye. Willie Mak sat on death row for nearly a decade before his sentence was overturned. He is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Benjamin Ng is also serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. But Tony Ng has the possibility of being paroled. Mak's new sentence and Tony Ng's appearances before the parole board have kept the Wah Mee Club in the news. And nearly every year, the local media report on the anniversary of the murders.
However, no one had ever written a comprehensive book about this significant part of Seattle's history. I remember thinking, 'Someone should really dig in and do the research to tell the whole story.' So I decided to tackle it myself.
A neon sign once directed people down an alley toward the Wah Mee Club.
(Photo By Elmer Ogawa / Courtesy UW Libraries Special Collections)
How did your interest in the Wah Mee Club turn into an e-book?
In 1998, I wrote a year-long, serialized feature about the Wah Mee Club, which was printed in a small Asian American newspaper in Seattle. When the series concluded, I posted the manuscript for free on my Web site. Over the next decade or so, I received many e-mails from people who had read the manuscript and wanted to share their own stories related to the Wah Mee Club, or sent links to current news articles related to the event. And, over time, my original manuscript became outdated and badly in need of revisions.
In 2010, with the rise of e-books and online publishing, I decided to revisit the manuscript and turn it into a full-length e-book. It was a large-scale project, which involved updating the material with new information; completely revising the original manuscript, including cutting and adding whole chapters; compiling a bibliography of sources; acquiring the rights to include historic photographs; and hiring a professional copy editor and proofreader.
A year later, the project was completed and published as an e-book. Because of the expenses related to completing this project, such as acquiring the rights to use photographs, hiring an editor, registering the ISBN, and paying for archival documents from libraries and courts, I decided to charge a small fee. As a writer, I am not looking to profit from the tragedy of this event; my hope is that the project might someday pay for itself, and also be readily available in a professional format to readers who are interested in learning more about the Wah Mee.
LEFT: Inside the Wah Mee Club during its heyday. RIGHT: Inside the Wah Mee Club shortly after the murders.
(LEFT: Photo By Elmer Ogawa / Courtesy UW Libraries Special Collections; RIGHT: Photo Courtesy Seattle Police Department)
It's been 30 years or so since the Wah Mee Club murders. Do we really need an e-book about it?
I understand the subject is taboo for many people in Seattle's Chinatown International District community. Some members of the community would prefer it to not be discussed at all, and simply forgotten with time.
That being said: the event happened, it remains in the news, and Seattle still remembers it.
Unfortunately, it is also remembered for what I feel are unfavorable reasons. There is a certain population who will always be drawn to this story out of lurid fascination with the terrible nature of the crimes. Maynard Alley and the Wah Mee Club are favorite hotspots among so-called ghost hunters. A tasteless, low-budget, straight-to-DVD movie based on the murders was released in the 1990s. And every week, a tour bus drives down Maynard Alley and parks outside the Wah Mee Club so that tourists can take photos.
What I tried to do, and what I hope comes through in my e-book, is to recount this significant historical event so that anyone who wants to learn more about it will have a solid, factual point of reference. My main goal is to preserve the story through journalism. It is my hope that Wah Mee retells this story with the nuance and context that is missing from the crime tours or urban legends. Such an important part of history in the Pacific Northwest deserves to be treated with respect and sincerity, not sensationalism.
This embossed and official Wah Mee Club guest card was issued on June 2, 1948, and reportedly belonged to a former Seattle police officer who later became an attorney and judge.
Praise for "Wah Mee":
"★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2" -- Amazon.com average review
An Amazon.com "Top 100" True Crime e-book
"★ ★ ★ 1/2" -- Goodreads average review
"I'd highly recommend this e-book to any who have any interest in this historical event. [Matthews] includes 'behind the scenes' insight not seen in the media coverage, as well as a comprehensive perspective of the 'shadow underground' of the first part of the 20th century in the Seattle Asian community. It's a compelling, quick, and easy read, at a great price, and supports a dedicated local writer." -- Sooray
"Todd Matthews' online book takes a journey into a Seattle that most people didn't see behind the headlines of the 1983 gambling club murders. The stories of these events in Chinatown touch the realities of life in the neighborhoods whose family members were killed. Matthews' years of digging have produced an understanding of history and ways of life that unfolds in a portrait of what happened at the Wah Mee Club and of the Seattle of that era." -- Seattle Community Network
"I just got done reading your story on the Wah Mee Massacre. I was locked into it with fascination from start to finish. Questions I had about it would be answered the further along I read. It was interesting, informative and done with dignity. I was also very interested in the early history you provided. Thank you for a very informative read." -- Glen W. via e-mail
This matchbook from the Wah Mee Club was found in a scrapbook that belonged to a woman who attended the University of Washington during the late-1940s. A note in her scrapbook reads, 'First date with Al, Spring Quarter 1949, at the Wah Mee Club.'
(Photo By Todd Matthews)
"A friend recently sent me a link to your feature on the murders at the Wah Mee gambling club. Your in-depth attention to detail and heartfelt account of the events that transpired were, simply put . . . amazing. I vaguely remember the murders as I was not quite 10 when they happened. My dad being a history buff had mentioned it a few times over the years, but only until your article did I get the full story. I just wanted to drop a line to say how much I enjoyed your accounts. Doing some Internet research I was able to find some images of the club, one that was taken shortly after the murders. The picture you painted with words was verified by the actual images." -- B. Jones via e-mail
"I read your story about the Wah Mee Massacre and found it very fascinating and well done. Your story compelled me to make a pilgrimage to the former Wah Mee. It was so strange to see it in its present state. Even more strange to peer through the clear glass brick and see the broken tea cups." -- Adam L. via e-mail
"I just finished reading your book. I've been intrigued by the Wah Mee Massacre ever since I first heard about it. I've been down that alley and stared at the entrance before. I'm very impressed by your book. You really did your research." -- J. Martinez via e-mail
This image of the Wah Mee Club circa-1973 was awarded first-place honors in a photography competition among local high school students.
(Todd Matthews Collection)
"By chance, I came across your story and just finished reading. I grew up in Seattle's Chinese community in the 1950s and 1960s. I had left Seattle by the time of the massacre so I did not know much about it. [Your book] was a great history lesson, and the familiarity of people and places mentioned made it a fascinating read. Many thanks." -- Chris S. via e-mail
"Very well researched, with extensive background on the neighborhood, the gambling club, and the perps. The elements of the story are interestingly interweaved . . . . Should appeal not just to Seattleites but to anyone who enjoys a good crime story." -- Amazon.com Review
"I just finished reading your e-book on the Wah Mee Club. I found it to be excellent and extremely well done! I thoroughly enjoyed the e-book. I remember walking past the Wah Mee once in a while between 2000 and 2003 and always wondered what the place was and whatever happened to it. Now I know." -- Christopher L. via e-mail
"I wanted to send you a quick note and compliment you on your Wah Mee work. I just read it and I am simply blown away about how much of my own personal past is involved. I know it's oh so long ago, but your extremely well-written piece took me right back. More than just a piece of history, I was really riveted at every turn." -- Michael R. via e-mail
The day after the Wah Mee Club murders, a student at the University of Washington removed the club's doorbell and kept it as a strange souvenir.
(Photo By Todd Matthews)
"It's an in-depth account of a massacre that still lives in Seattle's consciousness. If you're interested in Seattle history or its underworld, this is a must-read." -- Amazon.com Review
"The week before the 25th anniversary of the Wah Mee Massacre, I was looking for some coverage of the significance of the event. I did a Web search and began reading your articles with great interest. The Wah Mee Club was less than a 15-minute walk from from my little apartment and a friend just getting off work came by and told me about all the commotion in Chinatown that night. He didn't know what the fuss was about but I remember looking toward Chinatown and seeing the lights of the emergency vehicles in the distance. The next morning, when the story came out, it triggered a fascination in me that I still have today. I just wanted to write and let you know how much I appreciate all the work and care you put into writing those articles over the years. It's the best information I've ever found since the murders happened and I'm glad you told such an extensive account of the events leading up to and following Wah Mee. You are the historian of record in my book and I look forward to any future articles about Wah Mee. I admire your perseverance in covering the story like no one else." -- Dan S. via e-mail
"I didn't know much about the history of Seattle other than Nirvana and Starbucks but this book does an excellent job of explaining one of the most horrific incidents to take place there. Not only is it well researched and presents many first hand sources, it also goes beyond the actual murders to describe the social issues at the time which I also appreciated. It was an engrossing account and it seemed that the author had put a lot of work to make sure that the story was presented properly." -- Amazon.com Review
The Wah Mee Club remained padlocked more than three decades after the murders.
(Photo By Todd Matthews)
"If people are really interested in the facts . . . Todd Matthews made this story his passion. He has an excellent (and inexpensive) e-book available on the topic. It takes you [through] their lives in the days leading up to the massacre, their motivations and roles." -- seattletimes.com commenter
"I just finished reading your book and thought [it was a] fascinating and very well-written account. Thank you for your work." -- Joe G. via e-mail
"This is a well researched and well written book. It kept my interest and is a good and easy read." -- Amazon.com Review
"Very good read. Read it all in two days. Recent fire in the building brought back memories of old news reports." -- Amazon.com Review
"Mr. Matthews does a great job here. His prose are compelling and his insight doesn't get in the way of the facts. Highly recommended read." -- Amazon.com Review
"I really liked reading this book. Mr. Matthews writes in a manner that [is] easy to follow and is well-researched, so [I] fully understood all sides to this tragic event. Growing up in South Seattle during this time, [I] obviously heard of this, but young enough to not really follow up on details, nor know this much of Chinatown itself. Highly recommend this book if you're interested in learning more of this tragic event in Seattle's history." -- Amazon.com Review
Press for "Wah Mee":
Flames rip through Wah Mee building in Seattle (KIRO-TV, 12/24/13)
Wah Mee Revisited (Mutterings of a Mad Race, 03/23/12)
Tacoma Daily Index editor discusses e-book on Travel Channel program (Tacoma Daily Index, 03/05/12)
Tacoma Daily Index editor writes book on Wah Mee Club (Tacoma Daily Index, 09/19/11)
Wah Mee Robber Tony Ng Ticketed for Possible Parole; Made 'Bad Decisions' (Seattle Weekly, 03/02/10)
Seattle Sites of the Week (Seattle Community Network, 06/01/00)