The night the bloody Triad wars erupted on the streets of Dublin

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The night the bloody Triad wars erupted on the streets of Dublin

Rivalry between Chinese restaurants led to scenes reminiscent of a classic kung fu movie on the streets of the capital


DRAMA: O’Connell St, near the junction with Middle Abbey St, in the late 1970s
DRAMA: O’Connell St, near the junction with Middle Abbey St, in the late 1970s

The photographer Art O’Callaghan had left Higgins’s pub near the junction of Liffey Street and was making his way back to the newspaper’s office in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin when a whirling mass of Chinese men spilled out of the doorway of a narrow little restaurant known as The New Universal brandishing meat cleavers, long kitchen knives and iron bars.

His photographs, published in the following morning’s Irish Independent, show blood-spattered bodies lying around the street. There is a dramatic picture of a man lying badly injured in a doorway while another man, wearing a bloodied white shirt, stands in the background.

It was the night the Triad wars came to Dublin… but at first most onlookers believed they were watching the shooting of a new kung fu movie in the city centre.

Tony Lee, a Cork businessman and restaurant owner, had his throat slit and died in hospital. Michael Tsim, based in Dublin, was found stabbed to death in a nearby doorway. Another man, Ricky Sam, was blinded after being shot in the head.

In Hughes’s pub the following night, after a late-night sitting of Dublin District Court where some of those involved were charged, detectives whispered stories of the astonishing violence that had erupted that Tuesday night.

One detective told me they had several severed fingers but didn’t know who they belonged to; their owners had been spirited away as the rival gangs scattered around Dublin, back to Birmingham or to Hong Kong.

Another detective maintained, perhaps somewhat fancifully, that Ricky Sam had been expertly shot so that the bullet took out both his eyes, but didn’t kill him – so even if the shooter was caught, he couldn’t be convicted of murder.

The New Universal Chinese restaurant at 112 Middle Abbey Street re-opened a couple of days after the violence with a new name: The Friendly House.

About three months before the incident on July 17, 1979, a problem had arisen around a Chinese restaurant called the Bamboo House in Dorset Street, Dublin. Allegations would later be made in court that Steven Sam, a chef in the New Universal, “started a campaign to close the Bamboo House”, harassed staff and attempted to enforce a protection racket on the premises. It was something he denied.

His brother Ricky Sam said he “discussed the problem” with Cork businessman Tony Lee. Lee was described by his wife as “a respectable businessman” and a pillar of the local Chinese community, but identified by others as a “big man” in the 14K – a Chinese Triad, or Mafia-style, gang whose power stretched from Hong Kong through Liverpool to Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

Ricky thought things were ‘sorted’ until Lee’s brother and 10 other Chinese men came looking for him in Dublin.

Tsoi Foh Sing, one of the Cork gang, who would later be accused of murder, said during his trial at the Central Criminal Court that about three months before the fatal affray in Dublin, he had a phone call from his uncle, Alex Choy, who told him he had a problem in his restaurant, the Bamboo House – the Sam brothers had asked for protection money and threatened to close the place if he didn’t pay.

The court heard that on July 17, tension had been brewing from early in the day. Chef Steven Sam had heard that Tony Lee was in Dublin and so was carrying a boning knife wrapped in a tablecloth. When he met his brother Ricky and the others, he told them to arm themselves with knives.

Andy Yip, whose father owned the New Universal, had gone to South Richmond Street to collect some curry powder when he saw Tony Lee’s Cork-registered black Mazda car parked on the street outside. He didn’t go in, he told the court, because he didn’t want to meet him. But when he got back to the New Universal in Middle Abbey Street some time later, Tony Lee and five others had arrived in the Mazda and a silver Fiat.

Mr Yip went into the restaurant, where Tony Lee was sitting at a table near the kitchen with Tsoi Foh Sing, two Chinese men from Birmingham and two ‘gentlemen’ from Hong Kong. The older of these introduced himself as Tak Shea Wong and said he held a high position in the 14K Triad.

“I told him I was also in the 14K and gave him the name of my section and superior,” said Yip. As they spoke, he noticed that one of the younger men from Hong Kong sitting with Tony Lee had a knife strapped to his leg.

Outside the restaurant, Wan Tan Cheng had been left on ‘lookout’ duty. He had been brought to Dublin by Tony Lee who told him they were going hunting.

When Michael Tsim, Steven and Ricky Sam and others got out of a black car and started walking towards the restaurant, he ran inside and shouted a warning.

The two groups confronted each other and words were exchanged. The elder Mr Yip, owner of the New Universal, then ordered them all out of the premises. The Dublin group backed away down the narrow passageway between tables followed by the Cork gang – but as the door opened knives began to slash the air, blood was drawn and the fighting spilled out onto Middle Abbey Street.

“I thought it was a kung fu movie until one young man was stabbed in the eye,” said passer-by Helen Finnegan.

“The older man got it in the throat,” said Jean Doherty.

“It wasn’t until I saw the blood gushing from his throat that I realised this was for real,” said another witness, “they were shouting and screaming; it was just like a kung fu film.”

“It was hard to believe it was happening it was so savage,” said off-duty garda Bernard Masterson who was passing in his car. “In the middle of the street there were 12 men fighting. One man ran out of the restaurant swinging a meat cleaver and there were men with long knives. The older man got it in the throat, then a young fella went to the back of a car and took out a rifle – he just fired it. I saw a fella fall near the Curzon cinema.”

Steven Sam told the court he saw Tsoi Foh Sing run at his friend Michael Tsim with a knife. When he went to stop him, he was hit by a long bar. His brother Ricky said that Tsoi Foh Sing came at him with a knife wrapped in newspaper. He said to him: “You have a knife and I have a knife.” He was trying to defend himself from another attack, when he turned and suddenly he couldn’t see anything.

“All the other crowd (from Dublin) began to attack us with knifes,” countered Tsoi Foh Sing. “I saw Tony Lee pick a knife off the ground and fighting with Steven and Ricky Sam and Freddie Lau and someone else. I backed away to our car. I wanted to see if there was anything there to use to protect myself. I saw the gun (on the floor in the back), opened the case and picked it up.

“I saw Tony Lee in a doorway; they were chopping at Tony Lee about a street width away from me. I think there were more than three people chopping at him. I saw him put his hands up to protect himself. I saw he was in danger so I pointed the gun. I told them to move but maybe they didn’t hear me. I did not know what I was doing because I was very frightened.”

After the shot went off, those who could still walk scattered.

Wan Tan Cheng carried Lee to the car, “blood flowing from his body”. Two others jumped in and Tsoi Foh Sing drove off, turning left at O’Connell Street and left again into Parnell Street before pulling up in front of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital where they deposited Tony Lee. As the crew from an ambulance got him on to a trolley, the knife he was holding clattered on the ground. The ambulance man shouted at a passing woman to pick it up, but she was afraid because the car was still there.

The car then roared off. The occupants intended to try to get back to Cork, but the two men in the back were so badly injured that they went to relatives in Tallaght instead.

Tony Lee died from the catastrophic injuries to his throat. Michael Tsim was found with two knives by his side, dead in the doorway of the Curzon cinema from shock and haemorrhaging due to stab wounds. Ricky Sam was also found lying in a nearby doorway, his eyes and head smeared in blood from the gunshot. Detective Garda Thomas Foley found another badly injured man lying under a car with a meat cleaver by his side in Bachelors Walk.

The following day a car with Cork number plates was found in Belgard Heights in Tallaght with two lengths of gun barrel piping in the boot. The search later moved to Tibradden Heights, where several Chinese men were found, two of them lying on a mattress, badly injured with slash wounds. The .22 rifle used in the fight and ammunition wrapped in a blood-stained newspaper were found behind the settee.

On Friday, November 13, 1981, after a nine-day trial in the Central Criminal Court, Tsoi Foh Sing, with an address in Washington Street, Cork, was found not guilty by an all-male jury of the murder of Michael Tsim and the attempted murder of Ricky Sam.

“Ireland is no place for justice,” wailed Ricky Sam as Judge Roderick O’Hanlon tried to shush him. “The doctors have told me I have a bullet in my head, I can feel it there.”

Outside the Four Courts, he told Irish Independent reporter Paul Thomas: “Not only have I lost my sight, I have lost my wife, my daughter and my business.”

Since the fight, his marriage had turned sour and his Irish wife had left him, taking their 12-month-old baby girl. His business had also collapsed. “Money means nothing to me now – it cannot bring back what I have lost,” he said mournfully.

The fight of the Triads in Ireland was as short and bloody as a scene in one of the kung fu movies that graced the silver screen at the time. The participants in the battle of Middle Abbey Street melted back into the Chinese community and were never heard of again.

Sunday Independent

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