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Where Have All the Gangsters Gone?
Max Cherney | Photo: Anrong Xu | April 8, 2015
Chinatown's violent past is legendary, but now its streets are quiet. Are the criminals gone, or just hiding?
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
In 1875, a man named Low Sing fell in love with a call girl known as the Golden Peach and aspired to buy out her contract. When another of her patrons, Ming Long, learned of Sing’s plan, he ambushed Sing outside the brothel where the Peach worked. Sing, who managed to escape with his life, reported Long’s knife attack to his fellow members of the Suey Sing Tong, one of Chinatown’s numerous community organizations. Angered by the offense, the tong’s leadership posted a public notice demanding restitution from the Kwong Duck Tong, where Long was a member. The demand was refused, and so, diplomatic avenues exhausted, the two tongs agreed to meet at midnight in a Chinatown alley and settle the score.
As the appointed hour approached, nearly 50 tong members wielding guns, hatchets, and knives poured into the alley and engaged in battle. The cops swarmed in and broke it up only minutes later, but not before one Suey Sing and three Kwong Ducks had been killed and another 12 combatants wounded. Declared the victors, the Suey Sing Tong demanded a written apology and a $10,000 settlement, split between the tong and Low Sing.
One hundred and forty years later, Chinatown’s streets are quiet. The days of pitched battles over the love of a call girl have passed. Violent turf wars over the traditional rackets—prostitution, gambling, extortion, and drugs—and the riches that came with them haven’t raged here in nearly two decades. Except for a few high-profile outliers, Chinatown’s reputation for crime has evaporated. But after more than a century, what finally brought peace to the neighborhood? Were Chinatown’s criminals pushed out of San Francisco? Or did organized crime find a quieter way to operate?
Officer David On, a fortysomething Chinatown beat cop who lives with his wife and two children on San Francisco’s west side, was brought up in the neighborhood. The streets that he walks today, he says, are different than they were when he was growing up. On remembers the gangsters who used to hang around Chinatown smoking cigarettes. “I went to private school,” he says, “and [the gangsters] were much older than I was—I would see them around. But it’s not like that anymore. There aren’t gang members just hanging around on the corners.”
Nowadays, in fact, Chinatown’s problems are much like those of the rest of San Francisco. Violent crime is down, but robbery continues, and homelessness is an ongoing problem. Walking along bustling Stockton Street, On explains that Chinatown’s population density makes it a fruitful environment for pickpockets: “Just look at the way they shop, with their purses exposed like that,” he says, gesturing toward the elderly women and men parsing the vendors that line the street. Drug dealing crops up too: A shopkeeper on the neighborhood’s outskirts reports that he knows of at least a couple of midlevel dealers who rent one of Chinatown’s ubiquitous SRO apartments.
But gangs, and the criminal activity they used to engage in, are nowhere to be seen. Illegal fireworks sales, once a mainstay of gang revenue, are increasingly rare. “Once in a while I’ll find some people doing it,” On says, “especially around the Fourth of July.” He hasn’t encountered an extortion case in years, which could suggest that the problem has nearly disappeared.
“In terms of numbers, Asian gang-related crime is down, although Chinatown is not completely safe,” cautions Portia Li, who has covered crime in Chinatown for nearly 30 years at the Chinese-language World Journal. “All the crime has gone underground; it’s not really very obvious. I think they’re making their own money, doing business here and there and not really threatening the public’s lives.” As the overt violence of years past has subsided, law enforcement has responded with a certain level of tolerance. Strolling down Spofford Street, On points out the mah-jongg games, which have historically been gambling hubs. But he doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating them: Every few minutes a head pops out of a Gambler’s Alley door, the person smiling and waving—and On returns the greeting.
These days, the history of Chinatown’s underworld is buried inside the mah-jongg parlors, under the awnings of the tiny shops that line the streets, and behind the painted facades of the tongs’ headquarters. But if you know where to look, you can still find evidence of the violent past.
On Waverly Place, the Hop Sing Tong, painted lime-green, stands out against the naked brick buildings on either side. Just to the left of the entrance, under the tong’s name in gold paint, a filled-in bullet hole mars the door frame. In March 2005, shots were fired at the tong, scarring the facade. A year later, on February 27, 2006, Allen Leung, a community leader with connections to the Ghee Kung and Hop Sing tongs, was killed in his import-export business’s Jackson Street office by an unknown assassin. Word around Chinatown was that his murder was tied to organized crime. It would be one of the last times that a violent crime was linked to the tongs, marking the end of an association that began long ago.
Starting with the gold rush, the tongs helped forge San Francisco’s reputation for vice, but also filled the void left by a government and a police force largely uninterested in the Chinese community. In addition to controlling black markets, opium joints, and brothels and taking money from small businesses and gambling dens in exchange for protection, the tongs played a more benevolent role: They helped new arrivals find jobs and acted as arbiters in disputes—which, as demonstrated by the fight over the Golden Peach, sometimes led to violent confrontations in the streets.
The Golden Peach conflict was one of the earliest sparks in San Francisco’s Tong Wars, a conflict that marked the beginning of more than a century of on-and-off violence in Chinatown. The fighting in the neighborhood died down in the 1920s, and afterward Chinatown calmed somewhat, in large part because the gangsters got old. Prostitution, opium use, and gambling waned.
But starting in the 1960s, a wave of immigration brought a new generation of criminals to Chinatown who established a robust underworld order. Younger criminals formed new groups: A street gang called the Wah Ching appeared around 1964, originally serving as enforcers for the Hop Sing Tong. When the gang struck out on its own, Chinatown’s underworld was thrown into turmoil.
The bloody power struggle that followed peaked in 1977, when a group called the Joe Boys stormed the Golden Dragon restaurant in the middle of the night in an attempt to assassinate the Wah Ching leadership. Three masked gunmen opened fire, leaving 5 civilians dead and 11 wounded. Among the suspected targets was then-17-year-old Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow (the same Chow who was snared in 2014 along with more than two dozen others in a sprawling FBI probe into organized crime and political corruption—a rare public display of alleged old-time gangsterism).
After what came to be called the Golden Dragon Massacre, law enforcement broke up the Joe Boys. That left the Wah Ching in control of Chinatown’s underworld until the early 1990s. Then, a Hong Kong–based syndicate called the Wo Hop To, under the leadership of Peter Chong and Chow, attempted to unite the city’s Asian mob under one flag. The leader of the Wah Ching, Danny Wong, resisted and was murdered in 1991. A year later, Chow was indicted for gun trafficking, a charge that was later rolled into a racketeering indictment that named 19 other defendants. Chong fled the country. By 1996, Chow had been convicted and sent to federal prison, along with most of the 19 other defendants. (Chow, now 55, got out in 2002 after snitching on Chong, who was extradited in 2000 and imprisoned until 2008.) By 2002, crime in Chinatown had settled down. Leung’s 2006 murder was one last eruption of rumored gangland violence in the neighborhood.
Earlier Chinatown gangs, like the Wah Ching and the Joe Boys, were made up of young Chinese immigrants with ties to the tongs who acted as muscle to protect the gambling parlors and other illegal operations. Not anymore. “From the mid-1990s onward...a lot more Chinese immigrants have arrived who have been affluent,” says Sheldon X. Zhang, a sociologist at San Diego State University who has studied Chinese organized crime in America, including street gangs.
“The new kids are closely watched by their parents,” Zhang says, “and the large infusion [of wealthier immigrants] disrupted the old-world arrangements. There are just not enough younger people to feed into [organized crime], since recent immigrants from China tend to be wealthy enough to send their children to private school, don’t want to live in Chinatown, and often speak English.”
In the past, Zhang adds, newcomers to Chinatown hailed primarily from Hong Kong and Guangdong Province—both Cantonese-speaking regions (though many longtime residents speak a related dialect called Taishanese). But today’s immigrants come from regions of China, like Fujian Province and Shanghai, where Mandarin is spoken. Because criminal networks at every level, Zhang argues, require a common means of communication, Chinatown’s increasing cultural and language diversity makes it less suited to the formation of street gangs. “For delinquencies to emerge,” he says, “you need to have a tight gang, and they almost always have to speak the same dialect.”
On the other side of the generational coin, the original gangsters are old—and the few who remain active have had to become more imaginative in their handling of problems. Where once they relied on threats and violence, Zhang says, “now there are fewer and fewer gangs that do. It’s not like [the old days] anymore, and everyone’s been forced to change. The law and the whole society, the environment and the culture, have shifted.” The younger generation, according to Zhang, have professional ambitions: They aim to be doctors or lawyers; they want single-family homes with the proverbial lawn and white picket fence. They’re American. And, like Americans, when they have a dispute, they sue.
“They’ll hire attorneys to handle the issues,” says Linzi Cui, who covers crime for the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily. “The community used to be very small, but it’s not like that anymore.... The tong leaders are getting old, and the next generation doesn’t use the same mechanisms to resolve disputes, and many have already moved out of Chinatown.”
Of course, all is not completely quiet. Following Leung’s murder in 2006, Hop Sing Tong member and alleged gang boss Chow took over leadership of the Ghee Kung Tong, one of the oldest tongs in the country—and allegedly pursued Chinatown’s criminal tradition with vigor. In a March 2014 indictment related to the ongoing cases against Chow and 27 other defendants (including former state senator Leland Yee), the feds claimed that a pyramidal criminal structure continues to thrive in Chinatown. Federal prosecutor William Frentzen, drawing on a multiyear investigation that included more than a dozen undercover agents, aerial surveillance, and dozens of wiretaps, has alleged that, as part of a network tied to the Ghee Kung Tong, Chow and his cohorts engaged in drugs and weapons trafficking and money laundering.
Chow is one of the few authorities on the neighborhood’s criminal past who remain alive. His involvement with Chinatown crime stretches back to the 1970s, when he moved to the United States from Hong Kong and joined a gang. He has spent nearly 20 years in state and federal prisons—and has a tattoo of an enormous dragon stretching across his shoulders and torso to prove it. But he continues to proclaim his innocence, vigorously disputing the FBI’s allegations that his tong secretly ruled the Chinese underworld while hiding behind a pretense of benefiting the community.
Chow points out that in the past, the Chinese cultural tradition of mah-jongg was vigorously policed for its connection to gangs and gambling. But over time, many of the mah-jongg parlors were supplanted by out-of-town casinos (just down the street from Chow’s tong, in fact, a travel agency is advertising casino-bound shuttles). As the gamblers went elsewhere, the gangs moved on as well, and law enforcement’s attitude toward mah-jongg eventually relaxed. Other criminal activities have declined as well: Brothels mostly disappeared when prostitution became a largely online operation conducted by independent contractors, illegal lotteries have been replaced by the state-run system, and opium is no longer in demand (though other drugs linked to Chinese gangs still are).
Now, Chow says, tongs make their money from the management of their historic land holdings. “Each tong owns different buildings; they make money from renting out their building[s],” says Cui, the Sing Tao Daily reporter. “Some are apartments, others are for business use, and the tongs use the money for the community—events for the seniors, for the Chinese people living in Chinatown.”
Months ago, when I first spoke with Chow, he told me, “A lot of things have changed about organized crime—it died out after 9/11. When that happened, the whole thing changed. Computers, technology, wiretaps—it’s so easy to catch up with people.” Now, sitting across the glass from me in San Francisco’s county jail, he has agreed to speak out again—this time, he says, to help people understand the Chinatown of today and the tongs’ role in the community.
“These days,” says Chow, “crime isn’t organized like it used to be back in the day.... [The criminals] needed the tong to back them up in the community. But most of those tong members have died out.... Tongs have opened up and are legitimate.” Cui agrees, pointing out that while some tong members may be engaged in illegal activity, the organizations themselves aren’t criminal.
Still, although Chinatown’s sensational crimes have faded away, less obvious criminal activity may be percolating below the surface.
“One of the things to understand about ethnic gangs, no matter who they are, is that the absence of violence does not mean there is no gang activity,” writes historian and former San Francisco police officer Kevin J. Mullen in Chinatown Squad, his 2008 history of law enforcement in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “What it does mean is that turf and revenue sources are apportioned out among criminal participants to everyone’s satisfaction.” In Chinatown today, the absence of openly contending factions has brought a sort of peace, but that peace is misleading. Mullen writes, “White-collar crimes [in Chinatown]—like credit card fraud, insurance scams, and identity theft—have gone a long way toward replacing the more traditional, openly violent methods of revenue acquisition.” In short, they offer more reward with less risk than gunfights or power struggles.
“Now, if you’re going to do crime, it’s going to be sophisticated, like credit card fraud or property crime,” says Commander Garret Tom, who for two years served as captain of the police district that includes Chinatown. “It’s a lot different, sentencing-wise.”
While rumors of organized criminal activity continue to swirl, they’re difficult to pin down. Even the federal case against Chow and his alleged associates isn’t straightforward: The government now claims that there were, in fact, two separate conspiracies—one surrounding Yee and the other involving Chow—and many of those who were originally indicted are charged in neither.
So yes, Chinatown’s streets are quieter, but whether that’s because organized crime has disappeared or because it’s simply better hidden depends on whom you ask. No longtime merchant or resident in Chinatown would speak on the record about the issue, although it was clear that most believe that organized crime has not disappeared altogether. Increased international trade has made it easier to smuggle illegal goods, and the Internet has enabled buyers and sellers to conduct business free of the need to meet in person. The black markets that used to be inseparable from Chinatown’s character no longer exist on its backstreets. Chow and the few others like him who are still left alive after years of on-and-off gang warfare are relics. Like so much else in San Francisco, organized crime has moved online—and credit card swindles and scams of the elderly have replaced midnight battles in Chinatown’s alleys.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s really outward,” says Tom. “You don’t see the gangsters running the gambling parlors anymore. The same names used to come up at the station all the time, but not anymore.
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco