A Journey Through Chinatown

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Years of the Dragons

May 11, 2003. New York Times

THE night of Aug. 29, 1978, a lean, neatly dressed 23-year-old stumbled into the Fifth Precinct station house in the heart of Chinatown, bleeding from bullet wounds to his head and back. The victim was immediately recognized as the founder of the Ghost Shadows, one of Chinatown's most notorious gangs. But he refused to cooperate with the police, except to confirm that the shooting had taken place around the corner, at a mah-jongg parlor hidden beneath a restaurant on Mott Street.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, the same man, now 48 and graying, strode confidently into the Chinatown Day Care Center, a community-run nursery on Division Street. A 4-year-old in a purple down jacket darted from her seat to give her father a hug.

"Chinatown is not like before," the man remarked to a visitor as he returned the child's hug. "Chinatown is peaceful now. And there are no more gangs."

Of all the changes that have taken place in Chinatown in the last decade - the new wave of Fujianese immigrants, the shrinking of neighboring Little Italy, the gentrification of once squalid tenements - none has been as dramatic, or as historic, as its disappearing gang culture. Yin, who agreed to discuss his past on the condition that only his first name be used, played a pivotal role in this culture before serving 10 years in prison. But it is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Last year, for the first time in recent memory, not a single homicide was reported in the Fifth Precinct. The bullet-ridden alleyways of Mott and Pell Streets, the site of so many bloody turf wars, are as safe as the new Times Square. Local merchants who once coughed up thousands of dollars a year for protection money now use that money for mortgages. The cliques of menacing gang members who once recruited outside schoolyards have vanished without a trace.

"The heyday of youth gangs hanging out at different buildings and gambling houses, protecting businesses, going to restaurants for 'tiger meals' and not paying - that has pretty much disappeared from Chinatown," said Peter Kwong, director of the Asian-American studies program at Hunter College and the author of "The New Chinatown" (Hill & Wang, 1996).

The Jade Squad, a now-defunct special police unit formed in the 70's to tackle the gangs, attributed the change to arrests and racketeering convictions. The reasons are more complex, touching upon such diverse factors as changing international drug routes, cultural shifts, assimilation, even the crush of buses bound for Atlantic City.

But whatever the explanation, few will forget the screams of kidnapping victims and the crackle of bullets flying through crowded Chinese restaurants that marked the era of gang domination in the neighborhood. For better or worse, gangs were embedded in Chinatown's fabric.

"It's a part of our history that we need to remember,'' another former gang member said. "Gangs were a major part of Chinatown's soul.''

The Ghosts of Mott Street

Yin, the gang member who stumbled into the Fifth Precinct station that violent night, was 15 when he started hanging out with the wrong crowd. With his lanky frame and boyish good looks, he looked like a model child, but his charismatic smile and intense manner made him a natural leader for disaffected Chinatown youths.

By that year, 1970, Chinatown was home to five gangs: Chung Yee, Liang Shan, the Flying Dragons, the White Eagles and the Black Eagles. At first, they coexisted in relative peace, their memberships small, the spoils meager. But as boundaries were drawn, giving each gang a slice of Chinatown from which to profit, turf wars flared.

Rather than join an existing gang, Yin started his own. According to a federal indictment brought against him in 1985, Yin was the founding chairman of the Ghost Shadows, a gang that terrorized Chinatown for more than two decades. His role was so critical and his influence so great, in certain circles he is still considered a legend.

With no reputation or territory of his own, Yin set his sights on Mott Street, Chinatown's spiritual heart and a strip to which the White Eagles had already laid claim. To gain notoriety and prestige, the Ghost Shadows committed dozens of high-profile crimes, ranging from the murder of rival gang members to the armed robbery of a local newspaper. The emergence of the Ghost Shadows signified a bloody new chapter in Chinatown history.

"There was a tremendous amount of street violence," said Nancy Ryan, who founded the Asian gang unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office and whose prosecution of Yin and others earned her the nickname Dragon Lady. "Nobody had seen such a thing before in Chinatown."

In one grisly incident, Yin and other Shadows were patrolling Mott Street when they spotted a White Eagle walking alone. They forced him into a car, "drove him to a pier at the East River, bound his hands behind his back with wire, and tied his feet together with twine," the indictment said. "They then threw him into the river to drown."

"If you couldn't beat them, you had to join them,'' Yin said the other day during an informal tour of old gang landmarks that offered a rare, firsthand glimpse into a world normally seen through the eyes of the police. "If I didn't fight, I wouldn't have survived.''

The takeover of Mott Street, however, was not complete until the Shadows got the official nod from the tong, or fraternal association, of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association. Founded in 1893, On Leong is ensconced in a building with a pagoda roof at the corner of Mott and Canal Streets. From its red-lacquered balcony on which the Taiwanese flag flies proudly, one can survey the entirety of Mott Street as if from a castle on a hill.

Like most Chinatown tongs, On Leong was on the surface a legitimate enterprise, serving as a business collective, a crutch for immigrants, even a loan company. But as Chinatown knew all too well, the largest tongs were also the brains behind the gangs. In 1974, relations between On Leong and its street muscle, the White Eagles, soured. On Leong sanctioned a takeover by the 200-member Shadows, and after a quick blood bath, Mott Street was firmly identified as Ghost Shadows territory.

ABC's and FOB's

The takeover of Mott Street by the Shadows culminated a life of crime that began before the gang's leader was in high school. Yin came to New York in 1966 at the age of 11, the son of parents who were among the tidal wave of Chinese immigrants who flooded Lower Manhattan just after restrictive quotas against Asians ended in 1965. Chinatown was both new frontier and emerging ghetto. Like many of his peers, Yin lived in a cramped tenement apartment on Eldridge Street as his parents struggled to make a living.

"My parents were garment workers and didn't have time to focus on their children," said Yin, who speaks in a whispery voice and still struggles with English. "A normal job here is like 70 hours, even now. I had to make my own judgments, my own money."

As Chinatown's population exploded, so did crime. But contrary to myth, the neighborhood's gangs were not imported wholesale from Asia. The violent Chinatown underworld, vividly sketched in the 1985 Mickey Rourke film "Year of the Dragon," and in countless television cop shows, did not spread from Hong Kong like some virulent strain. A strictly American byproduct, it embodied the modern history of Chinatown.

The first gangs were formed in the early 1960's by American-born Chinese - ABC's, as they were called - to fend off attacks from non-Asian outsiders known as lo fans, and members rarely committed crimes involving their own people.

That changed around 1970 as new immigrants "fresh off the boat," or FOB's, began forming their own street gangs for more nefarious purposes. Like Yin, the younger generation came from impoverished homes, spoke little English and saw few opportunities in their adopted country except to band together socially and criminally. In this they mirrored the youth of earlier immigrant groups for whom a life of crime was often a crucial first step up the economic ladder.

"It was never my intention to come to the U.S. and get into trouble," Yin said. "My parents and I just wanted better prosperity. I just fell into the situation."

Chinese gangsters were never hard to spot. There was an unspoken uniform of tight black jeans that tapered around bare ankles, white Keds, spiky hair with dyed highlights and a beeper. Some wore black nylon bomber jackets with a colorful dragon stitched on the back.

Clouds of cigarette smoke hovered over certain basements where the tongs had set up illegal gambling parlors for poker, mah-jongg, fan-tan and pai gow. More than 15 major parlors hid in plain sight, some raking in $2 million a month.

For most of the 80's and 90's, shopkeepers regarded protection money as a cost of doing business in Chinatown. Gang members knew to dance around the topic, the better to avoid self-incrimination; some arrived bearing a mandarin orange tree, with a reciprocal donation implied.

"All the store owners knew that before their store opened, they would have to pay," said Ko-Lin Chin, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University and the author of "Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise and Ethnicity" (Oxford University Press, 1996). "They would always sit down and negotiate a price over tea. It was very polite."

Bonuses came on the Chinese New Year, in late winter, when a half-dozen lion dances, sponsored by various tongs, snaked through Chinatown to offer blessings amid the deafening pop of firecrackers. While tourists snapped pictures, the dancers collected wads of cash stuffed in red envelopes.

Wherever large sums of money exchanged hands, the gangs sought a slice of the action. Counterfeit handbags did not originate with the gangs, but they soon began getting a cut. Massage parlors and prostitution rings offered another revenue stream. By the mid-80's, "China White" was added to the list. The gangs served as the final leg of a heroin distribution network that started in Thailand, Burma and Laos, the so-called Golden Triangle. In the early 90's, as much as half the heroin bought in the United States passed through Chinatown.

The RICO Years

Before federal authorities began clamping down on the gangs, Yin had been arrested 20 times but convicted only twice, once as a youth for homicide, which landed him in juvenile detention for 18 months, and once for disorderly conduct after refusing to pay for a movie ticket. But as the gangs expanded their operations and became more brazen, with children and non-Asians mowed down by shootouts in broad daylight, a local menace turned, literally, into a federal case. In 1985, capping a 10-year investigation, federal authorities announced their first prosecution of Chinese gangs.

Under the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, 25 members of the Shadows were charged with 85 separate crimes, including 13 murders. As the ringleader, Yin was singled out for two dozen crimes, including two homicides and seven attempted murders. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Over the next decade, a string of RICO indictments stripped every Chinatown gang and tong of their top brass. Prosecutors stepped up their efforts in 1993 when a freighter called the Golden Venture ran aground off Queens with nearly 300 Chinese immigrants aboard, underscoring in sickening fashion the link between the gangs and human smuggling.

Even as the RICO convictions ushered a regime change in Chinatown, law enforcement officials worried that the seeds for a new generation of gang warlords were being planted. Waves of new immigrants from Fujian Province were settling in Chinatown and its two new offshoots, Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens, both of which seemed ripe for the picking. What happened instead, said Mr. Chin of Rutgers, was that "Chinatown itself had changed."

Unlike Cantonese immigrants from Hong Kong and other urban centers who once dominated the social hierarchy, the Fujianese and other recent immigrants were generally rural people. "They were farmers," Mr. Chin said. "They're going to school rather than getting involved with gangs."

The criminal enterprises that begot the gangs, like gambling and heroin, had lost their economic life. Atlantic City casinos offered cheap bus rides, Asian pop stars and more glitz than any smoke-filled basement. Meanwhile, Colombian heroin traffickers had undercut Asian suppliers with lower prices and purer grades.

At the same time, new blood to replenish gang ranks had become scarce. Like Italians, Jews and Irish before them, the children and grandchildren of Cantonese immigrants had set their sights beyond the street corner. "All the gangsters I used to know are stockbrokers now," said Joe G. M. Chan, a filmmaker in his early 30's who still lives in Chinatown, his native home.

Former gang members take pains to avoid the old neighborhood. "I rarely go to Chinatown these days," said Lawrence Wu, 27, a former Tung On gang member who, in a remarkable turnaround, earned his high school equivalency degree, graduated from Queens College and became editor in chief of The Columbia Law Review.

"The one thing that sticks in my head is how tiny this world felt," said Mr. Wu, who now practices corporate law at a major firm near Grand Central Terminal. "You lived in this subculture of a subculture of a subculture. The idea of going to an arcade in Midtown was a really big deal."

A Reborn Lion

Chinatown still has a criminal underworld. Although reports of kidnapping are now rare, smuggling of illegal immigrants remains a problem. Extortion has not been eliminated; Fujianese tour bus operators, for example, recently had their tires slashed for refusing to pay up.

But these are not the old days.

"It's more like three guys who come together to commit a burglary or extortion," said Carla Freedman, the current head of the Manhattan District Attorney's Asian gang unit. "Gambling still exists, but it's more like poker night than a gambling parlor."

Yin would be happy if the Shadows were also forgotten. After 10 years behind bars, he returned to Chinatown in 1994 a different man in a different world. Today, Yin is nearly bald, his face appears gaunt, and there is little trace of his charismatic swagger. He comes across as tentative and wiser, like a man who has had too much time to think.

"I lost a lot of time," he said with regret. "I started my family when I was 45."

After trying his hand as an electrician, a travel agent and a restaurant manager, he has embarked on a new life as a real estate developer; his first building, a two-story cinder-block structure in Chinatown, is nearly complete. Paradoxically, the arm-twisting and interference-running that is emblematic of New York construction reminds him of the old days. "It's very similar,'' he said, "except one is positive, and one is negative."

In an effort to help his daughter to retain a strong Chinese identity, Yin lives on the outskirts of Chinatown with his wife of five years, a recent immigrant who manages a Chinese restaurant.

Yin grew silent as he walked past old gang apartments, former gambling parlors, the restaurant where he was shot and the pagoda roof of On Leong, as imposing as ever at Mott and Canal Streets.

Several weeks earlier, on the first day of the Chinese New Year, On Leong had resurrected its lion dance after a long absence. In a moment heavy with symbolism, the dancers turned onto Pell Street, the territory of On Leong's longtime archrival, Hip Sing. The young dancers were led upstairs into Hip Sing's inner sanctum, where secret meetings were once held to plot against On Leong and the Shadows. As far as anyone could recall, Hip Sing had never before been host to an On Leong lion dance.

For a few minutes, the lion gyrated before a ceremonial altar, beautifully arranged with incense, oranges and cabbage. As old men in suits shook hands, the lion swallowed a head of green cabbage, a symbol of wealth, and tossed it back in a show of respect. The hatchet was officially buried.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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