A Journey Through Chinatown

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The (Chinese) Gangs of New York
First published in the Village Voice, January 31, 1977.

Late last year, the young Chinese couple who ran the Szechuan D'Or restaurant on East 40th Street were murdered. The incident sparked fear that the crime which had riddled Chinatown was moving uptown. Police launched a citywide campaign to wipe it out. The crackdown played havoc with established vice in Chinatown. Youth gangs, foot soldiers of neighborhood crime, were forced out of town. Venerable gambling houses were shuttered. Extortion rackets that affect every restaurant in the area were interrupted. Even the Chinatown Connection, one of the city's most active heroin conduits, was blocked.

But it will take more than a few gambling raids to shake the historical forces at work in Chinatown today. The Mott Street gangs are back. This is the story of who controls that street, and how they got there.

October 1976

Midnight in Chinatown, everyone seems nervous. The old waiters look both ways before going into the gambling joint on Pell Street. Ladies bleary from a 10-hour day working over sewing machines in the sweatshops are hurrying home and restaurants are closing earlier than usual. At the Sun Sing Theatre on East Broadway, underneath a hand-painted poster of a bleeding kung fu hero, a security guard is fumbling with a padlock. Ask him how business is and he shakes his head, "No good." Ask him why and he points his finger right between his eyes and says, "bang!"

A Quiet New Year

Pacing back and forth in front of the coffee shop at 56 Mott Street, Nicky Louie has got a lot to lose if there's any serious gunplay tonight. A good-looking skinny guy with searing brown eyes wearing a green army fatigue jacket, Nicky is the leader of the Ghost Shadows, the gang of 50 or so Hong Kong immigrants who've been terrorizing Chinatown for the past few years.

Born Hin Pui Lui in the Kowloon slums 22 years ago, Nicky came to "low tow" (Chinatown) in the late '60s. The old Hong Kong people naively called this new slum "Gum Shan," which means Gold Mountain. But Nicky is sharper than that. Now way he would end up a faceless waiter headed for the TB ward. He was born for greater things. When he first got into the gangs half a dozen years ago, people say he had the biggest mouth in Chinatown. He was the gun-wielding wild man, always up for action, willing to do anything to get attention. It paid off. Nicky's been the top Shadow ever since 1973, when the gang's former big boss Nei Wong got caught with a Hong Kong cop's girlfriend. The cop, in New York for a surprise visit, ran across Wong and his betrothed in the Chinese Quarter Nightclub beneath the approach ramp to the Manhattan Bridge and blew off both their heads with his police revolver.

Since then Nicky's rise in the Chinatown youth gang world has been startling. He has piloted the once ragtag Shadows from the bleak days when they were extorting a few free meals and dollars from the greasy spoons over on East Broadway to their current haunt, Mott Street, the big time.

Controlling Mott Street means the Shadows get to affiliate themselves with the On Leong tong, the riches and most influential organization in Chinatown. Working with the On Leong gives the Shadows a piece of the money generated by tong (the word means simply "hall" or "association") activities. The gangs guard the gambling houses in the On Leong territory that operate in the musty lofts and basements along Mott Street. The Shadows also provide the muscle for their version of the age-old restaurant-protection racket (not to mention considerable "free-lance" extortion on the side). The gangs also act as runners in the Chinatown Connection heroin trade, bringing the stuff across the Canadian border and spreading it throughout New York. The money filters down to Nicky and his lieutenants; they filter the spoils down to the younger Shadows.

For Nicky, working with the tongs means a premiere position among the other warlords in Chinatown, plus a weekly income that ranges from $200 to $2000, depending on who you talk to. In any event, it's enough to buy a swift $7000 Peugeot to tool down Canal Street in.

But tongs are fickle. If another group of Hong Kong teenagers say their arch enemy the White Eagles or the hard-charging Flying Dragons, who take target practice on the pigeons down by the East River--should show the On Leong they're smarter or tougher than the Shadows, Nicky's boys could be gone tomorrow. After all, it's happened before.

Shootout on Bayard Street

Could again. Two years ago Nicky and the Shadows pushed the surly Eagles off the street. In September, after licking their wounds over in Brooklyn and down in Florida, the Eagles with their leader Paul Ma, Nicky's main rival, returned. And they were not going to be satisfied with crummy Elizabeth Street. Soon the Eagles started appearing on Bayard Street, part of Shadowland. Then Paul Ma, a ballsy dude, set up his own gambling house on the block; it was a direct affront to Nicky.

On September 8, the Shadows struck back, shooting a bunch of Eagles, including Paul Ma and a gang member's wife, in front of Yuen Yuen Snack Shop on Bayard. It set off the most hair-raising month of streetfighting in Chinatown history; no weekend went by withoug a mayor incident. The now infamous Wong Kee chopchop was the highlight of the war. According to cops, the Shadow, including Nicky himself, crashed through the door of the Wong Kee Rice Shop on the Italian end of Mott and carved up one Eagle with chef's kitchen cleavers and stabbed another with a fork. Which is why Nicky is on the street 'watch' tonight. His presence keeps things cool. Without Nicky pacing up and down Mott Street, the Shadows might as well go back to East Broadway. He's a Chinatown legend.

The Scientific Killer

Fifty years ago, chances are Nicky might have been lying around the "joss houses" and street-fighting alongside the hatchet and gunmen of Chinatown's "tong wars." In those days, the two big tongs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing of Pell Street, battled on the sidewalks over the few available women and the opium trade, and out of sheer boredom. Back then, there were legendary "boo hoy dow" (warriors): like Mock Dock, the great gambler known as "The Philosophical Killer," and Yee Toy, "The Girl-Faced Killer." Most famous of all, however, was the plain-faced Sing Dock. "The Scientific Killer." Once, after hearing of an outbreak of war in New York, he rode in the baggage compartment of a train (Chinese weren't allowed to ride up front) for six weeks from San Francisco. That was when Pell Street was called "Red Street" and the crook in Doyers Street was known as "The Bloody Angle."

Today the Chinatown warrior has changed. The young gangs are not respected tong members, as Sing Dock was; they're foot soldier-peons who are in it for the bucks. Nicky and the Shadows have given up black overcoats for fatigue jacket and puffy hairdos. (Asked if their hair is a Hong Kong fashion, the gangs say, "No, man, it's cause we dig Rod the Mod, man." Meaning Rod Stewart.) But the nicknames are still colorful. Hanging with Nicky tonight are old-time Shadows "Mongo," the wild-man enforcer who got his name from Blazing Saddles, and "Japanese," who shaved his head after he heard that things might go easier for him in jail if he looked like a "Muslim." There are some guys with grade-B movie names like Lefty and Four-Eyes, but most of the kids go for names like "Stinkybug," "White-Faced Tiger," "Pointy Lips," "Porkupine," and "Nigger Choy." There must be 20 kids named "Apple Head" running around Chinatown. Nicky, however, is just Nicky.

The Ghost Legend

Some say Nicky has nine lives. The estimates of how many slugs he carries around inside his chest vary. According to an ex-gang member, "When he turn over in bed at night, he can hear them bullets clank together."

Last May teenage hitmen from the San Francisco-based Wah Ching gang flew across the country just to kill Nicky. Some say it was on an Eagle contract. For whatever reason they pumped a dozen bullets into the middle of a Saturday afternoon shopping crowd on Mott Street while Nicky disappeared across Canal Street. The Chings missed everyone and wound up getting pinched by two drug cops who just happened to be eating won ton in the nearby Joy Luck Restaurant.

The "ging cha" (police) have arrested Nicky for everything from robbery to extortion to murder to rape, but he's never been convicted.

Detective Neal Maurillo, who is assigned full-time to the fifth Precinct's Chinese gang section, is a smart cop. He realizes he's got a crazy and hopelessly complicated job. Chinatown gangs aren't like the bruisers fighting over street corners and ghetto reps up in the Bronx. There's piles of money, history, and poitics behind what Nicky and his guys are doing. And since it's Chinatown, they'd rather do it with hard-on things like "Savage Skulls" emblazoned on the back.

But Neal knows all the faces on Mott Street. He memorizes gang members' names and birthdays, walks down the street and says, "Hey, happy birthday Pipenose, seen Dice around." That blows minds. Sometimes Nicky Louie calls Neal up just to shoot the breeze. Neal says, "That kid is okay really. But I've been chasing him for five years and I'll nail him. He knows it, too. We talk about it all the time." Neal remembers the time he came upon Nilky lying face down in a pool of blood near the Bowery. He said, "Nicky, come on, you're gonna die, tell me who shot you." Nicky looked up at Neal, his eyes blazing arrogance, and said, "Fuck you." Of course, Nicky pulled through in fine shape and the two had a good laugh about it later.

Tales of this sort of exploit are enough tot keep the Dragons and the hard-case White Eagles at bay. The On Leong like Nicky's style and probably have him tabbed as a future officer. If not, he might go over to the rival Hip Sing tong, which backs youth gangs of its own.

But you have to step back from all this for a minute. There hasn't been a tong war in Chinatown since the '20s. And Nicky Louis is not a reincarnation of Sing Dock--he's a disaffected ghetto kid growing into what most people would call a dangerous gangster. But you also have to remember that this is Chinatown. Down here the past and present are a little more difficult to sort out.

The Tenement Tongs

Toy Shan is a village in the mountainous region of Canton from which the great majority of those who settled New York's Chinatown came in the mid 1800s. It's possible that the Toy Shan settlement in New York was as closed a community as has ever existed in urban America. Much of this is bound up in mutual racism, including the infamous "Exclusion Acts" that effectively banned Chinese women from the United States for more than 60 years.

The havoc these laws wreaked on the Toy Shan consciousness is difficult to underestimate. Drinking and gambling, both venerable Chinese passions, became endemic. There were numerous gambling houses in Chinatown (contemporary houses pull in from $40,000 to $50,000 on a good night), and Chinese faces became familiar at the city's racetracks--probably the only place they were, outside restaurants and laundries--which prompted wags to dub the Belmont subway special, "The Shanghai Express." Prostitutes from uptown were frequent visitors to Toy Shan back then. Chatham Square was one of the best nonhotel beats in the city. By the 1940s, when the laws finally began to ease, the ratio of men to women in Chinatown ranged as high as 10 to 1.

The Toy Shans were not eager to mingle with the people they called "lo fan" (foreign devils) in any event. Determined to survive, they built an extralegal society based on furtive alliances, police bribes, creative bookkeeping, and immigration scams. The aim was to remain invisible and separate. To this day, few people in Chinatown are known by their real names; most received new identities, such as the Lees, Chins, and Wongs--from the family associations, who declared them "cousins" to get them into the country.

In place of the "Western government," they substituted the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an organization to which the neighborhood's 65-odd family and merchant associations belong. To this day every other president of the CCBA has to be a "Toy Shan" descendant.

It was, however, the Hip Sing and On Leong that carried much of the power in the community. Originally formed as protection societies for Chinese without strong family ties, the "tongs" set themselves up as "night mayors" of Chinatown. They controlled the illegal activities in a community where everyone felt outside the law. Their spokesmen, with hatchet men behind them, grew in power at the CCBA. Between themselves, they struck a parity that still holds. On Leong has more money and highly placed members, especially in Chiang Kai-shek's old Kuomintang party and the Nationalist government. The prole Hip Sing, which is known as "the friend of the seaman" for its ability to sneak Chinese off boats and into waiter jobs, has more members and branches.

But in 1965 the Toy Shan traditions were seriously threatened. The federal laws were altered to allow open Chinese emigration to this country. Since then more than 200,000 Hong Kong residents have emigrated; half settled in the New York area, many of those in Chinatown.

Which makes sense. The New York pace is similar to that of teeming Hong Kong, and the business possibilities seemed good. In Boston, the Chinese community borders on a honkytonk area. In Chicago, the black ghetto is everywhere. In San Francisco, the Chinese have always thought of themselves as more sophisticated than the Toy Shan, but there the Chinatown is neatly stitched into a tourist patchwork quilt that cuts expansion possibilities. In New York, however, the old men have played it close to the vest for so long, anything can happen.

Toy Shan Changes Chinatown is in the midst of a gut-wrenching change. The population is edging toward 75,000, a five-fold increase since the law change. It's one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New York and without doubt the most densely populated. Once confined to the familiar pentagon bounded by Canal Street, Worth, and the Bowery, Chinatown is now sprawling all over the Lower East Side. Already Mott Street--above Canal up to Grand, once solidly Italian--is 70 per cent Chinese. To the east, Division Street and East Broadway, formerly Jewish and Puerto Rican, have become centers of Chinese business and residence.

But much of the old Toy Shan separatism remains. Most Chinatown residents do not vote; currently there are fewer than 3000 registered voters in the area. In marked contrast to the Asian communities in California, no Oriental has ever held major office in New York. The Chinatown Democratic Club has been busted as a gambling house. Peter Wu, the club's leader, has been called one of the biggest gamblers in Chinatown. The political base of the community is so weak that activists feel powerless to do anything about the assembly lines that bisect the area and cut the potential Chinese vote in half. Chinatown activists say this neglect is responsible for the compromised stand in the zoning fight with the Little Italy Restoration Association, which is seeking toward off the Chinese influx and zone large portions of the area for the dwindling Italian population.

Yet changes are everywhere. Chinatown now functions or Chinese; it looks like Hong Kong. Investigate the brand new Silver Palace Restaurant on the Bowery--it breaks the mold of the cramped, no-atmosphere Chinatown restaurant. An escalator whisks you up to a ding room as big as a football field. Almost all the 1000 or so people eating there will be Chinese, many middle-l-class couples who've motored in from Queens to try a more adventurous version of Cantonese food than this city is accustomed to. (Many Chinese will tell you the "exotic" Szechuan and Hunan food is the "American" fare.)

The mass migration has transformed Chinatown into an odd amalgam of boom town and ghetto. Suddenly half the businesses here are no longer in the hands of the old "lo fa kew" the Cantonese Toy Shans). In their place have come Hong Kong entrepreneurs and Taiwanese investors, who are fearful of the future of their island. A Taiwanese combine, the Summit Import Corporation, has already done much to change shopping habits in Chinatown by opening two big supermarkets, Kam Wah on Baxter Street and Kam Kuo on Mott.

The Taiwanese money is an indication that even though the Nationalist appear on the verge of international political eclipse, their influence in American Chinatowns is on the rise. A Taiwan concern is also behind the proposed block-long Golden Pacific National Bank on Canal Street. It's one of the several new banks opening in this neighborhood of compulsive savers. The gold rush, prodded by extraordinary greed, has pushed real-estate values here to fabled heights.

All this has the Toy Shan posers hanging on for dear life. The newcomers, filtered through Hong Kong, come from all over China. The old Toy Shan loyalties don't apply. These people got here without the help of the associations and owe them little. The tongs and the CCBA are beginning to feel the crunch. They've begun to see more and more store owners break away. Suddenly there are publicly funded social service agencies, most prominently the Chinatown Planning Council, to challenge CCBA rulings. And the younger Chinese, sons and daughters of the "lo fa kew," have been openly critical.

The Old Men Act

But 100 years of power isn't something you give up without a fight. On November 3, the CCBA held a meeting to discuss what to do about Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadow buddies shooting up the neighborhood. Chinatown has traditionally been one of the safest areas in the city; it still is. Crime figures are remarkable low here for a place with so many new immigrants. That's what made the recent violence all the more shocking. Especially in a neighborhood so dependent on tourism. Although the battles were being waged among the various Shadows, Dragons, and Eagles around, merchants were reporting 30 per cent drop in business. Places that stay open late were doing even worse.

The street fighting is "disfiguring" Chinatown, said one merchant, referring to the April shootout at the Co-Luck Restaurant on the Bowery. That night, according to the cops, a couple of Shadows roared up in a late-model blue Ford, smashed through the glass door, and started spraying .32 automatic slugs in the general direction of some Dragons who were "yum cha" (drinking tea and talking) in the corner. One of the Dragons, who may not have been a Dragon at all, got clipped in the leg. For the rest of the people in the restaurant, it was grimmer. By the time the Shadows ere through, they had managed to hit three New York University law students, a waiter, and a lady from Queens who later died on the floor, her daughter crying over her body. The cops said, "The place looked like as slaughterhouse; there was blood all over the linoleum."

Since then Co-Luck has been considered bad luck for prospective buyers. It remains vacant, rare in a neighborhood where no storefront is empty for long. On the door is a sign: "Closed For Alterations," "Perhaps we keep it that way," said a merchant, "as a scar to remind us of our shame."

Restaurant owners say there won't be so many wedding banquets this summer because of an incident in the Hung Gung a few months ago. Gang members crashed a banquet in the restaurant, stationing sentries outside to make sure no one came or went, and instructed a hundred celebrants to drop their valuables into shopping bags. "It was just like the Wild West," says someone close to the wedding guests.

The police don't see things looking up. In October they made 60 gang-related arrests, the most ever in a single month. They say there are more guns on the street than ever before and estimate gang membership--before the recent crackdown--at about 200, an all-time high. The gang kids are younger, too.14-year-olds from Junior High School 65 are common these days.

Pressured by editorials in the Chinese press, the CCBA swung into action. They called a public gathering at which the community would be free to explain its plight to Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morganthau.

Getting the Lo Fan Involved

This was quite a change in tactics for the CCBA. Until quite recently one of its major functions has been to keep the lid on Chinatown's considerable and growing urban problems. That Chinese women sew garments for 12 cents a piece, that more than one third of the area's males work as waiters, that Chinatown has the highest rate of TB and mental illness among city neighborhoods--all that was dirty linen better kept under wraps. But Nicky and the Shadows, they make noise. They get picked up for killing people and get their sullen pictures in what the Chinese still call "the Western press." Keeping that quiet can make you look awfully silly. So, when Joseph Mei, the CCBA vice-president, told The New York Times, "We have no problem at all about youth gangs in Chinatown," the day after Nicky's people allegedly shot five White Eagles in front of the Yuen Yuen Snack Shop a policy change was in order.

The meeting was held in the CCBA's dank auditorium (underneath an alternating string of American and Nationalist Chinese flags). Yut Yee, the 70-year-old CCBA president, who reportedly has been known to fall asleep during meetings, was unusually awake that night. He said, "Chinatown will become a dead city" if the violence continues. He urged residents to come forward and "report cases of crimes: we must be witnesses." This seemed unlikely, for in a culture where the character for "revenge" means literally "report a crime," the act of informing tends to be a complicated business. It confuses and angers the Lo Fan cops, who say that even though just about every restaurant in Chinatown has been robbed or extorted from in the past few years, the incidence of reporting the crimes is almost nil. Despite the fact that gang members have been arrested for more than a dozen murders in Manhattan there has been only one conviction: that, of Yut Wai Tom, an Eagle who made the mistake of putting a bullet through the throat of a Shadow in front of a couple of Puerto Rican witnesses.

Morganthau sighed during the debate of Chinese businessmen, looked at his watch, said he'd "help," and left. But this time however, many people were openly restive. "My god, when will this bullshit stop?" asked a younger merchant.

No one talked about the tongs and their relationship to the gangs. Hw could the? Of the seven permanent members of the CCBA inner voting circle, on is the On Leong, another the Hip Sing. No wonder people tend to get cynical whenever the CCBA calls a meeting at which the tong interests are at stake. Perhaps that's why, when a Chinese reporter asked what the D.A. was planning to do to help the community, one of the Morganthau's people said, "What do you want? We showed up, didn't we?"

But, really all you had to do was watch Benny Eng. Benny is the director of the Hip Sing Credit Fund (which drug cops figure is a laundry room for dirty money). He is also an officer of the Chinese-American Restaurant Association, an organization that deserves blame for keeping waiter wages in Chinatown at about $50 a week for the past twenty years.

As people entered the CCBA hall, Little Benny--as he is called in deference to Big Benny Ong the old Hip Sing bossman who recently got caught sneaking out the door of the gambling house at 9 Pell and spent the next day teaching cops how to play Chinese poker--greeted everyone with a hopelessly drawn face. He said, "so happy you are interested in the security of Chinatown" to everyone entering the meeting. But later, you could sear you say Benny nod respectfully to the skinnylegged kid pacing up and down Mott Street.


Copyright 1977 Village Voice

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