Forget It, Jake, It’s Chinatown
February 28, 1995
Chong Hui Chen did not have to die.
In September 1993, when the 19-year-old student at Seward Park High School was kidnapped by gangsters, Chen’s parents did what they thought was the right thing. They went to the police. Chen’s father, Bi Lin Chen was aware of the dangers involved. He was there the the night his son was pistol-whipped and snatched from the family’s tiny takeout restaurant at 371 Grand Street, on the northeastern edge of Chinatown. The abduction had taken place during a terrifying kidnap-for-ransom spree that was sending shock waves through the city’s Asian community. In the previous two weeks, there had been nearly a dozen kidnappings in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, most of them perpetrated by the Fuk Ching gang. Targeted by the feds because of their involvement in the Golden Venture — the huge freighter that ran aground off Rockaway Beach spilling nearly 300 illegal stowaways into the ocean, with 10 drowning or dying from hypothermia — the Fuk Ching were desperate. Previously, they only kidnapped undocumented immigrants who were smuggled into the country and had outstanding debts to pay. But Chong Hui Chen was a legal resident with no known gang affiliation.
Bi Lin Chen and his wife, Mei Yu Yang, were contacted by the kidnappers, who demanded $80,000 in ransom or their son would be killed. The kidnappers specified a drop site in Flushing.
On the night Bi Lin Chen agreed to meet the kidnappers, he was trailed by a unit from the NYPD’s Major Case Squad. According to Chen, the police bungled the case from the start. Though the gangsters had warned that if they saw police in the area they would kill Chen’s son, the cops showed up that night wearing easily identifiable bulletproof vests and parked only half a block away from the drop site. The stakeout team waited for a while, but eventually left their posts and returned to headquarters because their shift was over for the night.
The ransom was never picked up. Three days later, Chong Hui Chen’s body was found dumped near the Belt Parkway on the outskirts of Brooklyn. He’d been stabbed 20 times.
Bi Lin Chen and Mei Yu Yang were in a state of shock. Following the incident, the grieving father was quoted in the Daily News saying, “We put our faith in the police. Now our son is dead and our family is ruined.”
In the months that followed, the parents’ grief turned to anger. Late last year, Bi Lin Chen and Mei Yu Yang filed a civil lawsuit in State Supreme Court charging the NYPD and the City of New York with gross negligence. The police department is contesting the suit. Citing the mental anguish and torture their son suffered between the time of his kidnapping and the time of his death, the plaintiffs are asking for damages totaling $21 million. None of which will bring back their son.
In itself, the murder of Chong Hui Chen was tragic enough, but there is evidence to suggest it is part of a pattern of ineptitude on the part of the NYPD when dealing with Asian gangs — a pattern that is itself the result of deep-rooted attitudes, which have always dictated the way law enforcement deals with underworld crime in Chinatown.
Late last year, the city settled out of court with Ying Jing Gan, the widow of a Vietnamese merchant who was murdered on a busy Sunday afternoon in March 1991. Gan’s husband had been cooperating with the police in an ongoing robbery investigation involving the notorious Vietnamese gang, Born to Kill. Inexplicably, he was left unprotected — to be shot in the head by a BTK assassin while working in a clothing store near Canal Street. The widow’s lawsuit contended that her husband was murdered because of a longstanding indifference on the part of law enforcement to the realities of gang violence in the Asian community.
Not surprisingly, these recent examples of alleged police ineptitude have proven embarrassing to the NYPD and potentially costly to the city: As a result, certain steps have been taken. Department press officers point proudly to the fact that nearly 1100 applicants for the most recent police entry examination were of Asian descent, the product of a concerted recruitment campaign. And, last May, the NYPD appointed Thomas M. Chan captain of Chinatown’s Fifth Precinct — the first Asian American captain in the city’s history — a move designed to give the appearance of a department better equipped to confront a crime problem that has bedeviled law enforcement for at least the last three decades.
As many Chinatown merchants and residents know all too well, appearances can be deceiving. Even before the death of Chong Hui Chen, it might have seemed as if law enforcement was being unusually diligent in its pursuit and prosecution of organized crime figures in Chinatown. Beginning with the successful prosecution of the BTK in early 1992, there have been at least four major RICO trials involving Asian gangsters. This trend continued when 33 alleged members of the Flying Dragons, one of Chinatown’s oldest gangs, were arrested in November 1994 and charged on multiple counts of murder, heroin trafficking, arson, illegal gambling, extortion, and robberies that stretched from Manhattan into Brooklyn and Queens. More recently, a trial involving two powerful Chinatown tongs (business associations) resulted in the January 1995 conviction of 40-year-old Clifford Wong, a well-known businessman and tong leader.
Taken together, these criminal indictments and prosecutions involve over 200 assorted gang members and racketeers. Law enforcement spokespersons contend that the high volume of prosecutions is a clear sign that they are winning the battle against organized crime in the Asian community. Many in the community, however, see these sprawling RICO cases as a clear illustration of law enforcement’s inability to respond to criminal patterns until they have already become deeply entrenched, sometimes reaching epidemic proportions.
“All these federal racketeering cases come after the fact,” says Shiauh-Wei Lin, a Chinatown attorney who has represented local residents in their grievances against the NYPD. Echoing the sentiments of others in the community, Lin asks, “Why can’t something be done before dozens of merchants are extorted by the gangs? Before so many innocent people are intimidated and kidnapped and killed? Before hundreds of young males are drawn into the gang life and wind up either dead or in jail for the rest of their lives?” It has long been the contention of Chinatown residents that when it comes to gang activity and organized crime, the police are the last to know. The most obvious and egregious example was the case of the Golden Venture. To law enforcement and the mainstream media, it was as if the wholesale smuggling of aliens had only then reached its apex with the terrible tragedy in the waters off Rockaway Beach. Most people in Chinatown knew better. For at least the previous six or seven years, untold thousands of immigrants had been smuggled into Chinatown, Flushing, Sunset Park, and other Asian enclaves as they still are today. Once in the city, these undocumented immigrants struggle to pay off their smuggling debts by working at paltry wages in restaurants, sweatshops, and brothels while living in tiny cubicles.
To the criminals who oversee this modern form of indentured servitude, the high profitability of alien smuggling has helped lay the foundation for an array of intertwined criminal rackets. Even with all the recent prosecutions, mainstay businesses like gambling, extortion, prostitution, and heroin smuggling continue to flourish, while living, health, and work conditions for many of the community’s newest immigrants are as bad as anything that existed a century ago.
The reasons Chinatown’s criminal underworld has remained so durable over the decades certainly cannot be blamed entirely on law enforcement. But just as the area’s various rackets have persisted through years of social evolution, so have police attitudes toward Chinatown.
Like many of the city’s non-Asian residents, cops have long subscribed to the theory that Chinatown is a hopelessly enigmatic netherworld that can never be understood by anyone who isn’t Chinese. In the past, this resulted in allowing designated tong leaders to resolve sometimes violent gang disputes without the interference of “outside forces.” It might even have meant certain officers would be paid to stay away through cash payoffs or gratuities. While many agree that the grafts have diminished if not disappeared entirely, what lingers on is the attitudes those practices engendered.
“Despite what you read in the mainstream press, the police have never really taken Asian gangs seriously,” says 40-year-old Steven Wong, a Chinatown activist who has had numerous dealings with both local and federal law enforcement. “They either don’t know or don’t care about the damage the gangs do to the community. All they care about is the impact they create in the media.”
Ten years ago, Wong played a key role in one of the best-known gang prosecutions in Chinatown history. Posing as a local gangster with Mafia connections, Wong infiltrated the United Bamboo, an international gang with strong ties to the Taiwanese government. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Chinatown, Wong was able to give the impression he was a tough, steely-eyed gang veteran. In truth, he was nothing more than a former taxi driver fed up with seeing the community’s relatively small criminal element run roughshod over the neighborhood’s mostly hardworking, law-abiding citizenry.
Wong’s high-risk infiltration of the gang was conducted in conjunction with a special FBI-NYPD task force. But the fact that he was a legitimate citizen and not a criminal facing charges like most confidential informants was anathema to the police investigators. “Because I wasn’t a cop or a criminal, they never trusted me,” says Wong. “The cops called me a cowboy. The FBI tried to say I had political motivations.”
Eventually, the investigation culminated in a long federal trial in which Steven Wong, the main witness for the prosecution, faced two weeks of sometimes merciless cross-examination at the hands of 11 criminal defense attorneys. In 1986, 11 members of the United Bamboo were convicted on RICO charges. Afterward, many of the investigators received commendations and promotions within their various agencies and bureaus. Wong disappeared, his life in serious peril. After laying low for a few years, he returned to Chinatown, where he now works as a community advocate and part-time journalist for Sing Tao, a Chinese-language daily newspaper.
“They say the Chinese don’t cooperate with the police because of Chinese history,” explains Wong, referring to a commonly-held belief that Chinese attitudes toward the police are formed in the People’s Republic of China, where the police have always been a corrupt and sometimes brutal instrument of the state. “I don’t agree. Chinese people distrust the police because of how they are treated, and have always been treated, by the police here in the U.S.”
To illustrate his point, Wong relates a story from his childhood. As a youngster in Chinatown, he once brought home an essay from school in which he proclaimed his desire to be a police officer when he grew up. Like many Chinese parents, his mother and father were dead-set against the idea. “I’d rather you join the triad,” said Wong’s father, referring to the secret criminal societies first formed in 16th-century China. “This way, if you are a crook, you are an honest crook. You’re telling people you are a bad guy, instead of doing it the devious way by being a police officer.”
Wong’s father took him downstairs to a Chinatown coffee shop, where they waited until two cops came in. “Watch this,” Steven was told. The two Caucasian officers ordered coffee, then rice and noodles, then bottles of beer. They ate voraciously, made lots of noise, then stood up and arrogantly walked out without paying.
The point Steven Wong’s father was trying to make to his son was one most people in Chinatown knew. Decades of low-level payola and more serious forms of graft made Chinatown an attractive beat for cops on the take.
The fact that local merchants and tong leaders routinely paid off police officers was something most cops grew accustomed to, but one thing the police have never been able to understand is why those same merchants also pay money to the gangs.
Protection money is still paid by most Chinatown merchants, for reasons that are clear and compelling. “They pay because they don’t want to be harassed,” says Steven Wong. “Or to have their store robbed on a regular basis. Or be killed. They know the police cannot protect them.”
Cops have always maintained that merchants paying extortion money to hoodlums only perpetuates the gang problem. In the minds of some officers, this, in fact, makes the merchants part of the crime problem.
One cop in a better position than most to understand the complicated relationship that exists between the police and the community is Thomas Chan, the Fifth Precinct commander whose promotion has been widely heralded. Chan was born in Chinatown and grew up in the Alfred E. Smith Houses on Catherine Street. From his youth, he remembers the police as a forbidding presence. “Overall,” says Chan, “people in Chinatown didn’t want to have anything to do with the police unless they had to.”
Seated in his office inside the hectic Fifth Precinct station house on Elizabeth Street, Captain Chan cuts an attractive figure. He is articulate, friendly, and projects an air of earnestness and sincerity. Although he has been with the department a mere 12 years, his rise has been meteoric.
As the first Asian American precinct commander in the history of the NYPD, Chan is understandably glowing in his assessment of the department’s commitment to establishing a more user-friendly profile in the community; his promotion, he feels, is a product of that commitment. But Chan also has been around long enough to know that in order to satisfy his department overseers, he, like any other precinct commander, must show himself to be adequately tough-minded in his dealings with local troublemakers.
One activity that has always created bad blood between local residents and the police is the sale of counterfeit merchandise. In October and November of 1994 — apparently unbeknownst to Captain Chan — the NYPD conducted a series of counterfeit raids in a commercially dense section of Canal Street. The raids were brought about by a legal action on behalf of Ralph Lauren, Guess, Timberland, and other popular manufacturers. Although the raids were not carried out by officers from the Fifth Precinct, the residue from these raids is something local cops will have to deal with for months to come.
It’s certainly no secret that counterfeit watches, leather jackets, perfume, and other goods are routinely sold on Canal Street. Most merchants would not dispute the claim. The merchants’ complaint — aired in a series of interviews at the law offices of Shiauh-Wei Lin — was not that the raids took place, but the manner in which they were conducted.
The raids culminated one morning when some 20 officers from a special midtown counterfeit squad descended on a number of stores near the intersection of Canal and Broadway. Most of the stores had been raided before, so the merchants were familiar with the routine. This time, the police followed a different procedure. “They came in like it was a war,” says one store owner.
Gates were pulled down so that onlookers on the sidewalk could not see what was happening inside. The merchants claim the cops were laughing with each other, trying on jackets, and loading merchandise into plastic garbage bags without looking to see what was counterfeit and what wasn’t. One officer removed a videotape from a VCR on which their actions would have been recorded through a security camera mounted on the wall. No receipts were given, nor was any attempt made to itemize what was being seized. One merchant claims police confiscated $20,000 worth of legitimate merchandise from his store. These counterfeit raids are a classic example of the kind of clumsy community relations that have contributed greatly to the NYPD’s negative image in Chinatown.
The intersection where these raids took place has long been a nexus of gang activity. For years, these merchants have been extorted by members of both the BTK and a faction of the Ghost Shadows. Most work 12 hour days, seven days a week. What money they make usually goes into overhead, city and state taxes, and fines of one kind or another for allegedly selling counterfeit.
“These people struggle to survive,” says Shiauh-Wei Lin, who is considering a class action suit against the NYPD to find out where the merchandise goes after it is seized. “They cannot afford to take a hit like this.”
Asked about the raids in his Fifth Precinct office, Captain Chan opts for the role of the dutiful commander. Unequivocally, he supports the actions of the NYPD and expresses little sympathy for the merchants. “It is incumbent upon these people to know whether or not they are selling counterfeit merchandise,” explains Chan. “They are jeopardizing themselves and their stores when they do so.”
Aside from the issue of counterfeit, however, is the question of whether or not the raids were conducted in a manner that was counterproductive. As Chan knows, merchants in the Canal Street area are a tight-knit group, recent Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who depend on each other for security. One day, local officers may return to this intersection to investigate a violent robbery or a gang murder, and they will be asking for cooperation. These merchants, remembering their treatment at the hands of the police, will be reluctant — if not hostile. The police will walk away, perhaps cursing under their breath about those inscrutable Asians who, for historical and cultural reasons, never cooperate with the police.
Asked about this, the captain either does not comprehend the question or chooses to sidestep the issue. “If any of the merchants are not happy,” says Chan, “we can meet with them and give them additional information and inform them what the laws are. My doors are always open.”
Captain Chan can certainly expect a steady stream of overtures from the local populace, many of whom will presume a higher degree of sensitivity toward the community from him than that of his Caucasian predecessor. So far, he has been well received by the established business and community associations, though he gets lower marks from community activists, street-level merchants, and others whose standing within Chinatown’s sometimes rigid economic caste system is less exalted. As for Asian American police officers, there is a similar split.
“I think Tommy Chan’s promotion is a big step forward, at least symbolically,” says Detective Bruce May, president of SCALE (Supreme Council of Asians in Law Enforcement), a recently formed umbrella organization that includes Asian officers at the city, state, and federal levels.
“Tommy Chan is a nice guy, very intelligent,” says another Chinese American detective. “But don’t kid yourself. He’s one person. For the department at large, I don’t think his promotion means anything.”
“Andy Chow” is a veteran officer assigned to a prestigious city-wide unit. He was raised in Chinatown. Like other Asian American officers not affiliated with SCALE or any of the other official police fraternal organization, Chow’s feelings reflect a deep-rooted bitterness expressed in varying degrees — almost always off the record.
In contrast to recent recruitment efforts in which the NYPD claims to offer a fair working environment for Asian Americans, Chow feels the department is still a white male-dominated universe mired in an outdated, racially motivated system of approval. “The job is rigged. Everybody knows it. Advancement is not based on performance. It’s who you know, who you drink with.” Chow claims to know one sergeant who got ahead because he mowed his chief’s lawn. “I’m telling you, it’s who you know and who you blow.
“The department is afraid to be fair with minority officers,” adds Chow. “They’re afraid it will bring down the morale of the department overall. Chinese, Hispanic, black officers know this. That’s why they’re reluctant to try to do anything to rock the boat. The odds against them are too large.”
Chow laughs when asked whether or not law enforcement is prepared to deal with the complexities of Asian organized crime and the gangs. “Every now and then some Caucasian officer comes forward and declares himself an expert on the subject. It’s a joke.” Chow claims that there are very few officers in the department who speaks fluent Foujou, the dialect spoken by Fujianese immigrants — and Fuk Ching gang members. Language has always been a primary stumbling block for law enforcement when dealing with Asian gangs and their victims. Disdainfully, Chow mentions a recent move by the NYPD to send 10 to 15 officers to a language training course to learn the dialect.
“Foujou is a difficult language even for fluent Cantonese and Mandarin speakers,” says Chow. “You need to speak it every day. Now they’re going to send a group of mostly white cops to a class to learn Foujou? C’mon! Maybe they learn how to count to 10, maybe they can say hello and order a meal. But they can’t communicate with the community. They don’t know jack shit. But this is typical of the job. They think they can put a Band-Aid on a major head wound.”
In November 1994, at a press conference to announce the indictment of the Flying Dragons, Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, declared, “With today’s indictment, the last of the major Chinatown gangs has been prosecuted and dismantled.” Aspiring young gangsters throughout Chinatown might have chuckled at the irrelevance of White’s proclamation.
In fact, some journalists and law enforcement analysts have for years been warning of a new incursion of Asian cnminals into New York. In 1997, Hong Kong will be coming under the domain of the People’s Republic of China, and that city’s large triad-based underworld has begun to move money and manpower into Canada and a number of other U.S. cities. In the recently completed federal trial that resulted in the conviction of Clifford Wong it was alleged that the Tsung Tsin Association, one of Chinatown’s wealthiest tongs, has already established itself as a beachhead for the Sun Yee On, an international criminal brotherhood based in Hong Kong.
With a fresh set of players arriving to stake a claim to local rackets, law enforcement can expect the area’s multilayered Asian crimescape to become even more challenging. In the past, an inability or unwillingness on the part of police to vigorously address criminal developments as they unfolded has helped make it possible for a vast underworld to evolve. A tradition of police indifference has helped make it possible for established gangs to constantly regenerate, ensnaring hundreds of Asian youths and making life for the community’s street-level merchant class a sometimes perilous struggle.
Now the local police establishment and some federal enforcement agencies claim to have gotten themselves up to speed, with more Asian officers and increased manpower focused on a violent underworld that stretches far beyond New York to communities in Hong Kong, Europe, Canada, and numerous U.S. cities. It may be some time before this claim can be fairly evaluated, but given the tragic human consequences for Ying Jing Gan, the parents of Chong Hui Chen, and other Chinatown residents who have been on the receiving end of police screwups in the past, it is a claim that cries out for careful and continued scrutiny. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2020