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Asian Street Gangs and
Organized Crime in Focus

A Rising Threat From the Far East


On February 9th of this year, two young men of a criminal bent burst through the doors of the Chinatown Community Center at 250 W. 22nd Street and threatened the directors, Mark Lee and Houlin Li, with physical harm unless they immediately agreed to cancel a neighborhood festival which they deemed objectionable. The two offenders identified as members of the Hip Sing and On Leong organizations were arrested later that day by Chicago Police assigned to the 21st District, and charged with acts of intimidation. Seventeen other men were picked up for similar offenses at the Chinese New Year celebration in this secular, highly insulated community where close-mouthed secrecy prevails.

Behind the pleasing facade of Asian restaurants, bakeries, herbal medicine drug stores, and gift shops pandering to suburbanites and tourists, investigators have been tracking a major heroin trafficking operation involving the importation of multiple kilos of heroin brought into the neighborhood for resale on the street.

These incidents underscore the ever-evolving, ever changing face of organized crime in Chicago - the rise of Asian street gangs.

The Chicago Police Department’s Asian Task Force, formed in October 1989, has been disbanded in favor of an “International Enterprise Crime Task Force,” headquartered out of 219 S. Dearborn and under the auspices of the FBI and the Illinois State Police

The tide of foreign nationals pouring into this city from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America have forced law enforcement officially to divert thinly stretched resources across the board to counter each new threat.

Skilled investigators like Pat McCarthy of the Chicago Police Department are constantly on the trail of Asian gangbangers, but their task is never an easy one because of the mobility of the criminals they deal with. Very often a gangbanger from another city will arrive in Chicago, complete a specific “job,” and slip away in the night without leaving behind a clue as to their identity. This is particularly true in the growing Vietnamese community.

Asian crime is difficult to investigate, even harder to prosecute because of the reluctance of the victims to approach the police. The vast majority of the people the gangs target are Asian, and because of long standing mistrust and suspicion directed against the police and the government - attitudes that took shape overseas in the face of brutal political oppression - it is often hard to gauge the extent of the local problem.

Immigrant Belizians, Hmong, ethnic Chinese, and Vietnamese have organized street gangs that in some ways, constitute a greater danger to the public safety than Larry Hoover’s army of drug runners who peddle dime bags in the projects. The Belizians, it was pointed out by Detective John Sebeck of the Chicago Police Department at a recent gang crimes seminar sponsored by the National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University, shoot first and ask questions later.

The Chinese gangs in Chicago have evolved out of two old and historic community organizations - the Hip Sing are active in the Uptown community along the lakefront. The On Leong, a Tong sharing the same name as the On Leong Merchant’s Association, are a South Side group.

The first American-based “Tong” - the literal translation means “meeting hall,” is an extension of the merchant associations that were first organized in 1847 in San Francisco as a means of preserving cultural identity and providing a social outlet. Not every member of a Tong is criminally inclined. Not every Tong however, has peaked the interest of federal and local law enforcement as the On Leong right here in Chicago.

In the early 1990s, the On Leong Merchant’s Association was the focus of a federal racketeering trial that exposed the links between the Chicago outfit and a multi-million-dollar gambling ring headquartered along 22nd Street. On Leong traces its Chicago roots to the 19th century where it existed as a social and benevolent organization to indoctrinate Chinese immigrants to the American way of life.

During the 1991 federal racketeering trial of 11 Chinese businessmen accused of running a gambling game from inside the On Leong “casino”- a continuing enterprise that netted $2 million dollars between 1974 and a police raid in April 1986 - prosecutors secured conviction on tax conspiracy charges against Wilson Moy, often described as the unofficial “mayor” of the Chinatown community.

Former mob attorney and federal informant Robert Cooley testified during the trial that Moy and another man gave him $100,000 to pass on to former First Ward Alderman Fred Roti and Pat Marcy, the mobbed-up secretary of the First Ward Democratic Organization in order to “influence” the outcome of the 1981 William Chin murder case in the Cook County Circuit Court.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on this specific charge in the five-month-long racketeering trial.

Hip Sing has a storefront office in Uptown. On Leong is still a viable force in the South Side Chinatown neighborhood. There are those who are of the opinion that the organizations are still not divorced from their criminal past, and that little has changed.

The rigged gambling games continue, we are told, in a secure location not far from the former On Leong building on Wentworth Avenue where the arrests were originally made. Since the doors were padlocked by the “G” and the records seized, the On Leong headquarters has been converted into the Pui Tak Center, a religious and cultural meeting place.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners, local merchants, and small time bookies running popular Chinese gambling games like “Fan Tan,” allegedly continue to pay street taxes to the 26th Street Chinatown “crew,” which oversees the outfit’s interests in this part of town.

The presence of the Hip Sing and On Leong in Chicago is traced to the early years of this century when the original Chinatown located between Polk Street and Congress, re-located to 22nd Street and Wentworth Avenue - following the migration of the Levee vice merchants, gambling bosses, tricksters, and dope fiends from downtown into the South Side badlands.

The affiliated gangs of the Tong are well organized and entrenched in their respective communities, according to Jim Brongiel, an Asian organized crime specialist for the Office of International Criminal Justice, a University of Illinois think tank that trains Chicago Police sergeants and lieutenants through an executive development program, as well as publishing “Criminal Justice International.”

“We have seen large amounts of money being laundered through various Chicago banks from businesses that use the word “international” in their dealings,” Brongiel explains. “Asian gangs, with close links to sophisticated criminal organizations like the 14K Triad, the largest triad on the Chinese mainland, are involved in money laundering, illegal gambling, counterfeiting, the theft of computer software, and the smuggling of illegal aliens into this country.”

The Triads are secret criminal societies that were organized in the 17th Century to oppose the rule of Chinese Dynasty. They continued to flourish in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, and Taiwan through the modern era.

Hong Kong triads have turned up in Great Britain, and Australia long before the British relinquished control of their colony to China.

The traffickers who deal in human cargo are known as “snake heads.” For a $15,000 commission, the snakehead who is based in China, will smuggle an illegal alien into the U.S. with the vague promise of employment and a stable life awaiting them at the end of the journey; a journey fraught with all kinds of hardship and peril. Many of these undocumented aliens arrive in Chicago every week. Some of them are criminals who import ancient ethnic hostilities that can erupt into gang warfare and murder at a moment’s notice.

There already exists a bitter ethnic rivalry on the North Side of the city between the Vietnamese and the Filipinos. The Vietnamese, recent arrivals to American shores, tend to work for the better organized, more sophisticated Chinese gangs like the North Side Hip Sings and the Hung Mun Tong, serving as their “muscle.” The Hung Mung (“Red Door)”) and its satellite gang, the Hung Ching composed of underage children, are involved in home invasions and drug trafficking.

“There is some recent evidence that the North Side Hip Sing and Hung Mun gangs are merging and forming alliances for common purpose,” Brongiel reports.

Home invasion robberies have escalated across the country since the fall of Viet Nam in 1975, and the exodus of thousands of Vietnamese refugees into the U.S. The victims of these relentless and often brutal gangs are most often other Vietnamese, Laotian, or Chinese citizens because they are the easiest prey. Home invasions of this type have been reported in Highland Park, Naperville, Westmont, Glen Ellyn, and Glendale Heights, dispelling the illusion of the supposedly “crime-free” suburbs. The Wolf Boys, Black Widows, and Local Boys are three Vietnamese gangs currently active in the Chicagoland area.

The Vietnamese “BTK” is another street gang with a national presence. “The Vietnamese gangs are pre-disposed to violence,” Jim Brongiel reports. “Very often they carry out the “heavy work” for the Chinese groups. They can be easily identified by the presence of three dots on the hand signifying their membership in the gang.” Burn marks and skin tattoos commonly signify membership in Asian street gangs.

The West Coast remains the stronghold of Asian organized crime activity, particularly within the communities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove, in Orange County, California. The importation of drugs from the “Golden Triangle” region of Thailand, Burma, and Laos is a prime source of revenue as the gangs take root in their respective communities.

“Ice,” the crystalline, smokeable form of methamphetamine, has turned up on the West Coast in recent years. Ice originated in Japan reportedly around 1919, but is being produced in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines for distribution in the U.S. Thus far, the drug is mostly confined to West Coast communities, but the situation is likely to change as the Asian street gangs and tong groups shift their base of operation to the hinterland. Tong gangs have fanned out across the U.S. and are particularly active in Maryland, Los Angeles, and New York City. Houston’s Asian community was hit particularly hard in 1996 with numerous drive-by shootings and continuous gang warfare. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Wah Ching, a Chinese street gang organized in 1966, came to control most of the criminal vices in the Chinatowns of Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Their extortion and protection rackets are reminiscent of decades-old Mafia activity. The power of the Wah Ching on the West Coast was never seriously threatened until 1989 when a new criminal organization, the Wo Hop To triad of Hong Kong began moving into the San Francisco Bay Area. In recent years, there has been a consolidation of power between these two groups and the evolution of an Asian “super gang.”

Having realized the benefits of applying structure and organization to their criminal endeavors, some West Coast Vietnamese and Chinese “gangsters” are being recruited into the Crips and Bloods gangs. Their presence has been detected in the greater Midwest, notably in Minneapolis-St. Paul and central Wisconsin where Hmong youth have formed a dozen Crip gangs, and at least five “Blood” gangs.

The Hmong are an ethnic Chinese people who migrated from their native land in the 18th century to the mountainous regions of Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam. They poured into the West Coast in large numbers following the end of the Vietnam War and have filtered into the American heartland ever since that time. The Hmong people - a sizeable community resides in the Argyle Street neighborhood of Uptown - were often the victims of extortions and shakedowns by Asian gangs.

The West Coast is still the gateway to America’s riches for the Asian peoples of the world.

Chicago remains the historic hub of Mid-America; a way station to the world and a destination point not only for the decent, law abiding immigrants from around the world escaping the yoke of poverty and political repression, but for the criminally inclined as well.

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