Leland Yee and the Chinatown Gangs

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a local landmark known for many things.

It is a dynamic microcosm that collects different peoples, foods and businesses into a functional community.  It is a sliver of the east embedded in the most west of states.  It is a neighborhood reminiscent of home for many, and still more, it is a permanent home for many.

San Francisco is also known for something else: Chinese gangs.

In my formative years growing up in San Francisco Chinatown, I saw firsthand some of its allure.

For Asian-Americans, securing a comfortable niche in a world overwhelmingly different from one’s own is difficult, thus the appeal of gang life is an easy out.

Color and culture are not obstacles to be surmounted, but virtues to be celebrated and internalized.

Clad in black, many aspiring gang members, many of them my personal friends, chose this route. They commanded a fear and demanded a respect simply from their association with the gang.

Although the initiation into the gang is difficult and many times dangerous, the camaraderie and solidarity inherent to gang life proved to be worth the cuts and bruises.

This corruption showed its ugly head recently when Asian-American state senator Leland Yee was arrested trafficking weapons like shoulder-fired missiles and automatic guns into the United States.  The most hypocritical part is that Yee is a strong advocate of gun control.

Yee is also charged with having strong associations with Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, the leader of Hop Sing Tong, “one of the most powerful Asian gangs in America,” according to an article by Brietbart.

“According to the Associated Press, Chow’s gang allegedly ‘lured state Sen. Leland Yee into its clutches through money and campaign contributions in exchange for legislative help,” the article cited.

Hop Sing Tong and other gangs reveal a darker, more frightening underbelly that runs through Chinatown, and serves to run shivers down the collective spine of San Francisco residents.

Perhaps the most infamous and enduring incident is a shooting in 1977, called the “Golden Dragon massacre,” which occurred right in the heart of Chinatown in Golden Dragon Restaurant.

The chaos created by rival gangs Joe Boys and Wah Chings yielded five deaths and eleven injuries.

The actions of gangs in Chinatown have had very real, very poignant consequences.  Their influence is still felt today.  Yee, if convicted, will be sentenced to more than 100 years in federal prison.

But if the consequences are so steep, why do Chinatown gangs continue to lure youths and even senators to do their bidding?  What is it exactly about gangs that prove so mystic, so cool?

For Yee, the financial support to fund his political ambitions is certainly one of the reasons behind his corruption with the gangs.

But I wonder how much of the adolescent, Asian-American who cannot seem to fit in remains in Yee, seeking the close knit solidarity that Chinese gangs value.

I wonder to what extent his reputation has been soiled because of the scandal, once regarded as the pride of the Asian-American community, but now a shameful black mark. I wonder how much of the interaction is fueled by his Asian-American identity, and the power, fear and respect that the black underworld can summon.

Ryan Chen is a third year English major. He can be reached at ryanlc@uci.edu.