Hock Sair Woey, The Chinese Underworld
I was eight when I witnessed my first shooting. There had been an ongoing feud between Chinese kids and Bloods (Blacks) from nearby Telegraph Hill. It was the Fourth of July weekend, a street carnival was operating on Waverly Place in Chinatown, and a "rumble" was declared for ten p.m. My father was out gambling while my mother was putting in a fourteen-hour shift at the garment factory. Kids at Chinese Playground had been whispering about the showdown all day long. I thought to myself, Nothin's gonna stop me from being there.
At nine thirty p.m., my friends and me, pint-sized little rascals, were walking around and keeping an eye out for any Bloods as well as the police. Guys from opposing sides showed up around nine forty-five p.m. The groups, each numbering close to forty, gathered and faced each other at the south end of the alley near the ferris wheel. Not a single cop was in sight. Clubs, pipes and chains were brought out, as well as rumble belts and butterfly and switchblade knives. I was in the neutral zone with the Bloods to my left and our guys on the right.
"WHAT THE FUCK YOU LOOKING AT?" someone yelled.
As they began charging one another, I heard someone scream, "NO!" To my right, two Chinese dudes facing one another appeared to be grappling with something. Suddenly there was a loud BANG!
I thought it was a firecracker. There was a puff of smoke and I saw one of the guys keeling over.
"GUN!" a dude screamed.
As people scattered in different directions,I was shoved from side to side. Just as I began to run, someone clipped my shoe, causing me to fall. Two older kids I recognized from the playground tumbled over me. Diving into a narrow doorway, I pushed the heel of my foot back into my tennis shoe and dashed back out. I ran straight home. Entering the apartment, I didn't dare look at my mother for fear she would see right through me.
Back then, guns were unheard of in Chinatown. I couldn't sleep that night. Pop! Pop! Pop! kept going off in my head. Don't be afraid...that's for chumps, I told myself.
At the playground the following day, one of the older guys said, "Yea, John's brother tried to stop him from shooting the Hock Gwais (Black Devils) and he accidentally shot him. He's in the hospital and John got busted."
"Yea, I was there, man, and it was really cool," I said. I already knew how to act like a big shot to gain respect.
The Chinese gangs I recall from the late 1950s to early '60s included groups such as the Fong-Fong Boys, Raiders, Phoenician Warriors, Majestics, Immortals and Black Bugs. Fong-Fong was a cafe on Stockton Street and a hang-out for kids who naturally adopted the name. My uncle Johnny was a waiter there.
Mary, my oldest sister, headed up her own girl's gang while James "hanged" with the Black Bugs. His initiation late one night at Portsmouth Square bordering Chinatown was interrupted by the police and his boys ran out on him. The behavior of his pals taught me that, out on the streets, it was every man for himself.
Gang activity was typical. The "Tel-Hi" Blacks and white kids who came into our area were regarded as intruders and subject to attack. Clashes also occurred among the Chinese factions but it was just over adolescent stuff like girls, gossip and hard looks. Crime was basically limited to assaults, shoplifting, burglaries and auto theft. Dances were held at Victory Hall on Stockton Street and the YMCA on Clay Street. Kids danced to the tunes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Shirelles and the Temptations. We hated the Hock Gwais (Black Devils), but we were enamored with their "soul" music and rhythm. Despising them while at the same time admiring their culture didn't make sense to me.
Beginning in 1962, we experienced an influx of families from the Hong Kong region. At that time, The Raiders, Jr. Raiders and even Baby Raiders (junior-high school age) ruled the neighborhood.
Chinese was my first language so it was easy making friends with the newcomers. Back then, my family was still struggling with assimilating into the culture here. We had a lot in common with the recent immigrants.
At schools, especially Galileo High and Marina Middle School, fights were breaking out among the ABCs (American-born Chinese) and FOBs (foreign-born Chinese). It began with the newcomers getting hassled.
"Fuckin' China Bugs!"
"Look at them clothes, dude!"
"No speaka' English?"
Even back then, if you didn't wear the right shoes, like Converse, you weren't shit. The native kids, in turn, were called Jook Sings (half-devils) and Tow Gee (privileged and spoiled landowners). As the conflict escalated, I found myself caught in the middle, technically an ABC, yet identifying with the foreign-borns.
In 1964, a group of immigrant kids got together and formed the Wah Ching (Chinese Youth) gang. They started with only a dozen but their membership grew rapidly. It was payback time and their retaliation was fierce.
This was now a different ball game. ABCs were getting jumped left and right and the beatings were severe. After school, if you made it out of the grounds, they'd find you at the bus stop or cable car turn-table. It wasn't just a one-time payback. The assaults were repeated over and over. Make fun of any foreign-born kid in class or bump one of their brothers or cousins in the hall and you'd pay dearly for it. These guys grew up on the rough streets of Hong Kong and Macao where gangs were hardcore. Many had spent a good part of their youths in brutal prisons. This was now their Chinatown. I spoke their language and never ridiculed them. Although they never came after me, I knew I wasn't impervious to their reign of terror. Yet it also came down to what was seen in the locker room. Essentially, the ABCs were circumcised and the FOBs were not. Ridiculous as it seemed, one's foreskin, or lack of, determined their fate.
My friend, Thomas, spoke fluent English and I assumed he was an ABC until I saw him in the shower. Later, I learned his family emigrated here when he was an infant. It didn't make any difference to me, but one day, he offended one of the foreign-born kids and they were ready to pounce on another ABC. When word got out that Thomas was not circumcised, the FOBs realized he was one of their own, and they spared him.
The Wah Chings hung out at Chinese Playground, and their first clubhouse was on Clay Street across from Portsmouth Square. I generally stayed out of their way. If you were playing basketball, ping-pong or volleyball, and they approached, common sense dictated that you step aside. I got to know a few of them, and on occasion, they invited me to join in. By '69, numerous gangs were formed from the original Wah Chings.
At first, I found it exciting to know some of the gang members. In time, it became clear that they couldn't be trusted. They had ulterior motives. When they were friendly toward me, there was a catch. "Hold this for me."
"Give so and so a message."
"Hide this for me."
"When the police come, say this..."
"Don't tell anyone you saw this."
I came to believe that everyone was a user and your friends can betray you. There were times I felt I couldn't take it anymore. There were so many things hidden at home, and now, the streets and playground were filled with "hush-hush" and seedy characters.
My passion for kung-fu movies brought me to the cinema on a weekly basis. The Great Star, Sun Sing, Grandview, World and Palace Theaters were Chinatown landmarks. I couldn't wait for the new Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest "flicks" to arrive.
"The One-Armed Swordsman," "Boxer From Shantung" and the "Shaolin Temple" series were classics. The genre had an interesting theme. The heroes were Robin Hood-types defending the common people against corrupt, oppressive officials and their imperial forces. Crimes committed by the rebels were somehow justified.
Brotherhood, courage and loyalty prevailed over oppression, greed and betrayals, with revenge thrown in for action.
These movie houses were also where gang members gathered and established their turf. At times, there was more violence in the theater than on the screen.
One Sunday afternoon, inside Sun Sing theater, a man and his girlfriend were seated near the screen. I was about three rows behind them. Suddenly, about fifteen gang members entered. They marched past me and approached the couple. Through the darkness, their shadows and movements were frightening. I knew they were on a violent mission.
"Let's talk outside...everything's okay," one of them said.
The man whispered something to his girlfriend. He then stood up and walked out with them. I sat there and began counting in my head-one thousand one...one thousand two...one thousand three...anticipating the outcome.
As they were leading the man up the aisle, surrounding him on all sides, he was jumped. I knew the routine, so I tried to keep my eyes locked on the screen. It lasted no more than fifteen seconds, but it was horrific. The attack was much worst than others I had witnessed. "Oh my God! Somebody please help him!" his girlfriend screamed, as she ran to him. I wanted to stop her for her own safety, but I knew better than to get involved.
After the assailants left, I walked over and saw the victim on the ground, badly beaten and bloodied. A number of them had bottles and smashed the man with them. His face was slashed, up and down and side to side, from the broken glass.
"Honey, don't move," she cried. "Shit, look what they did to him." Finally he was helped out of the theater. The lights never came on and the police never showed up. While most of the patrons left, I slowly returned to my seat and just sat there. My heart was racing but the rest of my body felt numb.
I was curious as to why so many of them attacked him. They were pushing one another aside to get in on it, as though they were competing. I was twelve at the time. For weeks, I couldn't shake the image of the man's bloodied face. The loud, stomping sound of his beating and his cries for mercy also played over and over again.
As each day passed, the violence became increasingly brutal. I remember feeling like a "fraidy cat," and told myself that I had to get used to all the shit that goes down on the streets. This was my home.
At the playground, gang members shared stories of "jobs" they were hired for, which included the beating of people and robbing of patrons as they left gambling dens. Various Tongs ran the games and kids were paid as "look-sees," signaling when police or trouble loomed. (The word "Tong" translates to a meeting hall or club in Chinese. "Hock Sair Woey" which means black society, encompasses the entire Chinese Underworld, including Tongs, Triads and organized street gangs. In the Orient today, one particular Triad has a reported membership of more than 50,000. It is my belief that the Hock Sair Woey embodies the most powerful criminal element in the world.)
Once, someone powerful in Chinatown wanted a man beaten up. They located him in a movie house. Unbeknownst to them, their victim, about sixty years old, was a skilled martial artist. It began with eight of them surrounding the man.
As one of the gang members recalled, "I've never seen anyone fight like that. The old man was actually beating the shit out of us. Luckily, someone ran out, got more guys, and we were able to crowd and put him down. We ended up knocking out most of his teeth, man!"
As he shared the story, I found myself silently rooting for the old guy. The ending stunk as I saw the victim as a fallen kung-fu hero. But I just sat there and laughed along, pretending to be amused. The fact that these guys were hired meant that the Tongs were stepping out after years of obscurity.
I grew up hearing about the infamous Tong Wars with Little Pete and the "hatchet men." Tales of prostitution, opium dens, gambling halls and secret passages running through Chinatown were legendary. As a young boy, I was told by older kids that these groups protected early Chinese settlers against abuses of the white men, but they were also involved in criminal activities. Various Tongs engaged in battle to control the neighborhood rackets.
As kids, we role-played in the same alleys where the bloody confrontations took place. Chasing one another, with knives tucked in our sleeves, we screamed, "You dare mess with my Tong! Where's my money? You die, ass-hole!"
For kicks, we tip-toed up to the Hop Sing Tong headquarters. I knocked on the door and ran away, yelling, "Bui how doi [hatchet man] is chasing me!"
The major West Coast Tongs were the Bing Kung, Hop Sing, Hip Sing and Suey Sing. My Uncle Wong (Yin Doon), who was personal friends with Chiang Kai Shek, headed the powerful Bing Kung Tong. He also led the Wong Family Association and was the top member of the Republic of China's Kuomintang Nationalist Party in the U.S.
As far back as I can remember, the KMT has always been regarded as the controlling force of Jhong Wah Wuey Goon (the Chinese Six Companies). Virtually all Tong elders were members of the KMT.
Wong Yin Doon took my father under his wings in the early 1960s, and I was told to, joon ging (respect) him. No problem-to me, Wong Bok Bok (Uncle Wong) was my sparring partner. I usually greeted him by running up and we would then get in our fighting stance. I declared, "Ngor hai Wong Fay Hung!" (I am the kung-fu hero!) then punched him.
Leaders of the other Tongs were close to my father as well, but I didn't associate them or my father with gangs. To me, they were just mild-mannered men that we had lunch and coffee with. The Tong leaders, as well as my father, walked through Chinatown hunched slightly forward with their hands clasped behind their backs. Their tailored suits with fancy tie clips and jade rings distinguished them from the common man. And like my father and Wong Bok Bok, some of them wore a gold lapel pin with a miniature photo of Sun Yat Sen. They didn't appear ruthless to me. Actually, I thought they were boring.
Chinese men are hospitable and fight over restaurant checks. I sat and analyzed the ritual. Individuals such as my father and Wong Bok Bok were sincere in grabbing the checks. But there were a few who stuck their arms out and only made phony attempts to grab the bill from the waiters and waitresses. In my eyes, a full-arm's length grab was sincere; half-length was "chicken shit." The stingy ones were actually the wealthiest in the group, with large property holdings in Chinatown. I kept encouraging my father to call them on it. There were times I felt like yelling, "Hey, you guys should pay since you never do...you're goo horn!" (stingy!)
They watched over me but I considered them nosy spies reporting my activities back to my father. Years later, it would be noted by writers, journalists and historians that Wong Bok Bok was indisputably the most powerful Chinese in America during his time.
I have very fond memories of my time at Marina Middle School. The halls were immaculately clean and the cafeteria offered great food. I can still smell the giant peanut-butter cookies that were ten cents each. We hung out, got in fights, played ball, listened to music, teased girls, snuck peeks at Playboy centerfolds...that was the life.
Along with my friends, we ruled the school. Once, ten of us had a plan to leave school early and brought notes forged with our parents' signatures. Around nine a.m., Mr. Wong, the Dean of Boys (whom we accused of being a racist "banana"-yellow on the outside; white on the inside), summoned us to his office.
"You boys are in trouble and I've got you this time," he shouted. "I have in front of me, your notes and your emergency contact cards which were turned in at the beginning of the school year. Now, one by one, I'm going to compare the signatures. I bet they're not going to match. Gentlemen, all of you are looking at detention."
He went through the process, one by one, confirming his hunch.
Eventually, he reached my note and card. I sat there with a smirk on my face.
He was stunned. "It matches!" he whispered. "Okay, I guess you're excused to leave, Mr. Lee."
Later, my friends all wondered how my note and emergency card matched. "Oh, that's simple," I explained. "I've been forging my parents' signature on everything from the school."
Everyone thought that was so cool, but it was quite pathetic. My father and mother were always too busy to care what was going on at school, so I signed all the documents.
Many of my childhood friends became criminals who made front-page news. Walter Teng, from my Marina days, was among them. One of the foreign-born kids I got along well with, Walter shared a number of classes with me. He was quite big and tough. Walter was quiet, yet always ready to step in when I needed some muscle. I think he was amused at what a "loud-mouth" I was.
I wondered which gang he would end up with. Walter didn't get drawn into the gang wars, but he was convicted as one of the "Ski Mask Bandits" who were linked to eight armed robberies over a two-month period in 1973, which included two banks, before they were apprehended. I never saw Walter again and worried that he died in prison or at the hands of his parents.
I was all of 4'6" in seventh grade but that didn't stop me from bullying a lot of the big kids. My "patsies" were required to bring me candy at school on a daily basis. Those who didn't comply received "knuckle sandwiches." I never stopped to consider the feelings of the people I tormented. In my mind it was justified, since I was being picked on by older thugs.
Stanley Varner was a sweet, smart kid that I harassed for two years in middle school. Every opportunity I had, I made fun of him and pushed him around. One day, he confronted me before class started.
"You have been making my life miserable!" he shouted.
"My psychologist tells me I am not responsible for your abusive childhood.
I don't care what you do to me, but this has got to stop!"
I watched as his face quickly turned bright red and tears filled his glasses. He really caught me off guard, especially his statement about the psychologist. I didn't realize I had driven him to counseling and they were talking about me.
My first reaction was to punch him, but as our classmates began entering the room. I simply whispered, "Okay, man...cool it."
Stanley and I attended Galileo High School together and he served in many offices, including class president. I stayed away from him to honor my word but also because he intimidated me. I was afraid he and his therapist had me all figured out.
1970 was the year my friends and I tangled with the underworld gangs. My best friends were Daniel, Cal and Vic. We trained together at a kung-fu studio and were regarded as the top four students. Our Sifu (Master) taught us full-contact sparring and street-fighting. We didn't wear protective gear in those days. Just a lot of bruises that Sifu treated with smelly ointment. We thought we were bad asses, always looking for an excuse to fight. Of course, it was only a matter of time before we messed with the wrong people.
During Chinese New Year's, there was intense competition among the kung-fu clubs to perform Lion Dancing for businesses and groups in Chinatown. Firecrackers were used to scare away the evil spirits, but we were after the Lai See (red envelopes containing money). A lot of cash was at stake and selection for performances was political. Kung-fu studios also served as recruiting grounds for various Tongs. Some of the Sifus were Tong enforcers.
One particular Saturday, we were coordinating the work and proceeds with another studio. Eight of us were crammed in the back of a truck with a huge drum, cymbals, lion-head and other equipment cruising through Chinatown.
This kid named Johnny from the other studio and I were in each other's faces from the start over who played the drum. A bit taller than me but thinner, I could tell he was raised on the streets in Hong Kong. The tension was building with dirty looks being exchanged and light shoves to establish rank within the truck. Finally I shouted, "Move over, man, quit hogging the drum." He wouldn't budge so I pushed him aside and took over. I stood ready to fight but he backed away. I figured he was just another punk that needed to be taught a lesson. But this was not the end of it.
A short time later, Johnny clobbered me. He snuck up behind me, wrapped his arm around my neck and beat me repeatedly with a club, yelling "Dill nay!
Dill nay!" (Fuck You! Fuck You!) Because we were crammed, I wasn't able to push him back. Unintentionally, my arms were pinned by others attempting to separate us.
Johnny got in at least five good blows. I was a bloody mess. My nose was broken and I started to black out. Blood was gushing everywhere and my eyes were teary. I couldn't believe what had happened. It was obvious I needed medical attention, but we were stuck in traffic.
I remember Cal helping me out of the truck. A hospital was close by, but I refused to go. I was embarrassed and just wanted to hide. Cal assisted me back to our studio.
I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself. There were bumps the size of golf balls along my forehead. The bridge of my nose had swelled up and was crackling. My clothes were soaked in blood, which continued pouring out. I thought I was going to bleed to death. Cal left to find Sifu.
Finally, the bleeding stopped. At that point, I just wanted to put a bag over my head and run home, but my intuition told me something bad was goin' down.
I located my group a few blocks away on Grant Avenue. Cal was already there so my classmates knew what had happened. Johnny and his group were just ahead. Sifu was already heading toward them. "Sifu," I yelled. He walked over to me and had a crazed look in his eyes.
"Look at you!" he screamed. "That guy's going to pay for this. And if anyone gets in the way, I'm kicking their ass, too!"
He moved in their direction as my classmates, nearly twenty of them, were prepared to attack the other members as well. I thought to myself, Shit, someone's going to get killed...I have to do something.
"Sifu, please don't," I pleaded. "I don't want anyone else to get hurt." I don't know how, but I restrained him and our group eventually calmed down.
When I arrived home, my mother had already heard. She knew I wasn't an angel and got into scrapes, but the way I was beaten didn't sit well with her.
"Your father called...he's on his way," she said.
I couldn't wait for my father to get home, but I was also terrified that he'd be upset at me. When he arrived, he didn't say much. While he was treating my injuries, I noticed his hands trembling and his jaw muscles pulsating in anger. He was continually on and off the phone. Finally, he turned to me and said, "He's a member of Suey Sing Tong." My father went on to say that the Tong's president called, concerned about me, expressing sorrow over the attack. Johnny was ordered to appear before my father the next day.
My father whispered,"This is a courtesy from them. Under normal circumstances, they would back the punk up because he's their people. How would it look to the other gang members if the elders did not support them. It's important that you understand this about the Tongs." I understood what he was saying but I was consumed with guilt and fear. Because of me, my father was suddenly going up against a powerful Tong. The following day, I intercepted the meeting between Johnny and my father. I had no desire to leave the house looking like hell, but I had to do something. I met up with Johnny on Jackson Street in front of the Suey Sing Tong headquarters.
"I sorry man," he said. "I go crazy afta' you push me."
"Let's try to forget it," I replied.
"I go see your fatha' now. You know what he wanna do?"
"Well, I'll go talk to him. You don't have to see him."
"You sure?" he asked. "I know I sapposed to see him."
"Yea, I'll take care of it."
"Okay, I see you 'round then, he said." We shook hands and parted ways.
My father wasn't thrilled when I went to see him in Johnny's place. He was upset with me, but I couldn't afford to second-guess my father, the Suey Sing Tong, Johnny or anyone else. I was worried that my father may get himself killed because of me. As far as I'm concerned, Chinese are the worst people to cross, holding grudges for decades, until the opportunity for redemption presents itself. Vengeance to restore honor are passed through generations.
I wanted to put this episode behind me, but the beating affected me traumatically. Months after my wounds healed, I was still fearful of getting punched. I refused to spar during kung-fu practice.
Then I realized that the incident hardened me, and my perception of fighting took on a whole new meaning. Scuffles were no longer simply black eyes and bloody noses, ending when someone got pinned or declared, "I give up." I started to believe that Johnny could have killed me.
As time passed, my propensity for violence increased. I was constantly on edge. My paranoia was now drawing out the brutal side of me. I knew that if provoked, I could really hurt someone for fear of my life. I wasn't going to ever let anyone get the upper hand on me again.
One of my classmates, Raymond, also had a run-in with a gang member around the same time. Raymond's father, Mr. Chong, had gone to the Palace Theater one Saturday afternoon. After entering, he realized he needed to return home. Mr. Chong asked the ticket collector for permission to step out and come back in. "Haer la" (Go ahead), the man replied.
When Raymond's father returned a short time later, a different person was stationed at the door.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the collector said.
An argument ensued. Mr. Chong went home and informed Raymond about his mistreatment.
Raymond accompanied his father back to the theater and confronted the man. As they were screaming at one another, the collector pushed Raymond and shouted, "I'm Wah Ching." Raymond took a step back and came forward with a front kick, landing smack on the jaw of the gangster. As he fell to the ground, the Wah Ching pulled out a .38 and shot Raymond in the abdomen. Fortunately, Raymond recovered.
When I heard what went down, I was surprised that Raymond reacted the way he did. Prior to joining our club, he'd never been in a fight. I felt that too many of us were resorting to violence. My idea of being a martial artist was based on my legendary hero, Wong Fay Hung, a humble man who avoided confrontations. Something happened to us? We turned into bullies and aggressors.
The Wah Ching and Suey Sing Boys were at war for a short period beginning in 1969 to control Chinatown's underworld of gambling, loan-sharking, extortion and politics. Shootings and homicides in Chinatown filled the front pages of newspapers. By early '70, the "SS Boys" relinquished San Francisco and established Oakland as their territory. I was caught up in the drama and found it exciting. I became indifferent to the violence, accepting it as a normal part of life. There were nightmares here and there, but I learned to ignore it like everything else.
By 1970, Joe Fong-whose older brothers were founding members of the Wah Chings and he, the youngest member in the gang-was already well-known on the streets and by the police. He'd been to our house and was friends with my sister, May. Joe broke away from the gang and became one of the leaders of a new group, Yow Lay, which means Good Fortune. In a short time, their membership grew to more than 150 and they were taking over Chinatown.
Joe and Cal were also good friends, and we discussed joining up but decided against it. "Let's just try to stay cool with everyone in Chinatown," I suggested.
Cal felt an allegiance to Joe, but we remained on our own for the time being. Deep down, I think we all knew that with the Hock Sair Woey (Chinese underworld) sponsoring Yow Lay, that I'd be odd man out. My father was constantly haranguing me to stay out of the gangs and his underworld associates would never allow me to be initiated into Yow Lay. Besides, my mother was constantly reminding me not to be a burden to her. The idea of having to call her from the police station or the image of myself lying dead in the morgue with her standing over me crying were strong deterrents.
Not long after our discussion, Cal and Vic along with a few other friends were jumped by Wah Chings. They were walking down Clay Street and encountered the gang. David, one of the gang members, confronted them and shouted, "What the fuck you doing in Chinatown!" Punches started flying. With my friends considerably outnumbered, they were getting roughed-up.
Suddenly Sifu appeared out of nowhere. He was driving by and noticed his disciples in trouble. He jumped out of his car and into the fracas. The fighting ended abruptly when one of the gang members began vomiting blood after Sifu collapsed his lung with a punch to the chest. That was the strength of his chi kung (internal power). My friends jumped into Sifu's car. They drove off just as additional gang members arrived, armed with guns.
The fight was enough to push Cal, Daniel, Vic and others in our group over to Joe Fong and the Yow Lay. Sifu was being hunted, the studio closed down and I went my own way.
I'd run into them occasionally and they would usually be in a large group with a tough persona, but to me they were still the same guys that I grew up acting silly with. I missed them, but had few regrets. I wasn't interested in being a hardcore gangster. Not yet, anyway.
Cal was implicated in a shooting of Wah Chings in '72 and subsequently convicted. Although a minor at the time of the crime, he was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to Dalton State Prison. Dalton is where Joe and many of the guys would also serve time.
Although not hooked up with any gang, I was still running around the streets, hanging around pool halls and the Police Athletic League in Chinatown. The PAL was established to keep kids off the streets, but we turned it into a gambling den where gangs heavily recruited. Guys who couldn't get in or afford the fees at regular pool halls ended up at the PAL.
Gambling was out in the open and the popular game was Sup Som Jhern (Thirteen-Card Poker), where a 52-card deck was dealt to four players, who each strategically arranged three hands of poker. The top hand consisted of three cards, followed by two, five-card hands. Junior and high school kids wagered away upwards of one hundred dollars at a time.
Although the facility was run by a sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department, the place was filled with ruffians and most of us carried weapons. I learned how to check people out and establish rank. I got away with staring anyone down except the hardcore gang members.
It wasn't much fun when these guys joined our poker games. Many were sore losers and made up their own rules. A few blatantly took their winnings but refused to fork over losses. When they entered, I looked for a mutual acquaintance in their group. That was the only way we'd have a chance for a fair game. Walking away wasn't an option.
Once, two of them sat in with us. I knew them by reputation only. One was called Lun Towl (Dick-Head), by his friends. About eighteen, he was one of the rowdier ones. After playing a hand, he lost twenty dollars to me but wouldn't pay up. I hesitated before speaking. Hmm, what should I say? Mr. Dick-head, can you please pay me? Or, hey, Dick-head, pay up!
Finally I just blurted out, "Um, you owe me twenty dollars."
He immediately sat up and said, "Why the fuck should I give you twenty dollars?
You gonna give me a blow-job?"
I kept quiet; didn't dare look at him and just continued playing. Man, what an ass-hole, I thought. How "bad" are you without your boys and that gun...Dick-head! Try anything and I'll cut it off. Then we'll call you "Dick-less!"
At times, I became disgusted with the place and swore not to return. But I'd be right back the next day. I couldn't figure it out-it wasn't a nurturing environment, but there was also something familiar about the ambiance. The bullies, the gambling, the violence, the code of silence-I had no idea the place had so much in common with my home. Many of us stopped hanging out there when rumors surfaced that the place was "wired" and our conversations were being recorded by the cops. So we took our gaming elsewhere.
Entering my teens, gambling seemed to be the most important thing in my life. Drugs and alcohol never attracted me, but the rush I got from gambling was irresistible. When worries, troubles or disappointments became overwhelming, I wagered to numb my feelings.
Chinese engage in gambling as a way of socializing. Our parents and relatives served as role models, exposing us to Mah Jong, Pai Gow, Fan Tan and other games as an appropriate form of recreation.
I grew up with the concept that gambling was macho-risk-taking, competing, drinking, smoking, cussing, and carrying wads of cash-gambling encompassed these things and represented a rite of passage.
Playing cards in all-night laundromats as a teenager, we threatened people and chased them out of the facilities. We blocked people's doorways in order to lay out our cards and bets. We didn't give a damn about anyone else. Try to stop us from being "in action" and you faced a bunch of hostile, violent kids.
At Galileo High School, I was a terror. Unruly, disrespectful and disruptive, I cut classes on a regular basis, which provided a reprieve for my teachers. My first report card reflected this. An "A" in PE, "C" in English (which I attended occasionally and enjoyed), followed by "F's." I was subsequently suspended and faced expulsion for physically threatening two of my teachers.
It was just easier for me to get on their bad side. I was a smart-mouthed punk just waiting for them to say, "That's it, I give up on you." Fortunately for me, the Assistant Principal, Mr. Stanton Tong, didn't play into my hand.
"You have enormous potential, William. If you would just divert your energy in the proper direction, you can have a great future. If we keep you in school, you have to work with me and really make an effort. What do you say?"
"Yeah, alright. Thanks, Mr. Tong," I replied.
I will never forget the second chance he gave me, which kept me in school and probably saved my life. I was not accustomed to anyone believing in me.
In addition to Mr. Tong, my homeroom teacher and a school counselor also vouched for me. I was determined not to let them down. Facing the prospects of being a high-school dropout was not appealing.
With an attitude adjustment, I began earning straight A's. For the first time in my life, I was proud of myself. Of course, I couldn't let friends in on my stellar grades; I had an image on the streets to maintain.
During that period, I was also hanging around the Dhon (East) Ping Yuen housing project. Some of the guys who lived there studied Tong Long (Praying Mantis) kung-fu with Wong Joc Mun, the Sifu who fought a famous duel against Bruce Lee in the early '60s. Wong Sifu's studio was located on Pacific Avenue and we hung out there as well. Everyone there called me Little Soul Brother. When Wong Sifu wasn't around, we used to turn off the lights and spar in total darkness. We also engaged in full-contact, "tag-team" matches. It was wild.
As I started my junior year at Galileo, a tragic event took place which forced me to examine my life and mortality. A group of my friends from Chinatown had gone camping and deer hunting in the Sierras. It was the third week of September, 1971. They left on Thursday to get a head start on hunting season, which officially opened on Saturday. Among them was my childhood buddy from St. Mary's, Winston Lew, sixteen, and my hero from the streets, Darren Gee, twenty one.
Winston and I met in third grade. He was always quiet and mellow, never hassled anyone. He wasn't your typical street kid or trouble-maker. Through the years, he grew taller, but his looks and mannerisms remained the same. As we entered our teens, I noticed Winston hanging out with older guys in the neighborhood. Most were former gang members who were usually "stoned."
Darren was the guy I wanted for an older brother. He used to lead us into the elevator shafts, back alleys and high rooftops. He asked my sister Dorothy out on a date once and I never forgave her for turning him down. He was an awesome street-fighter, totally fearless. He was one of the few Raiders the Wah Chings respected. Darren was like a super hero to me.
If someone broke into school at night, bypassed the security and switched on all the lights, we knew it was Darren; or if a building was scaled to scribble graffiti, that would be his signature.
Darren never treated us as pesky kids. On the contrary, he was always respectful. My brother never bullied me when Darren was around. Late at night, we huddled around him on the merry-go-round at Chinese Playground. There, in virtual darkness, he told the scariest ghost stories. As reckless as he was, I always felt safe around him.
Darren entered a "black hole" when his buddy was killed while they were "trippin'" together. I don't recall the exact details. Some say his friend got crushed in an elevator shaft and Darren blamed himself. He escaped from the pain and guilt by turning to glue and drugs. When I saw him at the schoolyard sniffing out of a brown bag, I was devastated. My hero had fallen. He asked me to sit with him but I just walked away. He also asked me for money. Everything changed-he was now someone I knew I had to stay away from. Just say, "hey, what's happening" and that's it.
Looking up to someone and seeing them transform and waste away left me feeling confused and empty. Who can I really rely on in my life? I wondered. I prayed for Darren, hoping that he'd snap out of his slump. Randy Yip, whom I didn't know well, was on the hunting trip. They also took along Ralph Gong, 14, younger brother of my friend, Lincoln. Their final companion was Clifford Young, 21, a fella known to be on the eccentric side. Clifford was often the target of distasteful jokes and pranks. When I heard he was going on the trip, I figured they took him along for amusement.
I was in a pool hall on Saturday afternoon when the news broke. Word spread quickly through the projects that Lincoln's brother had been shot. Everyone else was dead.
"Crazy Clifford ambushed them with a rifle!" someone shouted.
I couldn't believe it. Winston and I spoke right before they left. He was leaning against a parking meter in Chinatown and I was kidding him about the trip.
"You're going to miss school," I said.
"What's school?" he replied, with a grin.
"Come on, man. This isn't like cutting classes at Saint Mary's," I said.
"You're damn right," he snapped. "I don't have to worry about old Sister Mildred."
The story I heard was that Clifford was being teased throughout the ride up to the mountains. Late Friday morning, while they were getting up, Clifford went to the car, came back with a rifle, and without a word, methodically began blasting away at his tormentors.
Three bodies were found at their campsite on a granite ledge above a creek. One was in the creek and the other two were on the bank. Blood was splattered everywhere. After being shot in the chest and left for dead, Ralph crawled two hundred yards to the highway and was spotted by a motorist. He gave a description of their car and within an hour, Clifford was arrested.
Even with Darren struggling with his problems, he was still invincible to me. In my mind, nothing could kill him-not drugs, bullets, steel elevators-nothing. And Winston, I couldn't stop thinking about our early days in grammar school together. He will always be remembered as the sweet, quiet kid I knew.
Four hunting rifles were found. Even as the Justice of the Peace issued a gag order, the news reported that a drug search was conducted at the campsite. The following year, Clifford was convicted for the murders and committed to a mental institution.
About eighteen months later, the son-of-a-bitch strolled into Mike's Pool Hall on a day outing with his fellow patients. When I saw him, I didn't know whether I should attack him or run away. You better believe I kept a close eye on him. People like that were unpredictable. They were liable to "go off" at any time.
It is easier to deal with people getting shot and killed in the neighborhood if you only knew them casually or if they were in a gang. Darren and Winston's death was totally unexpected and I didn't know how to deal with it. I never told anyone how confused I was. Is this God's way of putting them out of their misery? Will he be coming after me soon? Do the good really die young, or does he take punks like me first?
After Cal and the guys joined up with Joe Fong, my best friend was Trent Yee. We hung around the projects, sold fireworks, got into fights, played basketball, shot pool and gambled together. On the streets, it was imperative to have a partner- someone you can count on, above and beyond your own family. You watched each other's back, no matter what.
Trent was very bright, possessed street-smarts and had guts. Various gangs tried to recruit him. He was continually invited to party with the big boys.
"Stay away from them, dude," I said.
"Don't worry, man," he replied. "I'm not stupid. I don't want to get "popped" or sent away."
"Yea, Trent, we're partners, so don't fuck up!"
Trent began dating a girl who had mutual friends with Joe Fong. These guys had cars, went to nightclubs and dances, and basically turned him on to an exciting lifestyle.
Before I knew it, Trent became a gang member. I continually telephoned him, stopping by his house, but his response was always, "The guys are picking me up." I was invited along but usually declined. I appreciated his courtesy to include me but he was choosing their friendship over mine and I was hurt. Feeling rejected, I was also convinced I was cursed. My best friends were all ending up in gangs.
All things considered, Trent was lucky. Eventually, he was arrested along with about a dozen others during a brawl with Wah Chings, and that was the only trouble he got into.
Jason Fung and Frank Lau, my original buddies from Saint Mary's, were also running around with the wrong people. Frank was busted for committing home burglaries and was sent to a juvenile detention center. Jason got hooked up with a gang and they were robbing grocery stores. During one of their jobs, a grocer was shot and killed. Jason was apprehended and convicted of murder. Prosecuted as an adult, he received a life sentence.
I can still visualize the three of us sitting on the playground steps. We vowed to stay friends forever. They were good guys. We just wanted to survive our homes and the streets. It's sad how things turned out.