Lost Boys: Asian Gangs in Los Angeles

It was early spring; my friends and I arrived in West Los Angeles to a friend’s apartment.  As soon as we ascended the stairs, we came across a hazy, dark scene filled with the sweat-soaked heat of too many bodies in a closely packed space. Very faintly, I could make out the shadowy figures of people, around the college age, dressed in track jackets and white wife-beaters.  Some lolled on the couch while others gyrated aggressively on the floor to the loud hip-hop music, from which the bass caused the walls of the room to vibrate dangerously.  Black, Hispanic, Asian kids dispersed and mingled interchangeably.  We squeezed our way to the rooftop, in search of the keg and to escape the tension of the urban, angst-charged crowd.

As I stood on the roof of the apartment complex, with the muffled, throbbing sound of the bass rumbling through the foundation, I looked over at the unruly bunch with some apprehension.  I knew that I stuck out like a sore thumb.  These were the “type” of kids that my parents warned me against associating with my whole life.

These, my first-generation Chinese parents with their good intentions raised me to think, were the bad kids, the antithesis of what they wanted me to be—the “gang members.”  Thus, innocently in my home, this bias was fostered, in which a person’s integrity and character was judged by the way he dressed.  Just because his circumstance was more urban, and different from my own, I for some reason grew to fear him.  This is something I lived with, until I came to college and encountered these people at the party.My friend, who invited us to his apartment, admonished me about such stereotypes I’ve carried about with me my whole life.  Growing up in a large metropolitan city, riddled with logistical problems of its own, doesn’t make life easy or safe for some residents.

“[My friends], they look ghetto, mainly due to environment factors…but they are not gangsters,” he explained.  They do have some misdemeanors on their record and yes, they do come from a rough neighborhood, but it doesn’t mean they’re bad kids.  In fact, my friend told me how many of them come out to college, hoping to find a better life.

You can go to any LAUSD school in Los Angeles or any big city and try to point out the so-called criminal potentials, the “time-bombs.”  But the irony is, half the time, the real “bad kids,” they’re right there in your own neighborhood, whether you imagine you are safe there or not.

Even living in San Marino, one of last few cities in the Los Angeles area with the appearance of being crime-less, doesn’t promise total security.  San Marino has a fast-growing population of Taiwanese-Chinese, Cantonese-Chinese residents.  Last year, the home of one of my high school classmates was robbed; a neighbor spied a group of young Asian boys sulking around her home.  The burglars stole electronics, cash and CDs, game consoles.

Another friend of mine living in the area was on vacation, when his home was broken into.  Although his family had an alarm system, his parents didn’t think of setting it before they left.  They figured because it was San Marino,—one of the safest Southern Californian cities one would imagine for raising their children in, they didn’t need to.  The robbers broke into the house easily; they stole jewelry, cash, computers and any other re-saleable goods.  When they saw they couldn’t take the wide-screen television with them, out of malice, they smashed a gaping hole in the screen.

Were the perpetrators from a gang, situated in the San Gabriel Valley area?  And if so, were the members the residents of San Marino’s Asian community?  Did they intimately know the neighborhood?  It’s not certain.  The very term, “gang” itself is sketchy.  Jimmy, a young Asian officer working the Los Angeles area, explains that in law enforcement, the term gang is usually applied to an organized crime group.  Unlike the media image of black and Latino street gangs that most people associate with the idea of “gang members,” Jimmy told me a good deal of Asian gangs have a more mafia-type quality.

This is not to say that there are not any Asian street gangs as well.  The Asian gang category encompasses a hugely diverse variety of ethnic groups: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Samoans, Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodian and many more.  And within these groups the divisions run further, they’re divided by their socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural regions, and dialects.  For example, there is a huge distinction between Mandarin- and Cantonese-specific Chinese gangs.  The more rural Asian groups resemble the street gangs.

Mafia-type Asian gangs tend to be more organized in their criminal activities.  Unlike most street gangs, who are more concerned with pride and intimidation, mafia-type Asian gangs focus on making money.  The most prominent crimes of Asian gangs include extortion, theft of vehicles and their parts and theft of computers, racketeering, drug trafficking and residential robberies and burglaries.  There are accounts of murder, but infrequently.  Murders don’t make money.

Jimmy explains that unlike street gangs in poor neighborhoods, who recruit their members while they’re young and who have the idea that there are no other options in life, the Asian teenagers who get sucked into these mafia-type Asian gangs are more than often straight-A students from well-to-do families.

“A lot of these kids were probably loners in middle school, without too many friends,” Jimmy said.  He surmises that they are usually disillusioned youth with academic smarts and not too many street smarts or life skills.

“Unlike black or Hispanic gangs, where children as young as nine dress hardcore, have a tough attitude from a rough upbringing,” he explained the Asian gang members are usually recruited in high school or even college.

 “The kids join gangs for the coolness factor.  Some of them were picked on in middle school.  Members recruit these shy, smart types who can contribute to the gang.  The kids are from well-off families but they feel like they have something to prove.  When their parents tell them go out and make their own money, they only think about making quick cash, whether or not it’s legal or illegal.  They’re not at an age to understand there are consequences to what they do.”

Joining a gang is almost like the latest trend, he said.  During the time he attended the predominately Asian Walnut high school, he knew as least eight Chinese gangs on campus.  In the mix, were such groups as Wah Ching, United Bamboo, and the Black Dragons.  But he noted that recently, many smaller gangs have splintered off from the initial few.

“A lot of them want to overpower their bosses.  In their transactions, instead of saying they’re from Wah Ching, they tell you that I’m from the Pau-side or I’m from the Bi-side.”  As the members discard their original loyalties to break away from their own groups, the newer gangs become more and more disorganized.

Most Asian gangs originate from the political Triads or the Tongs which emerged during 16th century political turmoil in China.  These groups immigrated to the Americas during the 1800s.  Back in the day, Tongs were formed like unions to protect the new immigrants against racial hostilities.

But these days, along with the flaking plaster on the Chinatown buildings, the heyday of the Triads and Tongs are long past.  What kind of social justices and political stances are the new Americanized Asians fighting for?

Or again, are they just doing it to be cool?  The reasons are difficult to isolate.  The fact of the matter is these young Asian gang members are part of a serious problem recognized by the city and by the justice department.

“Being a gang member is an enhancement,” he told me.  The enhancement to a crime affects the penalty that the criminal gets for his sentence.  A murder is still called a murder, but a gang-related murder would dramatically increase the number of years the convicted would have to serve.

The Los Angeles Police Department even has an Asian Gang Task Division.  The Los Angeles Times article “L.A. Home Turf for Hundreds of Neighborhood Criminal Groups” by Richard Winton, stated that currently there are approximately 32 Asian gangs with as many as 1,106 members in total.  These gangs include those from upper to middle class, primarily Asian neighborhoods like San Marino or Arcadia.  There is even a police profile listing the characteristics of “Asian Gangs” found at the site:  Jimmy confirms that this is similar to the real criteria that law enforcement officials go by when they look for young gang members.

Along with the growing numbers of Asian residents in cities like San Marino, Arcadia, Diamond Bar, Temple City, San Gabriel and Irvine comes the emergence of more crimes that target them.  Many Asian gangs pick their own communities, whether the nature of the gang and its region is poor or affluent.  As insiders, the gangs take advantage of the knowledge that many Asians to this day continue to stash cash or jewelry in their homes.  Often times, the burglaries or home invasion robberies take place in the house of someone they know, such as that of a friend or relative.  By doing so, the gangs save themselves the work of scoping out the targeted place and researching the security and where the valuables are stored.

“Plus, they figure that the victims will never suspect them,” said Jimmy.

Interestingly enough, the most dangerous ones are not the old and skilled veterans.  They’ve done their time.  It’s the wannabes who feel the need to prove themselves to a gang.  They’re the ones who terrorize the neighborhoods they live in with random acts of deadly violence.

“Wannabes are those who either aren’t part of but pose as the gang or those who want to join and want to prove themselves,” said Jimmy, “for a test, maybe they’ll go and beat up Joe Blow on the street or attack someone from say, a rival Hispanic gang.”

Time and again, Asian victims are targeted.  But still, the statistics of crimes committed by Asian criminals on the Online Criminal Sourcebook at show the Asian or Pacific Islander group as being the lowest demographic for all age groups in all of the United States in 2002.  They fell behind even the category of American Indian or Alaskan native.

Incidentally, most Asian victims of gang crimes do not report to the police.  Some distrust the police to solve the crime or they may find investigations to be intrusive, humiliating or embarrassing.  Many parents purposefully would not recognize their children to be a part of an Asian gang even if they found out, deeming it shameful.  Additionally, Asian gang members do not usually show or announce that they are a part of a gang.  Often times, they wear their tattoos or burn markings on parts of their bodies where they can be concealed under sleeves or clothing.

“Real gang members don’t want people to see them wearing gang colors or paraphernalia.  Someone they know might see them and go tell their parents—hey, why is your kid dressing like that,” Jimmy explained to me.

These young gang members as a result, live a double life, dangerously playing a childish game of how much they can get away with.  A director of a hotline for at-risk youth in the greater Chinatown area told me that, chances are; these are not bad kids.  Just ones who’ve made some mistakes, made some wrong choices.

He says jokingly, but with a somber undertone, “So, I tell my sons, you dress and act like a gang member?  Then, you better be ready to fight.”

His job is to educate the teenagers who live in Los Angeles and help them understand the consequences before getting into something they can’t break out of.

The director is good at talking and educating people.  But the main problem is not enough people are talking—not the parents, not the victims, not the gangs. There needs to be more education about the gangs who come from the Asian communities, especially the more affluent ones.  The silence has gone on for too long.

The Asian communities in the Los Angeles area have grown rapidly in the past few years.  Many families now are financially secure and educated.  Yet many language and cultural barriers still remain between children and their parents.  A lot of parents like those who live in Arcadia and San Marino spend all but a few weeks in a year overseas in Taiwan or China on business.  Most of them hardly get to know their children at all.  Many times, children are either left alone at home and or constantly pressured to work hard on getting good grades and applying for colleges.  It is not an uncommon story to hear among my Asian American friends about having problems communicating with their parents.

Such is the issue that the whole Asian community needs to recognize and deal with.  It shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the Los Angeles police to stop the gangs.  The recruitment of fresh members to Asian gangs can be prevented if only adults of the community will just listen and for just take a second, really find out about what’s going on in the lives of their children.

Because, around me in West Los Angeles, I see a boisterous group merely celebrating a friend’s birthday.  They look a little rough and urban, but they’re not gangsters.  They know what it’s like to live a hard life; they don’t have the desire to make it any harder.  Life is their teacher; their circumstances are different and unavoidable.

But back home in San Gabriel Valley, I recall the numbers of lonely children.  Some of these parachute kids wait nervously in their big, empty mansions with money and angst to burn.  It’s not their fault; they just want to give back the pain.  Who will they turn to when they find out that their parents aren’t there for them, physically or for moral support?

The irony in the thinking of my parents’ is that their basis for determining the “bad kids” is the way they dress.  But in their own home resides the straight-edge, clean-cut looking children, who are so bored with their soft and pampered lives that they easily fall victim to the life of crime.

cover mar 2006

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