Nicky Louie’s Mean Streets: Tongs Strike Back in Chinatown
February 7, 1977
A pockmark-faced guy who sometimes spends 10 hours a day laying bowls of congee in front of customers at a Mott Street rice shop remembers the day the White Eagles, the original Chinatown youth gang, ripped off their first cha shu baos (pork buns). “It was maybe 10 years ago. We were hanging out in Columbus Park, you know, by the courthouse, feeling real stupid. Most of us just got to Chinatown. We couldn’t speak English worth a shit. The juk sing [American-born Chinese] were playing basketball, but they wouldn’t let us play. We didn’t know how to anyway. I remember one of our guys said, ‘Shit, in Hong Kong my old man was a civil servant — he made some bread. Then he listened to my goddamned uncle and came over here. Now he’s working as a waiter all day. The guy’s got TB, I know. And I ain’t got enough money for a goddamned cha shu baos.’ ”
Even then the juk tuk (Hong Kong–born Chinese) were sharp to the short end of the stick; they looked around the Toy Shan ghetto and sized up the possibilities for a 16-year-old immigrant. The chances had a familiar ring — what the tourists call “a Chinaman’s chance,” which, of course, is no chance at all.
So the eight or nine kids who would become the nucleus of the White Eagles walked up the narrow street past the Italian funeral and into the pastry shop, where they stole dozens of cha shu baas, which they ate — and got so sick they threw up all over the sidewalk.
Within the next week the Eagles got hold of their first pieces — a pair of automatics — and began to terrorize Toy Shan. They beat the daylights out of the snooty juk sing. They ripped off restaurants. They got tough with the old men’s gambling houses.
It was logical rebellion: In Hong Kong they were city slickers; here the farmer “overseas Chinese” had them penciled in for the laundries and restaurants. There might be moments of revenge, like lacing a lo fan’s sweet-and-sour with enormous hunks of ginger to watch his white lips pucker. But you knew you’d wind up frustrated, throwing quarters into the “Dancing Chicken” machine at the Chinatown Arcade. You’d watch that stupid chicken come out of its feeder to dance on a record for a couple of minutes, and you’d know you were watching yourself.
Better to be a gangster, and easier. In Hong Kong, you try anything shifty and the cops bust up your ass. They would search an entire block, throwing pregnant women down the hillsteps if they got in the way, just to find a guy they suspected of boosting a pocketbook from the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. Here the cops were all roundeyes — they don’t know or care about Chinese. Besides, the old guys kept them paid off. Corruption was the way and extortion was the perfect crime, since the merchants believed money sends away evil.
The fringe benefits included street-status, fast cars to cruise uptown and watch the lo-fan freaks, days to work on your “tans” at Coney listening to Brit rock and new Hong Kong–Filipino platters, plenty of time to go bowling, and the pick of the girls — in general, the old equation of living quick, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.
The Kids Get Cool
It took the Toy Shans a while to comprehend what was happening in their village. Kids had been an unknown quantity in Chinatown. Until the immigration laws eased up in the ’40s, there simply weren’t any. In a show of solidarity with our great Eastern ally, the U.S. agreed to allow Chinese women to immigrate here. At first the lo fa kews were pleased: These were nice kids, respectful kids, hard-working ones worth burning your fingers in the laundry for.
Soon there were flashy ones, too. In 1965, several juk sing “clubs” began to appear. Foremost was the Continentals, a hip bunch who were trying desperately to escape the traditional Chinese stereotype. They spent a good deal of time looking in the mirror, practicing complex handshakes and running around ripping the insignias off Lincoln Continentals. They even talked back to their parents and got acne from eating pizza on Mulberry Street, but no way they were going to carry guns and steal. These Hong Kong ghetto kids, however, had no propriety.
In the beginning the family associations did their best. They marshaled the new kids into New Year’s dragon dancing. For the older, more sullen ones, they established martial-arts clubs. But these kids didn’t seem interested in discipline; besides, they smoked too many cigarettes. That’s when the tongs intervened. Within weeks of the first extortion report, several White Eagles and representatives of the On Leong tong were sitting in a Mott Street restaurant talking it over. When they were done a pact was sealed that would establish the youth gang as a permanent fixture of “New Chinatown.”
It was agreed that the Eagles would stop random mayhem around the community and begin to work for On Leong. They would “guard” the tong-sponsored gambling houses and make sure no other bad guys ripped off restaurants which paid regular “dues.” In return, the Eagles’ leaders would receive a kind of salary, the right to hang around gambling houses to pick up “tips” from big bettors who thought the kids’ presence brought them luck, free meals in various noodle houses, and no-rent apartments in the Chinatown area.
It seemed a brilliant arrangement: it got the Eagles jobs that furthered the status quo as well as keeping them out of everyone’s hair. But for the tongs, it was more. The On Leongs and Hip Sings no longer struck fear in the heart of Chinatown. Paunchy middle-aged businessmen, they spent most of their time competing for black-mushroom contracts. Tong warriors like Sing Dock were just misty reminiscences for bent-over guys playing away their last dollar at fan-tan. The Eagles brought them muscle they felt they would need in changing times. And the kids fulfilled vicariously a longing for the past. This was like having your own private army again, just like the good old days.
But the tongs weren’t used to this kind of warrior. The kids mounted a six-foot-tall statue of a white eagle on top of their tenement at Mott and Pell. Ten of them piled into a taxicab and went uptown to see Superfly; afterward they shot up Pell Street with tiny .22s just for the sheer exhilaration of it. They went into tailor shops, scowled, and came away with $200 suits. Once Paul Ma — Eagle supreme commander — showed up for an arraignment wearing a silk shirt open down the front so everyone could see his bullet holes.
During eight or so years on top in Chinatown, the Eagles set the style for the Chinese youth gang. Part was savagery. Eagle recruiting practices were brutal — coercion was often used to replenish their street army. They kidnapped merchants’ daughters and held them for ransom. They also set the example of using expensive and high-powered guns. No Saturday-night specials in Chinatown. The gangs use Mausers, Lugars, and an occasional M-14. One cop says, “You know, I’ve been on the force for 22 years, and I never saw nothing that gave me nightmares like watching a 15-year-old kid run down Bayard Street carrying a Thompson submachine gun.”
But there was another side to this. A new style was emerging in Chinatown. Chinese kids have had a tough time of it in schools like Seward Park. Blacks and Puerto Ricans, as well as meanies from Little Italy would vamp Chinese students for sport. Groups like the Cons and Eagles were intent on changing this. It was a question of cool. In the beginning they copied the swagger and lingo of the blacks — it is remarkable how closely a Chinese teenager can imitate black speech. From the Puerto Ricans they borrowed souped-up car styling, as well as the nonfashion of wearing army fatigues, which they added to their already zooty Hong Kong–cut shirts.
But it was Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong sex-symbol kung-fu star who did the most for the Chinese street presence. In the early days of Lee’s fame, Chinese youngsters were baffled by the black and Puerto Rican kids sitting in the first rows at the Pagoda and Sun Sing theatres to watch the martial-arts epics. Later, when kung fu became a ghetto craze, the Chinese kids began to capitalize. They ran around Chinatown carrying nunchakas — kung-fu fighting sticks — which few of them knew how to use, and postured like deadly white cranes. When “Kung-Fu Fighting” became a number-one hit on WWRL, being Chinese was in. They became people not to mess with (although the police report there has never been a gang incident in which martial arts were used). “It was like magic,” says one ex-Con. “I used to walk by the Smith projects where the blacks live, and those brothers would throw dirty diapers out the window at me. Now they call me Mr.”
The image of the Chinese schoolgirl was changing too. Overnight they entered the style show on the subway. A lot of the fashion — air-blown hairstyles, mucho makeup, and tiny “Apple jacket” tops — came from the Puerto Ricans. Classy tweezed Oriental eyebrows produced a new “dragon lady” look.
Openly sexual, some of the Hong Kong girls formed auxiliary groups. Streaking their hair blonde or red to show that their boyfriends were gangsters, they were “ol’ ladies” expected to dab their men’s wounds with elixirs swiped from Chinese apothecaries. It was something to brag about — which not many Chinese women get to do. There are stories of them carrying pieces and doing sentry-work during extortions. Once a group of girls stole a car, which they used to spirit their boyfriends out of a tough spot. But who can blame them? More than half Chinatown’s women work in the 300-odd garment factories in the area, buzzing through the polyester 12 hours a day, trying to crack $100 a week. Hanging with the bad kids risked an occasional gang bang, but it was a better risk than dying in a sweat shop.
Ghost Shadows on Mott Street
The Chinese underworld couldn’t be concerned with this kid stuff; they play a bigger game. The Chinatown heroin connection dates back to the 1949 expulsion of the Nationalist government from the mainland. It’s no secret that many of the Kuomintang generals — including, almost certainly, Chiang Kai-shek — were hooked up with the notorious “Green Gang,” part of an ancient smuggling ring with access to potent poppy patches in “The Golden Triangle” (a well-fertilized area covering parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos).
When Mao marched on Nanking many of these pusher-politicians turned tail for New York, where they eased into the On Leong power structure. At first there were problems: The Chinese could move the stuff through the Commonwealth Circuit — Hong Kong to London to Toronto — but they had no street distribution network here. It was then, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (which spends a good deal of time keeping tabs on Chinatown dope trade), that the On Leong people went across Canal Street to deal with Italian organized crime. Soon after that, several On Leong elders became very rich and a new adage was added to Mafia parlance: “if you want the stuff, get yourself a good gook.”
The connection — which is believed to be kept running by a manager of an On Leong restaurant who is also believed to be the only Chinese ever admitted to the Carlo Gambino crime family — works well. While most of the country is flooded with Mexican smack, in New York the percentage of Golden Triangle poppy runs high. The dope money is the lucrative tip of Chinatown’s pyramid crime structure. The take and extortion kickbacks of many gambling houses provide seed money for the dope trade.
With the gang kids around, business could get even better. DEA people say the gangs are used as runners to pick up dope in the Chinese community in Toronto and then body-carry it across the border. But they may play a greater role. Chinese dope hustlers have always felt on uneasy ground when dealing with flashy uptown pushers. Now, however, street sources say the gutter-wise gangs are dealing directly with black and Puerto Rican dealers.
But using junk is frowned on in Chinatown. It probably has something to do with the senior citizen home on East Broadway. Eighty-year-old Chinese men and women who still suffer from the effects of long-ago opium addiction live out their lives on methadone over there. They’re probably the oldest addicts in America. The specter of the opium days is still horrifying down here, where landlords continue to find lamps and pipes in attics. These days kids know it too; one Shadow — who was packing a .32 — said, “I look at those people and see a skull, know what I mean?”
That’s why the sight of 14-year-old Eagles nodding on Mott Street during the smack influx of the early ’70s was so galling to the old men. It was a final indiscretion, a final lack of discipline. Actually, the Eagles had been tempting fate for some time. They insulted tong elders in public. They extorted from restaurants they were supposed to be protecting. They mugged big winners outside of the gambling houses. It was playing havoc with the tong’s business as usual. Often the old men threatened to bring in sharpshooting hitmen from Taiwan to calm the kids down.
So in 1974, when Quat Kay Kee, an aging street hustler looking for a handle in the tong hierarchy, told the On Leong of a new and remarkable gang leader, the old men were ready to listen. Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadows would be more dependable, but no less dangerous. To show their style, Nicky and his top gun, Philip Han (known as Halfbreed), supposedly put on masks and pulled off a ballsy submachine-gun holdup at the Eagle-guarded gambling house in the local VFW post.
Soon after, in another gambling house, a drunken Eagle poured a water glass of tea down the brocade jacket of an On Leong elder. The word came down: The tong had formally withdrawn its support of the Eagles; the Shadows could make their move. A few nights later, the 4 a.m. quiet on Mott Street was broken by Shadows honking the horns of their hopped-up cars. They rode around the block, screeching their tires. The Eagles tumbled out of bed clutching their pieces. The shooting woke up half the neighborhood. Amazingly, no one was injured. But the change had come. The Eagles fled to Brooklyn. And Nicky Louie was pacing back and forth on Mott Street.
Gangs and Tongs Together
This struggle proved that the tongs needed the gangs if they were to retain control in a changing Chinatown. The gangs, too, had learned a lesson. Survival is more important than cool. The gangs now knew it was the old guys who made the illegal bread possible through their well-developed connections. Find a Shadow at the corner of Mott and Canal and ask him what the tongs mean to him. He’ll point at the On Leong pagoda and say, “A bankbook, man,” and then point to the Chemical Bank.
So it comes as no surprise that, aside from the sorties against rival gangs, Nicky’s Shadows have been model tenants during their stay on Mott Street. The perfect rebels have ended up as defenders of the status quo. Reformers are fearful of visits from gun-wielding gang members; one lawyer who spoke out against the Chinatown establishment woke up the next morning to find Mott Street plastered with wall posters telling him to get out of town. Threat of gang extortion is also responsible for pushing newer unaligned Hong Kong businesses into tong affiliation.
One hundred years of neglect has atrophied the links to the lo fan power. Years ago, according to just about everyone, the cops and tongs had a neat nonaggression pact well oiled with palm grease. The petty vice at the gambling houses and the occasional opium ODs were unreported and unnoticed except for the obligatory election-year raids publicized by tabloid “exposes” of “mysterious” Chinatown life. Back then there was only one Chinese cop, the fabulous Johnny Kai. Kai walked a thin line between American and Chinese law and did a good job for both. Today, however, with Chinese making up the majority of the Fifth’s constituency and youth crime skyrocketing, there is still only one Chinese cop on the beat, Barry Eng, who once said with a straight face, “The associations disowned the youth gangs a long time ago.”
Estrangement from the community they supposedly protect has led to cynicism in the police department. The existence of large sums of illegal money always brings up the possibility of top payoffs. It’s a tough rap to beat — especially in Chinatown — and the Fifth Precinct cops widely resented former special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari’s two-year-long probe of corruption down here.
Not that the cops say there aren’t payoffs. One On Leong insider says, “Those guys are crooks. I was pit boss at a gambling house and gave $200 a week to the same sergeant for two years.” It’s just that the street-level police say they’re not seeing any of the money. They figure the Chinatown vice organizations are sophisticated enough to bestow their favors on higher-ups.
Fifth Precinct cops are not allowed to make gambling arrests unless they actually see money on the table. But since the chance of a lo fan getting into a Chinese gambling house unnoticed is akin to a snowcone in hell, they might as well not bother. Instead they are instructed to send intelligence reports to the public morals division uptown. Most cops, however, feel this is a thankless task. “For the most part it’s file it and forget if with those guys.” says one. “When you do raid the houses, it’s almost like they’ve been tipped. By the time you get through all the trick doors, there’s no one there but a couple of 100-year-old men smoking cigarettes.”
Last summer it all began to hit Nicky Louie — all the night riding and blood, and knowing any minute he could be splattered across a wall. One Saturday afternoon on Mott Street he saw an old enemy Eagle gesturing in his direction from across the street. It was a finger. Nicky was being fingered. He stood like a freeze frame, looking at the two strangers drawing down on him. One had a Mauser, the other a Colt .38. The first gunshot whistled by his ear and broke him out of his trance. He ran down Mott, pushing aside the tourists and the old ladies, turning down Canal until he was safe, panting against a wall.
That afternoon haunted Nicky. Battling Paul Ma made sense. But these unknown hitmen had no reason to shoot except money.
It was scary; things seemed to be getting out of control. Eagle Yut Wai Tom had been convicted — the first gang kid to be sent up for murder. Word was around that Tom, who’d been saying that getting 20 years wasn’t nothing, had cracked on Riker’s Island. The cops were doing a suicide watch next to his cell. Quat Kay Kee, Nicky’s old sponsor at On Leong, had been flipping out, too. Shot at in the Wiseman Bar on Bayard Street by a group of Eagles wearing wigs, Quat railed that he’d tell all. He managed to compose himself just before the drug cops got there with their tape recorders.
Being a warlord was a tough gig. To keep up their street army, the Shadows had been forced to recruit younger and younger kids. But what exactly do you say to a 14-year-old when you’re a 22-year-old legend? The young Shadows were griping about their wages, saying that they were getting spit waiter pay for long nights in the gambling houses while Nicky and Halfbreed were cruising around on the island in their cars. In the early part of the year some of the kids had broken a way from Nicky to ally themselves with the scuzzy Wah Chings. For a couple of nights in January, they had actually succeeded in pushing Nicky off the Street. It took all of his negotiating prowess to fix things again.
For months he’d let it be known that he was tired of being a youth-gang leader, but the tong gave little indication that they’d allow him to move up in the organization. And quitting was out of the question. First of all, he knew too much and had far too many enemies. It wouldn’t be enough to leave Chinatown, or even New York City. Anyplace there was On Leong — like Toronto or Chicago — or Hip Sing, which is just about everywhere, he’d be known and fair game. Anyway, if he did get out, what was waiting? He knew lots of ex-gang guys who’d “retired” and now broke their humps for their families in the old restaurant grind.
Ironically, it was the old men who provided Nicky and the other gang kids with an escape from street fighting. Despite Chinatown’s traditional reluctance to look for outside help, poverty money is beginning to find its way down here. Funding scams may not be as venerable as gambling houses, but for a modern world, there must be modern hustles. So the tongs figured the angles. People had been telling them about a Harlem incident in which the hak guey youth gangs have given up their arms. The federal government had laid a sizable chunk of cash on groups promising to reform the kids. The old men saw an opening; if they could get the gangs to call “peace,” they could get the uptight merchants off their backs as well as pick up a large grant. There would be a cut of the pie for the gang kids, too. The plan was laid out to Nicky. He liked it and promised to set it up. He contacted Eagle Paul Ma and Dragon Mike Chen — who hated each other more than they both hated Nicky — and got them to say “cool.”
Next step was to make it respectable. So the gangs contacted one of Chinatown’s “name” social workers and told him they wanted to give up their evil ways. The worker, eager to be known as the man who stopped Chinatown gang warfare, went for it. Everything was set.
But somewhere along the line, Nicky began to forget it was all a scam. Suddenly, he liked the idea of “reforming,” learning English for real and getting a decent job. And he wasn’t the only one. Around lo tow, guys were still packing rods, but they also were talking about what they’d do when they went “legit.”
The first “peace” meeting was at the Kuo Wah restaurant on Mott Street. Kids embraced each other, saying it was crazy for Chinese guys to kill other Chinese guys. Nicky sat down with Paul Ma. They’d been trying to wipe each other out for years; but now they spent hours reminiscing about their favorite extortion spots on Mott Street.
The old men were flabbergasted. What a double-cross! If these kids were on the level, then the whole vice structure could go down the tubes. Then again the gangs could be pulling a power play to cut Chinatown up for themselves. Either was disaster. And after that the tongs did everything they could to sabotage the peace. They spread mistrust among the merchants; they tried to bribe front the gang leaders. The kids had to stay one jump in front their bossmen. They changed the restaurant where they were meeting, which was just as well because the place was raided while the gangs met around the corner. Pissed to find the Kuo Wah deserted, the police said, “We were tipped that there were plenty of guns going to be there.”
The old men unsuccessfully tried to cancel the press conference formally announcing the “peace.” But, on August 12, Nicky and the other gang leaders read their joint statement. They didn’t expect to be forgiven, but then again they weren’t apologizing. They had become wiser; being a gangster wasn’t so great. Other kids shouldn’t get into it. It was moving; several of the old family association leaders wept. Even Nicky looked a little misty.
But time had run out on Nicky’s peace: the old Toy Shan forces of secrecy and mistrust were working overtime. The merchants had been soured by the tongs. They never believed the gangs were sincere and offered no support. The social service agencies, more interested in competing with one another than focusing on the kids’ cry for help, failed to come up with concrete programs. The cops didn’t help either. Figuring they were being good guys, they offered a 10-day amnesty period for the gang kids to turn in their guns. The gang smelled a lo fan rat. “I’m gonna turn in my gun so they can do ballistic and fingerprint check on it? No way,” said one. No weapons were turned in.
Some would say Nicky was a victim of his own history, but others knew warriors don’t give up their arms on a whim. Nicky’s peace held for nearly three weeks but tension flooded Mott Street. Cops said, “They might have called it peace, but they spelled it ‘p-i-e-c-e.’ ” Nicky knew it was over the night the Eagles ripped off a restaurant on the other end of Mott Street. He ran over to find Paul Ma and see what was up. An Eagle told him Paul was “out” and laughed. After that, Nicky kicked chairs in a Mott Street rice shoppe. Gang members say the sear was back in his eye.
By then it was just a matter of time. Within the next week the Shadows, Eagles, and Dragons were shooting at each other; the two-month-long war would prove to be the bloodiest in Chinatown history.
The tongs used the madness to solidify their position. They promised the frightened merchants they’d get the gangs out of town. Big boss Benny Ong, backed by On Leong big shots, had the gangs over to Hip Sing and told them to ease off or they’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Murder each other and play extortion games outside Chinatown until the heat comes off. Just to make sure it worked, the tongs staged a little drama for the gangs’ benefit. It’s been common knowledge in Chinatown that a major new restaurant is the best extortion target around. Before it opened in December, gang kids were around asking $40,000 for a year’s worth of “protection.” When the place opened to brisk business, they came back, looking for more. This time, however, according to Chinese newspapers, the gangs ran into five smashnoses imported from Mulberry Street. Reportedly the kids wound up in a meat grinder, their remains dumped into a plastic bag and driven to Newark.
The tong plan worked. Except for a few gun violations, the cops say Chinatown’s been quiet for the past few weeks. But reports of gang extortions in exotic places like Massapequa and northern New Jersey have begun to come in. It’s a safe bet to say that there isn’t a Chinese restaurant in the metropolitan area that hasn’t been approached at one time or another for some kind of payoff.
But in fanning out of Chinatown, the gangs broke a New York City rule: Don’t mess with the rich people. The uptown cops have been laying an unwavering eyeball on extortion rings in the fancy midtown restaurants. Someone goofed when they rubbed out the young couple who run the Szechuan D’or on East 40th Street. It mobilized whole armies of cops. Determined to strike Chinese crime at its root, the police — even the public morals division — have shut down the gambling and extortion rackets in Chinatown. Every so often the cops bust a kid and claim it’s the key to the city-wide extortion game.
Word is big gamblers walk around in a daze at the OTB, trying to latch on to private pi gow games uptown. Nicky and the Shadows, seeing no percentage in hanging around for the onslaught, split for greener fields in the On Leong–run towns of Toronto and Chicago.
No one, of course, expects this to last. Some things are different. Just the other day the cops busted Mike Chen with a 12-gauge shotgun and 150 rounds of ammunition. Paul Ma, Philip Han, and Big Benny Ong are on their way to the slammer. And some even say the good people at Hip Sing could stage a takeover m Benny’s absence.
But much more remains the same. Go tonight to a restaurant on Mott Street and look out the window. Across the street you’re likely to see a good-looking skinny guy in a green fatigue jacket pacing back and forth. Nicky Louie is back in town, vigilant as ever. Look into his eyes and wonder what he’s thinking. But, then, remember… it’s Chinatown.
The Ghost Shadows got their name from The New York Times. It happened about four years ago when the Shadows were functioning as the “junior auxiliary” of the now defunct Kwon Ying gang of Pell Street. A Times reporter was in Chinatown to cover an incident in which some of the young Kwon Ying were involved. The reporter wanted to know what “Kwon Ying” meant. (It means “not the Eagles,” a reference to the rival gang, the White Eagles.) One wise guy — probably an Eagle — said, “ghost shadow,” knew that a “ghost” is a bad thing to call a Chinese tough guy. The Chinese have long called whites bak guey, or white ghost, and blacks hak guey, which means black ghost. The gist is that these people were incomplete — were definitely not all there. Being a “ghost shadow” went double. The reporter dutifully filed “Ghost Shadow” with his copy. The next morning, after reading about themselves in the paper, Nicky Louie and the rest of the Ghost Shadows decided they liked their new name. It was so born to lose.
Other Chinese expressions of interest:
Toy Shan: A district in Canton from which most early immigrants to New York’s Chinatown came in the mid-19th century
lo fa kew: Descendants of the original Cantonese immigrants
juk sing: American-born Chinese
juk tuk: Hong Kong-born Chinese
lo fan: “Foreign devils”
tong: Hall or association
On Leong and Hip Sing: The two major tongs
lo tow: A slang phrase for Chinatown
pi gow: A domino game
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2020