Asian Gangs & Why Join One?
Aaron Ling
Poverty & Prejudice: Gangs of All Colors

Over the last 2 decades, the United States and especially California have seen a huge inflow of Asian Americans. A look at how great of an Asian population there is in California is simply by looking at the enrollment at the University of California schools. UC Irvine consists of Asian American and UC Berkeley is approximately 45%. This migration of Asians has brought many hard workers but it has also brought a new form of gangs more violent and brutal than America has ever seen. My paper will focus on some of these gangs such as the Triads and the Tongs and will also explore some of the reasons why some Asian-Americans feel it necessary to join these gangs even though it seems to contradict the Asian "model-minority" myth. The Asian American has been stereotyped as the "model minority", which implies that Asians have strong work ethic, low profile, and a sense of loyalty to their family. In addition, it also implies 'someone who is quiet, studious, and who plays the piano or violin, preserving the sacred worth of human life, religious faith, community spirit and to be teachers of tolerance, hard work, fiscal responsibility, cooperation, and love".1 Yet crimes by Asians in gangs have been occurring throughout California much more frequently than in years past. There seems to be a definite irony here in that the increases in Asian-American youth crime and the stereotype of Asian-Americans do not follow the same pattern.

One such reason for this deviation is based on a matter of perspective in that one might consider crime by Asian-American youth as an occupation. If one takes into consideration that crime could be considered an occupation, then if the Asian-American work ethic focuses on succeeding in the new world, then crime cannot be ruled out as an option to attaining financial class success. However, there is a more reasonable explanation as to why current Asian youth seem to deviate from the so-called "model-minority" myth because of the two different phases in which Asians came to the United States.

This huge inflow of Asians into California essentially occurred in two phases. In 1965, Congress passed an Immigration Act which abolished the old national-origins quota and increased the limit of 100 immigrants from countries within the "Asian-Pacific Triangle" to 20,000 immigrants per country from the Eastern Hemisphere, plus immigrants accepted within family preference standards: specifically spouses, minor children, and parents of citizens.2 This gave rise to a major wave of Asian immigration to America. This first wave in the 1 970s consisted of Asians who were highly educated, middle class, and urban. They arrived in a very short time frame, which allowed them to establish themselves successfully in America and thus was born the "model minority" myth. These immigrants were hard-working and stressed education as the tools to success and these tools would allow them to live the "American Dream."

But more recently the second wave which started around the mid 1980's to the present, the immigrants from Asia have been mainly refugees from harsh political conditions in Southeast Asia. These recent immigrants arrive seeking new jobs and new opportunities but the job market is shrinking for less skilled workers due to technological change. There has been increased immigration into the United States because under the current family preference system, it admits not only spouses, minor children, and parents of citizens, but also siblings and children over the age of2 1. But, for too many of these immigrants, coming to America has been a myth-shattering experience; because they soon realize that it is still very hard to succeed in America. When immigrants arrive in America, they strive for financial status and a comfortable home. However the first means to achieve financial status is through a professional job but a professional job requires training and some form of education. Immigrants who face a language barrier have trouble attaining that education they need especially if a college degree is needed because it is difficult to raise the money to afford higher education. Entrepreneurship is blocked by many of these same obstacles. And media success is forgettable because of the tiny market for Asian Americans in the media. Consequently, these new immigrants arrive in America with little prospect for employment and thus contribute to the growing percentage of Asian-Americans living below the poverty line. In order to simply survive, some Asian youth turn to crime in order to get some of the things that their parents cannot give them.

An example of this type of immigration is especially apparent from immigrants from Southeast Asia e.g. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many of these Asians were "forced" to immigrate to America because of their political conditions in their native countries. "Nearly half the Southeast Asians who arrived ... describe themselves as sojourners, with prospects to return to their homelands.. ~ For example, in 1975, the United States Army air-lifted nearly 100,000 Vietnamese refugees to America, along with 40-60,000 more on the sea, protecting them from their native Communist regime.4 Though many of the refugees were educated, a significant portion were unaccompanied minors, frequently sent to America to become citizens, which would in turn make it easier for their families to immigrate through family preference visas. These children were shuffled into orphanages, foster homes, or dealing on their own, these children found it difficult to survive. As a result, many of these youngsters joined gangs, involving themselves in burglary to earn money and survive.5

Besides some of the above explanations, there is yet another explanation as to why Asian-American youth join gangs and thus deviate from the "model-minority" myth. The reason being that parents are more likely to be away from the home and leaving their children alone because of the heavy demands of their work schedule just to survive. Consequently children must cope alone and while looking for family structure, many adolescent males find support in neighborhood gangs. There, they find surrogate families and learn to respect their "older brothers," following their every command. In addition to finding surrogate families, Asian youth might be having acculturation problems and not being able to fit in. "Dissatisfaction with home life and acculturation problems serve as some reasons for joining gangs. These Asian youth think their parents are crazy, not Westernized."6

After having taken a look at the irony of joining a gang and its deviation from the "model minority" myth, I will now look at some of the gangs that these Asian-Americans are joining and their structure. I want to focus primarily on a gang known as the Triads. The Triads is a secret Chinese underground organization, which is characterized by criminal activities for profit. There are 100 known Triads, but only about 30 major ones. Hong Kong's largest Triad is the "San Yee On" and are thought to have about 35,000 members. Although the headquarters of a triad are in Hong Kong, the leadership may not be as active as in Mafia groups. The Hong Kong lodges have not been shown to be so controlling of their branches, or even of their local members. Lodges are the different Triad groups within a certain area. The head lodge will be in charge of rituals and the image of the Triad as a whole.

After looking at some materials, a look at the hierarchy of a Los Angeles Triad consists of the major positions all having a name and a number. The number is derived from Chinese numerology, coming from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. "Within a triad, and likely within each branch of the triad, there is a head figure called the 'Shan Chu', with a sub- boss called the Fu Shan Chu. In other groups, the Shan Chu may be called the Tai-Lo (Elder Brother) and the sub-boss the I- Lo (Second Elder Brother). These men can call death sentences on members and others."7 In addition, there are many other positions. "A third party, of equal rank to the above, is the Insence Master, called Heung Chu; and the Vanguard (Sing Fung). The Heung Chu is the spiritual master, watching over rituals, oaths, and new membership. The Sing Fung helps with the above, but also establishes new sub-groups of the Triad, almost like a franchise officer."8

In addition to the top leadership, there are other positions that are part of the hierarchy. There is the position of the military commander for the "soldiers" and is called the Red Pole, or Hung Kwan. The Red Pole must organize protection of gang territory, or fighting for new turf from other gangs. The financial and gang business advisor is the White Paper Fan, or Pak Tsz Sin. He keeps the records and books about the triad. The liaisons head is the either the Grass Sandal, or Messenger, or Grass Slipper, (Cho Hai). He works with pay-off victims, with other branches of the triad, and other gangs. Below these dignitaries, there are several other departments but they are not as significant as the aforementioned. However, the common gang member, is called a Sze Kau.9 This hierarchy essentially carries over for the entire Triad organization.

One of the interesting rituals that the Triads and a Japanese gang, the Yakuza, engage in is called 'yubitsume", which is when you cut of one of your fingers and send it to the leader. This is done as an apology for disobedience. It can be done to atone for a wrongdoing but can also be done to spare one of your "children". When you have done something that your leader dislikes you take a sharp item, cut off a fingertip, wrap it in paper and send it to the Kumicho and beg for his forgiveness. If it's the first time you cut off the little-fingertip and then after that it becomes the next little-finger and so on. However if one betrays the entire clan, then execution is the only way of resolving the matter. The ritual comes originally from Bak'ito which originated in Japan but carried over to some Chinese gangs. If a gambler could not pay back a debt, the tip of the little-finger got cut off, which damages the hand somewhat. This in turn in the old days would mean that the person could not hold his sword as equally well as before. In that way other people could see if a person hasn’t paid a debt, which could bring about certain difficulties.

The other Asian gang that I looked at was the Tongs. "In the 1980's and 1990's the rise of big money in Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, and Singapore has brought some of America's tongs under the influence of drug-rich Asian racketeers." Tongs typically occupy a role as a sort of community service organization and act as the protectors of Chinatown business interests, but this sometimes simply provides cover for protection rackets. In Los Angeles' Chinatown, Tongs have great influence over how businesses are run. Moreover, they bring in much of the heroin into California. Investigators say that Chinese gangs have largely replaced the Cosa Nostra in terms of the U.S. heroin trade. In the 1990's more than 70 percent of the heroin reaching the West Coast was from China.10

Another state that is facing problems with Asian gangs is New York which is awash with Chinese illegals brought in by plane, by truck, and by ship. These people pay upwards of $15,000 to $35,000 per person to triads and syndicates that operate a worldwide traffic in humans, stolen cars, and drugs. In 1995 alone more than 100,000 Chinese were smuggled into the U.S., most of them ending up in New York City and California, where they provide labor for sweatshops and gangs. The major syndicates have steamers in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans that carry heroin to Antwerp and also carry immigrants. The steamers then go back to Asia loaded with stolen BMW's, Mercedes, Cadillacs and Porsches, which are smuggled into South China and sold to the nouveaux riche. One of the most frightening aspects of Asian gangs and actually most gangs in general is that on the surface they may be involved in regular businesses such as hotels, banks, tourism, and manufacturing but they put their disposable income into illegal activities.

Nevertheless there are steps being taken to keep Asian youth out of gangs. Some of the ways that some Californian cities are tackling the gang problem can be seen in such cities as Los Angeles and their SAGE program. The SAGE program stands for Strategy Against Gang Environment and is aimed at keeping youth out of gangs and the accompanying problems of drugs and violence. The program places experienced deputy district attorneys into cities or areas and then they work with established agencies to develop new programs to combat gangs. ~'Key to SAGE's success are civil injunctions (court orders) which drastically reduce drug dealing, violence, graffiti, and loitering. Injunctions may prohibit gang members from carrying cellular phones, beepers, and walkie talkies, from drinking on the street, being on the street after midnight, and harassing resident s."~1 In addition SAGE deputies teach residents how to recognize early warning signs of gang involvement in their youth. They also teach local residents how to divert their youth from joining gangs, how to improve their neighborhoods and how to effectively use the services provided by law enforcement. The program is custom tailored to each community in which it is involved.

Thus concludes my paper in which I explored the notion of a sort of deviation of Asian youth from the "model-minority" myth and explored some of the gangs that are involved in corrupting our Asian youth. Hopefully with programs like SAGE and others like the YMCA, they will curb the involvement of youth into gangs. Much more work can be done in terms of making harsher punishments for gang members involved in illegal activities. ~owever, one possible way to keep youth out of gangs is to instill more family values and structure programs to keep children off the street. The ultimate goal should not deviate from the goal of keeping our youth not just Asian youth out of gangs.



2. http://www.ipsnorg/asg08107html













Booth, Martin. The Triads: The Chinese Criminal Fraternity; 1990

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