Gang Today, Hair Tomorrow

The Suey Sing Boys of Oakland were a bunch of low-level Chinese-American thugs. Then 10 of them became high-fashion hairstylists.

On an ordinary day in 1972, an Asian boy butted in front of a black girl in the cafeteria line at Oakland Technical High School. Pissed, the girl followed him to his table and swiped his chair out from under him as he sat, sending him crashing to the floor. In a blinding fury, he spun around and stabbed the butter knife he was holding into her heart, killing her instantly.

Identical twins Ron and John Lee and their cousin Alan Lee were nerdy Chinese-American boys who hung out with no one but each other; they were nondescript midteen nobodies of the Asian variety. For this exact reason, the school suggested Alan and John as decoys for the lineup that the Oakland police were forming as part of the investigation of the Oakland Tech stabbing.

In the course of the investigation, the Lee boys would be inadvertently introduced to and eventually become a part of the Suey Sing Boys, the only Asian gang of note in Oakland at that time.

In the 1970s, the Joe Boys and the Wah Ching ruled the Chinese turf of San Francisco. Across the bay, the Suey Sing operated at a much lower level. They'd steal guns and use them to rob homes. They'd chase other gangs off their turf, shooting at them from cars sometimes. The Suey Sing Boys were low-level thugs.

But the gang accomplished something beyond petty crime. The Suey Sing Boys introduced the Lees -- and at least eight of their gang brethren -- to illustrious careers in the world of high-fashion hairstyling, careers that would include major industry successes, artistic legacies, and cautionary tales, all of which fostered generations of stylists to come.

When the Lee twins were 3, their father, Daniel, died of colon cancer. Although sad and scared, the twins were too young to really understand what was happening. Four years later, when their mother remarried, they understood the family reaction in no uncertain terms. When she got hitched to a white guy -- named Rod Curtain no less -- their mother might as well have opened a Burger King on her late husband's grave. The guy also turned out to be a gambler and a drinker.

Their grandmother moved out of the house; the rest of the relatives quietly ignored them.

Both sides of the family were well-to-do. Doctors, scientists, lawyers, ministers, and concert pianists decorated the family tree like Christmas ornaments. Not only did the family name carry weight back in Shanghai; a long streak of overachievers had established it in America as well.

If they'd been more closely connected to the familial infrastructure, these two bright young boys might have been steered into disciplines esteemed by the family. Instead, they left high school with their mother's simple dictate: "Whatever you do, do your best at it." They coasted along on the uninformed assumption that after high school came junior college, then state college, short hair, a desk job, a suit, and finally a wife, kids, a house, retirement, a big belly, and fishing.

As we leave the Elevation Salon on Bush Street where he now works, Ron Lee explains how their school, Oakland Tech, sent John and his cousin Alan to meet the police at a bowling alley in the fall of 1972 as part of the Tech stabbing investigation.

A slender, elegant man, Ron has long, thick strands of gray hair that rest on his shoulders and cover half his back. At a quick glance, this flow of hair atop a designer ensemble -- black bomber jacket, loose shirt, and baggy khakis -- might suggest an ambiguous sexuality. But Ron's mustache, gait, and intonations are clearly those of a straight male.

"The police dropped them back off at the Broadway Bowl, and John and Alan went straight for the pinball machine. The next time, I came with them," Ron says. "I think the reason the Suey Sing guys who hung out there took us on was basically because we were such pathetic outsiders -- but still brave enough to go in there. I mean, there we were in our bluejeans and jerseys, timidly sipping on soda pops, smitten by this pinball machine that we sucked at [playing]."

The Lee kids were, in fact, goody-two-shoes, conservative Asian boys who felt they were placed on Earth to obey their parents and get good grades. And at first they were terrified of the bowling alley guys.

According to a scholarly paper titled "Oakland Chinatown's First Youth Gang: The Suey Sing Boys," the gang started in 1966, mostly out of a need for FOBs (or Chinese Fresh Off the Boat) to band together for protection against the ABCs (American-Born Chinese) who vehemently harassed them, verbally and physically.

Originally, the gang comprised a bunch of Hong Kong-born teenagers, "a group of young toughs who frequently got into trouble." By 1968, they numbered 28. They congregated on the corner of Webster and Eighth streets, in front of one of Oakland Chinatown's only social organizations, the Oakland Suey Sing Tong.

By 1969, the Suey Sing boys had established a reputation for not taking crap from anyone. When younger members got beat up by Chicanos at Oakland Technical High School, older members brought hatchets. In similar fashion, they forced "The Rickshaw Runners," an Oakland-based gang of American-born Chinese and Japanese, to back off their turf, which consisted of Oakland's Chinatown and the local bowling alley.

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