Yesterday’s Crimes: The Golden Dragon Massacre at 40

In the late 1970s San Francisco's Chinatown was plagued by violence. It ended in a bloody shootout on Labor Day weekend.

The Golden Dragon Restaurant today. (Photo: Bob Calhoun)

The Joe Boys plotted the Golden Dragon Massacre 40 years ago to end the Wah Ching, their bitter rivals in the war for Chinatown that had raged since 1972. It ended the Joe Boys instead. This is the conclusion of Yesterday’s Crimes’ two-part series on the mass shooting that shook Chinatown. Read part one here.

Tom Yu was a boss in the Joe Boys gang. He wanted revenge on the Wah Ching for killing Felix “Tiger” Huie in a gunfight at the Ping Yuen projects on the Fourth of July.

On Saturday Sept. 3, 1977, Yu gathered his crew at a house in Pacifica, the coastal town on the southern end of San Francisco. Yu was over 18, but his boys were younger. This was by design. Yu figured they’d only do a year of juvenile detention if they got busted — no matter what they’d done. The war for Chinatown in the 1970s was fought by child soldiers.

The boys got their stash of guns out of the closet. They drank beer, smoked weed, and waited by the phone. Yu got the call he was waiting for at 2 a.m. on Sept. 4. Wah Ching chief Michael “Hot Dog” Louie and Frankie Lee of the Hop Sing Boys were chowing down on Hong Kong noodles at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on the corner of Washington and Grant. It was time to roll.

Melvin Yu (no relation to Tom Yu) prepared to do the most damage by taking the .45 automatic rifle. Curtis Tam grabbed the sawed-off shotgun, and Peter Ng packed a standard shotgun and a .38 handgun. The boys piled into a four-door Dodge Dart that Peter Cheung had stolen earlier with this moment in mind. Tom Yu stayed behind in the burbs while his brother, Chester, got behind the wheel.

Open as late as 3 a.m., the Golden Dragon was a popular place to cap off a night of bar hopping, and its upstairs hall played host to nearly 10 years of Chinatown’s wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners. By the time the boys made it there at 2:40 a.m., there were as many as 75 diners between the restaurant’s main floor and mezzanine level.

Chester double-parked the Dart and left it running, while the gunmen slipped nylon stockings over their heads, and stormed the restaurant. One of “Hotdog” Louie’s men saw them coming.

“Man with a gun!” he yelled in Cantonese. The Wah Ching and Hop Sing Boys — Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow reportedly among them — hit the floor. The other diners didn’t speak Cantonese. They were all sitting up when Martin Yu opened up with the high-powered automatic rifle, spraying the main floor with a hail of bullets.

Tam and Ng blasted the mezzanine with their shotguns. Tam later claimed he didn’t kill anyone, and fired his gun into an empty booth in the confusion. When later asked why he didn’t leave the house in Pacifica when the murders were being planned, Tam said, “I don’t know my way around there. They don’t have BART or a bus.”

To survivors, the shooting seemed to take forever, but it only took a minute. When the smoke cleared and the killers took off back for Pacifica, five people were dead with 11 wounded. None of them were gangsters. It was the most deadly mass shooting in San Francisco history until the tragedy at 101 California in 1993.

Among the dead was Wong Fong, a 48-year-old waiter with seven children. Before a bullet had severed his spine, he had been looking forward to his first day off in two weeks. The other murder victims were Paul Wada, a law student at USF known for volunteer work; Denise Louie, who was visiting from Seattle; Calvin Fong, a Riordon High honor student; and Donald Kwan, a steel worker from West Portal.

Surprisingly, there were two off-duty cops in the Golden Dragon when the gunfire erupted. Neither of them was able to get off a shot during the shooting; there were just too many people there.

With business in Chinatown brought to a standstill, Mayor George Moscone offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to convictions in the Golden Dragon case. The reward was soon increased to $100,000. By March 1978, an informant collected the cash, and the three gunmen and several accomplices were arrested and later convicted. The underage killers were all tried as adults.

Tom Yu attempted to cut an immunity deal with the District Attorney’s office, but the deal was refused once it was determined that Yu had masterminded the massacre. Yu was convicted of five counts of murder, 11 counts of assault, and two counts of conspiracy. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The Joe Boys dissolved after the convictions in the Golden Dragon Massacre case. This left the Wah Ching unchallenged in Chinatown, except by the San Francisco Police Department’s Asian Gang Task Force, which was established following the Golden Dragon killings.

The Golden Dragon reopened soon after the massacre, but closed at 10 p.m. every night, leaving the late night trade to Sam Wo’s. The restaurant shut its doors for good (kind of) in January 2006 due to mounting health violations. It soon reopened as the Imperial Palace, which now proclaims, “Golden Dragon Dining” in golden letters on its familiar green tiled storefront.

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