Yesterday’s Crimes: The War for Chinatown

In the late 1970s San Francisco's Chinatown was plagued by violence, as two opposing gangs took their fights to the streets.

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Yesterday’s Crimes is marking the 40th Anniversary of the Golden Dragon Massacre — which took place on Sept. 4, 1977 — with a two-part series looking at what led up to the mass shooting and its tragic aftermath. This is part one. Here is part two.

The war for the narrow streets and alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown started on Chinese New Year 1972, when gangster Joe Fong broke from the powerful Wah Ching gang and started his own mob made up of both foreign and American born Chinese. He called it Chung Yi, but they were better known on the streets as “the Joe Boys.”

Just a year later, Fong, then 19, was serving a life sentence in state prison for murder and conspiracy — but the war went on anyway.  The two gangs and their allies battled for control of protection rackets and firecracker sales. Nearly 50 lives were lost during the five years that the war raged down Grant Street and through Pacific Avenue. In the summer of 1977, when it seemed like it would never stop, it came to a bloody end around three long, holiday weekends.

Memorial Day 1977 kicked off the summer vacation season in San Francisco with the usual fog. One day later, 20-year-old Kin Chuen Louie left his Telegraph Hill apartment at 2:15 p.m. He had come a long way since getting shot in the shoulder during a brawl at the YWCA on Clay Street in September 1975. Back then, he was a leader of the Hop Sing Boys, a gang that ran with the Wah Ching. Now he was a member of the Hop Sing Tong, the fraternal organization that publicly denied all ties to the street gang named after it.

Moments after leaving his apartment, a teenager with a gun charged at Louie. Louie turned tail and ran up Kearny, making it into his red car parked near Green Street. He slammed the vehicle into reverse, pushing the car parked behind him into a telephone pole. But he didn’t get the chance to put his car in drive before the hitman emptied 12 slugs from his .380 caliber Walther automatic into his body.  The police never found the gun or the killer.

Violence erupted again on the 4th of July, when the Wah Ching came to the Ping Yuen projects on Pacific Avenue to collect their cut of holiday firecracker sales. The Joe Boys were there, and they didn’t want to give it to them.

“It was Dodge City in Chinatown,” former Joe Boys member Bill Lee wrote in his gangland memoir, Chinese Playground (Rhapsody Press, 1999). “Weapons were drawn and gunfire erupted, with gangsters running up and down the street, ducking behind cars and into doorways, blasting one another.”

During the melee, where the sound of gunshots blended with the perpetual pop of Independence Day firecrackers, 17-year-old Felix Huie, AKA “Tiger” of the Joe Boys, was shot in the back in a courtyard of the Ping Yuen projects. Two other Joe Boys and a Hop Sing Boy were injured and treated at various hospitals.

Shortly after Huie was buried, Joe Boys visiting his grave found it had been pissed on and vandalized. They were furious. “It was now open season and ‘no-holds barred’—no rules, no honor, no mercy,” Lee recalled. “At stake was the control of Chinatown; independents against the Chinese underworld, and there were scores to settle.”

The five-year feud had finally come to a head, and Labor Day was just around the corner.

Here is part two.

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