Under questioning, Sonny Wong testifying at trial said, “You gotta know rules involving gangsters going up to take the stand.” When the prosecutor asked what these rules were, Sonny answered, “That we were to take care of ourselves, not go to the police.” Kind of ironic coming from a rat. The one-time Green Dragon lieutenant flipped the script on his crew and gave the 411 on the violent and murky shadows of the Asian underworld where his gang kidnapped rivals, committed seven murders, and extorted money from dozens of Chinese restaurants between 1986 and 1990. Investigators called the group, which based its operations in Queens, one of the most violent in the city.
In the fall of 1990, a task force of FBI agents, and NYPD officers arrested 6 leaders, along with 10 other youths belonging to the Green Dragons. The arrests occurred near Ithaca and Whitney Avenues in Elmhurst, Queens around 3 PM in the afternoon. Federal authorities said, the gang attempted to take control of organized crime activities in Queens, New York City through a series of murders and intimidation. The group of youths, aged 16-23, was allegedly headed by a man in China who wielded power on New York streets through his murderous group of enforcers. The case provided an unusual glimpse into the world of Asian gangs.
The defendants were named in a thirty-six count indictment that charged them with membership in a racketeering enterprise known as the Green Dragons, court records indicate. The Green Dragons was a violent gang the operated principally in the predominantly Chinese sections of Elmhurst, and Flushing in Queens, New York. The members primarily extorted protection money from Chinese-run businesses, but also engaged in periodic armed robberies. They frequently employed violence to defend and expand their turf, assaulting, kidnapping, and murdering rival gang members, potential witnesses, and business men who refused to pay protection money. The gang amassed a sizable arsenal of firearms with which to conduct its criminal activities, court records continue. The Green Dragons weekly intake of protection money was $1500 to $1700 a week in late 1990.
The Green Dragons were typical of the new breed of gangs that emerged in the mid 80’s, as the Asian American population grew. Unlike the older Chinese-dominated gangs of Chinatown the new gangs were more ethnically diverse, recruiting poor, alienated immigrant teenagers from South East Asia, China, and Hong Kong with promises of friendships, fast cars, and money. The gang members were recruited as young as 14 from High Schools and Junior Highs. They were mainly foreign born, had trouble speaking English, and were usually failing in school. They saw the easy money, and exciting life of the gangs as a sharp pleasant contrast to that of their parents, both frequently working two or three low-paying jobs. The flashy cars, women, and guns stashed in the communal apartments were very alluring. John Chu was one of those youths mesmerized by the gang lifestyle.
“I was about 14,” he says. “I went to a pool hall with my god sister, I saw them there. It was about seven of them (Green Dragons). One of them liked my god sister, and I got to know them. I was just hanging out with them, like going to different places. This is how I started. When I came to this country they sent me to school. There was only like five Asian kids. I didn’t speak English. I got picked on by American kids. I got in trouble, stabbed one, and couldn’t go home. I didn’t have anywhere to go so I joined the gang.”
The gangsters appeal stemmed from popular Chinese movies and videotapes where they were luridly portrayed as living a romantic lifestyle so young immigrants like Chu were easily impressed. Court records indicate the Green Dragons recruited young Asian men from schools and playgrounds in Queens. Most of the members moved out of their family’s homes, and into apartments, or safe houses where they lived with other Green Dragon members under the supervision of more senior members. Senior members collected funds derived from the gangs activities, and used the funds to pay the gangs expenses, and to pay salaries to the younger members.
“I lived in Jackson Heights on 82nd Street on top of a Chinese restaurant,” Chu explains. “We got involved real young. We could leave our parents house, and live in the groups apartments. Four or five dudes at one, four or five at another. One car for the group. We made between $80 and $250 a week. All bills taken care of. For a 14 or 15 year old that’s a lot of money, every kid looks up to you. When you’re that age, and you have a car, and money you feel important. You feel you are getting a lot of respect. Plus so many girls want to get with you like you were someone big-time.”
John Chu is 33 years old now, serving a 210 month sentence in the feds on a kidnapping charge. He’s been in for 15 years, and looking back he remembers a bunch of kids playing at gangsters like they were in the movies or something. “We mainly hung out in Elmhurst, in the park where we’d go down, and play ball. We hung out at the pool halls, Golden Cue on Northern Blvd, and Five Star, located in Sunnyside. We drove around in cars, ate in the restaurants, and went to Manhattan clubs like the Pallidium, and Limelight.” But Chu wasn’t in the movies. Everything he did was in real life, and the mastermind behind the Green Dragons was a 35 year old man (in 1990), Kin Fei Wong better known as Foochow Paul , who was charged with being the founder and leader of the gang.
“He was a millionaire,” Chu says. “He used all of us. He was cutthroat.” Foochow Paul was born in China, lived in the United States for a time and then operated the Green Dragons from deep within the Fujian province of China. The heroin trafficker used the Green Dragons as an enforcement arm to maintain his authority in the US. “They called him Dai Lo,” Chu says, which means big brother in Chinese. “I heard he was doing big drug business. He didn’t let anyone know. When the case came down he jetted to China. He didn’t give us anything. Not even a fucking lawyer.” It was reported by FBI director Louis Freh in a speech on Asian crime that Foochow Paul was arrested in the Peoples Republic of China in 1995 and that he would be prosecuted in China.
“The Geeen Dragons wanted to take over Queens,” Chu says. “They didn’t hang around Chinatown. They had beef in Chinatown with some of the Chinatown boys. If we went to Chinatown they’d try to kill us.” The growth of the new Chinese communities in Queens meant that these areas were outside the control of the Chinatown tongs. In 1980 there were 120,000 people from China in New York City, but by 1990, there were 300,000 there legally, and an unknown number illegally.
The Chinese moved out along the subway lines, particularly the No. 7 to Queens- the train they called the Orient express- through Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Flushing. Where the subway ends in the shadow of Shea stadium, new high-rises, and signs in Chinese marked a rapidly growing community. None of the established Chinese tongs operated there, and that left a power vacuum for the youth gangs to try and fill.
The New York Times reported, at the time, that Chinatown had burst its traditional boundaries. The new Asian community expanded north and east- along east Broadway, glistening with new banks and office towers shielding Hong Kong investments to Division Street, where immigrants from Fujian Province in Southeast China were clustered to Centre Street, where the Taiwanese were to Henry Street where the Burmese were found and along Canal, where the Vietnamese gangs dominated.
But as waves of Chinese and Southeast Asian immigrants flooded New York City in search of better lives, their expanding neighborhoods were plagued by increasingly violent street gangs, and new criminal enterprises fighting for control. The gangs concentrated on street crimes, engaged in erratic behavior, internecine squabbling, and competitive warfare over turf demonstrating relatively crud leadership,
The New York Times reported. “Every single business in Chinatown and Chinese areas of Queens is being extorted and sometimes not just by one gang,” Catherine E Plamer, an assistant US Attorney who specialized in Asian organized crime said. Dr Chin, author of Chinese Subculture and Criminality phrased it better, “Queens is like the Wild West, it’s the frontier. That is why it’s so violent.” And the Green Dragons were Queens’ Billy the kid.
“Some respected the Green Dragons some didn’t.” Chu says. “To me at that time, I felt like a strong kid and powerful.” The other gangs the Green Dragons beefed with included the White Tigers, the Tong On, the Fu Chang and Born to Kill. “Fights were over power, respect and territory,” Chu says. “The White Tigers hung out in Flushing and Elmhurs,t and so did the Green Dragons. They kicked the tigers out. Most of the Korean gangs like Korean Power and 24K used to run away from us. When any other gang came down to Elmhurst we would beat them up. All of them tried to make peace with us.”
With their links to sophisticated Asian-based crime syndicates that smuggled heroin and illegal immigrants, these modern gangs were poised to move into America’s mainstream. The gangs were headed by a Dai Lo (big brother). They were paid to guard the Dai Lo’s interests. They ate free in the neighborhood restaurants, scrawling the gangs name across the check. They extorted money from businesses in return for protection, and robbed people at gunpoint unlikely to complain, like winning high stakes gamblers and patrons of massage parlors where Korean prostitutes worked. The language used in extorting merchants the police said was often diffidently polite making prosecution difficult.
Chu explains, “You walk into a new restaurant and tell them, ‘You got nice friends. I don’t know if you know the rules. For a grand opening you pay this, and then this per week.’ If they say no then its no problem. We get kids to come in and harass them. Punk rock kids. They slide cockroaches into the plates of food, and make a big scene. Then the restaurants pay the money. It’s good for business. Then we will stage an extortion, and come in to protect the owner so that he doesn’t feel like he’s being squeezed. He’s happy to see us. And eventually we’ll try to open gambling tables at the restaurant to generate more money.”
Chu was not in the leadership stratosphere of the Green Dragons, but on the street, and in prison he associated with the alleged leaders of the gang. Court records indicate that Joseph Wand was responsible with Alex Wong for collecting extortion money from various restaurants, and when the manager of the Tien Chiau Restaurant refused to pay, Wand along with Wong was responsible for killing him. After the killing, Wang moved up the ladder in the gang, and began planning crimes. Danny Ngo was responsible for operating one of the gang’s apartments, and controlling the activities of the seven of eight members who lived there.
Joseph Wang of Taiwanese and Chinese descent was from Flushing. Chu says, “He was a playboy. Always going around with the girls” And Danny Ngo “was half Vietnamese, half Chinese. He lived with his aunt and uncle, but said fuck it, and moved in with the gang. He cooked real good.” Court records say that Alex Wong allegedly shot the manager of the Tien Chiau Restaurant, and helped to organize the effort to locate the witness who had identified him in the shooting. Alex “was a quiet dude, the tallest (6-foot-3) guy too.” Chu says. “He lived in Jackson Heights, spoke English like an American, grew up playing football, he figured life got boring, so he got in the gang when he was 15 or so.”
Tung Tran instructed other members of the Green Dragons to murder Tina Sham, who had testified against a Green Dragon member at a preliminary hearing in state court, and Tommy Mach, who happened to be with her when the Green Dragons apprehended her, court records relate. “They called him Big Nose,” Chu says, “He was a little older, came from California, and started hanging with us. He was half-Vietnamese, and aggressive.”
Brian Chan drove one of the gang’s cars, participated in kidnapping Tina Sham and Tommy Mach, and instructed other Green Dragon members to beat up members of the White Tiger gang, court records say. “They called him pretty boy,” Chu says. “He was tall too, like 6 feet. He had a crazy rep.”
Chen I Chung, “who everyone called Tony,” says Chu, was the gangs alleged street leader. At his initial court appearance the New York Times called him a baby faced 23 year old. Foochow Paul, the Dai Lo maintained regular telephone contact with Chen I Chung, court records say, and issued directives concerning Green Dragon policy, specific places to be extorted and amounts to demand, and how to handle conflicts with rival gangs, and members of the Chinese community. “He always keeps it serious,” Chu says of Tony. “He expresses himself with his eyes. Always thinking about how to make more money. Very smart. I called him the brainchild.” Court records say he became the operational leader of the Green Dragons in November 1986, when the former street leader E.T. was killed by the Tong On, a rival Asian gang. “E.T. got killed around 87, in Flushing at a restaurant by the Tong on,” Chu remembers. “Everybody was like drunk. It was Tony’s birthday party. E.T. was arguing with a Tong On guy. Guns came out, and everybody started shooting. A couple of other guys go shot.”
Roger Kwok, Chiang I Cheng, and Steven Ngo, although lower in the gang’s hierarchy, operated under the direction of their superiors over an extensive period of involvement in the affairs of the Green Dragons, court records state. Kwok carried out the murders of Tina Sham and Tommy Mach. Cheng was involved in 3 murders in connection with the gang’s activities, and Ngo was involved in the murders also in furtherance of the Green Dragons operations. “All these guys are basically Americanized,” Chu says. “They all had their American names.” Like Tony for Chen I Chung, and Jay for Chiang I Cheng. “Everybody used to make fun of Jay,” Chu says. “Roger is Cambodian, he came from New Jersey. He talks black, and has a good gift of gab in both Chinese, and English.” Steven Ngo, who took a bullet in the E.T. shooting, “got shot a bunch of times,” Chu says, “He had a lot of scars.”
A string of incidents led to the Green Dragon indictment. The Tien Chaiu Restaurant homicides on July 16, 1989, where Chen I Chung allegedly gave the order to have the manager killed to teach the owners of the restaurant not to mess with the Green Dragons. The January 23, 1990, Hampton Street home invasion where the gang robbed an apartment at 40-15 Hampton Street in Queens on a tip that the apartment was the location of an underground gambling spot. A woman who lived there was allegedly raped, but no charges were forthcoming. The conspiracy to murder Carol Huang, the witness to the Tien Chiau murders, the extortion of High Pearl Restaurant, during the spring of 1989, the gun battle at 82-22 45th Ave in Elmhurst, the extortion of Jack Tran in August 1990, the June 1990, gunfight between the Green Dragons and BTK at the Mars club in Manhattan, the February 27, 1990, murder of Jin Lee Soek, a Korean Power member, and the Queens poolroom gun battle in January 1990, between the Green Dragons and White Tigers. But it was the double murder of witness Tina Sham and Tommy Mach in early 1990, that sparked the joint investigation that included full time surveillance of the gangs four safe houses in Queens.
This event led to the feds orchestrating a supposed showdown with the White Tigers, so they could get all the Green Dragons in one place, “one of the White Tigers called Tony on the phone, and called them out, which was a set-up.” Chu concedes. “They got Tony pissed off, he was like come out. Let’s have a war.” The police claimed that the White Tiger/Green Dragon rivalry had already led to a half-dozen killings, and feared more deaths, so they arrested Chen I Chung, Tung Tran, Brian Chan, Joseph Wang, Roget Kwok, Danny Ngo, and other members of the Green Dragons on November 19, 1990, as the gang members massed in preparation for a showdown with the White Tigers to settle a turf dispute, court records indicate. But looking back Chu says, “It was all a ruse. A scam. A set up to get everyone in one place.”
The arrests and indictments in the case resulted from a nine month investigation conducted between March and November 1990, by the FBI, NYPD, and Nassau County Police Department. As part of their investigation the FBI, and NYPD conducted court authorized electronic surveillance monitoring several telephones used by the Green Dragons. Among the 29 guns seized were two Uzi submachine guns, and a Mac-10 machine pistol. “They arrested them time after time,” Chu says. “Like 15 boom. Then 30, 4 different groups of Green Dragons until they were all locked up. Some of them were so young they went to state.”
The feds trumpeted their feat. “This indictment, for all intents and purposes, destroys the Green Dragons, and their leadership, “said Andrew J Maloney, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “They put a lot of weight on terror, but now they’re through.” The government moved for the empanelling of an anonymous jury. They contended that the Green Dragons were a violent gang with an extensive history of interfering with the judicial process, and sought to silence potential witnesses against them. The Tina Sham and Tien Chiau restaurant murders were cited as evidence for the contention. The gang’s demonstrated willingness to obstruct justice warranted the use of an anonymous jury, the court found, especially in view of evidence that Kin Fei Wong, the Dai Lo, and other members of the Green Dragons remained at large with the means to harm jurors.
After a 10-week jury trial each of the defendants was convicted of a substantive violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) provisions to the criminal code. At the heart of the prosecutors case was two weeks of testimony by street Lieutenant, Sonny Wong, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his cooperation. “Sonny is our Sammy the Bull,” said one police investigator. Sonny testified how he joined the gang as a 16 year old student at Newtown High School in Elmhurst. As a $40 a week soldier his first assignment was to kill the leader of the Tong Ons. He and three others fired on a Jackson Heights restaurant, and wounded five people, but missed the Tung On leader. “I. Chung told me not to worry about it, that at least, now they knew we won’t just back off,” Sonny testified.
Another former gang member Aleck Yim testified that he and fellow members forced Tina Sham and Tommy Mach into a car, drove them to a secluded area of Sands Point L.I., and tied their hands behind their backs. “Let the new kid do it,” Aleck recalled saying to the youngest defendant, 18 year old Roger Kwok. “If you look at the transcript, most of the murders they got convicted of was what Sonny and Aleck said.” Shcu says. “Aleck the punk was weak. He had no business hanging with us. Sonny Wong was Tony’s right hand man. He always wanted to prove himself. He always made trouble with other groups. They both are weak shits. If they didn’t rat, everybody wouldn’t have gotten life and might of beat the trial.”
The trial had its dramatic moments. On one occasion three prosecution witnesses refused to testify, because they were reportedly threatened on their way to the courthouse. On another day a defendant rose from his seat and said, “Watch yourself” in Chinese to a witness. And the aforementioned rat Aleck Yim graphically described the Tina Sham execution while her relatives sat weeping in the courtrooms front row. The jury returned its verdict on the sixth day of deliberations following the trial. But as Chu says there never had to be a trial.
“They were offering 20 to 25 years to plea.” He says “They were offering me and some other guys 5 to 7 years to plea. Instead of pleading we all went to trial.” Judge Reena Raggi in Federal District Court in Brooklyn sentenced seven Green Dragons to life terms for “truly disturbing crimes” and noted that during the trial the defendants had threatened witnesses and laughed at the victims families. She added, “They were actually enjoying listening to accounts of their escapades.”
Reflection, Chu says, “I look back, its not worth it, and I believe the other guys think that way too. Tony, Alex, Roger, Joe, Brian, Danny, Big Nose, Jay, and Steve I know them all, and I was cool with them all. We were smart guys who just got caught up at a young age. We could have done something with our lives. Instead of wasting them. Instead of being in jail for half our lives.” Or in some cases for their whole life.