The gunfire that killed five people and wounded 11 others in the Golden Dragon restaurant last week also has shattered the picturesque facade which traditionally conceals the ugly realities of Chinatown.
"The newspapers treat Chinatown like it's a mysterious, exotic place," says Gordon J. Lau, who next week will become the second Chinese-American in San Francisco's history to be named a county supervisor.
"Actually, Chinatown's a gilded ghetto of gigh unemployment and poor housing. When you see a big restaurant here, there's one person who owns it and 50 who work there at low wages," Lau said.
To most tourists and to many non-Oriental San Franciscans, Chinatown is a foreign city of gift shops, firecrackers and Cantonese restaurants. Next to the Golden Gate Bridge it is the city's leading tourist attraction.
But some of this attraction came to an end when three ski-masked juveniles armed with a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle and a revolver sprayed shots into the Golden Dragon early last Sunday morning.
For Chinatown residents, the gunfire represented the reality of the marauding teenage gangs who regularly extort from merchants by day and fight each other at night.
And there are other realities. Chinatown has the highest population density of any California community, largely caused by past patterns of housing discrimination. It also has in extreme form the problems of physical and mental illness, suicide and unemployment sometimes associated with overcrowding.
Lau, a 36-year-old attorney widely known for his involvment in social issues, does not live in Chinatown. His home is in the Richmond district, a once all-white residential area that is now nearly 40 per cent Asian.
Not until the Supreme Court struck down restrictive housing covenents was it possible for Chinese to find homes outside Chinatown.
Anti-Oriental prejudice, referred to by California historians as "the bloody shirt," has been prevalent in San Francisco since Chinese were imported in great numbers a century ago for use in the building of the transcentinental railroad.
Many Chinese-Americans responded to discrimination by becoming what Lau calls "overachievers." The value of education was stressed, and many Chinese-Americans went into professions, especially engineering and accounting.
Out of this emphasis on education grew a prevalent belief that Chinatown had no real crime problem, especially with young people. As recently as a decade ago, law enforcement officials held up Chinatown to white and black communities as a model of juvenile deportment.
There are those in Chinatown who say that this idylic picture always was an exaggeration. They say that one of the reasons Chinatown didn't have very much juvenile crime was that it had relatively few juveniles because of restrictive anti-Oriental immigration quotas which made it difficult for Chinese-Americans to bring their families to the United States.
But the national policy of excluding Chinese immigrants was eased in 1965. Immigrants, many of whom spoke no English, poured in by the thousands, and they are still coming. The children of these immigrant families in some cases lacked job skills and drifted into gangs to gain a feeling of security of self-protectio.
These youth gangs have accounted for 39 known murders and countless other incidents of violence in San Francisco since 1969. Some of the gangs are so powerful that they are considered to be beyond the control of even the tongs (family associations) which hold authority in Chinatown.
Some of the tongs are little more than businessmen's benevolent societies; others are said to control the lucrative vice rackets which flourish in Chinatown.
Whatever they are, the tongs are usually run by older Chinese who came to this country before the current wave of immigration.
Originally the gangs were firmly under control of the tongs and were used merely as errand boys.
But as immigration, both legal and illegal, has burgeoned, the gangs have developed power of their own. It is an open question in Chinatown whether the tongs or the youth gangs are now in control.
Of course, most of the new immigrants are not part of a criminal element. But even the most respectable have found it difficult to control their children because of the severe change in their own lives. Many of the newcomers are Chinese who held managerial or white-collar jobs in Hong Kong but have found it necessary to become busboys or janitors in the United States.
"The father loses status in his children's eyes when this happens," Lau says. "He works 12 to 14 hours a day and can't control his son. Kids see their old man washing dishes and say what future do I have."
This sense of hopelessness was evident in an interview with a former member of the "Joe Boys," the name of the gang suspected of committing the Golden Dragon murders. Speaking on the condition that he not be identified, this onetime gang member described the frustration felt by young Chinese-Americans who find it difficult to overcome language and employment barriers.
"My parents came here in the '20s and thought America was heaven," said this former gang member. "It seemed more like hell to me."
This young man is freer to voice his resentment and even to engage in illegal activities than his parents ever were. The parents were illegal immigrants who concealed their identity and lived in constant fear of deportation.
In the interview the former gang member described how the gangs serve as collection agencies for some of the powerful tongs. Often, a gang member asks for money and then politely admires the windows or breakable items of merchandise. Usually, the shopkeeper gets the idea and pays without any trouble.
The Joe Boys take their name from Joe Fong, a charismatic gang leader who is now serving 10 years to life at the state juvenile prison for conspiracy to murder. Fong maintains that he was framed.
Police say that the gunmen in the Golden Dragon killings were Joe Boys who were trying to murder Michael Louie, a member of the rival Wah Ching (young chinese) gang. Most of the Wah Ching members are said to be foreign-born Chinese.
When the gunmen entered the Golden Dragon, the Wah Ching members immediately hit the floor and pulled tables over them as shields. No Wah Ching was hurt by the gunfire.
The official theory of the massacre was disputed by a number of the Chinese-Americans interviewed by The Washington Post.The former member of the Joe Boys gang said that the restaurant is known to be a hangout for the Wah Ching and their ally, the Hop Sing Boys, and was shot up deliberately as a warning to these gangs and the tongs they work for.
"They didn't care who they hit," said the former gang member. "They wanted to shoot up the Golden Dragon."
If the shooting was designed to discourage tourism and hurt the tongs, it has been partially successful. Though city officials say there has been no measurable decline in tourism, some tours of Chinatown by Japanese visitors were cancelled. So were restaurant wedding banquets.
At the Golden Dragon, where 100 people were dining when the shooting started, only a score of diners, most of them Caucasian, were in evidence at the dinner hour last Thursday. The only persons at the bar were a Coors-drinking couple who were attempting to convince the Chinese-American bartender that Orientals are a highly superstitious people.
Reacting to the outery from the Chinese community in the wake of the killings, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone quickly posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to arrest of the killers. He said that police would "stop at nothing" to solve this "outrageous act."
But some of the initial statements by police officials seem mostly to have contributed to the outrage. The day after the murders police chief Charles R. Gain criticized the Chinese community for not coming forth with information.
The next day he held a press conference saying that gambling in Chinatown is big business that is "blatant, historic and rampant." He said the youthful killers, who face lesser penalties than adults if caught, were merely pawns of adult criminals in Chinatown.
Many elements of the Chinese community reacted angrily to Gain's remarks, interpreting them as an attempt to blame law-abiding Chinese-Americans for police shortcomings. Gain said in an interview Friday that his comments were deliberate attempts to anger people and provoke them into giving information.
Gordon Lew, editor of the bilingual paper East-West, responded with an editorial saying that police had done very little to control the Chinatown youth gangs.
Other Chinatown residents complained that San Francisco police have too few bilingual officers (13 on a force of 1,700) and respond too slowly to calls for help. Gain acknowledges that these criticisms have some validity, but says the basic problem remains the unwillingness of citizens in Chinatown to inform police about extortion or gambling activities.
Some Chinatown citizens were particularly angered by Gain's comments because they felt that the community was being used as a scapegoat. They point out that two off-duty policemen, one a special patrol officer named John Bonanno and the other a patrolman named Richard Harkins, were eating in the Golden Dragon when the killers arrived.
The policemen ducked under tables and, like the Wah Ching, were uninjured. "If they did anything other than duck, they'd be goddamned fools," Gain says in their defense. "Thet would have been heroes with a headline, but they would have been dead cops. If I had been there myself, I'd have ducked for cover."
And ducking for cover, in one form or another, is what everyone involved in the case seems to be doing. Though police officials said last Wednesday that they were close to solving the crimes, no arrests have been made, and Gain declined to predict when any would be.
In the fearful atmosphere which now pervades Chinatown, many believe that the youthful killers never will be caught.