From the faded stucco neighborhoods of the central city here to the ghetto streets of San Francisco, California's Asian community, long sterotyped as meek and lawabiding, has become an unwitting haven for organized crime.
Evidence of an upsurge in criminal activity among Asian-Americans, the state's fastest growing minority, is not hard to find. Bitter street warfare between rival youth gangs of Asian descent, the success of well organized fraud and extortion rings and the sophistication of Asian-dominated drug smuggling syndicates have convinced law enforcement authorities that they are up against something new and formidable.
"There's a real difficulty now with organized crime groups coming to the West Coast from the Orient," said Ike Sterrett, head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Organized Crime Strike Force in San Francisco. "There's a real geographic and sociological function here. Some of these people are coming in just to establish organized crime operations."
Law enforcement agencies such as the strike forces, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the San Francisco and Los Angeles police departments have all in recent years formed special groups to deal with the mushrooming Asian crime problems.
"People laughed at us when we started our Asian task force," said Los Angeles police Sgt. Shiro Tomita whose nine-member unit, made up of Asian officers, was established in 1975. "People used to say Asians never caused any problems."
California's Asian community, the nation's largest, grew dramatically in the decade following the 1968 removal from the U.S. Code of immigration statutes discriminating against immigrants from the Orient. Between 1970 and 1976 the state's Asian population increased by more than 65 percent (to 800,000), a growth rate twice that of Hispanics and more than 12 times that of white Californians.
The Filipino group more than doubled in size between 1970 and 1975. In addition, as many as 100,000 of the 247,000 Indochinese admitted into the country since the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975 have settled in California, according to local officials. Koreans, who numbered barely 40,000 in the 1976 census estimate, now boast neary five times that number in the Los Angeles area alone, according to Tomita.
Behind these soaring statistics lie countless stories of families under severe social dislocation, economic hardship and culture shock as American influences undermine traditional values.
"Our kids have had to organize themselves to defend against blacks and Mexicans. They have to show the other groups they are macho," said Jane Kim, director of the Korean Youth Center in Los Angeles. Kim says some gangs of young Koreans have helped adult mobsters extort money from local shopkeepers in the sprawling Koreatown west of downtown.
"The Korean community tends to be pretty silent about this," she said. "Asians have this stereotype that we are quiet, that there is no problem. But look inside and you will see a lot of trouble. The kids are taking drugs and selling them. This is happening more than ever before."
The reluctance of Koreans and other Asians to report criminal activities to the authorities has hamstrung police efforts to control the kidnappings, rapes, heroin smuggling and extortion now widely whispered about in Koreatown, according to Tomita. "They look at crime as a way of life," he said. "That's the way it is back in Korea."
Similar behavior is found in Indochinese communities throughout southern California. Groups of unemployed and underemployed former Vietnamese servicemen, joining with teen-age toughs, have organized themselves into gangs with such martial-sounding names as "The Pink Knights," "The Paratroopers" and "The Frogmen."
Operating out of Orange and Los Angeles counties, where most of California's Indochinese have settled, some of the gangs extort money from local Vietnamese businessmen, claims Det. Joe Bryan of the Anehelm police department.
"It's the same pressure as you have in organized crime anywhere in the country," Bryan said. "If a Vietnamese person has a business, they demand a tax. If it is a restaurant, five or 10 boys come in and expect to eat for nothing. People tell us these things but the problem is no one files formal complaints."
Vietnamese community leaders are reluctant to discuss their home-grown crime problem. They consider the gangs proof of the failure of some of their younger compatriots to adjust to the American way of life.
An even more serious crime explosion may be developing in California's Filipino community, the largest Asian group in the state with as many as 300,000 members. Since the imposition of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, entire organized crime operations have moved across the Pacific to the West Coast, including the Manila-based Oxo gang, the Sigi-sigi, Bahala Na and Tres Cantos, according to one confidential state Department of Justice report.
Police learned recently that one adult criminal organization known as "The Syndicate" has operated a multi-million-dollar car smuggling ring out of San Francisco. Over 50 Filipinos have been convicted for their part in the scheme which involved purchase of cars on false credit, stealing them, pocketing insurance claim money and then smuggling the vehicles, usually luxury cars, tax-free to the Philippines.
At the center of it all, according to immigration officials, was Jose Noli Sugay, a member of a politically prominent Filipino family. Dubbed by some "The Filipino Godfather," Sugay, 33, was recently convicted of embezzlement and faces further charges on other activities.
One Filipino close to the Sugay organization claims organized crime groups can forge U.S. passport facsimiles of a high quality for as little as $2,000.
America, the source says, is now seen by many criminal elements in the Philippines and throughout Asia as the land of greatest opportunity."Let's put it this way," he said over a beer. "If you have a big house there's more for me to steal than in a small house. The United States is a much bigger house than the Philippines."
Of all of California's major Asian groups, the Japanese are generally considered by law enforcement to be the least troublesome and best integrated into the American mainstream.
There are, however, growing concerns about the infiltration of Japan-based organizations of yakuza, fierce gangsters known for their tattooed bodies, Samural-style authoritarian codes of behavior and their grisly penchant for cutting off their own fingers if found wanting by their superiors.
Within the last few years some suspected yakuza have been convicted for smuggling guns, drugs and currency between Japan and Hawaii, according to U.S. Attorney Walter Heen. Law enforcement sources in California -- including LAPD, DEA and the Organized Crime Strike Force -- confirm the presence of some yakuza gangs, notably the worldwide Yamguchi-gumi organization, on the West Coast but have so far made no arrests of suspected yakuza on the mainland.
No such statement, however, can be made for the numerous Thai-based criminal organizations which have moved to California, concentrating largely in the rundown section of Hollywood. Over the last two years the DEA claims to have made over 60 arrests and convictions of Thais on charges of smuggling high-quality Asian "white heroin" to the West Coast.
Using opium connections fine-tuned back home, Thai businessmen have smuggled over $100 million worth of heroin annually into the country in the housings of teakwood clocks, through pliable employes of Asian air carriers, as well as Thai religious and fraternal organizations, DEA officials claim.
"The Thai community here is our biggest problem," said Jerry Jenson, DEA's western regional director. "They have a very organized operation, they have the supplies. They are trying to get together with American organized crime. If they do, it would be the biggest thing since the French Connection."
These newcomers to the California demi-monde have overshadowed the long standing criminal presence within California's oldest Asian group, the Chinese. Over the last decade alone, there have been more than 50 gang-related homicides in San Francisco's Chinese neighborhoods, according to Sgt. John McKenna, chief of the San Francisco police department special task force on gangs.
National attention on San Francisco's Chinese gangs was widespread following the September 1977 "Golden Dragon Labor Day Massacre," an attempted gangland assassination that ended in the deaths of five innocent people and the wounding of 11 more at a Chinatown restaurant.Nine members of the "Joe Fong Gang" have been convicted for their part in the murders.
Since the Golden Dragon incident, however, Chinese youth gangs seem to have drifted away from such pronounced violence, preferring to work with adult criminals on more profitable activities like extortion, drug smuggling and gambling.
Like other criminal organizations here, Chinese groups thrive on new immigrants, many from poverty-stricken Hong Kong. Thousands of the British colony's young enter California every year, legally and illegally.
Some law enforcement officials particularly in federal agencies, argue that only through intensified surveillance and mass deportation of Asian criminal elements can they keep the West Coast from becoming an even easier target for ever bolder organized crime operations. Others, such as Tomita, say the hiring of more Asian American officers, better police communication with immigrants and greater understanding by police of Oriental cultures constitute the best hope of stemming growth of crime in the Asian community.