Chinatown merchants work to eliminate extortion

Thursday, January 22, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a Chinese New Year tradition almost as certain as children getting red envelopes stuffed with money: Gang members would strong-arm protection money out of Chinatown merchants.

Extortion was long a problem in San Francisco's Asian communities, often spiking at the Lunar New Year, which starts today and is celebrated in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other cultures. Now, however, police say the extortion has been mostly stamped out thanks to aggressive public education and merchants breaking their silence.

Ed Jew remembers helping out at his grandfather's Chinatown flower shop and hearing the grown-ups talk about the young men who demanded money around the New Year. Years later, he watched the same thing happen to his father.

Recently, Jew, 43, took over the family business, and he's hoping the problem won't extend to another generation.

"Knock on wood -- it has not happened to me," said Jew, whose shop, tucked in a Chinatown alley, is filled with special New Year's tangerine trees, prized as symbols of good luck. "The police force is doing a good job here in San Francisco. They're really reaching out."

In the past, police say Asian gang members would ask merchants for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, piggybacking on the tradition of giving children envelopes filled with "lucky" money. The gangsters would bring kumquat trees, azalea plants, slips of red paper or sometimes nothing at all, demanding money in return and threatening broken windows or bodily harm if shopkeepers did not pay up.

In the early 1980s, police typically received about 20 reports of extortion attempts around the Lunar New Year; that fell to about 10 in the 1990s, said inspector Wayne Hom, a member of the city's gang task force. Last year marked the first time that no such attempts were reported, he said.

Community leaders attribute the decrease to merchants' growing willingness to cooperate with the police after years of public education efforts. Some high-profile arrests have helped, too.

Hiring more bilingual Asian officers made it easier for merchants to report extortion, Hom said. In the mid 1970s, the department had just a handful of Asian police officers; now there are about 300, he said.

The 1996 appointment of the city's first Chinese-American police chief, Fred Lau, also made a difference in a town that is about a third Asian, said Rose Pak, a consultant for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

"When Fred Lau became the chief, he set a tone, together with the mayor," Pak said. "They said they would not tolerate it."

Last week, police and community crime prevention groups, including Safety Awareness for Everyone, handed out fliers warning merchants of extortion attempts and urging them to call police to report them.

Four years ago, police arrested three teenagers who pleaded guilty to attempting to force payments from merchants in the city's Richmond district. The three, members of the "21 Boys" Chinese gang, were convicted of extortion and sentenced to six years with the California Youth Authority, Hom said.

The next year, two Chinese restaurants were set on fire on Chinese New Year. Three people were later indicted, and the case is making its way through the courts, Hom said.

Such police successes have emboldened some merchants, Pak said. "People feel, 'Hey, they caught these people, and they certainly didn't retaliate,"' she said. "They see that the police mean it."

But as Chinatown merchants prepare for the Year of the Monkey, fear still lingers for some. "It's sad that (criminals are) doing it to the same culture they're from," Jew said of the extortion attempts. "Most of the merchants, they just barely make it."

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