Ah Gow the Snakehead

By the mid-1970s, there were perhaps 20,000 ethnic Chinese crammed into Manhattan’s Chinatown, which made up a small six-block area surrounded by the Bowery and Mulberry Street on the east and west, and Canal and Worth streets to the north and south, respectively. Unlike their occidental counterparts, the Chinese were severely limited in the number of immigrants who would be let into the country. Up until 1965, racial quotas allowed just 105 Chinese to enter the U.S. each year.
However, after 1965, Chinese immigration exploded, and in just a few short years, more than 100,000 Chinese – mostly Cantonese – lived in Chinatown. This huge influx of immigrants changed the face of New York’s Lower East Side once again. From the Irish and Germans who had settled the area in the 1840s, to the Jews and Italians who took over in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Lower East Side between the Brooklyn Bridge and Houston Street (pronounced “HOW-stun”) was the place where refugees from Old World oppression became assimilated into the New World way of life. Now it was the Chinese who brought their ancient customs and traditions to the New World – including their own brand of organized crime.
Like their Jewish, Irish and Italian brethren, the Chinese mobsters trafficked in drugs, prostitution, shakedown rackets and the assorted vice that brings in ill-gotten gains. The gangs, or tongs, are clothed in respectability, with “merchants associations” and other fraternal groups often fronting for more sinister organizations. Older, more experienced gangsters used children – some as young as 12 or 13 to act as runners or strong-arm types (even a child with a weapon can be intimidating).
Many of the young people who belonged to a street gang joined out of fear for their lives. Unaffiliated youngsters were often targeted by gang members and robbed, assaulted or otherwise intimidated. Joining a gang was seen as a way of self-preservation.
For many years, the Dailo, or godfather of the Chinese mob was a quiet, unassuming man named Wing Yeong Chan, a Chinese immigrant who had worked his way up through the ranks of the On Leong Tong from a dishwasher to head the On Leong Merchant’s Association. Chan was a family man, with three children that he was sending to college. Chan’s many businesses include the 400-seat Harmony restaurant and banquet hall, where he often wined and dined visiting dignitaries from China and Taiwan.
Wing Yeung ChanThere was a darker side to Chan, who would stop at nothing to ensure his continued authority in Chinatown. He was suspected of ordering or taking part in several homicides of disloyal gang members and Chan had come to the attention of federal authorities for his role in the tong’s drug and immigrant-smuggling schemes.
The On Leong Tong was divided up much the same way the Italian mobs were, with various factions, or families, further subdivided into crews. Street gangs are made up of members who follow their own dailo, the equivalent of an Italian capo. The dailo’s power varies according to the gang he is affiliated with, how many members he controls and where he ranks with respect to the tong, or elder Chinese businessmen with Asian connections, both legal and illegal.
Street gangs, such as the Flying Dragons, the Ghost Shadows and the Free Masons, are composed mostly of men, anywhere between the ages of 12 and 35. Generally, each gang has a crash pad or apartment on their block in Chinatown, where they gather each day. Activities in the apartment consist of planning activities, dealing with recalcitrant debtors or entertaining the women who are affiliated with the gang.
Ah GowZhang Ai Ping, a.k.a. “Ah Gow,” was a typical member of a Chinese street gang. He pleaded guilty to a number of federal criminal charges in 2001, not the least of which included kidnapping, rape and armed robbery. His presentence report prepared for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York reads like a one-man crime wave.
Ah Gow was born in Fuzhou in the Fujian Province of China on March 11, 1968, the fourth child of Li Mao Ying and Zhang Ho Hua. His parents are former teachers who still live in China. Along with a brother and sister, Ah Gow entered the United States illegally in 1992, with the help of a snakehead. He told the probation officer that he no longer had much contact with his family.
He was once treated for non-infectious tuberculosis, and told the probation officer that he has limited ability to read and write Chinese and speaks no English. His health remains poor from his bout with TB.
Faced with a $20,000 debt to the snakeheads for bringing him to America, with no opportunity to learn any kind of meaningful trade, the most money Ah Gow ever reported earning in a year was 1996, when he reported taxable income of $8,400. There was nowhere Ah Gow could turn, except to crime. Moreover, he took to his new career vigorously.
Ah Gow joined the Fukienese Flying Dragons, which the U.S. government considers an on-going criminal enterprise. He first came to the attention of the government in 1994, when with three other men, Ah Gow robbed a Forsythe Street apartment where approximately 20 people had gathered. It was payday for the workers at a Chinatown restaurant, and the men knew there would be significant cash at the apartment. When one of the workers tried to hide a small amount of his hard-earned wage, Ah Gow beat the man severely. The Flying Dragons escaped with approximately $1,200.
The same month, Ah Gow, Huang Yong and two other men robbed a mah jongg parlor near Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, again beating one of their victims. The gangsters this fled with more than $12,000 and some jewelry and guns. Later in the summer, Ah Gow and a street brother staged a “robbery” of a delivery truck. The driver had tipped them to the contents of the truck and Ah Gow stole $6,000.
They later robbed a gambling den run by the rival Tung On gang on Division Street, where they received $40,000. At the same time, the government charged, they were extorting money from a Chinese dentist in Chinatown. Returning to the restaurant-payday MO, Ah Gow stole immigration documents and between $5,000 and $6,000 from an apartment in New Jersey.
In the fall of 1994, Ah Gow’s dailo, Lin Bo, kidnapped a group of five illegal aliens, and had Ah Gow hold them at gunpoint for several days. The aliens were being held until their snakehead paid a $20,000 ransom. For his part in the scam, Ah Gow received $1,000.
When he reported to prison to begin serving his 135-month sentence – which would include English as a Second Language and vocational training – Ah Gow left a wife and six-year-old son behind in Brooklyn.
When the time came for Ah Gow to enter his plea, he was embittered and angry with America and the government, which he thought, was persecuting him. After all, he reasoned, the girl he was accused of raping – one of the illegal aliens he was guarding – hadn’t protested that much when he lay on top of her. She had it coming, he felt, and that shouldn’t have been considered a crime.