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Taking on Tai Cheung : Police Try to Halt Extortion of Businesses by Asian Gangs


MONTEREY PARK — It's a delicate move, but with all the subtlety of an AK-47. There's a slow roll of a T-shirt sleeve. Just enough to show the tip of a snake tattoo.

Maybe it's 4 p.m., right before the Chinese restaurant opens its doors in Monterey Park. Three, four Asian guys show up, in their late teens, early 20s. Baggy pants and T-shirts, backward baseball caps, hard eyes. They want to see the owner. Now.

Hey, let's talk tai cheung , says the dai lo , or gang leader, to the owner. You know, protection. Who's watching over this place for you, keeping the gangs away? And, by the way, your windows look a little dirty. We'll wash them--for $500 a month.

It's here that the sleeve is rolled up; the message delivered. The Asian owner knows that the conversation isn't about window washing or Guardian Angels. For Asian gang members, flashing a gang tattoo is the equivalent of unsnapping a gun holster. They prey on a cultural mistrust of the police and a traditional belief that extortion money is the price of doing business.

The scenario, told by a Chinese restaurant owner to Monterey Park Police, is not uncommon, detectives said. More than one has told of similar extortion attempts that unfold in much the same way.

In an effort to change that, Monterey Park Police Chief Daniel Cross appointed a five-member Gang Enforcement Team in January whose duties include going after extortionists and winning the trust of business owners.

Two incidents last year prompted the extra attention: a nightclub shootout between gang members and another group, and a suspected extortion-related incident in which someone shot out a restaurant's windows.

Already, the Gang Enforcement Team has made an impact, Cross said. Since January, robberies have dropped 50%, and there has been a substantial reduction in gang-related assaults and other gang-related crimes, he said. The anti-gang detail has made no extortion-related arrests.

Asian criminals typically prey on people in their own ethnic group. Since the 1970s, in response to an unprecedented influx of Asians in the San Gabriel Valley, local police agencies have hired Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking officers and formed Asian gang task forces. In 1977, Monterey Park police set up the first Asian crime task force in the country.

Other law enforcement agencies also are cracking down on Asian extortion. In January, a 30-year-old Asian gang member was convicted of extorting more than $16,000 from a Laguna Beach restaurant owner. And last year, sheriff's deputies arrested four gang members for allegedly trying to extort $20,000 from a Universal City restaurant owner.

Monterey Park's new Gang Enforcement Team usually works graveyard shifts, sometimes in uniform, sometimes undercover. Officers swing by 24-hour restaurants, karaoke bars, any potential trouble spots. They want the owners to know that police are watching, that no one has to pay protection money.

Listen, Detective Keith Bacon tells Asian merchants, this doesn't go on at Marie Callender's. Here, most people call the police when they need help.

"Historically speaking," Bacon said, "in Asian culture, you pay the butcher, you pay the grocer, and you pay the gangster. It's a way of doing business."

The level of fear is such that detectives are reluctant to give details about extortion attempts. Police won't say who is being extorted or how many extortion victims have come forward. Detectives will say only that more than four business owners have told police that they have been approached by extortionists. Extortion victims fear reprisal and are unwilling to talk to reporters, police said.

These days, more gangs are looking to get in on the action. Twenty years ago in Monterey Park, there were only the Wah Ching gang and the Joe Boys. In 1970, 14% of the city's 49,000 residents were Asian; now, 56% of Monterey Park's 60,738 residents are Asian.

Back then, there were 13 Asian restaurants in the city. Now there are nearly 200 Asian restaurants, and a surge in Asian gangs--the Black Dragons, Asian Boys, Asian Girls and international syndicates.

Surrounding cities also have an influx of Asian immigrants, many of whom come from Taipei or Hong Kong, places that stay hopping all night. Gang members spend the evening trolling karaoke clubs and bars in Arcadia and San Gabriel, and then head to one of Monterey Park's 24-hour restaurants for some chow fun or steak. At 2 a.m., the all-night places are jumping, with lines outside the doors.

The gang members walk into restaurants like they own the places. They have battle scars, such as blackened holes in their hands--the mark of a ground-in cigarette butt, a common gang ritual. They know the Hitchcockian theory of horror that says an implied threat is more vivid than a real one.

Sometimes, they ask about the owner's daughter by name: How is she doing over there, at such-and-such elementary school? And then they say: We'd like to sign for the bill and pay you later.

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