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He's Fighting Gangs on His Own Terms : Crime: Promoting himself as an expert, Richard Chiang speaks to area youths to dissuade them from ending up on the wrong side of the law.

January 09, 1994|CHAU LAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Richard Chiang lifted the corner of a white cotton shirt worn by the former gang member standing next to him, revealing the letter "S" that had been cut into the young man's belt buckle.

"The initial represents the gang's name," Chiang recently told the Chinese American parents assembled in an Arcadia school gymnasium. "S is for Salbahe Boyz."

The 30 or so adults at Dana Junior High School busily took notes as Chiang talked about increasing gang problems in San Gabriel Valley schools and neighborhoods. "A is for Asian Boyz. O is for Oriental Lazy Boyz," he continued. The parents scribbled furiously to keep up.

Promoting himself as an expert on Asian street gangs, Chiang has been sought by various organizations within the Valley's burgeoning Asian American community for forums and panel discussions. The 28-year-old El Monte resident has been a reserve officer with the county probation department's Asian gang unit for the past nine months. In addition to his job as a marketing manager for a trucking company in Rancho Dominguez, he founded the Anti-Asian Gang Awareness Coalition in April to educate parents about gangs.

By any account, Chiang is sincere in his efforts to help keep Asian American youths out of gangs. His free seminars are always packed; his projects are generally covered by the local Chinese American press.

"He has helped me straighten out my life by getting me a job and talking me into going back to school," said Khoa Dang, 18, of San Gabriel, the teen-ager who showed his belt buckle for Chiang's seminar. "Without Richard's help I would probably still be gangbanging and maybe in jail."

But even some of his many fans describe Chiang as a limelight seeker who sometimes promises more than he delivers and other times tries to make his own rules to accomplish his aims.

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"The work is fun for him. He likes the spotlight," said Ernest Takemoto, Chiang's supervisor and acting director of the probation department's Asian gang unit. "He likes being the center of attention."

The newly formed coalition has never been officially incorporated, and has no board, no budget, no space and no members--except Chiang.

"It appears that Chiang does what he sees fits, relying on his own judgment," said Josh Lin, a clinical psychologist who has participated in some panel discussions with Chiang. "It's better to have a community advisory body to oversee his activities and the program to ensure that his good will and good intentions meet the needs of the community."

An Irvine business owner said she was stunned three year ago to find that youthful workers Chiang had referred to her all had been juvenile offenders. Chiang had them working for him to help straighten out their lives. When he ran out of work for them, he sent them to Grace Chui, a computer peripherals wholesaler, without mentioning their pasts.

And an El Monte family said they felt let down after Chiang promised to help with a relative's legal problems, but did not follow through.

Chiang concedes his methods sometimes frustrate people. But in his characteristically upbeat way, he says he is working for the public good.

He describes his push for publicity as a way to make people aware of the Asian gang problem in San Gabriel Valley. Lin agrees: "He may achieve two goals at the same time, serving the community and promoting himself."

Chiang said he tried to help the El Monte family, but determined they needed a lawyer. As for not telling Chui about the youths' past, the result--seeing troubled youngsters performing in jobs--outweighed the means, he said.

No one seems to be able to stay angry with Chiang for long. The El Monte family believes he meant well. Chui found that many of her young employees worked out fine. And his partner admires Chiang--even when he feels like shaking him.

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"He is very active in the Asian community. He is always out on the streets reaching out to the kids," said Christopher Kuk, a career probation officer with the Asian gang unit who occasionally works with Chiang. "Richard does more than what the duty of a reserve officer calls for. He donated a lot of his own time and money to help the kids."

Chiang said he helps gang members because of his own troubled youth. He came alone to California from Taiwan when he was 13 to live with an older brother.

"I went through this during my teen-age years," said Chiang, who had joined the "Joe Boys" gang at 16. But then, he said, "I saw too many of my friends ending up in jail, using drugs and getting killed."

After marrying Kathleen Stewart a year after his high school graduation, Chiang turned his back on the "Joe Boys," the group that had become his surrogate family. The couple have a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy.

Chiang said he worked for three years at a shipping company, first as a messenger, and moved up to operations supervisor. At 22, he started a trucking company that eventually went bankrupt. He started a second trucking company, which was bought by a competitor.

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