SAN FRANCISCO — A tourist spotting a kumquat tree decorated with shiny red envelopes might see only the color and pageantry of the Chinese New Year.
But merchants in San Francisco's Chinatown recognize the symbols of extortion.
Gang members often drop off the trees, the gold fruit a traditional symbol of prosperity, at businesses. They expect the envelopes to be returned with up to $500 in cash--or else windows will be broken. Or maybe bones.
It's a practice as old and worn as the threats themselves, and for almost 100 years merchants have quietly paid up.
But all that may be changing as the community ushers in the Year of the Golden Dragon. For the first time, many merchants are calling police for help.
'Chinatown is its own world. It's very insular," said San Francisco Police Inspector Garret Tom, a gang detail detective who grew up here in the nation's most populous Chinatown. "But I think people are fed up with being picked on."
In recent weeks, the San Francisco Police Department has received 14 complaints of extortion attempts by Asian gangs in Chinatown--a conspicuous increase from years past when not a single merchant called. Last week, investigators launched their first raid on gang members suspected of targeting businesses.
The department has long tried to forge ties in this community, but tradition, ties and culture keep Chinatown a place apart.
This is a place where Walter Lee, 82, was born in a third-floor apartment above the calligraphy store that once belonged to his grandfather and now is his. Ben Wong, a young hotel clerk, was able to rent a Chinatown apartment because he has the right last name. The building, like many others, is owned by a family organization. In Chinatown there are entire apartment buildings in which all the renters are named Wong or Lee.
People matter of factly identify themselves by generation. Many first-generation Chinese, whether they are aged shopkeepers or new immigrants, never leave the confines of Chinatown.
The shadowy side of Chinatown is just as established and interrelated.
"You walk through the areas above and behind the street and it feels like a movie. Punks with guns at the back tables. Gambling and whispering," said Inspector Phillip Wong, Tom's partner. "Sometimes it doesn't seem real even to me."
Chinese gang members can be hard to identify. They blend into Chinatown's teeming life. They don't wear gang colors, flash signs or dress in a way to draw attention. When questioned by police they are unfailingly polite.
In the past, the community has been unlikely to point fingers and help police. Even Chinese officers with deep-rooted ties such as detectives Tom and Wong face a cultural distrust that stretches back to their homelands in Hong Kong and China.
So despite having spent nine years as a foot patrol officer in Chinatown before making detective, Wong was surprised when he got a tip that a gang was storing hundreds of kumquat trees before delivery.
Based on the tip, police blocked off a section of Chinatown on Tuesday night as a SWAT team stormed the building. The suspects and the trees were gone, but investigators say that they found telltale leaves, decorative ribbons and kumquats. Detectives said they expect to make arrests within the next two weeks in connection with previous extortions.
Wong said the raid was important, although police came up empty-handed.
"There were lots of people peeking out windows, out on the streets," he said. "We showed that when there's illegal activity we'll hit hard. Three months from now people will hopefully look at that empty building and say, 'Those bad guys haven't been back since the cops were there.' "
Yoko Ng, who owns a book and CD store, said she will call police if anyone demands a bribe.
"Before the lo wah que were scared to talk to police," she said, using a term that means an old local. "But now the police are more nice to the people. Now we are friends. And this is the Year of the Dragon. The gang people they think 'Oh, it's a special year, Chinese people will give money easy.' But the dragon is a symbol of strength and the people are strong and say, 'No more.' "
The extortions often take place during Chinese New Year celebrations, which this year run from Feb. 5 to Feb. 20, and are part of a larger cycle of criminal activity that takes a toll on Chinatown residents.
"This money is used to finance the drugs and weapons that lead to the big-ticket violence," said Lt. William Davenport, head of the department's gang detail. "Every so many years there's a flare-up. Then it seems to calm down and goes along veiled and under the surface before there's another explosion of violence."
The 1977 Golden Dragon massacre, which left five people dead and 11 wounded at a Chinatown restaurant, hurt the area's economy and echoes to this day.
"Before the massacre, Chinatown was open 24 hours a day. But even after all these years the night life has never come back," Wong said.