TERROR IN THE STREET
RUTHLESS ASIAN GANGS BRING A NEW WAVE OF VIOLENCE TO CANADIAN CITIES
The group of Vietnamese-speaking youths seemed harmless in appearance. Two boys no taller than five feet, and apparently no older than 16, sat with four friends in the A Dong restaurant in downtown Toronto on March 3, drinking and taking turns singing from a small stage. At the next table, De Truong, a 28-year-old Chinatown cook, sat with a group of his friends. Then, at about 1:30 a.m., a quarrel erupted between the two tables and quickly led to a shoving match. After the brief scuffle ended, the teenagers left. De Truong remained with five friends. But minutes later, one of the teenagers returned with an older friend. Brandishing a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol and a machine-pistol similar to a mini-Uzi, they aimed at the heads of their victims and opened fire. They left behind the bullet-riddled bodies of three men and a fourth victim with severe chest wounds. Said De Truong, who dove for cover but was grazed by a bullet: “When I opened my eyes, there were people lying all around, crying. I thought I was dying.” The massacre established a grisly new threshold in a surge of Asian violence sweeping the country.
Rivalries: The homicides were Toronto's 18th, 19th and 20th of the year. And they brought to seven the number of killings that police in that city have linked to Asian gangs since Dec. 4, 1990. While Chinese criminal syndicates known as Triads—which trace their roots to 17th-century resistance groups in China—have existed in North America for decades, those organizations have lost much of their control of street-level crime in Canada’s
Chinatowns to a new generation of more ruthless gangs. They are made up largely of recent arrivals from Vietnam and gangsters from mainland China and Hong Kong—called Dai Huen Jai, or Big Circle Boys in English. Now, the growing number of such gangs has erupted into deadly rivalries. Said Metropolitan Toronto Police Const. Kent Bradbury, a plainclothes Asian-crime squad officer: “These new Asian criminals are unbelievably ruthless. They’re not afraid of pain, and they’re not afraid to die. Every day that they’re alive is just another day to them.”
Their victims, moreover, are often not confined to criminal rivals. According to police, the slain and wounded in the A Dong shooting were unarmed and had no criminal associations. Their mistake was apparently to argue unwittingly with gang members. Those slain included: Sin Wai Chiu, 24, a chemical engineering student at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, originally from Hong Kong; Thong Ta, 37, an immigrant from Vietnam who worked in a circuit-board factory; and Duc Phu Hoa, 38, a recent refugee from Vietnam who worked in a Mississauga auto-parts factory. The wounded survivor, Hue Tran, 35, was in stable condition under police protection last week. Meanwhile, the shootings led to expressions of outrage from spokesmen for millions of Asian Canadians. Said Alexis Yam, president of the Toronto Chinese Business Association: “As I understand it, these were ordinary people who were there just to have a good time. It’s worse than the gang revenge killings of the past. We are shocked and frightened.”
Murder: Late last week, Toronto police brought their investigation of the A Dong shooting to a dramatic conclusion with the arrests of six people. Among them was one young offender who was to be arraigned this week on three counts of first-degree murder. But a more significant figure among those seized was Trung Chi Truong—a 32-year-old former refugee and fugitive from American justice. Police charged him, along with the other four detainees, with being an accessory after the fact to the A Dong shootings. According to police sources in half a dozen Canadian provinces and U.S. states, Truong’s arrest placed behind bars one of the most powerful of North America’s new generation of Vietnamese gang leaders (page 22).
Indeed, Maclean’s has also learned that a struggle between Truong’s gang and a Toronto-based Vietnamese rival forms the backdrop to other recent Chinatown shootings in that city. Police sources say that the struggle began last year when Truong launched a challenge against a Toronto dai lo, or gang leader, who heads one of the city’s three main Vietnamese networks. With an estimated 40 followers, the dai lo’s criminal record includes convictions for extortion and running a gaming house. In an ambush slaying on Feb. 3, a Vietnamese gunman armed with a .38-calibre revolver shot Vinh Duc Tat, 29, in the head in front of horrified shoppers in downtown Toronto’s Kensington Market. Police said that Tat, who grew up on the streets of Saigon, was a Truong gang enforcer apparently singled out for elimination by the rival Vietnamese network. Declared one Asian-crime specialist on Toronto’s police force: “It’s no secret that these two groups are going at each other. It’s a territorial dispute.”
Gang rivalries have resulted in shoötouts in other
cities, as well. For the past six months, Vancouver’s so-called Viet Ching gang, which comprises criminals from Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority, has repeatedly fought turf battles against a rival Vietnamese group. Shortly after an argument broke out between members of the two gangs at Vancouver’s Great Ocean Restaurant on Jan. 26, a Vietnamese man walked into the diner, drew a .38-calibre revolver and, in front of 24 customers, shot and killed Le Trung Truyen, 23, and Yen An, 23. Police, who have been unable to find the killer, say that both victims were gang members. Meanwhile, in a street fight between two Vietnamese youth gangs in Calgary’s Chinatown last April, a 16-year-old member of the Young Dragons fired eight shots with a .45-calibre semi-automatic pistol, killing an innocent 22-year-old bystander named James Tam. The killer is now serving the maximum three-year sentence for a young offender. And in Montreal, police say that the drive-by shooting of a 16-yearold Asian garment worker in 1989 remains unsolved.
The gangs are fighting for control of a wide range of lucrative illegal businesses. Most of the aging bosses of the criminal Triads now restrict themselves largely to acting as financial supporters for smugglers of heroin or illegal immigrants. But the Vietnamese gangs and the Dai Huen Jai engage in everything from neighborhood extortion to international drug trafficking. Like the Triads, the new gangs prey almost exclusively on the Asian community, but in doing so their networks reach across Canada, to major American cities and to Hong Kong and other Far Eastern ports.
At the core of the struggles for power is the competition over illegal gaming houses. At night, gamblers, many of them respectable citizens during the day, meet in makeshift casinos in the backs of restaurants and cafés for high-stakes betting in games of Tai Xiu and Paigow. Police say that on some nights, hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands—with the house taking as much as $50,000. Among rival criminal syndicates, said one police Asian specialist, “the gang leader who gets control of the most games wins.”
Gambling: The large sums of cash also make the gambling dens tempting targets for holdups. In one robbery last year that lasted two hours, Vietnamese gangsters based in California stole $100,000 in cash and jewelry from a Toronto gaming house. Police say that many leading Vietnamese gangsters began their careers when Chinese Triads hired them as armed guards to protect the gambling houses— until they began using their positions to rob their employers. Added Toronto’s Det. Michael Hovey: “It’s much more profitable to rob a gaming house than a bank, because no one is likely to report a game hit.”
Another common gang activity is the operation of brothels staffed exclusively by young Asian girls. According to police intelligence sources, the criminal networks import many of the young women from such countries as Malaysia, Korea and Thailand—often with false promises of employment as entertainers. When they reach Canada, however, some of the girls are kept virtually as prisoners in the brothels (page 24).
Still, a mainstay of most crime networks is robbery in its various forms. Many of the gangs routinely extort protection money from Asian-
HEROIN, HOOKERS AND HOME INVASIONS ARE GANG SPECIALTIES
owned jewelry stores, restaurants and gaming houses. Others use counterfeit credit cards obtained through gang connections in Hong Kong to buy luxury items for resale on the black market. But one of their most sinister practices is what police refer to as “home invasions.” It is a method that takes advantage of the fact that many Asian businessmen keep large amounts of cash in their homes rather than in banks. In those attacks, gang members break into a prosperous target’s house, tie up the victim and beat him until he, or a family member, produces valuable items and money. Police in Montreal recorded 10 invasions last year alone.
A Vietnamese merchant in Toronto told Maclean ’s that an associate who owns a Chinatown supermarket lost $130,000 in a home invasion last year.
The man, who was pistol-whipped, did not report the incident or seek hospital treatment for head wounds for fear of retaliation. Said the merchant: “It is very scary. The gangs know who keeps money at home.”
Payoffs: The Vietnamese are not the first Oriental criminals to operate in Canada. In Vancouver in 1928, a special police commission of inquiry detailed payoffs by a Chinese gangster named Shue Moy, nicknamed King of the Gamblers, to the mayor and police chief, prompting the chief’s resignation. A 1962 feature in Maclean’s described an Oriental smuggling network that brought 11,000 illegal Chinese immigrants to Canada during the 1950s. And Asian crime again raised alarms in 1974 when Hong Kong crime figures established the first major Triad in Canada— Toronto’s Kung Lok.
That organization continues to be the largest Canadian Triad, with about 400 members. Vancouver’s Lotus Triad, the 14K gang in Toronto and an offshoot of the Kung Lok in Calgary account for perhaps another 300 criminals, according to the 1990 Organized Crime Committee Report compiled by the national Association of Chiefs of Police.
Many of those groups maintain active links with Hong Kong—the birthplace of the Triads as modem criminal syndicates. And the exodus of many of the British Crown colony’s residents, as its return to mainland Chinese rule in 1997 looms closer, continues to bring a steady trickle of additional gangsters to Canada among the majority of legitimate new arrivals (page 25).
But while the Triads are bound together by elaborate hierarchies and secret initiation rituals, the Vietnamese gangs that emerged in the early 1980s are loosely knit bands. Indeed, police sources describe many of the estimated
300 hard-core Vietnamese gangsters in Canada as flophouse dwellers who formed their associations in Southeast Asian refugee camps before arriving in North America. With the exception of Vancouver’s Viet Ching, the gangs are usually nameless, typically being identified only by the central figure in each one. Still, the gangs are winning new recruits among young Vietnamese-Canadian runaways, some as young as 14 years old, by initially providing them with food and shelter.
The gangs’ reach is continent-wide. Many members move frequently between Vietnamese underworlds in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New York, Boston and the Canadian centres. Their underground network provides refuge for fugitives wanted for serious crimes, as well as for assassins who are willing to commit murders in distant cities where they are unlikely to be recognized. Declared Toronto’s Det. Hovey: “It is nothing for a gang to do a jewelry-store robbery in Toronto on a Monday, drive to Montreal and do another the next day, and then be picked up in Calgary five days later on charges in an entirely separate incident.”
Executions: Still, police say that the gangs at the forefront of more sophisticated forms of organized crime are the shadowy networks of Dai Huen Jai. Initially founded by members of the Maoist Red Guard who moved to Hong Kong after carrying out mass executions and book burnings during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the group takes its name from the circle of army camps that surrounded the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (Can-
ton) during that upheaval. Police say that since 1987, hundreds of Big Circle Boys, most in their late 20s and 30s, have moved to Canada from Hong Kong and China.
In their most ambitious undertaking, the Dai Huen Jai have turned Canada into a transshipment destination for Asian heroin sold to buyers in the United States. Asian heroin now accounts for 80 per cent of the drug currently consumed by an estimated 750,000 U.S. addicts. The gangs ship processed opium from its source in the poppy fields of the so-called Golden Triangle where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet in Southeast Asia. They pay individual couriers to carry the drug by air through Thailand or Hong Kong to Vancouver and Toronto, where the heroin is normally delivered to a second smuggler for import into the United States. In one recent seizure, police at Vancouver International Airport arrested two female couriers as they left a flight from Hong Kong on Jan. 31. They had taped a total of 10 lb. of the narcotic to the insides of their thighs and the smalls of their backs.
Warlord: The traffic is highly profitable. A pound of heroin purchased for less than $900 in the Golden Triangle can be diluted and sold on the streets of Canada for $90,000. Last month, the RCMP, U.S. authorities and Toronto police arrested sev5 en people in a Dai Huen Jai ^ network, based in that city, g that had smuggled an estimated 1,200 lb. of heroin into North America between 1988 and 1990, earning a profit of $72 million. Police say that the 40-person ring spanned the Golden Triangle, where it was likely supplied by the Thai opium warlord Khun Sa, and New York City, where its agents sold refined heroin directly to final distributors. Meanwhile, investigators claim that the 120 lb. of heroin that the RCMP and customs seized last year in Canada amounted to only a fraction of the total that was shipped through the country.
Members of the Dai Huen Jai traffic in bodies, as well. According to Toronto police intelligence officer Kenneth Yates, one of Canada’s foremost experts on Asian crime, gang members provide forged documents and escorts to illegal immigrants from mainland China who want to move to Canada. For their services, they charge a fee of up to $20,000 per person. Indeed, last week an Ontario court sentenced a woman who masterminded an alien smuggling ring to a total of 2xh years in prison for slipping as many as 1,500 Chinese citizens into Canada between 1987 and 1990. Two of her co-conspirators pleaded guilty to similar charges and are awaiting sentencing. Police estimate that other rings continue to smuggle at least 50 illegal immigrants into
Canada each week, and many of the new arrivals are paying off their debt to the gangs by working in otherwise legitimate Chinatown businesses for as little as $2 per hour.
While members of the Dai Huen Jai are the most successful Asian criminals, Vietnamese gangsters are unquestionably the fiercest. Many of them exhibit little fear of police. In one incident last April, Toronto Const. Peter Yuen, a Chinese-Canadian, entered a gaming house in plain clothes and without a gun to monitor offtrack betting, while police backup units waited outside.
But the operation went awry after four hooded Vietnamese gang members armed with handguns burst into the room and ordered the 20 gamblers to hand over their cash and jewelry. At the same time, unknown to Yuen’s colleagues outside, the bandits discovered his police badge and ordered him to kneel down and place his hands behind his head.
Assault: Last week, Yuen soberly recounted the episode, describing how two of the gangsters beat him savagely for 15 minutes. He recalled: “I was kicked in the face until my shirt was soaked in blood.” Then, one of the robbers forced the barrel of a .45-calibre automatic into Yuen’s mouth, while another held a .357 magnum to his temple. Said Yuen: “They were shouting that I was a traitor for serving the white authorities and that I deserved to die.” Yuen heard a gun click and an assailant remark, “Goodbye, copper.”
But the assault abruptly ceased when another of the robbers noticed that the building was surrounded by police. Two of the suspects were arrested at the scene, but police ultimately chased one of Yuen’s attackers into a bush area where he hid by burying himself in mud and breathing through a piece of straw. Police found him after 30 minutes using tracking dogs.
Forensic tests on the pistol showed that the gangster had indeed pulled the trigger, but that the bullet in the chamber had not fired. Two of the robbers are serving sentences of up to 5V2 years, while Yuen’s two attackers are awaiting trial on charges of robbery, threatening death, assaulting an officer and use of a firearm in an indictable offence. Concluded Yuen, who was named Toronto’s Policeman of the Year earlier this month for his bravery during the attack: “I have no doubt that they would have done me in if they had not been interrupted.”
Since then, Yuen has received several death
threats and he now avoids all Asian establishments while he is not on duty. A similar fear of reprisals has made many other victims of the gangs afraid to report their crimes to police. Said one Chinese restaurant owner and recent robbery victim in Calgary, who requested anonymity: “Asian criminals are mainly immigrants who grew up accustomed to blood and violent death. They prefer places that cater to Chinese because those people are afraid to go to the police. The victims know police cannot
be there all the time—and they know the gangs can be there 24 hours a day. They can get you.”
That apprehension is one reason that police often find it difficult to solve serious crimes, such as gang shootings. Another problem for authorities is the expectation among many recent arrivals from Southeast Asia that Canadian police will be as corrupt as the forces in Hong Kong, Vietnam and China. But under the current reign of terror, some members of the Asian community are calling for more protection from police. Lawyer Sidney Poon, who established a practice in Toronto after emigrating from Hong Kong 20 years ago, noted that while that city’s police force has a dozen
Chinese-Canadian officers, there is only one who speaks Vietnamese. Said Poon: “The killings are outrageous. Violence is part of life here now, and many of my friends are frightened. Many of those arrested have Vietnamese names, and we need more Vietnamese-speaking officers.”
In partial response, Toronto police established foot patrols of Chinese officers in Chinatown, and are conducting recruitment presentations in the Vietnamese community in order to attract more applicants to the force. For their part, the Montreal and Calgary police forces last year created new plainclothes Asian-crime squads, and last week the Vancouver police force expanded its Asian-crime section from 11 to 20 officers.
But some Asian community leaders still downplay the extent of the gang problem, and accuse police of exaggerating the issue in order to fuel public opposition to immigration from Asian countries. Said Kenneth Cheung, president of the Chinese Professional Business People’s Association in Montreal: “I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a plot to justify a crackdown on immigration from the Pacific Rim.”
Exodus: Indeed, some officials point to ineffective screening procedures for new arrivals as one factor contributing to the Asian crime wave. But those officials deny that they favor reduced immigration from Asian countries. Instead, they say that they are only seeking better checks for forged passports and criminal records. They say that they are especially concerned about a potential exodus of high-ranking Triad members from Hong Kong as the 1997 deadline approaches. Said Michael King, a former Hong Kong police officer and a founder of Toronto’s Asian-crime squad, who is no longer with the force: “The crime bosses will hang on in g Hong Kong and make money until the £ very last second. But their plans to % come to Canada will already be well 5 laid.”
Meanwhile, detectives who investigated the shooting in Toronto’s A Dong restaurant remain stunned by its unprovoked violence. Among the most alarming elements of that incident, they say, is the evidence that Vietnamese gangs have armed school-age youngsters with automatic weapons. As well, experts assert that the growing pattern of shootings in public places is placing Canadians of all backgrounds at risk. For the innocent victims of the carnage at the A Dong, that was a prediction that had already come too late.
PAUL KAIHLA with DAN BURKE in Montreal, BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto,
JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and HAL QUINN in Vancouver