Why you should care

Because judging a book by its cover could cost you dearly.

The author is serving a 20-year federal prison term for drug and money laundering charges.

At 17, 18, there was nothing anyone could tell me. I was angry at the world; I was going to do what I was going to do and that was it. My mother died when I was a kid, my father had left when I was 3. The people who raised me were from a different world. This was about the struggle of not having parents, of having to prove yourself on a daily basis, to learn a new culture. In Chinatown, the local gang took me in, took care of me. It was shortly after my mother died. I helped out a Chinese gangster who got in a jam, and I was in. I was their brother, their son.

Boston had a very violent Chinatown. There were a lot of murders, a lot of stabbings, a lot of gunfights. You had to be aware of your surroundings, because if you weren’t, you’d end up dead. Me? I’m living in a house with seven, maybe eight other guys. They’re in the same situation as me: They don’t have a home. We hang out in Chinatown and share a narrow focus: our people, our brothers and, ultimately, our boss.

I think he liked me because I was white, and I was big. He felt it was a novelty to have a white guy who who hadn’t grown up in Chinatown but could speak broken Chinese. My story is different from others in Boston — not saying that I’m better or worse, it’s just the way that I lived let me assimilate into a culture where they didn’t accept outsiders. When I was young, you didn’t go to Chinatown, you didn’t belong there if you weren’t Chinese.

And to be there meant figuring out how to be there. Today, you get in a fight, you tell a guy, “I’m gonna get you.” If you said that 20 years ago, you were dead. Somebody came to kill you, nobody gave you the chance to get them. People think it’s fun and games, but survival is what we did every day. Maybe there was extortion. Maybe it was, you know, robberies. Maybe it was gambling houses, watching the streets for rivals or cops, watching the gambling places.

We had radios just like the police. We had different protocols. You worked from a certain time to a certain time, and then other guys would show up, and it was almost like punching a clock. This is your job today: You stay in the parking lot, park the cars. If you have a problem with the guys from New York, you’re watching for New York plates.

The FBI agent asks, “John, how’ve you been?” as he and 40 guys in body armor carrying machine guns are knocking down my door.

I was in the Ping On. Stephen “Sky Dragon” Tse, a 14K Triad member, ran it from Kung Fu restaurant on Tyler Street. They called me Bac Guai, which translates to “White Devil.”

When I was 22, I started selling drugs independent of the gang. The money was really good, and I was buying houses, cars and boats. The money influenced my decision to step away from the gang, but I never sold drugs in Chinatown, never did it around any of my people. My boss always told me, “Don’t sell drugs.” He said the problem that comes with selling drugs is a problem you don’t want to face. But sometimes you get blinded by money, and that’s when you go different ways.

The truth of the matter is, in 2006 or 2007, the FBI tried to get me for guns. The guns came to me and I didn’t want them, but still my name came up. Here I am, I’m American, I’m involved in this Chinese gang culture that no other races are involved in. They’ve been trying to get people to fess up and rat out gangsters for years, but nobody wants to talk. There are unsolved murders, other crimes. Nobody wants to talk.

So they come to me. I’m 42 years old and I’ve been in Boston for years. People getting arrested, people going down. But they never arrest me. Now, all off a sudden, people are talking about John does this, John has this, John did this, John did that.

The agent comes to me: “Help us, John.” I tell him, “No.” He says, “If you don’t help us, we’re going to get you.” I say, “Well, do what you gotta do.” They feel that’s a slap in the face. Now this FBI guy has a personal vendetta against me. He comes to my house and says, “John, how’ve you been?” as he and 40 guys in body armor carrying machine guns are knocking down my door.

It is what it is. Every day people make mistakes. Some mistakes are more costly than others, you know what I mean? Your property, your cars, whatever’s in other peoples’ names, they can take them. With the amounts of money they seize from people, there should be no budget deficit, no nothing. I got a seizure order yesterday. They’re still seizing things. They’re relentless. This is the way it is.

But I’m always going to be who I’m going to be. I’m always going to have the same goals: to take care of my family and my daughter. That’s the way it is.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.