The Rise of the Green Dragons: Kidnappings, Murder and Gang Warfare
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because crime can come from anywhere.
Gun battles had been escalating at New York City’s Chinese pool halls and clubs throughout the fall of 1990, and the Green Dragons were gathering en masse to settle the score, once and for all. The goal? Teaching the White Tigers who really reigned supreme in Chinatown’s gangland. But FBI agents and NYPD officers — fed up with the deadly rivalry that had rendered Chinatown a war zone — were tipped off to the impending face-off.
The feds and city gang squad officers convinced the White Tigers that it was in their best interest to steer clear of the fight. So the Green Dragons met up instead with cops on November 19, 1990, at the corner of Ithaca and Whitney Avenues in Elmhurst, Queens, where 16 gang members were arrested on racketeering and murder charges.
I felt like a strong kid and powerful.
“The Green Dragons wanted to take over Queens,” says John Chu, a former member of the gang who was recruited out of high school at the tender age of 14. “We had beef in Chinatown with the White Tigers. If we went to Chinatown, they’d try to kill us.” But Chinatown’s insularity gave the Green Dragons — ranging in age from 16 to 23 — a veil of protection for criminal activities. In the mid-to-late 1980s they extorted money from dozens of restaurants, kidnapped rivals, committed murders and terrorized the community as they waged war with the ruling neighborhood gang.
“The White Tigers hung out in Flushing and Elmhurst, and so did the Green Dragons,” Chu explains. But his gang soon kicked the Tigers out, and most of the Korean gangs, like Korean Power and 24K, he says, would “run away from us.” When other gangs ventured into Elmhurst, they were shown the door — so much so that all of them tried making peace with the Dragons, Chu claims: “Some respected the Green Dragons, some didn’t. I felt like a strong kid and powerful.”
The foreign-born youngsters — most from Southeast Asia, China and Hong Kong — who became Green Dragons went from being alienated kids to feared gangsters. To them it was the epitome of the American Dream, complete with criminal celebrity, money, women, guns and cars — all of which was preferable to the low-paying jobs they watched their parents endure. But that dream became a nightmare for most when the federal penitentiary doors slammed shut. Wiped off the street by the feds, the gang is now nothing but a memory.
But while it lasted, the kids enjoyed the spoils. “We could leave our parents’ house and live in the group’s apartments,” Chu says. Each apartment — housing four or five young men — shared a car and made between $80 and $250 a week, with all their bills paid. “For a 14- or 15-year-old, that’s a lot of money. When you’re that age and you have a car and money, you feel important,” he explains.
But in return, Chu ended up spending more than a decade in federal prison, convicted of kidnapping; many fellow Green Dragons are still serving life sentences for murder. Those crimes included the Tien Chaiu Restaurant homicides of July 1989, when a gang leader ordered underlings to kill the manager of the Flushing restaurant for daring to question his demands for protection money — they took out a customer too — and the February 1990 murder of Jin Lee Soek, a Korean Power gang member who reportedly ran afoul of the Green Dragons.
In fact, everyone but the gang’s leader, Kin Fei Wong, then a 35-year-old Chinese heroin trafficker from the Fujian province of China (he was known at the time as Foochow Paul), ended up behind bars. Protecting Foochow Paul’s interests kept the Green Dragons in direct conflict with the White Tigers and the local Asian community, as they robbed gambling parlors, ran up bills at local restaurants they never paid and extorted money from business owners. Foochow Paul used the gang’s young immigrant Chinese and Southeast Asian teens — who barely spoke English — as his own personal army. “He used all of us,” says Chu, noting how they called him “dai lo,” Chinese for “big brother.” “When the case came down, he jetted to China. He didn’t give us anything. Not even a fucking lawyer.”
In recent years, the Green Dragons have enjoyed a resurgence in pop culture, along with the poorly received 2014 movie Revenge of the Green Dragons. Meanwhile, imprisoned members convicted as juveniles, like Alex Wong, are hoping to soon return to society. Wong appealed to the courts to lower his life sentence for his double-murder conviction as a juvenile, reportedly telling the court, “I remember the blood, the screams. I was an animal. The Green Dragons were animals.” The remorseful killer was re-sentenced to 35 years and will be eligible for parole in four years. His co-defendant, Roger Kwok, was also re-sentenced to 35 years for an execution-style murder, after the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juveniles can’t be sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole.
In looking back, Chu says, it wasn’t worth it. “We were smart guys who just got caught up at a young age. We could have done something with our lives.”