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Asian gangs and organized crime in San Francisco

Joe, K. (1994, November). The new criminal conspiracy? Asian gangs and organized crime in San Francisco. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 31, pp. 390-415.



Although there is limited research available on Asian gangs, public policy seems to have already adopted a belief that Asian gangs—Chinese in particular—are of a different and more threatening breed than other ethnic gangs. It is believed that Asian gangs are tightly associated with the "Chinese mafia." This study provides data that sheds a different light.

Past studies report that there seems to be variability in the correlation of the social organization of gangs and drugs and violence. Some have a very organized drug business; other gangs do not.

A review of the theoretical frameworks for understanding gangs and drug sales shows this relationship occurs along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum, individuals only, who also happen to be in a gang, are selling or distributing drugs. In the middle of the spectrum are "organized gangs" that have a distinct leadership and members with specific roles significantly involved in drug sales. At the other end of the spectrum are entrepreneurial gangs with a business structure run under strict professional codes and operational policies. This type of organization may also include nongang members. It is also suggested that this continuum may be expanded to include a "mafia" or "conspiracy" level of activity. The group is described as "in the business of organized crime…that rationally operates to make a profit through criminal activities, cohesiveness, hierarchical control, reliance on the use or threat of violence and involvement in legal and illegal enterprises."

Popular belief among officials and journalists is that Chinese gangs are tightly associated with such organized crime or the "Chinese mafia." It is believed that "the gang’s role in this criminal enterprise is to provide protection for and assistance to two adult organized crime groups—the tongs and the triads:

  • Tong—translates to "meeting place". Tongs originated in the U.S. during the mid-1800s by Chinese immigrants desiring a network of support, assistance, and protection for other newcomers; they also came to dominate the vice rackets in Chinatown. Today, tongs provide a legitimate social and political network for Chinese; however, it is believed that some are involved in criminal activities.
  • Triad—a secret society. Underground political societies, such as the triad, formed in late 1600s in China. Some immersed in gambling, prostitution, and opium operations. They migrated into Hong Kong and Taiwan, where officials believe they engage in organized crime in Asia and internationally.
  • Ah kung—translates to "uncle." The au kung is a member of an adult-organized crime group; he serves as an intermediary between top gang leaders and the adult organization.

An ethnographic study of gangs in San Francisco was conducted by face-to-face interviews with sixty-four active Asian male gang members and nine retired gang veterans. The data revealed that these Asian gangs are not that interconnected with tongs and triads, nor are they heavily tied into heroin trafficking, as officials have reported in the past. Actually, the majority of the gang members know little about tongs or triads, and of the thirty-two who have sold drugs, they did so individually, not in a group effort with other gang members. Furthermore, only one individual sold heroin.

Joe suggests that the reasons for the absence of a formal organizational structure in San Francisco Asian gangs include low demand for China White heroin, high risk of police detection, cultural and familial disapproval of the drug culture, and possible residual fragmentation of power since the Golden Dragon Massacre. Furthermore, Joe maintains that the young Asians in San Francisco face the same difficulties as in other ethnic communities, namely, limited employment opportunities, few role models, working-class backgrounds, and sub-level educational status. So, though they may be gang members, they are really looking to survive on an individual level.


  1. Why is there so little research on Asian American gangs?
  2. What are the similarities and differences in the culture, values, family life, and immigration experiences of Asian youth compared to other ethnic youth?
  3. Who can respond to needs of Asian youth? What is the need for specialized focus?


  1. Contrary to popular belief, the Asian gangs in San Francisco are similar to other ethnic gangs. They are not as directly involved with organized crime and drug sales as believed. Therefore, Asian gangs are also not beyond mainstream gang research and policy.
  2. Few studies have been done on Asian gangs. This lack of information leaves this group of young people with needs unmet. More attention to prevention and intervention in the Asian communities is needed.
Hannah Goon cCYS