In the Shadow of the Dragon

There are ghosts in Chinatown. Walk down Beach Street and you'll see them. Along the walls of the worn row houses and above the bustling shops and restaurants are the faded plaster markings of the houses, shops, and restaurants that were here before. Rooflines remain, defined in weathered brick that shifts from deep red to charcoal black. Near the end of Beach Street is Ping On Alley, where immigrant Chinese workers first settled in the 1870s. And there are more ghosts where the street ends, beyond the Chinatown Gate, where huge commuter highways ripped through the neighborhood in the late 1950s, wiping out businesses and uprooting families from their homes.

If ghosts can be thought of as unfinished stories, the darkest one here is the mystery of what happened on January 12, 1991. One of the bloodiest nights in this city's long history, it still haunts a neighborhood that desperately wants to look forward, not back. Five men were executed that night, shot in the head at close range in a basement gambling parlor on Tyler Street. It took an international investigation and more than a decade, but two of the three suspects in the shootings were eventually tracked down in China and sent back to Boston after years-long diplomatic maneuvering. No trial date has been set yet.

For most Bostonians, the trial will reveal for the first time a brutal but largely unseen gang war that raged right in their midst. But for the 5,000 residents of Chinatown, squeezed into 46 acres between downtown skyscrapers, two highways, and a sprawling medical complex, and for the thousands of Boston-area Asians who maintain close ties with this neighborhood, the arrests have only served to rip away the gauze from the scars of that night. Many of the residents and merchants here came to escape violence and oppression in their homelands of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere, which is why it's so important to them that Chinatown be thought of as a vibrant neighborhood, a safe place to raise a family, not a place where gangs still rule the streets.

The two captured men (the third suspect remains at large) have pleaded innocent, setting up a trial that will relive a night many people in Chinatown still refuse to even talk about, worried it will resurrect the stigma they've worked so hard to erase. The motive behind the slayings has remained a mystery over the years, the subject of rumors and whispers. Prosecutors have offered no theories, and police have said only that the shooting was gang-related, and the suspects, “cold-blooded killers.” Twelve years later, with a trial pending, investigators still refuse to discuss the case. But court documents and interviews with longtime Chinatown residents, federal authorities, and government officials from Boston to Hong Kong shed at least some light on what may have ignited the Tyler Street massacre.

It's said that the only way to exorcise a ghost is to confront it, to stare it down. The people of Chinatown still feel the ghosts left behind in that Tyler Street basement. This trial could finally help them put those ghosts to rest.

The story begins on a section of Tyler Street casual visitors rarely see. It's far from the double-parked trucks and sidewalk vendors hawking clothes and vegetables, away from the pay phones topped by green and yellow pagodas, beyond the late-night restaurants with the brash neon marquees shouting “Dim Sum, Cocktails.”

Across Kneeland Street, at the end of a short stretch of brick buildings, is a door that once led to a basement social club where men would gather late into the night to play mahjong, a game in which bets are placed on matching tiles.

The basement door was red back in 1991. Today, the entranceway and iron grill that swings in front are metallic green. A yellow sign reads: “Jeannie Beauty & Hair Inc.” Inside, Jeannie, a Malaysian woman, offers facials and foot reflexology. She rents out the front of the basement, where the mahjong tables once stood, to a barber who cuts hair for $8 a head. In one of the backrooms, she keeps cots piled with towels and a glass case filled with lotions. Jeannie has lived in Boston for less than a year, but she knows something terrible once happened here because the old man who took care of her young son while she moved from New York told her about it.

Jeannie says she's comforted by the belief that the spirits of those who died could become “like good brothers” to her, even help her business. In her homeland, people celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. Plates of rice, fruit, and cakes are prepared to feed the “hungry ghosts” who, legend has it, then visit the living for a time. Joss sticks and paper money are burned to soothe the spirits of dead ancestors.

Friday, January 11, 1991, was a frigid, cloudy day. At dusk, the wind picked up and snow began to blanket the city. Above the red door of the mahjong parlor, a security camera stared out into the snow as Friday night turned into Saturday. There were seven men in the club: Van Tran, Chung Wah Son, Man Cheung, David Quang Lam, Cuong Khanh Luu, Pak Wing Lee, and the club manager, known as “Wrinkled Skin Man.” Most of them spent the night smoking and gambling, while one of the older men acted as doorman and served tea.

A woman who lived a few doors from the gambling parlor back then remembers returning home from a nightclub around 2:30 a.m. “It was so snowy,” she says. “I was even thinking, you know, how quiet it was.”

The quiet would be broken 90 minutes later. A man named Siny Van Tran, also known as “Toothless Wah,” was buzzed in by the doorman. He left after a few minutes, and police say he returned shortly with two other men, Nam The Tham, 44 — a.k.a. “Johnny Chung” — and Hung Tien Pham, 42, a.k.a. “Hung Suk.” According to police, the three men burst in, shouted, “Robbery!,” and ordered everyone to the floor.

Within minutes, six of the seven men in the gambling club had been shot in the head, one by one, even while some apparently begged for their lives. One, Pak Wing Lee, miraculously survived, and, moments after regaining consciousness and seeing that the gunmen had fled, dragged himself to a back door that led to a parking lot. His cries were heard by neighbors who called police. An ambulance arrived and sped Lee off to a hospital.

The manager, Wrinkled Skin Man, was nowhere in sight when police, including then-Superintendent Paul Evans, arrived. Wrinkled Skin Man would eventually identify the suspects, telling investigators he had run away after the gunmen ran out of bullets. Police discovered two guns left behind in the club, although ballistics analysis determined three had been used. At least 12 shots were fired. “One of the most violent crimes that I've seen in my 30 years with the department,” Evans, who is now police commissioner, would later call it.

From his hospital bed two days after the shooting, Lee identified police photographs of the three suspects, all of whom turned out to have been known to both him and the club manager before the shooting. In his official statement, the detective who interviewed Lee reports that “after viewing more photos, Mr. Lee came to the picture #342574 and stated Hung Sook [sic]. I asked if that was the Hung Sook that shot him, and he replied: 'Yes.'”

The Tyler Street club was one of about a dozen illegal gambling parlors operating in Chinatown in the early 1990s. Police generally left them alone as long as they were peaceful, and for most in the community, gambling was simply part of life there. Paper schedules of games were posted on lampposts, and residents remember summer nights when they could hear clicking tiles through open windows on almost every block, and men calling out, “mahjong!” when they had a winning hand.

Those were the friendly games with low stakes. Some parlors hosted games in which winnings and losses reached $100,000. “Homes and businesses were put on the line,” says one man who has worked in Chinatown for more than 30 years, “and the future of families got decided.”

Gambling was big business. And the business of gambling in Chinatown — safeguarding the mahjong parlors, skimming from the profits, making high-interest loans to the players, collecting the debts — was the business of organized crime. “It's their lifeblood,” one federal agent told the Boston Globe at the time.

For much of the 1980s, Asian organized crime in Boston was controlled by one man — Stephen Tse, known as “Sky Dragon.” In his native Hong Kong he had been a member of a criminal organization called the 14K Triad, one of several groups that traced their origins back to the 17th century when a group of monks pledged to overthrow China's Ching Dynasty after the emperor massacred all but a few members of their order. In 1911 the Ching Dynasty was overthrown, but centuries of operating as underground enemies of the state had transformed the triads. Profit and greed replaced politics and revolution as their guiding passions. Modern triad members swore 36 oaths of allegiance, most of which promised death to the disloyal from “five thunderbolts” or “a myriad of swords.” New triad members were initiated by drinking the blood of a beheaded chicken mixed in a bowl with their own blood.

When Tse came to Boston in the mid 1970s, he recruited young Chinese immigrants into his branch of the 14K Triad, which was known as the Ping On gang. He also became the manager of the Kung Fu restaurant on Tyler Street, which doubled as his gangster hangout. By the early 1980s, the Ping On had taken control of gambling in Chinatown. It had also taken over other Chinatown rackets such as prostitution, loan sharking, extortion, and drugs.

Tse was the unquestioned “Dai Lo,” or big brother, of the gang. Though he lived outside Boston, in Braintree, he ruled Chinatown's criminal element. Businesses paid protection money to his gang, and immigrant families sometimes lost their livelihoods with one roll of the dice. But for several years, the streets remained largely free of violence. “When Stephen Tse was here, he was not called the Sky Dragon for nothing,” says Bill Moy, co-moderator of the Chinatown Neighborhood Council. “He kept things under control.”

That control slipped in the fall of 1984 when Tse was jailed for refusing to testify before a presidential commission on Asian organized crime. At the same time, the Ping On was facing new rivals from emerging Vietnamese gangs.

The communist takeover of Vietnam and continued war in Southeast Asia had brought thousands of Vietnamese to America's coastal cities. From 1980 to 1990, Boston's Asian population nearly doubled, and the Asian population of the Dorchester neighborhood where many Vietnamese settled increased from 452 to more than 3,600. The vast majority of the new immigrants wanted to start new lives in peace. A small fraction of Vietnamese youth, however, turned to gangs for protection and a sense of belonging. Some joined the Chinese gangs; others formed their own.

Boston police, with almost no Asians on the force at the time, were caught off-guard by the sudden upsurge in gang activity after years of allowing Chinatown to operate — as one source puts it — “as a sovereign village.” One resident recalls: “You'd just come home, close your gate and make sure it's locked, and be like a prisoner in your own home.”

When Tse returned to Boston in February 1986 after 16 months in jail, he found that his Ping On gang was no longer alone in Chinatown — and soon the neighborhood's worst nightmare was realized: gang warfare.

Several gangsters in particular were prominent in Boston's Chinatown after Tse's imprisonment, says Bill Chase, acting special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston.

Paramount among them is Hung Tien Pham, an ethnic Chinese, a Vietnamese national, and the lone suspect in the Tyler Street shootings who remains at large. By the late 1980s, he had become a rising star in the Asian criminal underworld, according to former Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Hanson-Philbrick, who prosecuted organized crime figures in Boston.

Hung Tien Pham apparently stayed loyal to Stephen Tse throughout the decade, but also flexed his own muscle to the point where he had 200 men at his disposal and essentially ruled lower Washington Street on Chinatown's western edge. He was a big spender who liked flashy cars and expensive cognac. By the late 1980s, he controlled at least two gambling parlors, was active in prostitution, and paid Tse “for the privilege of running an offshoot drug business,” Hanson-Philbrick says.

The two suspects who are in custody in the gambling parlor killings both stand about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, a few inches shorter than Hung Tien Pham. And, according to police, they fell below his stature in the criminal underworld as well.

Nam The Tham was born in North Vietnam in 1958 and grew up in a family of four boys. Nam The Tham's father was a prominent Vietnamese lawyer until his arrest in 1978, after which he was never seen again. Sent to school in China, Nam The Tham returned to Vietnam before leaving for China and Hong Kong and eventually coming to the United States through San Francisco in 1981.

Codefendant Siny Van Tran also was born in Vietnam. He had worked as both a sailor and a cook.

Most important, according to Hanson-Philbrick, is that all three suspects had worked for Stephen Tse at one time or another, and by the time of the Tyler Street murders, federal authorities had gathered evidence of their involvement in the Ping On's gambling operations.

There is no report that anything was stolen from the Tyler Street club, and police have downplayed robbery as a motive. So if not robbery, what did lead to the killings? Witnesses told Boston police that on the night of the killings they saw the three suspects in the Naked i strip club on Washington Street. These witnesses described a confrontation between the three men and another man, David Quang Lam — a.k.a. “Big Mouth Hao.” A few hours later, Lam was dead, one of the five men killed in the mahjong parlor, shot twice in the head, once in the chest.

The two men in custody both deny having had any confrontation with David Quang Lam. In their interviews with Boston police after being extradited from Hong Kong, Nam The Tham and Siny Van Tran both confirmed that they were drinking at the Naked i that night. But Nam The Tham claims he was drinking alone, explaining through an interpreter: “I was just having a lonely drink.” As for the confrontation witnesses described in the strip club, Siny Van Tran says he and David Quang Lam were talking, not arguing, and that at some point, Hung Tien Pham joined them for a drink and then left.

Putting aside the possibility that a disagreement at the club ignited the shooting, there's another Tyler Street victim who had ties to Hung Tien Pham. The story behind Cuong Khanh Luu, who, according to the FBI, was a member of a California gang, opens up possible motives that go far beyond a simple argument.

Two years before the Tyler Street shootings, in December 1988, Stephen Tse learned that a gangster from California known as Dai Keung, was in Boston demanding money from one of Tse's Ping On underlings. But Keung might have had bigger reasons than an unpaid debt for being here, reasons that may ultimately have sparked the Tyler Street shootings. In an unrelated trial last year in California, an FBI agent testified that Keung had been a member of a gang in San Francisco that prosecutors say conspired to bring Asian organized crime across the country under one Asian mafia called the “Whole Earth Society.” If successful, it would have put Tse out of business.

As for his dealings with Tse's indebted underling, Dai Keung wanted $30,000 he had apparently paid for phony immigration green cards that had never been delivered. Tse negotiated with Dai Keung to cut the debt in half, but when Tse learned that Dai Keung expected the payment to be made in Tse's own Kung Fu restaurant, he erupted.

“Have I died?” Tse screamed, according to an affidavit filed in court by an FBI informant who was at the Kung Fu when Tse learned of the affront. “Am I no longer here?”

Tse ordered his henchmen to find Dai Keung and his associates and, according to an FBI affidavit based on wiretaps, shoot them “in the balls and in the head.” Tse then told one of his lieutenants to call Hung Tien Pham and tell him, in a reference to automatic weapons, to “bring out the heavy metal.”

On December 29, 1988, the henchmen spotted Keung and his companions across a busy parking lot on Tyler Street sometime after 11 p.m. A parking attendant dove to the ground as glass shattered and cars and buildings were riddled with bullets. Incredibly, no one died.

The wired FBI informant was one of Tse's henchmen. The next day, he and another of Tse's men recounted the shootout.

“Bang, bang, bang! It was just like a guerrilla battle, you motherfucker!” one henchman shouted.

“Did Hung [Tien Pham] take out a heavy one?” asked the informant.

“Uzi,” came the reply.

That was not the end of it. Tse left for Hong Kong a couple of weeks later, in January 1989, and for months afterward FBI wiretaps intercepted conversations among his lieutenants indicating that Dai Keung had gone to New York, where he was gathering gang members to return to Boston and assassinate the leaders of Ping On. Another topic of conversation was when Sky Dragon, or Tse, would be returning to the United States. FBI intelligence indicates he did so at least twice, coming to Boston in May 1989 and again into the country in October 1990, entering through Canada with none other than Hung Tien Pham.

The timing of Tse's second visit is particularly interesting given that the Tyler Street killings happened barely three months later. According to prosecutors, the first man executed in the Tyler Street parlor was named Cuong Khanh Luu. His alias, says an FBI agent: Dai Keung.

In his statements to Boston police, given in December 2001 and now filed in court, Nam The Tham claimed that on that January night in 1991, Hung Tien Pham told him to drive to the Tyler Street parlor, gave him a gun, and ordered him to “kill, kill, kill that [Wrinkled Skin Man].” Tham, however, said he pointed the gun at the club manager and told him to “get out of here,” while Siny Van Tran and Hung Tien Pham shot the other six men.

“It was very cruel. I saw them shoot,” Tham told police. “I couldn't even stand steady.”

Tham told detectives that Hung Tien Pham later said the targets had been both Wrinkled Skin Man and Dai Keung.

Siny Van Tran also told police he was present at the parlor when the shooting started, but claimed he had no gun and killed no one, and that he was standing and chatting when the shooting started. He explained his brief entrance to and quick departure from the Tyler Street basement as a failed errand to buy cocaine, not a move to tell the other two men that he had found their target.

On the morning of January 12, 1991, police strung yellow crime-scene tape over sawhorses in the snow, and neighbors watched as body bags were carried out from the basement gambling club. The suspects were already heading south. Once authorities established their identities, they notified Interpol, the international police organization, which later issued a “Red Notice” for officials worldwide to be on the lookout for the three wanted men. The suspects were even featured on America's Most Wanted in the spring of 1991.

Wherever they went, it wasn't until 1998 that Siny Van Tran and Nam The Tham resurfaced — in China, where authorities arrested Siny Van Tran on what would later be termed “drug charges” and Nam The Tham for undisclosed alleged crimes. The two were held in prison in China for two years while authorities negotiated their extradition. The Chinese were reportedly reluctant to return the pair until U.S. authorities tracked down and extradited Chinese fugitives in the United States. In April 2001 American immigration officials arrested a fugitive wanted in China for millions of dollars' worth of fraud — punishable by death in China — and deported him. Six months later, Siny Van Tran and Nam The Tham were sent from China to Hong Kong — which, unlike China, retains an extradition treaty with the United States — and, finally, back to Boston.

Once in custody, the two men told police similar, though not identical, stories about where they traveled after the shooting. Both say they first went to Atlantic City, where they gambled, and then to Philadelphia before heading to Hong Kong. But Siny Van Tran claims he traveled alone, by bus, while Nam The Tham says all three drove together and also stopped in New York.

The Chinatown the two men fled had changed dramatically in the intervening decade. The crime figures who haunted Boston's Chinatown in the 1980s and early 1990s had been killed, imprisoned, or relocated. Tse and several Ping On lieutenants were convicted of federal racketeering charges in the mid '90s; he is now in the federal prison in Ray Brook, New York, scheduled for release in 2007. And the most feared Vietnamese gangster operating in Boston was put away for two murders, extortion, and heroin dealing.

“This really is a law-enforcement success story,” says FBI special agent Chase. “At the end, nobody was left standing.”

The streets of Chinatown are inarguably safer today than in the days of the gambling parlor massacre. Between 1988 and 1992, there were 24 homicides and 155 weapons charges in the district that includes Chinatown, Beacon Hill, and the North End. From 1998 to 2002, the numbers dropped to 13 murders and 72 weapons charges.

The Chinatown Safety Committee now meets every month with Boston police, but the discussions these days usually stay at the level of petty drug deals, purse snatches, and traffic problems. Residents, activists, and business owners have joined forces to clean up litter, revamp the neighborhood's parks, and fight the high-rise developments that threaten to squeeze out the community's working-class, immigrant character.

It could even be said that Chinatown has taken strides toward the vision of “Great Harmony” inscribed below the statue of Confucius that looks out across Tyler Street at the former gambling den: “Crimes all disappeared,” the plaque reads. “Gates and doors were not locked. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.”