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April 18, 2010 12:50 PM   Subscribe

The Rise and Fall of Frank Ma, Last of New York's Asian Godfathers: How a Chinese immigrant became a crime lord, ordered a hit that left the wrong men dead, sparked a 16-year international investigation and finally landed in prison for the rest of his life.
posted by zarq (43 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating story, thanks for the link!
posted by vito90 at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2010


It's amazing how much the city has changed over the past 17 years since I worked in the Homicide Investigation Unit at the NYC DA's office. The Asian gang unit had just been formed, and their offices were right next door to ours. I recall one time I had lunch with one of the detectives; the DA's office is on Center St. right on the western border of Chinatown, so we went to one of his favorite Chinese restaurants. Along the way he was pointing out the different territories like a walking tour, "well, over there is Flying Dragons territory, this next block is Tung On…"

Anyway I guess I had this skeptical look in my face as I just couldn't believe that you could have these gangs operating literally in the shadow of the NYDA's building—I think I said something to that effect—so he takes me down this one street and says, "Tell me what you see."

I look. I don't see anything special. "Apartment buildings? Chinese people? Some barber shops? What is it I'm supposed to see?"

"How many barber shops?"

"Um, let's see, one… two… ah… looks like about… I don't know, maybe ten?"

Ten barber shops. On one block.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:31 PM on April 18, 2010 [31 favorites]


Last of New York's Asian Godfathers

"Now who's being naive, Marge?"
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:44 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have to agree with Hizzoner Da Mare. Whenever I read a "Last of the [insert non-WASP ethnicity here] Gangsters...' story (and there have been loads of them over the years), I always want to say 'So, all the illegal gambling, drugs, loansharking, prostitution, etc has magically vanished?'
posted by jonmc at 4:03 PM on April 18, 2010


Also wanted to add, the DANY HIU shield patch was, without any shadow of a doubt, the single most bad-ass law-enforcement patch ever. I don't know if they changed it (I assume they did), but the Twin Towers in the background and that grim reaper just make everything so… awesome. Like how New York used to be.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:07 PM on April 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


@ Civil_Dis -- that is awesome. Does anyone remember the Bomb Squad patch that had an arab guy riding a bomb over the city? The towers were in that one also...
posted by lslelel at 4:27 PM on April 18, 2010


It was about 15 years ago, I was in my favorite Chinese restaurant on Mott Street, and two young guys come in and take a big table for eight. They gruffly order just about everything on the menu, filling the table -- the wait staff is acting kind of tense. The two had a couple of bites from a few dishes, then got up and left without paying. They were each wearing a gold "dragon's tooth" on their neck chains.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:27 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ten barber shops. On one block.

o.O I was meaning to get cheap haircut in Chinatown sometime...
posted by polymodus at 4:32 PM on April 18, 2010


Ten barber shops. On one block.

OK, odd, but what does it mean?
posted by zippy at 4:43 PM on April 18, 2010


Not involved in law enforcement, but at a guess, it means that the barbershops aren't real businesses, but fronts for laundering the proceeds of crime.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:55 PM on April 18, 2010


Since no one could possibly need ten barber shops on one block, it means they're fronts.
posted by The Whelk at 4:56 PM on April 18, 2010


Since no one could possibly need ten barber shops on one block, it means they're fronts.

Wait, so what about all the RAM I have above 640K? Is it dealing heroin?!
posted by DU at 5:12 PM on April 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Since no one could possibly need ten barber shops on one block, it means they're fronts.

Does this explain Starbucks as well?
posted by zippy at 5:20 PM on April 18, 2010 [12 favorites]


OK, odd, but what does it mean?

What Grimgrin & the Whelk said.

I think I still have a map of the Manhattan territories for each of the "Big 5"—actually there were six but one was a racially mixed gang called Born to Kill (B.T.K) They were particularly ruthless; most of the Chinese gangs were more interested in protection rackets, smuggling and prostitution and used murder as a last resort, but the "new kids"—the fresh immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia, they were brutal. Possibly even more-so than the Jamaican gangs… and those dudes were nuts.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:44 PM on April 18, 2010


I thought the Vietnamese gangs started pushing the tongs out in the mid-1990s. I don't live there anymore, but I also thought that the Cambodians and other SE-Asian organizations started pushing the Vietnamese out later on. From what I heard, it turned into a contest of who could be the most ruthless. The Vietnamese gangs refused to play ball with the entrenched Chinese bunch, and a meeting of bosses got shot up by some Vietnamese street toughs.

I'm not sorry to see any of them go. A few friends of mine got shot as innocent bystanders when a gangster with more bullets than aim filled a pool hall with holes.
posted by 1adam12 at 5:49 PM on April 18, 2010


Thinking about this again I'm hard pressed to come up with a better front for small scale money laundering than a barbershop. The one I go to is pretty much cash only, and that's common for smaller ones, so there's no record of who buys the service, there's little to no consumable inventory so you can't check what they're claiming to have sold vs. what they've ordered from suppliers, short of sitting outside and counting everyone who goes in it'd be very hard to prove where the money came from.

Huh. Learn something new every day I guess.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:03 PM on April 18, 2010


Thinking about this again I'm hard pressed to come up with a better front for small scale money laundering than a barbershop. The one I go to is pretty much cash only, and that's common for smaller ones, so there's no record of who buys the service, there's little to no consumable inventory so you can't check what they're claiming to have sold vs. what they've ordered from suppliers, short of sitting outside and counting everyone who goes in it'd be very hard to prove where the money came from.

Internet cafe is even better. You can set up massive downloads in the back room to simulate usage and while with a barbershop every customer gets no more than one haircut per visit, with an internet connection everybody uses it differently so you can't even count heads.
posted by DU at 6:26 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, so what about all the RAM I have above 640K? Is it dealing heroin?!

Yo DU, that reminds me, I wanted to talk to your RAM about something...
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:46 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm waiting for my RAM.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:51 PM on April 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


24 gigs in my haaand.
posted by The Whelk at 6:58 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


All around the world today, a kilobyte is a measure...
posted by synaesthetichaze at 7:03 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


For a front business, if you need to launder a lot of cash, I'd think a bar or strip club would be better than a barbershop. No one would bat an eye to a strip club or higher end bar taking in $100k plus per month, especially if it's on one of the coasts.

For smaller scale stuff, I'd say a laundromat is the way to go. You just have to hire someone to clean out the coin banks once or twice a week and then fudge the books. No need to hire full time workers like with a barbershop.
posted by reenum at 7:17 PM on April 18, 2010


For a front business, if you need to launder a lot of cash, I'd think a bar or strip club would be better than a barbershop

How about a place that sells rice pudding?
posted by eddydamascene at 7:26 PM on April 18, 2010


The problem with a bar or laundromat is they both have physical inputs whose consumption should vary with the top line: orders of wholesale liquor, or the water bill. That's not to say that people don't launder money through businesses of those sorts - they certainly do. But there are unique advantages to laundering money through a service that people customarily pay cash for.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:41 PM on April 18, 2010


Mr. Kwan’s lunch — a hamburger and orange juice — still rested on his desk.

The poor bastard. There's nothing worse than dying hungry.
posted by invitapriore at 7:57 PM on April 18, 2010


The gangsters around here use video rental stores. Just set up some software to automatically fudge the books on how many rentals and returns were made that day. It probably costs a lot less to buy a bunch of DVDs than a liquor license.

I guess one of the benefits of barber shops is that you can employ friends and family of a wide range of ages and they would all have a place to hang out, too. Kith and kin are traditionally important to us Chinese.
posted by porpoise at 8:06 PM on April 18, 2010


fascinating read, thank you.

the last of the crimelords I don't buy. the key seems to be to blend in.
posted by krautland at 9:25 PM on April 18, 2010


And of course, in mainland China, there are barbershops and then there are full-service barbershops. I haven't ever heard of that being the case in the States, though - the Chinatown gangs mostly seem to run their prostitution operations through "massage parlors."
posted by bokane at 10:14 PM on April 18, 2010


>For smaller scale stuff, I'd say a laundromat is the way to go. You just have to hire someone to clean out the coin banks once or twice a week and then fudge the books.

Seems kind of fitting to use a laundromat to launder money.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:20 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since no one could possibly need ten barber shops on one block, it means they're fronts.

Speaking of mainland China, in Beijing there is a Guitar Street, which is a couple of dozen musical-instrument stores, side by side. There is a modern mall with a dozen shoe stores - not mixed in with other businesses - just shoe stores. This is a pattern; go to different areas of the city, and you're likely to find groups of directly-competing stores clumped together. Outdoor-gear stores. Antiques. Calligraphy supplies.

I'm not saying that none of those barber shops were fronts for criminal business, but having them all together like that does not necessarily mean they were.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:50 AM on April 19, 2010


Here's a map of the various territories of the Asian gangs operating in NYC circa 1992.

Puts things into geographical perspective.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:55 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying that none of those barber shops were fronts for criminal business, but having them all together like that does not necessarily mean they were.

I'm sorry, Kirth, but you are wrong. It is precisely what it meant, at least for NYC. I will grant you that this may very-well not be the case for other areas, nor for other businesses even inside the city (take, for instance, the various "districts"—meat packing, garment, diamond, etc.)

But barber shops do not ship goods. They do not deal in bulk. It is as pure a business transaction as you can get: one-on-one, in person, in cash.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:58 AM on April 19, 2010


I'm sorry, Kirth, but you are wrong. It is precisely what it meant, at least for NYC.

It does not by itself mean that. To say that there are ten barbershops (or restaurants, or guitar stores, or whatever) on a street is falling far short of proving that they are criminal fronts, even in NYC.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:24 AM on April 19, 2010


It does not by itself mean that. [...] falling far short of proving that they are criminal fronts

And I never said that the sheer presence, by itself, was proof. If it were, don't you think they would have been shut down by the very detective I was having lunch with?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:31 AM on April 19, 2010


watching having lunch with the detectives
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:56 AM on April 19, 2010


And yeah, concerning 10 barber shops on one block: sometimes a guy likes to get a few snips in one barber shop, then pop into the barber shop next door for a few more snips, then get a little more clipping in the joint next to that, then step out and into the next place for a little more scissors action... heck, these days that's the only way to get a decent haircut. Getting it all cut off by one guy is just no good anymore.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:01 AM on April 19, 2010


Speaking of mainland China, in Beijing there is a Guitar Street, which is a couple of dozen musical-instrument stores, side by side. There is a modern mall with a dozen shoe stores - not mixed in with other businesses - just shoe stores. This is a pattern; go to different areas of the city, and you're likely to find groups of directly-competing stores clumped together. Outdoor-gear stores. Antiques. Calligraphy supplies.

Oh, you mean the Hammock District?
posted by thewittyname at 6:11 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


And I never said that the sheer presence, by itself, was proof.

So just what does this mean?:

I'm not saying that none of those barber shops were fronts for criminal business, but having them all together like that does not necessarily mean they were.

I'm sorry, Kirth, but you are wrong. It is precisely what it meant, at least for NYC.


I said "does not necessarily mean they were [fronts for criminal business]."
You said " It is precisely what it meant, at least for NYC."

Unless you don't want the word "mean" to imply proof, Is that it?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2010


Ten barber shops. On one block.

If anyone wants to visit, they're right here. $6 haircuts, to boot!
posted by soma lkzx at 7:13 AM on April 19, 2010


I'll actually bet that he was the last - and there might be others later, but not of the same magnitude.

Law enforcement has made excellent progress in actually stopping organized crime in the last 20 years. My theory is that the government simply doesn't want the competition...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:50 AM on April 19, 2010


Unless you don't want the word "mean" to imply proof, Is that it?

No, I'm sorry if I wasn't clear. What I was trying to say was that, while the sheer presence of that many barber shops on a single street was not in and of itself proof of a criminal conspiracy—there were plenty of other things that would later provide that, like the basement full of starving girls fresh from the main land forced into prostitution—that besides that, it was, given the rather ridiculousness of 10 barber shops all directly competing with each other and given the (relative) scarcity of business that could possibly pay their rents, it might at the very least contribute to a hunch.

No doors would be broken down based solely on the presence of that many businesses of the same type operating in such close proximity. That's why he could only walk by it, point it out, and keep heading on to lunch. There were several later opportunities, sadly, that would provide the actual proof needed, but those stories quite frankly aren't as pleasant as the first one.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:33 PM on April 19, 2010


And yeah, concerning 10 barber shops on one block: sometimes a guy likes to get a few snips in one barber shop, then pop into the barber shop next door for a few more snips, …

Best read in Irwin Mainway's voice.
posted by zippy at 7:39 PM on April 19, 2010


And yeah, concerning 10 barber shops on one block

There's a second possibility besides money laundering. Foreign nationals can get residency by investing in building a business in the US. They have to commit something like $250,000, and operate the business for 2 years, I think. I've heard that a lot of Subway Sandwich shops and other franchises are purchased for this reason.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:02 PM on April 22, 2010


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