Social problems in Chinatown
Like many other communities, the older Chinatowns have their share of social problems. In the past and present, before Chinatowns were viewed and valued as tourist attractions, many Chinatowns have had reputations of being dilapidated ghettoes and slums. They were once the sites of brothels, opium dens, and gambling halls.
In modern times, competing Asian street gangs and organized crime (such as the Tongs and the Hong Kong-based Triads) continue to plague the metropolitan Chinatowns worldwide where Triads have their operations, including London, San Francisco, New York City, Sydney, and Vancouver. Tongs are Chinese secret societies. There have been 'Tong wars' or 'civil wars', so to speak, between the Tong groups in the older Chinatowns. Initially, many Chinatown gangs were formed to supposedly defend the community from the lo fahn (Cantonese word and transliteration for "Caucasians") but later turned on members of their own ethnic community. For example, in North America, Chinese American street gangs often have connections with the tongs and triads. Examples of such street gangs include the Joe Boys and Jackson Street Gang (after the major street of San Francisco Chinatown).
Turf wars have been common in the older Chinatowns. Gang rivalry among Chinatown gangs has sometimes been high profile. As Chinatowns tend to be tourist attractions, tourists in Chinatowns have sometimes been victims of these gang warfare crimes. In 1977, a shoot-out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant (where the rival gang were normally based) occurred, in which two tourists and several waiters were murdered by stray gunfire in a botched assassination attempt on a Wah Ching gang member. This incident is notoriously known as the Golden Dragon Massacre and it mobilized the San Francisco Police Department to create an Asian crime unit.
Racketeering against Chinese merchants (e.g., restaurants and shops) by the gangs is common in the older Chinatowns worldwide, especially during the Chinese New Year. Worldwide, Triad activity is usually suspect. In U.S. Chinatowns, many Triads and Chinese American teenage gangs - some are the younger to jee (approximate transliteration for the "American-born Chinese") and others are slightly older yee mun (Cantonese: foreign-born) - often perpetuate the crimes. During this time, many racketeering activities are often disguised as benign dragon and lion dance performances in front of the business establishments and money is "donated" in return. (However, not all performances are done for illegal purposes. Many dances are also performed by legitimate organizations from the local community; for example, Chinatown youth groups.) Failing to pay the "protection money" to the gangs often resulted in either vandalism (such as broken windows), kidnapping, murder, or arson to the Chinese establishment or bodily harm to its owner. For example, on January 24, 2001 around Chinese New Year, in the Richmond Chinatown district of San Francisco, two Chinese restaurants were firebombed almost simultaneously. Three teenagers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to six years each in prison.
However, the suburban Chinatowns are not entirely immune from the acts of extortion. In the so-called "new Chinatown" of Richmond, British Columbia, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) arrested six male suspects in connection with extortion that involved assaulting a Chinese Canadian waiter and then vandalizing the restaurant in 1999. Triad extortion activity is also rife in several Chinatowns of Sydney, Australia. Chinese restaurants have especially been targeted in Sydney.
Many Chinese victims in Chinatown are often reluctant to report any incidents of gang harassment to authorities because they fear possible retaliation. First-generation immigrants, who often speak limited English, may be in the country illegally, or have a general distrust of the police. Indeed, many immigrants came from countries where the police intimidated the population, such as with Communist China and Taiwan's martial law under President Chiang Kai-shek. In Hong Kong, until recently, the police were often corrupt and ineffective.
Smuggling of immigrants
The Triads are also primarily responsible for smuggling illegal immigrants into the Chinatowns of Australia, Europe, and North America, often from China and Vietnam. These Asian smugglers are called "snakeheads". In order to pay for their passage, many of these immigrants are indentured who will end up in "under the table" low-wage (often lower than the minimum wage) service jobs, e.g., as restaurant waiters or dishwashers, masseuses in massage parlors, prostitutes, and garment sweatshop.
Some of these social problems have been the subject for several Hollywood police films such as The Corruptor (set in New York Chinatown but filmed in Toronto's Chinatown), starring Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, and Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke.
Many older Chinatowns such as the ones in Houston and Vancouver have been declining over the years. Social ills such as homelessness and drug-related problems occur with some Chinatowns in urban areas. For example, Vancouver's Chinatown is in close proximity to the notorious drug-infested Downtown Eastside. Hence, many vagrants - oftentimes by non-Chinese - are seen aggressively panhandling and sometimes causing a nuisance on the streets of older Chinatowns making it unattractive for future investment. Also, being near the inner-city, the Los Angeles Chinatown and others have had a perception of being unsafe, especially at night, thus many Chinatown businesses close normally aronud 5 or 6 pm with only a handful of restaurants open. Some visitors and local Chinese business owners are often turned away from urban Chinatowns.
There have been programs between Chinatown community members and the local police working together to improve the safety and aesthestics of Chinatowns, such as graffiti removal. A notable improvement has been the Chinatown in Los Angeles with several revitalization plans that have failed to take off due to low funding. Police departments in other cities are developing Chinatown outreach programs.
The old Chinatowns now face heavy competition from the ethnic Chinese large supermarkets, shopping centers, and mini-malls found in the suburbs. Indeed, many old Chinatowns have experienced declining revenue. For example, the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland compete with the shopping centers in Cupertino and Los Angeles's Chinatown squares off with the San Gabriel Valley (check out the Southern California section of this article for information) of California, and the gleaming suburban Chinese business district of Richmond compete with the old Vancouver Chinatown for business and revenue.
Gentrification may be the answer to reverse decline in Vancouver, as the downtown condo tower boom is now moving toward Chinatown. New upscale 40 storey condo towers are being constructed as are urban retail centres. It is believed that with yuppie Asian and non-Asian population returning to the area, Chinatown will not only survive but will become the centre-piece of Vancouver's incredible mosaic of diversity and neighbourhoods.
Because Toronto has become the home for a large number of Chinese immigrants, many Chinese Canadians tend to travel to and from Asia on a regular basis. In 2
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