Chinese organized crime touches Md. Tongs: A 1993 murder and cases in New York and Atlanta show the extent of the secret social organizations.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The tong enforcer from New York had a few swings and handed the baseball bat to the gangster from Philly. And so the beating continued, at 312 Park Ave., under the watchful eye of the boss, a talkative Chinese carryout owner from Timonium whom everyone called Ah Man.

Their victim, Kenny Chung, was bloodied and blind, but he was still alive. As federal court documents describe, death came later, when Chung was driven along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, when his unconscious body was dumped on a grassy embankment, when he was shot four times in the face so that it would take the authorities a year to figure out who he was.

Chung was beaten and murdered on the Fourth of July 1993. In Baltimore.

The death remained a mystery for more than two years. What the Baltimore FBI and Maryland State Police didn't know -- what federal authorities in New York discovered by accident much later -- is this: Chung's murder was an old-fashioned hit, commissioned by the man who ran a secret betting parlor at 312 Park Ave. That parlor and others like them, in cities up and down the East Coast, are run by members of small Chinese secret social organizations known as tongs. Three tongs, the Hung Mun, the Hip Sing and the On Leong, operate in Maryland.

Over the past year, the New York prosecution of Chung's killer and another federal case, in Atlanta, have shed light on the extent to which tong members have criminal operations in Maryland.

Evidence produced at those trials, as well as dozens of interviews by The Sun, shows that in recent years tong members:

Operated illegal gambling houses that cater to Maryland Chinese, including secret casinos at 312 Park Ave. and inside restaurants owned by tong members.

Set up a brothel that occupied a rowhouse in the 1600 block of S. Hanover St. in South Baltimore during 1995 and 1996 before moving, FBI reports say. After The Sun inquired about the brothel this summer, Baltimore police began an investigation, which is continuing.

Brought, with the death of Chung, new tong-related violence to Maryland after decades of quiet. In New York, dozens of murders the past decade have been linked to Chinese organized crime, which is also deeply involved in the heroin trade.

"What we've learned is that these guys are where the mob was in the 1950s," says Jim Deichert, an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta who has prosecuted four Maryland tong members over the past year. "The gambling and loan sharking they participate in in Maryland is serious, and the potential for violence is always there. We need to stop them from becoming any more dangerous because in Maryland and in any place you have a growing Chinese population, you have to be concerned about these groups."

In Atlanta, Deichert and the FBI showed how money moved between East Coast tong members, illegal gambling operations

and businesses in Maryland. In New York, police and prosecutors learned the secrets of the Timonium carryout owner named Ah Man. They found that his real name is Yick Man Mui (pronounced 'Moy'), that he ran a secret betting parlor on the second floor of the Hung Mun's clubhouse at 312 Park Ave., and that Chung, a tong member who ran a Washington brothel, had cheated the house out of $50,000.

Despite the revelations in New York and Atlanta, Maryland FBI officials and police have been unable to make cases of their own. Kim Jordan, a supervisory special agent for the Maryland FBI, says evidence of gambling and prostitution here has not been serious enough to "become a priority of the FBI or the U.S. attorney.

"To make any case, you need the cooperation of the Chinese," says Jordan, "and they have refused to report crime or go to American law enforcement."

While the Atlanta and New York probes were reported in the Chinese-language press, Chinese community leaders are either unaware or refuse to acknowledge a problem. Chief among these leaders is Calvin Chin, chairman of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Advisory Committee on Asian-Pacific American Affairs. He insists that the tongs are benevolent social clubs for Chinese men. He initially denied even knowing Mui. But it was Chin who signed a $250,000 bond in fall 1995, when Mui was arrested and charged with Chung's murder.

Told of the comments from Chin and the FBI, Teddy Chan shakes his head. A Hip Sing and Hung Mun elder in Atlanta, he says he has many friends in the Baltimore tong chapters, which each have about three dozen active members, according to tong documents and federal prosecutors. He acknowledges that he owned a share in the South Baltimore brothel.

"Some of our people are doing things wrong in Baltimore," says Chan. "There's problems and crime that need to be prosecuted. The Hip Sing and Hung Mun are active there right now."

They have been here all along.

Park and Mulberry

On Leong tong members once appealed to Baltimore police for protection from the rival Hip Sing when the drug trade turned violent. Baltimore, an On Leong stronghold, worried about Hip Sing enforcers from New York.

It was October 1924.

The tongs, which have roots in the 18th-century resistance to the Qing Dynasty, were founded in the United States a century ago as self-help groups for Chinese immigrants. The all-male tongs were intensely patriotic; the Hung Mun brought Dr. Sun Yat-sen, first president of the Republic of China, to speak in Baltimore in 1907. Members prefer to highlight these aspects of tong life (one Maryland member proudly had his tong affiliation mentioned in his Sun obituary), but, since their earliest days, the groups were also involved in gambling and drugs.

Tong means hall, or gathering place, and the Hung Mun and On Leong halls were anchors of Baltimore's Chinatown in the early 1900s, along Park Avenue and Mulberry Street. The tongs withered in Maryland during the middle of the century under restrictive immigration laws, but they have grown stronger since the 1970s as the Chinese and Chinese-American population has doubled to approximately 35,000.

In New York and San Francisco, federal prosecutors have used racketeering laws to weaken the tongs, but there are active outposts in smaller cities such as Atlanta, Minneapolis and Baltimore, prosecutors say.

Baltimore's Chinatown now consists largely of abandoned buildings. While members say there is still gambling at the tong hall on Park Avenue, most tong activities take place at members' homes and businesses in the suburbs. The national president of the On Leong, Joseph Lee, told The Sun he wants to junk the On Leong meeting hall at 323 Park Ave. and open a clubhouse in Towson.

Maryland tong members admit that gambling is widespread, but they maintain that the clubs do not sponsor organized crime. "All we do is gamble," says Wai Hung Mok, a Maryland-based Hip Sing and Hung Mun member who runs a karaoke bar in Washington. "There are a lot of members who do more than that. But if they do it, that is on their own."

Yet gambling fuels other crime. "Don't minimize it, like the Chinese do," says Deichert, the Atlanta federal prosecutor. "Gambling was a key way the Italian mob funded itself." Tong members in other cities have been forced to work off their gambling debts by traveling to Southeast Asia and smuggling heroin into the United States, according to congressional testimony and court records.

"Baltimore is like many other American cities, such as Houston or Detroit," says Ko-Lin Chin, a Rutgers University professor and expert on the tongs. "Law enforcement routinely ignores the gambling because they underestimate how much these gambling dens make. It's thousands and thousands of dollars. The debts are often written on pieces of paper, and there can be disputes that lead to violence. This is a lesson authorities need to learn."

It was a lesson Kenny Chung learned too late.

The South Pacific

In 1980, Mui, who went to jail this spring for Chung's murder, left his parents in New York and moved to Maryland. He got a job at the South Pacific Restaurant and then a Polynesian place on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

The story of three Maryland tong leaders begins in that kitchen, where each brought dreams of wealth from his native Hong Kong. Mui's boss, George Low, was a funny, roly-poly man who owned the place. Alan Yu, a newly married 24-year-old with his own kung fu school above the Hip Sing chapter in Washington, was Low's manager. Mui, alternately called Ah Man and Paul, was the chef.

"It was a great place to work, and work hard," Yu recalls.

Yu and Mui had come to the United States as teen-agers. Low "was a like a grandfather," says Yu. He offered financial advice and contacts for loans. By 1982, Yu had his own business, Fortune Jewelry, in Silver Spring. A few years later, Mui opened a carryout called the Empress Express on the second floor of the Timonium Crossing shopping center.

The three men were also members of the local chapter of the Hip Sing tong, which Yu had helped to revive when he arrived in Maryland. And Low and Mui, drawn together by their shared love of gambling, became leaders of the Hung Mun tong in Baltimore.

"Paul was a talkative, boastful gambler," Yu says of Mui. "He did love gambling."

By 1991, Mui had turned the second floor of the Hung Mun building on Park Avenue into a secret casino, according to court records and tong members. The members played paigow poker and mah-jong, while women hovered, providing companionship.

Some of the casino's receipts were sent to the Hung Mun headquarters in New York, where Mui's old friend Chin Yen Kwok, known as "Uncle Kwok," kept a watchful eye on the tong's Baltimore chapter. Kwok was one of the national elders of the Hung Mun, a liaison between headquarters and the Hung Mun chapters in more than a dozen U.S. cities.

Members' failure to pay off debts became a constant problem for Mui. Tong members say their games are "low stakes." But Baltimore police Sgt. Craig Gentile, who has received complaints about the gambling at 312 Park Ave., says it typically costs $100 to get in a paigow hand, a night's liquor bill runs to $200 and $50,000 pots are common. But little money actually changes hands, and squabbles break out over the endless stream of IOUs.

Usually, Mui only had to threaten violence to force payment. But Kenny Chung, a friend and one-time business partner of Mui's, needed more convincing.

By Mui's reckoning, Chung owed the house more than $50,000 " by the summer of 1993. Desperate to collect, Mui called Kwok in New York. Kwok sent an enforcer, Kenny Chen, along with two other individuals, who picked up a Philadelphia gangster named Ah Dai on their drive to Baltimore, court records show. They grabbed Chung in the Park Avenue casino and took him to the third floor for the beating. After Chung's body was dumped along the parkway, Mui gave $1,000 apiece to the killers and threw the gun into the Patapsco River.

Capt. Kenneth Ward of the Maryland State Police investigated for two years, in vain. "We looked, but we didn't see anything in Baltimore. Our leads didn't pan out," Ward says.

Atlanta connections

By 1995, Low and Yu, the other two-thirds of the South Pacific kitchen management, were doing business with Atlanta tong members. Their contact was a Georgia restaurant owner Low had met at national conventions of the Hung Mun and Hip Sing.

Chan works in the Bamboo Luau, his former wife's restaurant in suburban Atlanta. Through Low, Chan got to know Yu, and Mui became an acquaintance. Low often visited Chan, dining at the Bamboo Luau and gambling at the Hip Sing clubhouse.

Among national tong leaders, Low, who is 62, was the man to know in Baltimore. FBI officials describe him as "the godfather of Chinese organized crime in the Baltimore area."

Low and Chan invested together in a Hip Sing casino in Washington, according to court records and interviews. Chan says he has visited Baltimore at least six times, to check on his investments, dine at Sharky's Bar and Restaurant on Eastern Avenue and talk with Low. "I like that Baltimore, very friendly," he says. "I love how they call people 'hon.' "

So it was perfectly natural for Chan to cut his friend Low in on the opportunity of a lifetime.

Chan's longtime lawyer, Lenny Grossman, set up a company called the Jasmine in downtown Atlanta in 1992. Grossman told Chan that the Jasmine would launder Colombian drug profits to tong members selected by Chan in exchange for shares in the tongs' secret casinos. (Chan says he didn't believe Grossman and thought the money came from gambling or Atlanta nightclubs.) Those who took the money would pay it back from casino profits.

But Grossman neglected to tell Chan two things.

Grossman was an informant for the Atlanta FBI. And the Jasmine was a mirage, created by the federal government.

In defending themselves now, some Maryland tong members argue that Grossman, himself a felon with a history of money laundering, was more of a criminal than they were.

They had a point. But the government also had them on tape.

Four years' worth of tape. Low, with his close connection to Chan, became the chief conduit in Baltimore for the Jasmine's "drug" money. Grossman even paid him a commission for each deal Low found. Chan and Grossman made business trips to Baltimore, where they visited bars and enjoyed a $120 session with a Malaysian woman at the brothel. Eager to help his friends, Low connected Chan to his buddies, unwittingly leading authorities to influential Maryland tong members and their associates.

In all, Low helped bring more than $100,000 to Maryland, without anyone turning the money down. Mok, the Hip Sing and Hung Mun member from Maryland who runs a karaoke bar at a Washington hotel, says he took thousands of dollars to pay off gambling debts. And William Tan, a certified public accountant with offices in Woodlawn, accepted $20,000 of Jasmine money.

Tan, a Hong Kong native who has lived in Maryland for 20 years, keeps the books for dozens of Chinese businesses in Baltimore and Washington. He denies any membership in the tongs and says he thought the Jasmine money came from illegal gambling, not drugs.

"I'm sorry I got included with this. It's damaging," says Tan, 44. "It was kind of naive on my side."

Yu says he had no choice but to take the money. When he received $15,000 from the Jasmine, he was facing debts from open-heart surgery in 1991 and a robbery of his Wheaton jewelry store in 1992, during which he lost $150,000.

"We paid some bills with the money," says Yu's wife, Janet. "We had no idea this was drug money."

In February 1996, Yu and Low flew from Maryland to Atlanta to pick up more cash. But the trap had been sprung. A car picked them up and drove them to an unfamiliar building, where they were arrested in the elevator -- of the FBI's Atlanta offices.

Two of the three old friends from the South Pacific kitchen were in custody.

A reckoning

Mui might have gotten away with the murder. But in 1995, Chen, the New York enforcer Uncle Kwok had sent to help with the 1993 killing, was arrested on unrelated charges. The enforcer told investigators in Brooklyn, N.Y., about the Baltimore hit.

In late August 1995, FBI agents from New York arrested Mui. Prosecutors unsealed an indictment against both Mui and Kwok for the murder conspiracy. (Kwok, like Mui, was eventually convicted.)

"This crime was about money, face and power," says John Curran, the assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn who ordered the arrest.

While the arrest was reported in the Chinese press, news of Mui's crime didn't circulate widely in Baltimore. Many Chinese community leaders refer questions to Chin, chair of the governor's Advisory Committee on Asian-Pacific American Affairs and a self-described spokesman for the Chinese community.

In a March interview, Chin, 73, denied that he knew Mui or any members of the Hung Mun. But the commission that Chin heads includes the Hung Mun clubhouse at 312 Park Ave. on its mailing list.

In May, confronted with evidence that he had signed Mui's bond note, Chin said he put up his own money because Mui was a friend and he believed in his innocence. "I felt at that point that he was not the guilty one," Chin says. "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing."

But in the same interview, he said posting the bond was "a service" for members of the Hung Mun. "I was asked by association members to help him," he said. Chin also said that he is a member of the Hung Mun and the On Leong chapters in Baltimore, though he said he doesn't gamble and never attends meetings. His role with the tongs is limited to mediating disputes and handling immigration troubles, he said.

"I'm the interpreter for the community," he said.

FBI officials say Chin is not involved in any criminal activity. Kim Jordan, the Maryland FBI agent, sees Chin's posting of the bond as "cultural. No matter what crime was committed, no matter if the person is obviously guilty, they feel they have an obligation to take care of their own."

Friends sentenced

The Maryland tong members arrested in the Atlanta investigation were sentenced during the past few months. Wai Hung Mok, who pleaded guilty to a gambling charge, received three years' probation and was ordered to pay $11,100 in restitution and fines. Tan pleaded guilty in January to structuring financial transactions to evade reporting requirements and was sentenced to four months in prison, followed by four months of home detention.

And the law came down hard on the three friends from the South Pacific restaurant. Two received jail time. All maintain their innocence.

Low, who did not respond to letters, is in federal prison in Pennsylvania, serving a sentence of one year and one day for illegal gambling. "I doubt George believed he was taking drug money, and he never had any gambling operation," says his lawyer, Steve Sadow.

As part of a deal, Yu pleaded guilty to one count of failing to file a tax form and got three years' probation and four months of home detention. Even though prosecutors have told the tong members to keep their distance, Yu says he will stay close to Low and Wai Hung Mok. "We're not supposed to talk, but they are my friends," Yu says. He adds: "Probably if someone came in today and asked us to borrow money again the same way, we'd still say OK."

On April 10, Mui, his hands in chains, was led into U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. For all his hard living, he still looked younger than his 38 years. He waved to his sister, Janet, and his mother. Judge Sterling Johnson sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of Kenny Chung.

Mui, who did not testify at his trial, stared hard at Johnson and said in Cantonese: "I feel this is unfair. I have not committed this crime."

Down in Atlanta, Chan, who was recently sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for gambling and money laundering, says he regrets ever joining the Hip Sing and Hung Mun. The federal prosecutions, he says, have had little effect: Maryland's tongs still operate gambling and prostitution businesses with impunity.

He leans over the table in the Bamboo Luau.

"I tell you secret."

The police are looking in the wrong place for Hung Mun gamblers these days, he says. The tong casino is not on the second floor of 312 Park Ave., where Chung was beaten. But beneath the building, Chan says, is a utility room that only tong members know about. "They are still gambling there."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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