The Ghost Shadows of Chinatown


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Lately the Ghost Shadows have kept a low profile. Back in the mid 90s, the authorities used RICO to rip the gang apart. But that doesn't mean they're not around. It could be they're just working a different side of the street. When Manhattan's Chinatown gets too hot you can go out to Flushing, Queens, which now has a Chinatown that's even bigger than the original one. It's difficult for cops, much less any outsiders, to figure out Chinatown, and a gang like the Ghost Shadows could float off the criminal radar screen and still remain in full operation. That's because what's been true for 100 years in Chinatown still holds true today: No one talks. The Chinese make the Mob's vaunted oath of omerta look like an empty promise at an office watercooler.


I used to know a Chinese man who ran a pharmacy off Canal St. In the early 1990s, some Ghost Shadows tried to shake him down. A hundred and eight dollars a month?what the Chinese call a lucky number?would ensure that a store's front glass wouldn't get broken. The pharmacist had been born and raised in Brooklyn?which is to say he was street-smart and didn't have a Chinese immigrant's wariness of American authorities?and he didn't play the gangsters' extortion game. He went right to the community policing division of the 5th Precinct and let the NYPD in on the Ghost Shadows racket. They never came back. He claims his windows never got smashed.


That pharmacist was a brave man, because the Ghost Shadows could be a vicious bunch. In 1988 I saw a pack of Ghost Shadows attack a group of Vietnamese teenagers on Lafayette St., near NYU. It was a brutal brawl, mixing elements of a Jackie Chan routine and a run-of-the-mill drunken bar fight. People on the sidewalk watched with their mouths open. No weapons were pulled; it was just vicious kicks and punches mixed in with low grunts of pain. These guys were fearless as they tore into each other. Amid a whooping wail of sirens, six cops from three squad cars descended into the fight, and the Vietnamese kids ran off with the quickstep ditty-mao. The Ghost Shadows held themselves together and went toe to toe with six beefy cops. The gang members got the shit kicked out of them, but I remember being amazed by the heart those 130-pound men showed.


I recently talked with T.J. English about the history of gangs of Chinatown. He knows this subject well: he once wrote a book about those gangs, entitled Born to Kill. English thought that the work was the best thing he had ever done, better than his bestseller The Westies, about those legendary Irish mugs. Book buyers disagreed, however, and Born to Kill didn't sell. No one seemed to care what went down with the gangs in Chinatown. Which is a shame, because the neighborhood's rich with some of New York's best crime dramas, some dating back to the last century.


So I trucked down Bayard St. looking for Ghost Shadows. I felt like I was living out some Zen koan, looking for the wind. On a terrace above the Win Hop Restaurant, three Chinese men played some of the worst music I've ever heard. It sounded like a garbage truck loading up. One guy was banging a steel drum with no rhythm; another was clanging two cymbals; a third was ringing a bell. It was like these three mooks had been let loose from Creedmoor to wake the dead. It was a painful noise and I fled west.


I ambled into Columbus Park and checked out the older Chinese gathered for their mid-morning card, domino and checker games. Coins were being tossed around on cardboard; the Chinese are great gamblers. I tried to look at what kind of card games they were betting on, but I didn't have a clue. I looked around and I was the only round-eye in the park. I wasn't about to ask any of these inveterate gamblers about some Ghost Shadows.


Outside of the park an old Chinese man sat on a stool playing a banjo. He had a full head of black and gray hair and a mouthful of strong teeth that looked like small tombstones in his smiling face. He calmly sat under a white and red umbrella that kept the late September sun off his face. I read a sign that claimed he spoke good English and that he'd tell a good fortune. He told me his name was John Chu. With a steady hand he directed me to sit down. Chu claimed that for $10 he would tell me all about my whole life. The Chinese won't talk about Ghost Shadows, but they will tell you all about yourself, and that's all most New Yorkers are interested in. I took a seat. Chu did a few calculations with my birth date and then he showed off his chops. He said that I'd been married for five years and had two daughters under three years old. He was right about that, and smiled big when I told him so.


"See. I'm right. Now wait: Need some more information, then I can tell you it all. Your whole fortune will be here."


He looked in my face and ran a finger over my left palm. He made a low grunt and gave me a wink.


"Ah, you in a very good period now. Very good. Next 10 years, 1999 to 2009, big money come to you?you have very good fortune. So good. You make money everywhere you go. You should play Lotto. Ask for raise, money will come to you. Don't be afraid to change jobs. It will all work out for you. This is the time you've been working for. The payoff is now. Only thing to fear this year is a car accident. Be careful. This is year of the rabbit. Dangerous for you with car. But just in 1999. Otherwise you have good fortune next 10 years."


Chu confirmed what I like most about Chinese arts: they deal with practical matters like money and health, and avoid the ephemeral nonsense most Western astrologers get caught up in. Tell me where to find the money and how long I'll live. Maybe it's all hogwash, but at least it sounds useful when you're listening to it


"Your health will be good. You have all the signs of a long life. You can have one more child. A boy if you want. You have time for that. Your face is good, healthy. Long earlobes, long chin and long lifeline. You take care of your health, you live long time. When you hit age 64 to 69, your health not so good, but you recover?then you live till 88. Eighty-eight and no more."


Go to Chinatown and learn the year of your death. When he was finished I thought of asking Chu if he knew of any Ghost Shadows, but I figured, why push it.


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