“It was almost like they were filming the movie of the invasion of Normandy,” said New York City detective Ming Li, who witnessed frightened and wet Chinese heading towards the safety of a New York City beach. “They were coming ashore all over the place.” The end of a 17,000-mile voyage for the Golden Venture was a sandbar and, in the words of The New York Times, “a nightmare of panic, chaos, death and capture.”
The 150-foot tramp steamer ran aground 200 yards off of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens in June 1993. Refugees, mostly from Fujian Province and some from Shanghai, jumped from the ship in desperation. As they fell into the cold waves, a few wore their best suits and others were almost naked.
Police took some 253 Chinese refugees and thirteen Indonesian crewmen into custody. At least seven Chinese died, five from drowning and two from heart attacks. Six were injured. Twenty-five passengers were unaccounted for, either dead in the surf or escaped into the maze of streets that is the city of New York.
The Chinese have always left their homeland. In waves they have traveled from small hamlets, like my father’s farming village in coastal Jiangsu Province, to settle in Britain, Brazil and the United States. They run away to escape communism or poverty or maybe something else, but they nonetheless leave. And, like the passengers of the Golden Venture, they risk death. Fifty-eight fleeing Chinese were found dead in the back of a truck in Dover, England in June 2000. Only two escaped “the most terrible death” [suffocation or carbon monoxide poisoning]. More died in shipping containers bound for the United States.
Yet, despite all that can go wrong, the Chinese still leave the People’s Republic. In the United States, the human tide has almost gone unnoticed since the Golden Venture incident. It is a large country, and illegal Chinese immigrants simply disappear into sweatshops and kitchens. In other nations, however, Chinese migration is an emerging political issue. Recent talks between Moscow and Beijing focused on this matter because the Russians are concerned that Siberia may come under Chinese control due to the influx of illegal immigrants. In Japan, illegal Chinese migration is roiling society and could create diplomatic conflict in the near future.
The Chinese are overrunning Siberia. Will they swamp Japan as well? Many migrants are pulled to the bright lights of Tokyo and Osaka and other cities close to the Chinese mainland. Modern, showy and rich Japan is the magnet that pulls Chinese from their homeland. Like most new migrants, newly arrived Chinese in Japan are poor, exploited and industrious. Some, too many of them, turn to crime. Others were criminals to begin with. Japan is suffering a crime wave. Migrants, and especially the Chinese of Fujian Province, are part of that frightening trend. Chinese crime shocks the Japanese, who have built a well-ordered society.
Maybe not so well-ordered after all. “The myth of Japan as a crime-free nation is an enduring one,” insurance association official Naoto Nakayama says. Now a new myth, or at least a general perception, is gaining currency. Popular culture portrays a clash of civilizations as Chinese gangs go up against their Japanese counterparts, the Yakuza, in the streets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. There, the foreigners are depicted as “gunning down rivals and lopping off heads with broadswords,” as The Japan Times so graphically tells us. It’s not clear whether art imitates life or the other way around, but the Yakuza and the Chinese Mafia are, in reality, going head-to-head in public.
And the public sometimes gets in the way. In September 2001 forty-four people died on the upper floors of No. 56 Myoto Building in Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho district, where the crime rate is 96 times the average in Tokyo. That part of the Japanese capital is so lawless that some say the district “is no longer part of Japan.” Fire consumed the top of the structure, especially a mahjong shop on the third floor and an adult entertainment outlet on the fourth. Investigators say the source of the fire was a styrofoam sign on the third floor and have ruled out arson, but few believe that verdict.
If the press is to be believed, the blaze was set by a Chinese gangster yet to be identified and presumably still at large. Other rumors say that two Chinese men set the fire over a dispute involving manipulation of game machines in the mahjong shop. They have, according to a Chinese resident in Kabuki-cho, subsequently fled Japan with false passports. One thing, however, is clear: Innocent people were killed.
More of them may die in the future. “Japanese Yakuza and Chinese are on the verge of a major conflict,” an anonymous source to Japanese writer Katsunao Kita said. “In reality, the arson case involving a building last year was just an advance skirmish leading to additional problems.” Kita warns that relations between rival gang groups will only get worse in the streets of Shinjuku. Orders for pistols and passports mean that “a major incident” is in the works.
Already gang members are killing each other as relations between the Japanese and the Chinese deteriorate. Japanese mobsters are looking for revenge for a shooting death of one of their own in September 2002. Some say that protection money or the sale of pep pills or the fencing of stolen securities is the source of the dispute, yet all agree that Chinese toughs perpetrated the incident, which took place in a teashop near the Shinjuku Ward office. Since then acts of revenge have left gangsters dead and Chinese shop owners in fear. Businesses closed to avoid the worst consequences of the conflict playing itself out in public.
Lawlessness has returned to Japan as the “Chinese Mafia” has infiltrated society. In reality, this mafia is a loose collection of small groups from the same regions, most of them in eastern China. Gangsters from Shanghai show more organization. In the past, the Chinese have cooperated with the Yakuza, especially in the trade of guns, girls and drugs. Recently, they have jointly run burglary operations.
Although Japanese and Chinese gangsters have worked together in the past, the recent violence in Shinjuku shows the limits of cooperation. It will take years for the current conflict between the two groups to die down. It’s like relations between China and Japan in a way. “There is no way the Japanese can reach a settlement with the Chinese guys living by an entirely different language and values,” a Japanese organized crime figure says.
The established Yakuza is not the only group victimized by the emerging Chinese gangs in Japan. Immigrants from China have the most to lose at the hands of criminals from their own country. Chinese gangs prey on ordinary Chinese, who are perceived to be helpless. A gangster caught last June in the Ota Ward of Tokyo reportedly told police that his group picked their targets out of a free Chinese-language residents’ handbook. “The employees at these places were mostly visa overstayers anyway, so we figured they couldn’t report the robberies to the police,” the suspect said. The gang was arrested after a 1.2 million yen robbery but is also suspected of netting a total of 30 million yen from thirty-four other similar crimes in Tokyo and four prefectures from Osaka to Miyagi.
“I’m operating without a proper business license and I won’t be able to keep the place going if the police start investigating,” the owner of one adult entertainment establishment said. “I’m more scared of my Chinese employees being deported than being robbed.” Employers of sex businesses often reimburse workers for their theft losses to prevent them from reporting incidents to the police. The owner of that adult establishment recently gave one of her employees half of the 600,000 yen she lost after five men, identified as Chinese, stole her bank card and then withdrew the funds from her savings account. Everyone loses in Japan when the Chinese commit crimes.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.
COMING SOON: Why illegal Chinese migration to Japan should interest the world
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