What’s It Like To Be a Gang Member?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Bill Lee, Author, Chinese Playground:

I was just 8 years old when I got into the gang life. It was around the time I witnessed my first shooting, which occurred during a rumble between Chinese and black gangs. I basically grew up living a double life. In college, while I was consistently on the dean’s list, I was also engaged in the most violent Asian gang war in U.S. history, which took place in San Francisco Chinatown.

I started in low-level gangs, stealing, peddling goods (such as fireworks), getting into fights, gambling, and bullying other kids. I was primarily acting out and escaping from the non-stop trauma in my home. The streets were unsafe and unpredictable, but it still served as a sanctuary; essentially, the lesser of two evils. I learned early on that in the streets, it was dog-eat-dog and survival of the fittest. If you turned the other cheek, it was open season on you. Forgiveness meant you were weak, afraid, or both.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the violence in my neighborhood escalated, and by 1970, a major gang war had erupted. Organized criminal groups (Tongs) were instigating it. At stake was the desire to control Chinatown’s underworld, which entailed lucrative gambling, extortion, fireworks sales, politics, etc.. Kidnappings occurred, hit men were summoned from out of town, and the entire community felt terrorized. Gang membership required a different mindset. It was a life and death proposition. I avoided the hardcore gangs for years, but close friends were continually joining up, so the temptation was always there. I gradually began spending more time with this particular gang, and eventually became the driver for one of the gang’s leaders.

We recruited kids beginning in middle school, offering quick cash, guns, cars, girls, money, muscle; essentially, a (false) sense of empowerment. Many guys were bullied and turned to gangs for protection and revenge. We helped them settle scores, but they soon realized that bullying occurred within the gang as well, often more brutal. By then, it was too late to get out. We encouraged kids to rebel against their parents. Most of us were already ashamed of our parents. As far as we were concerned, they were working “coolie” jobs and didn’t have time for us.

When fellow gang members were attacked and killed, retaliation was not only justified—it was expected. And when your buddies are jumping someone, there was immense peer pressure to join in, whether you wanted to or not. There was also constant pressure to prove how tough you were.

A typical day (which usually began in the afternoon) in the gang would involve hanging out at arcades, pool halls, playing hoops, gambling, planning crimes, and lots of cruising the streets. With the stereo blasting, we drove around trying to look cool, keeping an eye out for rival gang members, marking our turf, intimidating (often assaulting for no reason) residents, and doing our best to stay a step ahead of the police. One day, two of our members were cruising in separate cars and communicating by CB (Citizens’ Band) radio. They communicated over the air where they should hook up, inadvertently alerting our enemies, resulting in an ambush. At nightclubs, if the proprietor refused to pay protection money, we didn’t always have to resort to violence. We simply occupied all the tables, planting one member per table, and scaring all the customers away. We cleared dance floors by simply walking up and staring down the patrons.

The gang I was involved with was responsible for the infamous San Francisco Golden Dragon Massacre. I was questioned by the police about the murders and nearly killed because I was suspected of being an informant. The police department formed a Gang Task Force, which subsequently cracked the case wide open, essentially breaking up the gang, which had grown to approximately 150 members. Shortly thereafter, I graduated from college (with honors) and decided that I was through with gangs, but it was easier said than done. Physically, I may have left the gang, but the gangster was still inside of me. I had virtually zero coping skills and was accustomed to resorting to threats and violence when conflicts arose. I entered the corporate world dressed in a business suit, but deep down I was nothing but a frightened, insecure little boy. I knew how to instill fear in the neighborhood, but not respect among my colleagues. The personal issues that led me to be a gangster were still unresolved. It’s taken many years and hard lessons in order to transform my life, which is still a work in progress.

These days, I devote time to counseling at-risks and troubled youths, including gang members who are incarcerated. They remind me so much of myself when I was their age. I don’t lecture or tell them what to do. I simply share my story.

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