By Joshua Berlinger, CNN Photographs by Julian Rigg, CNN
Armed with an iPhone, a microphone and a lifetime’s worth of connections with former cops and criminals, Michael Moy is racing to capture a piece of New York City’s forgotten history.
Moy operates a YouTube Channel called Chinatown Gang Stories, which he launched six months ago. The channel features lengthy, unvarnished interviews with former gangsters who share stories of life as members of the youth gangs that terrorized New York’s Chinatowns in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.
The videos lack professional lighting and audio quality, but their flaws are reminders that the channel is the passion project of an amateur historian attempting to capture a forgotten history with limited tools.
Moy, 53, is not a journalist or videographer, but he is uniquely positioned to gather these stories — as a former cop and a former gang member.
In retirement, Moy has leveraged his experience on both sides of the law to convince former gangsters to speak on camera so they do not take their stories with them to the grave. His goal is to capture an oral history of these gangs that, taken as a whole, will paint an accurate picture of the era and make clear to future generations the perils and pitfalls of gang life.
“My mission is to preserve history,” Moy told CNN, “and maybe help someone along the way.”
Gripped by fear
Moy was born in 1969 and spent the first five years in a small apartment on East Broadway, a short walk away from the historical heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Eleven members of his family crammed into a railroad-style unit on the top floor of a six-story building, with just four beds. Most slept on bamboo mattresses on the ground, from where they could hear the chaos wrought by Chinatown’s gangs outside.
In 1972, when Moy was 3, there were at least four shootings in his neighborhood. Two occurred in July and August. Another two shootings, one in March and another in November, rattled theaters on East Broadway. Each venue was just steps away from Moy’s apartment.
Moy’s parents feared for their son’s safety. The violence was a concern, but they also worried about reports that older teenagers were pressuring younger children into gangs, sometimes by force. So when Moy was 5, the family moved to Brooklyn and enrolled Moy in a school there, though he would still shuttle between his new borough and Chinatown, where he’d be cared for by his extended family.
“For a young kid, my age at that time, I really didn’t understand how dangerous and powerful the gangs were, and the grip that they had on the community,” Moy said.
Gang violence had plagued Chinatown in fits and starts since the 1890s, when Chinese-American benevolent societies and fraternal organizations called tongs, set up to support immigrants from China by legal and illegal means, went to war for control over the neighborhood’s illicit economy — operating opium dens, gambling halls and prostitution rings.
Two tongs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing, fought violently over territory and profits. The conflict eventually subsided, but the tongs themselves never went away. Their leaders continued to amass power and prestige in the community through legitimate and illegitimate enterprises. The brighter spotlight that came with success forced the tongs to distance themselves from the stain of criminality, even if they had no intention of giving up the revenue earned outside the law.
By the time Moy’s family moved to Brooklyn, the tongs had found an elegant solution to their problem: outsourcing the dirty work of rackets and protection to youth gangs. The arrangement provided the tongs a veneer of legitimacy and some insulation from criminal prosecution, even if everyone in the community knew the truth about who was in charge.
By 1973, there were about six teenage gangs in Chinatown comprised of nearly 200 people, The New York Times reported at the time.
Teenagers and young men were given guns and roved the streets as enforcers. Weapons and unchecked power were left in the hands of impressionable youths. The increase in violence that ensued was inevitable.
“The whole community was gripped by the fear of these gangs, but they wouldn’t talk about it in public,” Moy said.
Moving to Brooklyn gave Moy some distance from the danger. However, as he got older, Moy felt displaced from the Chinese-American community, especially at school. He was one of very few American-born Chinese students, and he was picked on because he looked different.
“It was pretty traumatizing. I went through a lot as far as bullying,” Moy said.
Moy felt he had nowhere to turn. Teachers seemed either unable to recognize the extent of the bullying or unwilling to deal with it, he said. His parents weren’t there to help either; they were always working and never home. Moy only made one good friend at school in Brooklyn. They would study together, and after school, they’d play video games or shoot pool at a smoky, dingy local pool hall.
A dai ma — or recruiter — for a Chinese gang saw Moy, then a short, skinny 16-year-old often dressed in oversized sweaters, and recognized immediately that he was vulnerable, Moy said. So, one day while Moy was walking to the pool hall, the dai ma approached him, offering the protection, respect and camaraderie he craved.
Moy was to spend the next nine years as a member of a Chinese-American gang.
Another Brooklyn kid
Moy did have one Chinese-American friend who lived in his Brooklyn neighborhood. His name was Kenny Wong — and he too was to embrace gang life for a time.
While Moy shared his story in an interview with CNN, Wong’s has been uploaded to YouTube. He is one of the most featured characters on Chinatown Gang Stories, Moy’s YouTube channel, and thousands of users have watched him recount experiences from his life as a gangster.
Wong, 53, often talks about the difficulties he faced during his childhood. It’s a similar story to Moy’s.
Wong lived in Chinatown as a boy. Through the thin walls of the family’s apartment, the Wongs could hear their next-door neighbors being robbed or junkies shooting up. When they walked out into hallways, there were often people passed out on the floor, Wong recalled.
Wong’s family, like Moy’s, moved to Brooklyn seeking refuge from the violence. But Wong’s father maintained ties to the Ghost Shadows, a notorious street gang with links to the On Leong Tong and, in the early 1980s, he was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Wong said that his anger and drive for revenge motivated him to join the Ghost Shadows. After several years as a gangster, the law caught up with Wong. He was charged with racketeering in federal court in the early 1990s and spent about eight years behind bars.
In prison, Wong vowed to his family that he would leave his life of crime behind once he was out. By 2001, he was in Brooklyn making good on his promise and working in construction, when he saw a familiar face walking down the street. It was Michael Moy, but — in an unlikely turn — he was now dressed in the navy blue uniform of a New York City police officer.
Inspired to change track
At first, gang membership had offered Moy the protection he sought and the close-knit community he lacked. The bullies who once targeted Moy no longer wanted anything to do with him. Life became more exciting and more adventurous, he said.
“It was a rush,” Moy said. “It gave me confidence. It gave me a sense of being powerful.”
Slowly, however, doubts crept in. Friends were killed or sent to prison, caught in the dragnet of federal investigators and prosecutors who were going after Chinese organized crime using the same tools that helped them to bring down the Italian mafia — primarily the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO allowed the federal government to severely punish those convicted of participating in a pattern of crimes with a common objective — essentially, gang activity.
Moy thought harder about his own future with each friend who was killed or sent to prison. But the major impetus for change came from the story of Steven McDonald, a New York City police officer. While on patrol in Central Park in 1986, McDonald was shot three times by a 15-year-old and left paralyzed from the neck down; doctors believed he wouldn’t live more than another five years.
Just months later, McDonald publicly forgave the teenage boy who nearly killed him. The officer became a symbol of compassion and grace, inspiring New Yorkers until his eventual death in 2017.
Moy read in a newspaper article that McDonald believed the teenager who shot him was “a product of his environment.” Moy had never heard the phrase before, and it sparked in him a deep, uncomfortable sense of self-reflection.
“I was a young kid then. I didn’t know what that meant,” Moy said. “But I dissected every word, and tried to understand what he meant by that. Then I looked at myself. Am I a product of my environment?”
Age and wisdom, combined with McDonald’s example, fueled in Moy a greater sense of guilt about his actions. The more he thought about his future, the more Moy retreated from the everyday life of his gang.
“His words just kept ringing in my ears. It was just something whispering in my ear, you’re a product of your environment. You need to get out,” Moy said.
In January 1989, inspired to change his life’s course, Moy took the NYPD’s Police Officer’s Entrance Exam. Moy remained involved with the gang after that, he said, though he “took a few steps back,” until, in the mid-1990s, he was invited to attend the police academy.
When he graduated and left the neighborhood to become a police officer, he told no one in the gang where he was going. He simply disappeared from the criminal underworld, severing the ties to his past.
‘Why not us?’
Moy was sent to patrol some of the same streets he roamed as a gangster in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, into which his gang had expanded from Manhattan. Initially wary of being recognized by his past associates, Moy said, his first day on the job reassured him. As expected, Moy passed some gangsters who knew him but his presence was only silently acknowledged.
“That eased my fears, my anxiety,” Moy said.
Moy’s career at the NYPD lasted about a quarter century. He spent nine years as an officer and 16 as a detective, most of it assigned to a precinct in south Brooklyn. The idea that would become Moy’s YouTube channel started to take shape near the end of his career, when he began watching videos of other former New York gangsters.
He was surprised to see former members of other New York gangs speaking so freely about their experiences in the 1970s and 1980s. There were onetime Italian mobsters, Hispanic gangsters and members of Black organized crime groups, but not Asians. Moy thought to himself: “Why not us?”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and no one from that era — no New York City Chinatown gang member from that era — ever came out and spoke about their experiences. None whatsoever,” Moy said.
The push to finally start the project came from a tragic reminder of his own mortality in 2015. Moy and several of his colleagues were first responders to the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. Years later, they developed illnesses related to the tragedy. Moy’s illnesses, which were uncovered thanks to monitoring he received under the World Trade Center Health Program, were not immediately life-threatening, but some of his friends died from cancer.
“That’s when I started saying, if I don’t do it now, when?” Moy recalled.
Moy conducted his first interview the next year, while still in the police, at first thinking he would use them to supplement a memoir. Slowly, over years, he compiled hundreds of hours’ worth of interviews. Moy estimates that he’s spent more than $100,000 on the project, traveling the world to interview former Asian or Asian-American gang members.
Moy’s career at the NYPD came to an unceremonious end in 2021. He left the force after filing a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and suing the city of New York, alleging that a small group of fellow officers engaged in racist behavior. Moy alleged that he was discriminated against due to his race and then subjected to retaliation after speaking out.
The NYPD at the time told local media it “takes such allegations seriously and does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.” Authorities did not respond to an email from CNN seeking comment. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
Leaving the police force allowed Moy to rekindle friendships that for years he was forced to put aside because of police guidelines on associating with convicted criminals. And those speaking with Moy — none of whom are recidivists, Moy said — trust his guidance as a former police officer. He explains to them issues like double jeopardy and statutes of limitation, he said.
Jimmy Tsui, who goes by the nickname “Bighead,” didn’t need much convincing, Tsui told CNN. Tsui is, along with Kenny Wong, a heavily featured character on Chinatown Gang Stories. In his interviews, Tsui shares stories ranging from Triad initiation rituals in Hong Kong to nearly bleeding out after getting shot in New York City.
When he was approached by Moy two years ago about the project, he thought it was a good idea to educate younger people about Chinatown’s seedy history, now in the past, Tsui said.
Kenny Wong told CNN he was more reluctant to participate at first, but in the end he was swayed by Moy’s mission to preserve the past to shape a better future.
Moy started laying the groundwork for his YouTube channel about a year ago, after he stumbled upon a different channel called Forgotten Streets. It features short videos on the history of Asian and Asian-American organized crime, but has no interviews with former gang members.
Since its launch in August 2020, Forgotten Streets has racked up more than 2.7 million views. The videos were well produced, Moy said, but he noticed a few inaccuracies. He reached out to the creator and the two had a meeting, where they struck a deal. The owner of Forgotten Streets would help Moy with journalistic and technical aspects of his project, while Moy would help him by offering insight as a former gang member.
Retirement has given Moy more time to invest in his project. On June 2, Moy brought Chinatown Gang Stories online and, in a little more six months, the channel has attracted more than 3,100 subscribers and 210,000-plus views, thanks in part to promotion from the Forgotten Streets channel.
With such rapid growth, Moy expected the comments section of his videos to be littered with the vitriol and racism too often encountered online, particularly in light of a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that began at the outset of the Covid-19 panedmic.
The criticism so far, however, has been mostly about the audio quality. Moy jokes that he’s learning from his mistakes based on comments in the YouTube section.
“I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just hoping, eventually, the interviews will get better, the voice quality will be better,” Moy said.
Moy’s not sure where Chinatown Gang Stories goes next, though a documentary series is being produced about him and some of the featured characters. He said he would like to dig deeper into the stories of individuals like Wong and Tsui, and eventually bring the stories and those telling them together, perhaps in a group conversation.
“We’re not trying to glamorize this gang life. These are just facts. And the fact is, there was violence, there was betrayal, there was sorrow,” Moy said.
“If you don’t preserve history, you won’t be able to change lives.”
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