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Oakland's first gang-unit member recalls a dangerous Chinatown

Photo by Jean-Fabien. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jfl/4329536223/

In the 1980s, newspapers were regularly reporting on growing Asian gang problems in Oakland and in 1981 the Oakland police department created a special unit to address the issue.

Once the unit was formed the focus of the department was to develop trust between law enforcement and the Chinatown community. 

Harry Hu is the former gang-unit leader for the Oakland Police Department. He’s tall and burly, and – although he recently retired from the force – he still wears his gun and badge proudly on his belt. When he strolls down 8th Street, the foot patrol he followed every day in the early 80s, most people seem to recognize him – some wave and others stop to chat.

People are friendly now, but when Hu was first assigned here, they didn’t speak to him so freely. “People in Chinatown were very skeptical because they never really had any, you know, personal interaction with the police,” Hu explains. He says recent immigrants in particular had misgivings. “They come from war torn countries. They come from the third world, where the police was not there to protect the citizens and often they were corrupted. So they don’t trust the police.”

That made it hard to solve crimes in Oakland’s Chinatown. When Harry Hu was hired in 1981, he was the first bilingual Asian-American officer in the department. He spoke Cantonese, Mandarin and Toisanese. But, Hu says, because of his size, people assumed he wasn’t Chinese – and they didn’t realize he could understand them.

“People were just talking as I was walking down the street and say ‘man now they put a Hawaiian here’ you know, not knowing I was Chinese,” Hu remembers.

Eventually people in Chinatown figured it out and started talking to Hu. It took about six months, but pretty soon he says informants were coming to him. Some residents would even wait for Hu to come back from vacation to report urgent matters, such as robberies. In return for the information, he kept residents informed about law enforcement activities.

“Just them getting that information and feedback from Harry made them feel better,” says Hu’s former walking partner, Rodney Gee.

With the help of Chinatown merchants and residents, Hu and Gee learned everyone’s given names and nicknames and kept their pictures on file. Hu even knew many of the alleged criminals personally. In one major extortion incident, Hu says the entire case broke because of a nickname. “One of the suspects demanding the extortion money gave a nickname, and it was Rice Boy. And I remember who Rice Boy was because I had stopped him two weeks prior to that, and I said I know Rice Boy,” Hu explains.

That kind of success led to Harry Hu’s transfer to the Intelligence Unit in 1989. At the time, Asian organized crime was on the rise. Newspapers were constantly reporting on the growing gang phenomenon: “Fear of the 1997 Chinese takeover of Hong Kong has sent a flood of Asian investment into Chinese-American communities, creating new opportunities for both legitimate businesses and a new breed of criminal gangs,” wrote the Washington Post in 1984. The Post goes on to describe a growing Asian mafia in the U.S. that was responsible for a fifth of heroin imports into the country.

Harry Hu was working to stop those imports. As an officer in the OPD’s Intelligence Unit, he started working on the gang problem. And in 1991, Hu became part of Oakland’s first gang unit.  “I was there by myself with my partner, a two-people gang unit for the whole city of Oakland,” says Hu. They were busy, he adds.

Hu says one gang in particular that had formed in Oakland, called Wo Hop To, began to pose a major threat to the Chinatown community. In 1991, the gang conducted door-to-door extortions all over the neighborhood, as well as in San Francisco. Soon, the operation extended to other parts of the United States and China. Harry Hu says that’s when the FBI got involved. The FBI deputized Hu and Gee. That cross-designation meant the officers “could literally go anywhere within the U.S. and we would have authority as a federal agent,” Hu says.

Hu says, over time, the gang unit virtually eliminated organized crime in Chinatown. Officer Rodney Gee says the key to their success was knowing the criminals and the neighborhood in which they operated. “They get away with stuff when they’re anonymous, you don’t know who they are. But when you know them before they even commit the crime, boy you’ve got a big jump on them,” Gee says.

Hu says he doesn’t see many young people hanging out in Chinatown anymore. He thinks residents and merchants feel safe to a certain extent, but admits crime is still an issue. “But it’s not blatantly and right in front of you and causing a lot of problems for the community of Chinatown and threatening the wellbeing of Chinatown,” he says.

According to Hu, some of the men who used to threaten Chinatown have now turned their lives around. He says they’re family men now, with businesses. “We still see each other, you know, out in the street and talk about the old days and they say how stupid they were before,” he adds.

Hu retired from the Oakland Police Department in 2005, but the Gang Unit he helped build is still in operation. These days, Hu works as an inspector in the Alameda County DA’s Office, and he stays in touch with the Chinatown community. 

Today, Chinatown is a vibrant place, with markets and shoppers and crowded sidewalks. Harry Hu helped make it a safer place and broke the barrier between police and community. Now that’s a goal all over the country, but in Hu’s day, it was something extraordinary.

This story originally aired on June 16, 2010 as part of a series on Oakland's Chinatown.