Column: Caught in the crossfire

Gary Iwamoto August 18, 2015 0
Denise Louie. • File Photo

Denise Louie. • File Photo

“Community activist murdered in Chinatown.” That was the headline. A senseless shooting in the early hours of the morning. The authorities state the activist was not the intended target, that the activist was caught in a crossfire of bullets between rival gangs, that it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A community grieved. Uncle Bob gave a heartfelt eulogy, telling the mourners of the activist’s love for community, dedicated commitment as a dedicated Inter*im board member, and compassion for children. But this happened almost 38 years ago. The Chinatown in the headline wasn’t the International District. It was in San Francisco. The activist wasn’t Donnie Chin. It was Denise Louie.

In 1977, while visiting friends in San Francisco during the Labor Day Weekend, Denise was having an after-hours meal at the Golden Dragon Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. During that period of time, two rival gangs, the Wah Ching and the Joe Boys, were having a battle over control of turf in Chinatown. Members of each gang had been killed in the weeks leading up to the Labor Day Weekend. In the early hours of September 4, 1977, around 2:45 am, the Sunday before Labor Day, members of the Joe Boys went to the Golden Dragon in search of their rivals. The Joe Boys entered the restaurant with ski masks hiding their faces and started firing their weapons. The Wah Ching had been at the Restaurant but ducked down below the tables as the shooting started. They had all escaped the shooting. Five people, including Denise were killed, eleven others were injured. All of the victims were innocent bystanders. Denise had just turned 21.

At the time, Denise Louie was Inter*im’s youngest board member, a college student who had been one of Inter*im’s legion of activist volunteers. She helped build the Danny Woo International District Community Garden. Standing barely five feet tall, Denise was described by friends as a “dynamo,” a person of boundless energy. Just like Donnie has been described as everybody’s brother, Denise was everybody’s kid sister. Like Donnie, Denise donated many hours of her time to community service without expectation of glory.

Donnie and Denise were about the same age, both born around 1955-56. They were friends, very good friends. It was Donnie who brought attention to the need for a day care center in the International District. Children needed a place to be at while their parents worked. Immigrant children and families had no contact with established day care programs. At the time of her death, it was Denise who was chairperson of an Inter*im task force studying the feasibility of starting a day care center in the International District, a day care center which was eventually named in her honor. And when the Denise Louie Child Care Center opened its doors in the spring of 1978, among its staff was Donnie’s sister, Connie, who was then a program coordinator and teacher. Connie would also serve as Executive Director. Today, that day care center, now known as the Denise Louie Education Center, continues to thrive, expanding its services outside the International District to Beacon Hill and Seward Park.

When Denise was killed, Donnie blamed the “punks” and “thugs.” Donnie knew about the Chinese gangs in America. He attended and participated in countless anti-gang conferences and seminars. He monitored gang activity through federal circulars and updates. He learned that many of the Wah Ching gang members who had escaped the shooting at the Golden Dragon Restaurant, fled to Canada, stopping in Seattle on their way to Vancouver, in the aftermath of the shootings.

When the murders first occurred, the identities of those involved were hidden by the ski masks they wore. Intense pressure was placed on the San Francisco Police Department to solve the murders. Having unsolved murders was bad for business. Eventually, an anti-gan task force was formed. A huge reward ($100,000) was offered. Informants gave the killers up. Six months later, ironically, when Inter*im announced plans to open the Denise Louie Day Care Center in March of 1978, the first arrest of the five involved in the Golden Dragon murders was announced in San Francisco. The killers were caught, tried, and convicted. Three of them were convicted of first degree murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment and as of 2013, were still incarcerated.

As in Denise’s case, Donnie’s killers will be caught, tried, and convicted. As in Denise’s case, it may turn out that those involved in Donnie’s killing will face imprisonment for their remainder of their lives and waste whatever future they had because they chose to solve their conflicts with a gun. History, sometimes, has a cruel way of repeating itself. We mourned Denise then, we mourn Donnie now. We can’t forget.

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Developing: Investigation of Donnie Chin murder continues, community looks forward

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