Small, thin, balding and wearing a wrinkled dress shirt with rolled up sleeves, Tony Young looks more like a worried store clerk than the reputed head of the Los Angeles area Wah Ching, a vast organized Asian gang with ties to international gangsters.
Known as Mat Joe, or “Sweet Plum,” by close friends, police and even teen-age street hoodlums who have never met him, Young, 40, was listed last year as a top Asian gang leader in a report on a U.S. Senate investigation into Asian organized crime in this country.
His name frequently pops up in police investigations in the San Gabriel Valley and in Chinese newspaper articles about his alleged criminal activity.
But Young denies it all.
“I’m just an average businessman,” he said in a recent interview in his attorney’s Century City office.
The man who said he doesn’t talk to police (“Never! Never! What for?”) consented to an interview in an attempt to counter what he says is a criminal reputation spun by authorities who circulate his name in affidavits and investigative reports. He has been probed nonstop by various agencies for nine years, Young said.
“If they think I’m so big, why don’t they arrest me?” he asks.
The investigations and a recent law enforcement raid on his Monterey Park home have prompted caution. A reporter seeking him, sight unseen, at his home was turned away by Young himself, who answered the door.
“He doesn’t live here anymore,” Young told the reporter.
At his lawyer’s office, Young is accompanied by a younger, affable and impeccably groomed man in a business suit who identifies himself only as Eddy and who speaks to Young in Chinese periodically during the interview.
“My English, he’s my translator,” Young says.
Then, with an air of resigned and wounded puzzlement, Young told of his life. Only occasionally did his voice deepen in authority--the tone a gangster might use to threaten hirelings, or perhaps only the passion of a misunderstood man?
Born in Shanghai, Young said he spent most of his teen years in Hong Kong until he came to Los Angeles with his family in 1969. The youngest of six children, the nickname “Sweet Plum” was given him he said, “because I was small and nice, like a sweet plum.”
Although he attended Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles, his poor English forced him to drop out and get odd jobs in restaurants and supermarkets, he said.
Young recalled only one arrest from that time: in 1972, for smoking a cigarette in a movie theater.
“I think it was because of (my) race,” he said of the arrest. “They took me to the station and I had to pay $100 bail.”
For about three years, he managed nightclubs in Chinatown. Another arrest occurred in 1977: for driving under the influence of alcohol after he left a club late at night, he said.
Eventually, he started his own Chinese-video marketing company. He went on to organize concert tours for Asian performers in the United States from offices in Alhambra and San Francisco, he said.
Along the way, he said he married twice, became a stepfather to a 13-year-old boy, acquired a Spanish-style home in Monterey Park (valued at $398,472 on county property records) and became a U.S. citizen.
He bristles when he recalls a 1984 arrest for extortion. Charges were never filed against him.
“How can they say that? How can they prove that?” he said, his voice rising and his hands waving angrily. “I hate extortion. Never! I hate extortion against our own people.”
But Young’s benign version of his life contrasts with the one given by law enforcement officials and investigative reports.
According to those sources, Young made a living early on as a well-known hoodlum on the streets of Chinatown, where he was arrested numerous times for extortion and assault in the 1970s, a number of authorities say.
In those days, the contest for gang dominance was between the Joe Boys and the Wah Ching. The Wah Ching won and the Joe Boys faded away.
Los Angeles officials say Young disappeared for a few years after that and was not seen in the Los Angeles area. Although he never was convicted of criminal wrongdoings, Young was frequently investigated in subsequent years.
After the 1984 extortion arrest, a 1988 U.S. Justice Department report said Young appeared to manage gambling operations for the Wah Ching and was involved in gang infiltration of the Chinese videocassette business.
In last year’s report by the U.S. Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, Young was named as a former lieutenant to Vincent Jew, identified as a former Wah Ching leader in Northern California. The report said Young moved from San Francisco to head the Wah Ching in Southern California. Young also was listed as part of the Sun Yee On Triad, a Hong Kong criminal organization.
According to the report, Young and Jew ran Grandview Productions Inc., a promotion company. State corporate records list a San Francisco office as the headquarters for the company with Jew as the president.
On Jan. 2 last year, the state Franchise Tax Board suspended Grandview’s license for failure to file a September, 1990, corporate tax return. The company reformed in July, 1990, as AGP Productions with Vincent Kwok as president and its headquarters in Alhambra .
Young’s attorney, Harland Braun, calls the police version of Young’s life a myth and a self-perpetuating rumor.
Non-Chinese speaking detectives anxious to justify their time-consuming investigations rely on rumors picked up from unreliable informants or even other police officers who are transformed in affidavits as unnamed “informants,” Braun said.
Detectives use these rumors to secure search warrants that, Braun maintains, are nothing more than broad hunts for evidence, not investigations into specific crimes.
“What hard evidence do they have?” Braun asked. “All they have to do is write up an affidavit for a search warrant. The judges don’t exercise any judgment. See if you can find a warrant that’s ever been rejected in the last few years.”
The result is a carousel of allegations that never stops because the government never admits it has made a mistake, Braun said.
Young himself dates the start of intense police and public attention from his 1984 extortion arrest.
“The FBI held a press conference and from that day, it’s like they put a coat on me,” he said.
His promotion business has suffered from the allegations because some in the entertainment business are afraid to work with him, he said. A few of his employees quit when federal investigators began asking about him, he said. He is delayed by customs officials for hours when he travels abroad, as are some of his entertainers entering the country to perform here, he said. Police appeared at one of his company’s concerts last year to take pictures of audience members and officers followed Young home afterward.
The negative publicity and investigations also exact a personal toll. Young said he rarely entertains in Chinese restaurants or clubs for fear that allegations of extortion will be raised.
After police searched his house on May 12 as part of a raid in the San Gabriel Valley, Young said he had to cope with a newfound distrust and suspicion in the eyes of his stepson, whose photograph was taken by police during the raid, Young said.
“I told him, ‘What do you see? I take you to school every day and I come home from work,’ “Young said. “But what he actually saw is the police came into my home. What can he believe?”
“My name is frequently in the newspapers,” Young said, adding that he was recently erroneously confused with another Tony Young arrested last year on federal drug charges in San Francisco.
“My wife was very supportive, but after the raid on my house, she feels bad,” Young said. “I’m thinking of moving out of Los Angeles. That’s the only way. What can I do? What can I do?”
Braun said police have put Young into the impossible position of proving a negative.
“How is he to prove he is not the head of the Wah Ching?” the attorney asked.