The Golden Dragon massacre: A bloody rampage in 1970s SF (2023)

It started with a dispute over illegal firework sales and ended with a rampage in a San Francisco restaurant that in under 60 seconds left five innocent bystanders dead, and 11 injured.

Here's the story of 1977's Golden Dragon Massacre and the Chinatown underground war between two rival street gangs, the Joe Boys and the Wah Ching, that led three teenage shooters to carry out one of the worst mass murders in San Francisco history.

San Francisco in '70s was a bloody, violent city. So many high profile crimes occurred during that period that a gang-fueled bloodbath in the middle of Chinatown is often a footnote to the chaos.

Only a few years after the hippie utopia of the Summer of Love, mid-70s San Francisco was embattled in violence and bloodshed. The racially-motivated “Zebra” murders claimed up to 70 lives, causing panic across the city. Jim Jones gathered his doomed herd at his headquarters on Geary Street. The Symbionese Liberation Army had kidnapped 19-year-old Patty Hearst from her Berkeley apartment and the Zodiac Killer was still on the loose.

But as racially-provoked slaughters, heiress kidnappings and serial killing sprees were unfolding elsewhere in the city, a feud was erupting between the street gangs of Chinatown.

The Golden Dragon slaughter came after years of battle between the two rival gangs over control of protection rackets, gambling and prostitution. In less than a decade, the street warfare would claim over fifty lives, largely in and around the narrow streets and alleys of Chinatown.

Bill Lee, an author and former member of the Joe Boys, wrote that the Wah Ching gang was formed in San Francisco in the '60s by Hong Kong-born immigrants, who had long been belittled and tormented by American-born Chinese. “These guys grew up on the rough streets of Hong Kong and Macao where gangs were hardcore. Many had spent a good part of their youth in brutal prisons. This was now their Chinatown,” Lee wrote.

In the late '60s the Joe Boys, who came to control the Sunset District, splintered off from the Wah Ching, who continued to rule Chinatown.
Three infamous murderous episodes over holiday weekends in 1977 — Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day — would bring the warfare of the city's Chinese underworld screaming into the public consciousness.

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In May 1977, Wah Ching member Kin Chuen Louie was shot by an unknown assailant over ten times as he tried to escape in his car on Kearny Street. North Beach poet Michael McClure was the first to find the body and memorialized Louie's death in his poem, "The Death of Kin Chuen Louie," which included the line, "we arrived on the empty street and looked through shattered glass at the young Chinese man, blood pouring out of the holes in his head."

The murderous tit-for-tat gang war saw no end, and the battle for Chinatown was fought by child soldiers.

On July 4 of that year, a dispute over the control of lucrative firework sales between the gangs led to a shootout at the Ping Yuen housing project on Stockton and Pacific that killed a 16-year-old gang member. “It was Dodge City in Chinatown. Weapons were drawn and gunfire erupted, with gangsters running up and down the street, ducking behind cars and into doorways, blasting at one another,” Lee wrote.

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The wild gun battle at the apartment complex, where the sound of gunshots popped amid the Independence Day fireworks, left teenager Felix Huey dead, and wounded another Joe Boy member, Melvin Yu.

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When the Joe Boys visited Huey's grave they found it had been urinated on and vandalized. They were furious, and demanded revenge. The gang began to plan a bigger, more memorable attack, right in Wah Ching's favorite hangout, the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Washington Street.

Over the following months the Joe Boys, led by Tom Yu, prepared for the attack. They stole a blue Dodge Dart, acquired firearms and stockpiled the weapons in a Pacifica apartment that belonged to a friend. On Labor Day weekend 1977, they gathered there and arranged for a friend to tip them off when the Wah Ching members were seen at the restaurant.

That Saturday night the boys smoked weed, drank beer and waited by the phone.

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The call came at 2 a.m. on Sunday. The Wah Ching were eating at the Golden Dragon, and among them 20-year-old Michael "Hot Dog" Louie, the leader of the gang, was seen.

Four Joe Boys — Chester Yu, Curtis Tam, Melvin Yu, and Peter Ng, all only 17 years of age — loaded the Dodge with the guns and drove the stolen car up 280 from Pacifica to San Francisco. Ringleader Tom Yu, who was later likened to Charles Manson by an arresting officer, did not go to San Francisco that night, sending his minions in his stead.

They rolled up to 818 Washington street shortly after 2.30 a.m. Tom's brother, Chester, double-parked the Dodge, left it running outside the restaurant and waited in the driver's seat while the others donned nylon stocking masks and picked their weapons — a .45-caliber Commando Mark III rifle, two 12 gauge pump-action shotguns, and a .38-caliber revolver. Melvin Yu, who had been shot in the July 4 firefight, wanted to do the most damage and grabbed .45 automatic rifle.

The Golden Dragon was a popular spot to grab a bowl of noodles and hang out after a Saturday night of drinking in North Beach. Around 100 late night diners were in the restaurant at 2.40 a.m., when a bloodbath ensued.

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The tip was accurate, the targets of the killings were indeed in the restaurant that night, including Hot Dog Louie and around ten other Wah Ching members. They were seated in a booth in the upper, mezzanine level.

One of the gang members in Louie’s booth looked out onto Washington Street and saw a man running outside with a sawed-off shotgun, followed by a second man brandishing a long-barrel shotgun. A third man, holding a semi-automatic, stared through the window, looking for his prey. “Man with a gun!” was yelled in Cantonese, and Louie leapt across the aisle and ducked down as the three gunmen burst through the doors.

The masked shooters entered and fanned out through the restaurant, peppering the crowd of innocent diners with gunfire.

Melvin Yu walked directly up to a man at a table and shot him nine times, continuing to fire after the victim had fallen to the floor. Yu then redirected his automatic rifle and shot randomly into the crowd, accompanied by two shotgun blasts from the other gunmen.

That first victim, later identified as Paul Wada, a law student at USF known for his volunteer work, was likely misidentified as a gang member by Yu.

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Curtis Tam later claimed that he had been forced to join the shooting and deliberately did not target any diners. "I heard Melvin start shooting, then Peter. I fired my first shot at the sofa. The second I aimed where nobody was," he said in his confession, claiming to have killed no-one.

When asked at trial why he didn't just stay in Pacifica, Tam responded, “I don’t know my way around there. They don’t have BART or a bus.”

Comedian Philip Proctor — the voice of Bo the Seahorse in Finding Nemo — was eating at the Golden Dragon after performing at the Great American Music Hall that night and later testified in the case.

Two off-duty armed police officers were also dining at the Golden Dragon during the attack. They radioed for help and pulled their revolvers but were unable get a shot off at the gunman as restaurant goers were blocking their line of fire.

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After a minute of gunfire the shooters exited the restaurant, climbed into the stolen Dodge and raced out of Chinatown.

None of the 5 dead or 11 wounded at the Golden Dragon that night were affiliated with any gangs.

Beyond USF student Wada, the dead included Denise Louie, a tourist visiting from Seattle; Calvin Fong, a high school honor student; Donald Kwan, a San Francisco steel worker and Fong Wong, a 48-year-old waiter with seven children who was looking forward to his first day off in two weeks.

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The killers made it back to the Pacifica apartment without pursuit, where they stayed up all night discussing the massacre, before breaking down the weapons and dropping them into the Bay near San Francisco Airport the following day.

The city was stunned and Chinatown became ghost town at night, but a code of silence took hold of the terrified residents. No arrests were made and the violence didn't stop.

The following week two teenage Joe Boys not involved in the restaurant massacre were shot and killed near their apartment in the Richmond in a revenge killing by suspected Wah Ching gunmen.

The SFPD grew frustrated at not being able to identify the killers. Chief Charles Gain criticized the Chinatown community for its silence and "abdication of responsibility" due to "the subculture of fear" of reprisals.

The founder of the Joe Boys who had been jailed for an earlier killing, Joe Fong, said in an interview from prison that the SFPD were corrupt and paid to protect gambling rackets in Chinatown.


Mayor George Moscone announced that an unprecedented $100,000 reward would be given by the city for information leading to the conviction of the killers, yet still no arrests were made.

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Six months later, after another gun battle in Portsmouth Square that left two Wah Ching members injured, the reward was eventually collected by Robert Woo of the Joe Boys. Woo had been arrested for his involvement in the Portsmouth Square shooting and subsequently turned informant, providing SFPD with a tape recording of Curtis Tam talking about what went down at the Golden Dragon.

Tam, a student at Galileo High School at the time, became the first to be arrested, and subsequently implicated the others. At his trial Tam claimed, "They made me do it. If I didn't shoot somebody then they'd say, you know, I'm chicken. I don't think I shot anybody 'cause I didn't aim at anybody."

The three shooters, ringleader Tom Yu, and his brother, getaway driver Chester Yu, were all eventually arrested and convicted.

The guns were retrieved from the shallow waters of the bay, and further arrests were made of other gang members involved in the plan, resulting in a total of nine arrests.

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At the trial, shooters Melvin Yu and Peter Ng were found guilty on multiple counts of first degree murder. Tam, who claimed he acted under duress, was found guilty of second degree murder and Tom Yu, who was described as an “evil, evil person,” by arresting officer Daniel Foley, was found guilty on five counts of first degree murder. All received prison sentences of over 20 years. Three further convictions were made in closed juvenile court proceedings.

Michael "Hot Dog" Louie, the head of the Wah Ching gang, was imprisoned later in 1977 after shooting his 18-year-old girlfriend in the head. Louie claimed he just wanted to scare her after being angered that she was "whoring around with Joe Boys." He said that he put an unloaded gun to her head as she was sleeping and pulled the trigger. Although he had removed the clip to unload it, the chamber still held a live round and he shot and killed her at point-blank range. He dumped her body near Stinson Beach.

Robert Woo, the informant who collected the $100,000 reward, was killed during a shootout with police while robbing a jewelry shop in LA in 1984.

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The Golden Dragon restaurant remained open until 2006, when it changed hands and reopened as the Imperial Palace Restaurant. It still bears the gold signage "Golden Dragon Dining" on its green tiled exterior.

San Francisco was near-broken from the violence of the '70s, and pressure was put on the authorities to clean up the city. Shortly after the bloodshed the SFPD established the Chinatown Gang Task Force.

The Joe Boys disbanded shortly after the convictions, leaving the Wah Ching full reign over the underworld, but the police task force successfully stopped their crime spree, and is credited with ending gang-related violence in Chinatown by 1983.

None of the convicted Joe Boys are still behind bars, some returned to Hong Kong after their release, others stayed in San Francisco.

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Curtis Tam was paroled in 1991 and went on to work as a radiologist in Fairfield for nearly 30 years. Foley, the SFPD officer who arrested Tam, befriended him while he was in prison.

“Tam was a good kid who got caught up in Mr. Yu’s psycho-pathological plan. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Foley said at a court appearance seeking a pardon for Tam in 2018, where he also revealed that he was godfather to Tam's child.

Tam, who was 17 and had only been in the country for four months at the time of the killings, wrote, at the age of 58, “There isn’t a day that goes by without me wishing that I could turn back the hands of time. I want to apologize to the living victims and the relatives of the deceased victims. I am truly sorry.”

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