Chinese Playground
by Bill Lee
Rhapsody Press, San Francisco, 1999, 277 pp, $28
An unembellished, unapologetic rememberance of surviving a hard-luck Chinese family and a tough neighborhood. A valuable, engrossing insider's expose that cuts through the slick and hoary cliches about Chinese gangs.


he playground was our headquarters for selling fireworks. Compared to shining shoes at the park for ten cents, this was much more lucrative, and in our minds, worth the risks. We hid packs and cases (bricks) of firecrackers in the bushes, the sandbox and even under the merry-go-round. Then we positioned ourselves on the perimeter of Chinatown to solicit sales -- Grant Avenue from Bush to California; the intersection of Washington and Kearny; even Pacific and Columbus Avenues, bordering North Beach. The cable car stops, streets near the freeway exit ramps and other main roads leading into Chinatown were also prime locations for us to pitch our wares on weeks preceding the Fourth of July.
     Out-of-town customers drove up, rolled down their windows, paid for and received their merchandise, then went on their way. You can say we offered drive-thru service. Some of us peddled during Chinese New Year's, but the demand for fireworks was much greater for the Fourth of July.
     An informal cooperative existed among the dealers, and prices were established by concensus (price-fixing). Individuals deviating and undercutting to generate sales were beaten up and ostracized.
     We used the same supplier, shared information on police undercover operations and teamed up to split large sales. When a dealer had his fireworks confiscated by the cops, the rest of us chipped in to replenish his stash in order to cushion the loss. There was no need to be greedy. We realized that the more we worked together and honored our "code", the higher the profits for everyone.
     We also protected one another when there was trouble. Anyone trying to rip one of us off wouldn't make it out of Chinatown. Everyone dropped what they were doing and went after the perpetrator. Cocky, smart-assed outsiders were also beaten up and robbed of their money.

Chinese Playground

    The older dealers preferred selling in large volumes and pushing stronger explosives such as cherry and barrel bombs (M-80s). They intimidated the younger white kids which created a mrket for me. I was content making my money selling individual packs.
    In the early 60s, when I started in the business, I paid six cents for a pack that contained sixteen firecrackers. I turned around and sold them for twenty-five cents (individual firecrackers were sold for five cents), turning a good profit. Five years later, my costs remained the same but I doubled my selling price to fifty cents per pack.
     I learned from shining shoes that building rapport with customers was an integral part of business. Whether polishing wing-tips or selling packs of firecrackers, it helped for me to stand out among my competitors. Clients who preferred to deal with me were a testimonial that they trusted and enjoyed doing business with me.
     Trust is important in the black market. We used aliases and mine was Ron. (I never liked my name -- William Lee; too common. It didn't seem to fit me.) When kids came into the playground and asked specifically for Ron, it made me feel special.


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