Sunday, March 7, 2004

NEW YORK - New York’s Chinatown, once the scene of brutal feuds between gangs such as the Flying Dragons and Ghost Shadows, is witnessing a new turf war that police are blaming for up to three unsolved killings.

The unlikely protagonists are the owners and operators of rival bus services that offer discount tickets to cities such as Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.

Violence linked to the dispute has reached such a high level that police launched a raid last week, seizing 16 buses from various bargain-line operators.

Although the raid ostensibly was to check for safety violations, many in the close-knit Chinatown community took it as a clear warning that official patience with the feuding was wearing extremely thin.

“There is an ongoing dispute concerning bus routes,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

“There was some violence attended to it last week — the stabbing of a bus driver and another individual on East Broadway,” Mr. Kelly said. “We’re looking for information anyone might have about what’s going on.”

Bad blood turned into spilled blood in May last year, when two operators of the Dragon Coach USA company were driving through Chinatown in Lower Manhattan.

Another car drew alongside, and gunmen opened fire. Chen Dejian, the company’s financial-affairs officer, tried to escape but was chased on foot and fatally shot.

Mr. Chen had been involved in an incident the previous year, when he backed a vehicle into the manager of a rival bus outfit, New Century, breaking his pelvis.

After Mr. Chen’s shooting, two New Century buses were torched and a headless torso, which has yet to be formally linked to the turf war, turned up nearby.

In October, a man who was accused of trying to extort a bus-company owner was stabbed to death, and police think the bus wars also were behind a shootout in January, when two men opened fire outside the Super Taste House restaurant with an AK-47 assault rifle and a handgun, killing a man in his 30s.

The discount-bus companies have been around for more than a decade, touting their low fares — just $10 to Boston — at an unofficial depot under the Manhattan Bridge.

Initially, the clientele was almost exclusively Chinese, and it was the discovery of the service by non-Chinese about two years ago that transformed a sideline business into a serious earner.

With competition for passengers intensifying, a police task-force report made it clear that intimidation had become a common tool.

“Strong-arm tactics are used and reprisals with the vandalism of each other’s buses,” the report said. “At times, scare tactics and physical beatings are even used upon customers to ensure that they do not utilize competitors’ services.”

Most of the bus owners and operators are relatively new immigrants from China’s Fujian province.

According to Robin Mui, a journalist with the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily here, the violence stems from operators’ desire to protect their foothold in what is a lucrative alternative to the traditional Chinatown restaurant and garment industries.

“Unfortunately, it’s getting out of hand,” Mr. Mui said. “The police are right to put the pressure on. Otherwise, it could become a total disaster.

“That AK-47 shooting happened in the middle of the night … about 40 shots. Imagine if it happened on a crowded street on a crowded day — you’d be looking at a war zone,” he said.

Leaders of Chinatown’s Fujianese community, such as Steven Wong, have tried to negotiate among the bus owners, who often are reluctant to work together.

“We’ve held some talks, but the results are usually short term,” Mr. Wong said. “They behave for a little while, but then it starts again. They’re like little kids. It’s a new business, and they didn’t get used to it yet.”

After the police raid, which he described as a “wake-up call,” Mr. Wong said he had called another roundtable meeting.

“I’m trying to tell them that if they can’t work it out between themselves, we will have no option but to talk to the community board and suggest they shut down everything.”

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