When the body of an unidentified Asian man is found in the Harlem River, NYPD Detective Jack Yu is pulled in to investigate. The murder takes Jack from the benevolent associations of Chinatown to the take-out restaurants, strip clubs, and underground gambling establishments of the Bronx, to a wealthy, exclusive New Jersey borough. It’s a world of secrets and unclear allegiances, of Chinatown street gangs and major Triad players. With the help of an elderly fortune teller and an old friend, the unpredictable Billy Bow, Jack races to solve his most difficult case yet.
“The best Jack Yu mystery yet! Death Money is a lightning-speed sordid tale that travels through the dark alleys of bygone
New York City Chinese restaurants. Chester Himes, the master of
Harlem mysteries, would have been proud.”
—Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award-winning author of Murder on Bamboo Lane
“Think you know New York? Then let Henry Chang show you around. This is tough crime fiction that reaches into the darkest corners of Chinatown and beyond, written with a deep understanding of the world through which Detective Jack Yu moves, and a soulful compassion for those who inhabit it. Every word has the ring of truth about it.”
“Chinatown is the hero here. Better say antihero, because while the picture is vivid and often compelling, it’s anything but pretty.”
Read an Excerpt
THE MORNING BROUGHT Jack back to the side streets behind the Tombs facility. He was looking for Vincent Chin, editor of the United National, Chinatown’s oldest Chinese language newspaper. Vincent had assisted Jack on previous Chinatown cases by providing not only what was fit to print, but also neighborhood gossip, street talk and unsubstantiated chatter from old women and shiftless men in smoky coffee shops.
The United National was Chinatown’s hometown paper, and had been Pa’s favorite.
Jack followed the streets leading into TriBeCa, the gentrified “triangle” of streets below the Canal Street thoroughfare. He’d brought along two containers of nai cha tea from Eddie’s.
The National was located in a renovated storefront on White Street across from the Men’s Mission, and was the only Chinatown newspaper without a color section. The pressmen still typeset by hand the thousands of Chinese characters needed to go to print. Vincent, who looked younger than his forty years, was in the copy room reviewing what the pressmen had laid out when Jack walked in.
“In my office,” Vincent said.“I’ll be a few minutes.”
A SMALL OFFICE, but on the editorial desk along the wall, Vincent had laid out an array of Chinese news articles, arranged in a loose chronological order, featuring Bossy Jook Mun Gee and his family.
Jack couldn’t read all the Chinese words, but he scanned the accompanying photographs and could figure out what the story was about. Everything in black and white, Cantonese block characters like ideographs.
The first news article, in a “Profiles” piece, was a full-page historical perspective on three generations of a prominent family.
The Gees were an old-line Chinatown family, dating their presence in New York City to 1925, to the remnants of the bachelor generation. There was a posed studio photo of the patriarch, Gee Duck Hong, with floral accents and a Chinese landscape in the background.
Old man Gee started Dynasty Noodles, which became the largest Chinese pasta manufacturing company on the East Coast. Expanded the gwai lo taste for lo mein, chow mein and wonton noodles. A gum shan mountain of noodles.
There was a photo of Bossy Jook Mun Gee, who’d been promoted to director at Dynasty Noodles, and in a separate photo with his young sons, Gary and Francis, attending local gifted schools.
Jack smiled. Three generations of a successful, assimilated Chinese-American family.
“What the article doesn’t mention,” Vincent said, coming into the closet office, “is that the old man Gee Duck was in bed with the Hip Ching Association, and had his greedy fingers big time in paper identities, and illegal alcohol, and untaxed cigarettes.”
“Good morning.” Jack grinned.
“Morning.” Vincent smiled. “The old man had Triad connections with the Hok Nam Moon in Toishan, and to an import-export company that tied him to the opium and heroin trade.”
“Nice guy,” Jack said.
“The article doesn’t mention his arrests for bookmaking, extortion and gambling rackets. All before my time,” Vincent said. “In 1950, his partner in Dynasty Noodles died mysteriously while on a trip to Taiwan—something about a traffic accident and a heart attack.”
Jack took a sip of his nai cha. Bossy was known to be a backer of the Hip Ching gambling dens, Chinatown liquor stores and dry-goods companies he could manipulate to smuggle contraband.
The Chinatown buildings the old man bought, with the backing of the Gee Association, when nobody wanted them back in the 1930s, were now worth untold millions. Vincent added, after taking a moment to add brown sugar to his tea, “They have an office on Pell Street. Manage all the real estate and businesses there.”
The second article included a photo of a younger Bossy, maybe fortyish, smiling on a pristine lot of land in Edgewater, New Jersey, not far from the Yaohan Plaza Japanese sushi mall on the waterfront.
It was an architectural feature, translated from Design Digest magazine. Bossy James Gee was planning a large renovation of his house to accommodate an extended immigrant family. The article featured a rendering of the house with all the latest gadgets and accoutrements: a koi garden inside a security perimeter, a two-car garage, a satellite dish, an outdoor pool with a hot tub.
His sons looked older in the accompanying photo. Teenagers? One much taller than the other. Standing off in the distance. Dad, doing all the posing, and talking for them all.
A modern family in a suburban setting.
There was no mention of the actual address of the site, but a traffic sign in the photo showed its proximity to Yaohan Plaza.
Attached was a little follow-up article on complaints from longtime residents of Edgewater about Asians building “monster homes” in the area. Bossy’s neighbors, citing construction noise and inconveniences and traffic problems, complained that the large, three-level houses were ostentatious and detracted from the “rustic simplicity” of the neighborhood.
“Same thing happened in Vancouver and Toronto. And other places,” said Vincent. “Wealthy Chinese immigrants arrive in a formerly all-white area. They buy a house, tear it down. Then they build a giant multi-level house on the plot, to the resentment of the neighbors.” He blew the steam off his tea. “Hey, Asians have big families, right? But it’s caused big problems. Whole Chinese communities have been uprooted in the face of what some consider racism, and moved to more isolated but friendlier locations.”
The fourth piece was an investigative report on surveillance operations conducted by the OCCB—the Organized Crime Control Board—focusing on Jook Mun “James” Gee as a member of the Hip Ching tong, being investigated for illegal gambling, smuggling contraband and affiliation with the notorious Chinatown Black Dragons street gang. Possible ATF investigation. The Hip Chings themselves were targets of a federal probe into RICO—Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization—activities.
Bossy had hired Solomon Schwartz, one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the city. There were no indictments. Schwartz got “circumstantial evidence” dismissed at that point.
“They nicknamed him ‘Bossy,’” Vincent continued, “because of the way he liked to order people around. Bossy Gee, only son of the legendary Gee Duck Hong. Fifteen years ago he was accused of hiring an underaged Chinese girl for a massage, and then molesting her. The teenager wanted to press charges, but her mother stopped her, and the case
was settled out of court.”
Did Bossy pay off the family, or threaten them?
“Rumor has it that Bossy’s wife wanted a divorce,” Vincent said, “But he refused. Eventually she moved back to family in Taiwan. Guess she felt that she’d lost face and didn’t wanted to hear Chinatown gossip.”
Two small news items were taped together. One featured an honor guard of old Chinese veterans from the local American Legion post placing a wreath at the Kimlau Gate on Memorial Day, honoring Chinatown’s war dead. The other item was a mention of a military funeral proceeding out of the Wah Fook parlor. A photo of Marines in parade dress uniforms, shouldering the flag-draped coffin of Gary Ying Hong Gee, on Mulberry Street. Another photo showing Gary posing proudly in uniform.
Both men were quiet for a moment as they sipped their teas.
“The story is that Gary Gee wanted to serve his country and then use the GI Bill to go to college. He wanted to study law, wanted to make a difference. He wanted to earn it on his own, not use his father’s Chinatown influence. Joining the Marines seemed like a good choice.” Jack knew what Vincent meant. Despite a few global hotspots, it had been a peace-time military, with the United States patrolling the world.
“Gary was the tangerine of his father’s eye,” Vincent added. “But almost at the end of his tour, there was a Hezbollah truck bomb attack on a Marine barracks. You probably remember, it was in the Middle East. Twelve thousand pounds of TNT killed two hundred Marines. Gary was one of them.”
They stared at the photo of the military funeral outside the Wah Fook.
“His father and grandfather were devastated, mourning the death of their favorite child. They had twenty five cars in the funeral cortege. Younger brother Frank went along, but didn’t hide his displeasure at being forced to go to the cemetery. He got into a fight with a photographer from one of the other dailies.” There was a small photo of Frank, a scowling juvenile face, fists clenched and cocked at the
Jack imagined the casket being lowered into the ground, a soldier trumpeting taps in the background.
“The old man, Duck Hong, died a couple of months ago.” Vincent frowned. “He had a heart attack at home. Not many details, just an obituary. Apparently they handled all the details in New Jersey.”
“They didn’t want to publicize a natural death?” Jack said, guessing aloud.
Vincent shrugged, didn’t have an answer.
After a run of bad press, was Bossy just trying to stay out of the limelight? Jack wondered. Just trying to run his business low key? Was there more to the story? Money, he heard Ah Por’s whisper again, evil. He swept the news items and photos into a folder and pocketed them inside his jacket.
Jack thanked Vincent, and they agreed to do dim sum sometime. He knew Vincent would appreciate an inside scoop when the case got resolved.
Taking the side streets back into Chinatown, Jack headed for Pell Street, where the Hip Ching ruled, with the vicious muscle of the Black Dragons. Looking for a prominent man from a powerful Chinatown family, and for answers to questions still floating in the frigid morning.
THE FIVE-STORY BROWN-BUILDING at the corner of Mott and Pell was one of the few that still featured Chinese roof architecture, curved tiles that resembled lengths of green bamboo on a slanted, pagoda-style facade.
A Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop occupied the large storefront on Mott, but the building’s entrance was at 36 Pell.
The second-floor apartments had all been converted to commercial offices featuring large picture windows that overlooked the busy corner. Signs in the windows promoted a Hong Kong travel agency, an immigration lawyer, an accountant and a real-estate broker. Jack wondered if the Hip Chings owned the building.
Many of the Chinatown tongs and family associations had a history of purchasing buildings on the same street where their clan headquarters were located. In Depression-era New York City, many white building owners desperately sought to liquidate their holdings to reduce landlord liabilities, and in turn, the Chinatown Chinese snapped up whatever properties they could.
Jack also wondered if Bossy Gee, a Hip Ching crony, owned a piece of the building.
He stepped into Number 36 and scanned the office listings posted on the wall.
Bossy’s company, Golden Mountain Realty, was away from the window offices out front, but was the first room off the short flight of stairs. Gold, plastic letters, GOLDEN MOUNTAIN REALTY, gleamed above the entrance.
The industrial gray door was a neat piece of hardware—solid steel with a top half-panel of thick glass, heavy-duty locks and door handle—the kind of door you’d expect at a ghetto check-cashing place, not a Chinatown realty office.
The other doors on the landing were pushovers by comparison.
He pressed the door button and waited. He noticed the surveillance camera, high over his left shoulder in the far corner of the window wall. Covered all the businesses and residents’ comings and goings. On the other side of the glass panel was a reception area, a pretty lady behind a desk with a computer screen and phone/fax setup. She looked to be in her thirties, was probably older but still kept herself looking good. Business jacket, professional look.
She buzzed him in.
Jack badged her right away. She seemed to be alone in the office, and he wanted to put her at ease. “I need to speak with Mr. Gee,” Jack said, glancing at the open door to an empty inner office. The place had a new-car smell.
“He’s not here today,” she answered in her smiling Hong Kong Cantonese, “But I can try to call him. What is this about, ah sir?”
“Just tell him it’s a police matter.” Jack smiled politely as she gestured toward one of the quilted black leather chairs. Knockoffs from China, he thought. He sat down as she made the call, scanning the office. There were real estate postings on the walls, photos of various buildings in Chinatown, and other locations in the Tri-State area. Commercial as well as residential properties. Most of the listings centered near Chinese or Asian communities—Chinatowns, K-Towns and J-Towns, Little Saigon/Malaysia/Bombay, etc. There was a long counter on the wall behind him where the realty sections from various Chinese-language newspapers featured their own listings/properties.
One of the listings was a luxury home in Edgewater, New Jersey: 88 Edgewater Lane.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s not picking up. He may be in the field.” She sounded like she’d practiced the line.
“Could you try once more?” Jack asked, nodding his thank you as she tried the call again. He wondered if she was being loyal to her boss, Bossy Gee, and was just playing him, the chaai lo, along. He noted the Edgewater listings address, tried to recall Singarette’s notation on the New Jersey bus map. She let her call continue for a full minute before announcing, “He’s still not picking up. Sorry.”
“Can you try his cell phone?”
She called, but after a few seconds said, “It’s going to voicemail.”
Jack extended his NYPD detective’s card to her.
“Please have him call me,” he said.
“Ho ahh,” she smiled. “Certainly.”
She buzzed him out, and as he stepped back through the heavy door, he felt like he’d beaten lockdown at Rikers.
She was still smiling at him as he turned away from the hallway camera and stepped back down the stairs to Pell Street.
OUTSIDE THE FIFTH Precinct on Elizabeth Alley, he looked for the undercover cars and found an old Chevy Impala, its NYPD parking placard visible on the dash.
The sergeant at the duty desk didn’t recognize him at first, and continued reviewing the assignments on his roster as he gave Jack another once-over.
“The Chevy’s with Fields and Malone,” he said finally, tossing Jack the cars keys. “They’re in court until the end of the shift.”
“I’ll have it back before then,” Jack promised. “Thanks.”
He ran the engine a few minutes, letting the Impala warm up before heading for the West Side Highway toward the George Washington Bridge. The GWB would take him across the Hudson into Fort Lee, New Jersey.
He didn’t know the area well but figured he could find Edgewater directly, since it was part of the same county.
Henry Chang was born and raised in New York’s Chinatown, where he still lives. He is a graduate of Pratt Institute and CCNY. He is the author of Chinatown Beat and Year of the Dog, also in the Detective Jack Yu series.