Chapter 39

Freedom is a Quiet Victory

I had not been the only one wrestling with a shadow side. Richard too had been struggling.

During a 1983 visit to his latest state prison home, Susanville,  Richard nonchalantly dropped an amazing admission. I had driven up on a Sunday morning, after a water-skiing party weekend at a friend’s lakeside cabin on Clear Lake. Given my slightly hung-over state of mind and the long drive, the visit stayed low-key. Richard himself was somber, even mildly distracted. We spoke little, but we did not need to articulate our connection with each other. We were not only brothers, but also fellow warriors who had fought well in an unexpected war. Although we had lost, and one of was us was still a prisoner, we had survived. We leaned our backs against the wall across from one another, our legs stretched out along the length of the picnic table benches. Richard lit up a cigarette from time to time.

Then, as if talking about nothing really, quite casually, he recounted an incident at DVI state prison of some years back. An inmate had violated Richard’s honor. Under the rules of prison society, as I now knew well, Richard had to retaliate through combat, possibly to the death. If he failed to do so, he would be perceived as weak, open to further victimization from one prison gang or other. Richard in fact had gong so far as to start honing a shank, a homemade, razor sharp stabbing blade. He prepared to do “what a man has got to do.”

Then, a countervailing impulse surfaced. Richard felt the presence of all his supporters. One by one, he recited their names of those who had visited him, and believed in his innocence or at least that he deserved a new and fair trial.  One by one, he recalled their faces, their encouraging words. Then those he hadn’t met, but knew about, perhaps received a letters from, the people out there working for him. And so he paused from grinding now his shank.

He reflected on our family who had stuck by him. He thought of Mother cooking him feasts during family visits, mailing him money orders regularly, and faithfully sending birthday and Christmas packages every year. He remembered her unceasing and never-changing mantras of advice: “Stay out of trouble. Stay away from the violence. Don’t do anything bad that will keep you in prison a day longer.” He remembered his promise to her, “This is what I’m doing, mom.”

He remembered Father’s dismay and shame at his own powerlessness. He thought of our little brother John and of how good it would be, when he was outside, to be a big brother. He undoubtedly thought of me, who had set aside my own ambitions to champion his case.

He felt welling inside, a deep appreciation that he had not been forgotten; that although he lived in the sticky, toxic, and lethal web of the Gladiator School mentality, he could refuse to abide by all its rules. He recovered the memory of his origins, that he was the son of brave Toisan refugees,  immigrants who had somehow persevered through all the unkindness, difficulties, and insults to provide him a decent home, food, clothing, and time to study.

Any retributive actions, however justified by the dictates of prison culture, would hurt the reputations of many kind strangers. Richard clutched at his membership in the community of San Francisco, especially of Chinatown, a home he would return to one day. In spite of everything, Toisan Chinese had forged a viable community -- he still belonged to it. There, his parents still lived, there people spoke his first language, there restaurants served his favorite, old fashion dishes, and there, familiar streets awaited for him to walk them once again in freedom. So he would make peace with Chinatown too. He soul wrestled in this way many days and many nights.

Slowly, Richard released himself from the wicked spell of the fatalistic prison code. He put down the shank, once and forever. In peaceful ways, he worked things out. The grudge was settled and the gangs left him alone.

I listened to Richard, but whether because of my own torpor, or Richard’s casual way of speaking, I did not register the significance of his words during the actual visit. It wasn’t until I was about an hour into my four-hour drive home that the import of what Richard had said struck me fully.

Exactly like a lightning bolt.

Like the Cantonese martial arts heroes of our childhood Hong Kong movies and true to the ideals of the mythic Water Margin heroes—the vows of Chung Ching Yee, the fraternal values of Loyalty, Harmony, and Righteousness, Richard had made a moral choice under the most dire of circumstances.

I quickly realized that Richard too, had been empowered by the example of Mother. Richard had journeyed beyond prison’s perdition and reclaimed his own best self. As my wheels squealed around the tight curves of a rushing river that ran alongside the highway, a metaphor came to me of how well Richard had pressed through the treacherous white waters of this internal moral traverse, snatching the victory of staying human from its impossibly high drops and deepest whirlpools. I realized that the victory one seeks is not always the victory one needs. It would have felt so glorious to have won in the courts and read the blaring headlines of his release. Certainly it was a victory I had yearned to taste, even entered law school to achieve. But at that moment, I overflowed with the joy of this private, unglamorous, internal victory, I knew this was of truer and longer-lasting value.

We had lost the legal case, but we had not lost Richard. Richard had triumphed.

In contrast, I thought of another DVI inmate, another highly publicized Chinatown frame-up murder case from that era - of Chol Sol Lee. He actually won his appellate battle against equally impossible odds by having two murder convictions reversed. But that inmate had been on his own too early, without the same nurturing from childhood.  His exoneration was the basis for the movie, “True Believer,” starring James Woods in the role of Chol Sol Lee’s real life attorney, the well-regarded Tony Serra. Like Richard, Chol Sol Lee had been convicted by another flawed Chinatown-related line-up and a group of three unreliable witnesses. A Sacramento judge, on the basis of suppressed material evidence, reversed Chol Sol Lee’s wrongful conviction. Chol Sol Lee was acquitted in a second trial.

Yet, unlike Richard, Joe Fong and David Wong, Chol Sol Lee, a Korean-American who served time at DVI with them, had not been able to hold his place against the predatory prison environment. He was invited to join the Asian/Native American alliance formed by Richard, but instead, Chol Sol Lee entangled himself with the deadly machinations of the ruling prison gang, La Familia. Under orders, he killed another inmate in a prison yard altercation. His attorneys, Tony Serra and Stuart Hanlon, after successfully reversing Chol Sol Lee’s original wrongful conviction, proceeded to reverse the murder conviction for the inmate slaying. Their argument was that the State had wrongfully placed Chol Sol Lee in a situation where, in order to survive, he had no choice but to kill in self-defense. Therefore, he could not be legally held responsible for the second murder, which never could have happened but for his wrongful incarceration.

Chol Sol Lee was overborne by the unexpected circumstances caused by his wrongful conviction. And it wasn’t just Chol Sol Lee. Many inmates succumb, whether in prison rightly or wrongly, to prison’s bizarre society. Certainly there was no mother recreating a timeless family hearth in family visits, whispering affirmative mantras in his ear, reminding him to avoid trouble, and reassuring him that he was young enough still to make money, marry and raise children. Without that, Chol Sol Lee, eventually returned to a criminal lifestyle, became addicted to drugs, and was eventually incarcerated again.

Yet, that Richard wasn’t similarly overcome-- - not even by that clear, but mysterious provocation that led him to prepare to kill another.  This telltale distinction says, about how Mother not only had nourished him with Toisanese food, but also fortified his core Toisanese character through her repetitive mantras.

At the moment of that realization, I recalled a similar moral decision of my own. Sometime in 1974, I had collaborated with several others to organize a youth service agency that focused on hardcore street youth and younger youth-at-risk who were often turned away by other agencies. Part of my role included counseling young adults who were capable of deadly violence, including a young man named Gerald.

Gerald was different than most of the youth we served. In his early twenties, he dressed stylishly, often in an expensive white linen suit. His thick 22-carat gold chain was adorned with an expensive jade amulet that dangled over his open-neck pastel shirts, shirts that fitted taut against his Bruce Lee built.

“Provides protection against death,” he explained to me..

During one practice, Gerald dazzled us with a close-to-the-body, swirling, double-knife set, . Markedly unembellished and emphatically deadly, the set with emphasized efficient, close-in slashing and stabbing at all major organs of the body. Equally striking, was that he refused use of the traditional twin knives of martial arts, but instead two common 12-inch kitchen knives.

One day, Gerald confided his true identity to me: he was a highly trained assassin, a member of a secret criminal society based in New York’s Chinatown. He had graduated from their deadly training academy, named Hung Men (Red Door). Hung Men’s campus was discreetly nestled among the large private estates of upstate New York.

In Chinese organized crime, “Hung, ” i.e., the color red, symbolized its dark side, the blood of violent death, not the invigorating lifeblood that marked Chinese New Year’s. Hung Men translated culturally into something like “The Gateway into the Arts of Blood Violence.”  At this academy, Gerald relayed to me, he had learned to clean, reassemble, and fire numerous handguns, submachine guns, and rifles. He learned the best place and times to execute a target. He drilled how to maximize the terror potential of each gun during a robbery so witnesses would look away and coward in fear. He learned the craft of torturing people for information, by striking blows to different vital organs of the body with his fists, clubs, chains, metal pipes, blackjacks, and brass knuckles.

Hung Men had taught him his 12-inch kitchen -knives sets.

After his training, Gerald worked as an enforcer and then as a commando-style armed robber. In the early 1970s, Gerald was promoted to a heroin courier.  He described to me the six hour Toronto-to-Manhattan pipeline. He was that highly trusted. In the morning, he’d fly to Toronto’s Chinatown and pick-up a well-wrapped packet of heroin. In the same afternoon, he’d return it to his bosses in New York Chinatown. The next morning, another courier walked the packet across Canal Street to Mafia contacts in Little Italy. By the morning of the third day, the heroin was cut and coursing through the arms of addicts in Harlem, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn.

Gerald fled Manhattan’s Chinatown because he had botched a job. I speculated that he robbed a gambling house of one of his own bosses. I knew that Gerald hadn’t originally come to us to turn his life around, although, as we discovered long after he left the agency, he did turn it around. But it was not our policy to turn away anyone who behaved within the four walls of the center and who didn’t otherwise deliver trouble to our doors.

Well, it was Gerald’s perverse way of expressing gratitude for whatever respite we provided him that prompted him to offer to assassinate Judge Calcagno, the justice who presided over Richard’s travesty of a trial. Perhaps too, he was testing me to see if I was “for real,” unlike so many other adults of his young life. Would I really walk this talk of peace, of working through the system, and actually refuse this easy revenge?  In truth, had Gerald not made that same offer a year sooner, I am not sure that that I could have refused. In the Bay Area of the 1970s, deadly violence against authority was not unthinkable. Nor did I lack malice towards Judge Calcagno. If a ten- ton truck had hit this justice, I wouldn’t have been heartbroken about it.

I had only to say yes, and our family would taste revenge. But like Richard, I passed my test as I turned Gerald down.

By then, I knew that violence never resolves differences, but only causes more violence. The power of Mother’s seasonal Chinese New Year practice of releasing the wrongs of the past year, forgiving those who have harmed you, and thereby making room to let in the New Year’s offerings, finally penetrated my skeptical Western upbringing, too. On that long afternoon drive home from this visit with Richard, it slowly dawned on me that, like Richard, I had not lost either—I too had won. Our family had truly won: we had not lost our humanity.

In our localized version of an epic, archetypal struggle, the Lee family had won the deep, enduring victory of staying human. And Mother led the way during this most intimate of battles, this most private of victories. For over a millennium, like so many Toisan-Chinese before us, we had sourced a sustenance that carried us through life’s ten thousand sorrows. That power, as I discovered one special day in a small, humble village square, was the power of Toisan-Chinese culture. The source was our relationship with our land: but for me, my mother was simultaneously the embodiment and holder of this legacy. It was she who transmitted it to me, by living as completely as possible the Eighth Promise, the promise to live the compassionate path of her Toisanese lineage. By her example, Mother taught me that compassion includes the gift of forgiveness, . She taught me that to hold onto hate and feelings of revenge damaged me, blocked the wonderful providence that patiently waits to enter our lives.

Through our own ten thousand sorrows, our Mother helped us to find our way back to the ten thousand joys. In this way, Mother fulfilled her Eighth Promise, the silent promise she made to Grandmother Chun so many decades ago.

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