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The Great Chinatown Gambling Raid
by Curtis R. Fesler

The Los Angeles Police Department of today maintains a Vice squad in each police division in order to suppress gambling, prostitution, liquor laws and lewd conduct, the dirty part of everyday life most of us don’t care to know about or deal with. Knowing these infractions have been around since man first walked the earth and the fact that we will never get rid of them, the LAPD uses the three C’s of Vice – Commercial, Conspicuous or Complained about – as a guideline. For example, when prostitution is conducted in public by street walkers or when gamblers run a commercial operation such as a bookie joint and the public complains about it, the Vice Unit goes to work to eliminate it. Working within these parameters (three Cs) will hopefully keep vice in check, never eliminating it.

This story comes from a retired vice cop who worked the Central Vice Unit in the 1950s. The happenings are from a different era of policing where the three Cs were not always followed, and rules in general were often broken.

Chinatown of the 50s and even today is a closed community to outsiders as well as the local police. Residents have their own methods of dealing with problems, and, for the most part, bringing in police to handle the problems isn’t done. In my years as a police officer in the area of Chinatown, I don’t remember ever getting a call to this area. They operate under a different system of rules that work for them, and only when outsiders enter and violate those rules would police agencies be needed.

Many of the Chinese men in Chinatown love to socialize and gamble. They have private clubs where they gather without outside interference. When I was with LAPD everyone knew the Chinese had gambling parlors (and still do to this day). The Central Vice Unit believed it was their sworn duty to bust one of these parlors and bring the gamblers to justice. Finding and penetrating the game would be the problem. LAPD didn’t have a Chinese undercover officer, and even if they had, getting him to roll over on his countrymen could be a problem.

Through careful surveillance from just outside Chinatown, the Vice Unit observed a basement door under a Chinese restaurant with lots of activity. There were five steps leading down to the basement door, and a Chinese man was always seated outside the door in a chair. As men approached the door, he would let them in, shut the door and return to his post. The Vice Squad was convinced gambling was taking place due to the guard and the large number of men entering the building. On busy nights, upwards of a hundred would enter.

The Vice unit, numbering only six men, made a plan of attack. They decided to get in an alley about fifty yards away and rush the door when the guard admitted a large group. The plan was set for Saturday night. The six Vice cops, all dressed in their grubby street clothes, hid and waited. Finally a large group of men came to the basement and the guard opened the door. The Vice cops made a mad dash for the door, but the guard heard them coming and managed to close the door and yell a warning to the men inside.

The Vice cops ordered the guard to open the door in the name of the law and the guard complied. The cops entered and saw a sea of Chinese men, all with poker faces, seated at empty tables in a smoke-filled room. There wasn’t a mah-jongg tile, dice, cards, money or anything on the tables that would indicate gambling was taking place. In the center of the room was a large, locked safe, and no one claimed to have the combination. The cops had no choice but to give up the raid and leave. They knew gambling had taken place and figured the evidence was in that safe.

The failure of the Chinatown Gambling Raid only made the Vice Unit more determined. They gave the den a couple of weeks to cool down and then decided to give it another try. They could not come up with a better plan than rushing the door because getting closer from inside Chinatown would have raised suspicion among the people, who would certainly alert the gamblers. The cops decided to give it a go with the same tactic one more time.

The same six Vice cops hid in the alley and waited until a late hour to pounce, believing the guard might not be as alert. When a large group of men lined up to enter, the cops once again charged at a dead run. The guard did his duty, yelled a warning and shut the door just in time. The cops forced him to open the door and again saw a sea of Chinese men at empty tables. No one smiled or spoke, just gave the cops a look of innocence. One of the cops went to the safe in the middle of the room and tried the handle. The safe opened. Someone had forgotten to spin the dial. Inside the safe was a huge pile of tablecloths holding all the gambling paraphernalia. As they pulled out one of the tablecloths, money, tiles and other incriminating gambling evidence spilled onto the floor.

The Sergeant and leader of the Vice Unit spoke to the group, telling them they were all under arrest for gambling. Since the group was so large they were only going to take fifteen of them to jail and they alone would be charged with the crime. He would allow them to decide who was going to jail. A huge eruption started among the group with everyone arguing in Chinese. Finally, one man took off on a run up the stairway toward the Chinese restaurant above. One of the Vice cops stopped the man and asked where he was going. The man halted and advised the Vice cop that he had been one of the men selected by the group to go to jail. He was going to be busy the next day, he said, so he was going to get his house boy to go in his place. The Vice cop informed him that the arrestees had to come from the men present at the game. Even Vice Units had their standards.

The 15 Chinese gamblers were loaded up into waiting police cars and booked into Central Jail. Everyone knew the gambling would resume in Chinatown even before the ink dried on the booking slips.

The Vice Squad of the ‘50s worked every night trying to clean up the city, but following the three C’s of Vice might have been the better option. The gambling den in my account above wasn’t ‘Conspicuous’ or ‘Complained about’. No one knew if it was ‘Commercial’.


Curtis R. Fesler was born in Nebraska, raised in Los Angeles, served 3 years in the United States Army, and spent 25 years as a Los Angeles police officer. He retired to the Ozarks and currently resides along the banks of the White River in North Central Arkansas. He loves to write about personal experiences and attempts to show the humorous as well as the dark side of law enforcement.

“Police officers are simply a cross section of the general public with all the character flaws, emotions and a little excess baggage. They are far from perfect but most of them try,” writes Fesler, a "regular" on the USADEEPSOUTH Porch message board, where he fascinates Porchers with his wonderful stories.

Read more of Fesler's stories at USADS!
Remembering Fred
Germany by Auto, September ~ 2010


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