NEW YORK — A WHITE police officer in Chinatown is an alien three times over. To many immigrants, a foreign face, an English tongue, and a badge from the City of New York are immediate grounds for distrust.
Non-Asian-American officers say that even a friendly quest ion about the pace of business can be met with anxious silence.
But inside the ramshackle 5th Precinct house on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, a new brand of law enforcement is taking shape amid rising gang activity.
``As a Chinese beat officer, it's easier for me to communicate with the community,'' says Chuck Tsang. ``People are more willing to talk to me. The merchants know me, know my face and my name, and they always say hello.''
Since 1991, Officer Tsang and two other Chinese-speaking cops have walked the streets of the 5th Precinct. There are 20 Chinese speakers here, including the precinct captain, Thomas Chan, who took command in May. In addition, the recently formed Chinatown Project employs a staff of six civilian interpreters who process naturalization forms and take statements.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a Chinatown Project interpreter calmly questioned a Chinese woman who came to report a fight with a neighbor. Walk-ins like this have increased tenfold, Tsang says, since the community discovered the precinct's Chinese-speaking resources.
This police outreach couldn't have come at a better time. All city services, including law enforcement, have been hard pressed to meet the challenges wrought by Chinatown's explosive growth.
Tsang explains that the Fujianese - immigrants from the rural province of Fujian in southern China - make up the bulk of the illegal immigrants who have streamed into the neighborhood in the last five years. Tsang estimates that in that time, their numbers have swelled by more than 10,000.
``Many of the Asian officers only speak the Cantonese or Mandarin dialects,'' Tsang says. ``The Fujianese are the ones we have problems with. There are maybe one or two Fujianese speakers in the whole New York Police Department.''
Tsang says that the Fujianese are the most frequently victimized immigrants, and the least likely to seek help from the police because of their obscure dialect and the desperate poverty most of them have fled.
``The Fujianese are sent here by `snakeheads' who charge up to $30,000 to smuggle them to America,'' Tsang explains. ``They tell people this is the land of opportunity and it will be easy to make money.''
These immigrants effectively become indentured servants, Tsang says, working in restaurants or sweat shops all day and handing over nearly all of their meager wages to these crooked creditors. Some of the women are forced into prostitution.
``The snakeheads terrorize people who owe them money,'' Tsang says. ``If someone is not paying, the snakeheads will kidnap them and try to get money from their relatives.''
``There's clearly a lack of enforcement,'' says Katherine Freed, a city council representative whose district includes Chinatown. ``The problem has been ignored for so long because the sweat shops want the cheap labor, and so many of the workers are illegal that they won't complain to the police.''
Ms. Freed argues that police efforts to help have long been hampered by a ``cultural attitude to avoid government'' that many Chinese immigrants adhere to.
Police say this climate of fear is exacerbated by violent gangs. The situation is so problematic that the 5th Precinct employs a five-officer unit solely devoted to monitoring gang activity.
With names like the Flying Dragons, the Ghost Shadows, and BTK (Born to Kill), the gangs feed off the fear they incite in the community Tsang says.
The newest and most violent Chinese gang is the Fuk Ching, or Fujianese Youth. Although the gang's leader was arrested last year and no successor has come to power, Tsang says the threat of violence still hampers police efforts to arrest known gang members.
``The gangs go around to shop owners asking for protection money,'' he says. ``Store owners don't say anything because they're afraid of retribution.''
One merchant who asked not to be named said the Fuk Ching asked him for protection money one year ago and beat him when he refused.
``If you're afraid, they'll get you,'' he says. ``You can't ask another gang to take care of it, because then you owe them a favor.''
The merchant, a friend of Officer Tsang, says the crime is the worst it has been in 19 years, mainly because of the Fujianese immigrants. ``They will do anything for money,'' he says. ``I've seen muggings on the street.''
Although police efforts to reach out to the community have been dramatically effective, Tsang says, they won't make a lasting difference unless the federal government plays a role in curbing illegal immigration.
``There are so many people and so few jobs,'' he says. ``Crime is already a problem, but it will get worse. If nothing is done, we could have ... the same kind of serious organized crime they have in Hong Kong.''