Year of the Serpent
Part One

On Friday evening, September 2, 1977, several Chinese teen-agers dropped by Humberto Rodriguez's house for a visit. There was nothing unusual about their impromptu arrival. "Bert" had long since established rapport with a variety of Chinese kids who frequented his tattoo parlor on outer Mission Street near the dividing line between San Francisco and Daly City.
Most of the boys were long-time friends of Bert's although his own son, Bert Junior, was, at 14, much closer to them in age than he was, at 35. They respected Bert Senior. He embodied a father-buddy image for the Chinese, whose male parents were generally less approachable and certainly less understanding of their needs within the culture of American youth.
The boys liked tattoos. Bert was a tattooist, taught some of them how to puncture the skin with needles and insert indelible colors, and even let them practice on each other. Some of them spent hours playing with the needles. Bert personally supervised the progress of those who really had a talent for it.
The kids adored pinball and fussball, the latter being a game similar to pinball, with handles to manipulate tiny soccer players. Bert kept machines for these games in his shop. They could stand around rapping while popping the pinballs to make bell-ringing high scores. Bert stood with them, when not busy at tattooing, and shared his adult wisdom. When they had heavier matters to discuss, they spoke to each other in Cantonese. Bert didn't speak a word of it. The game machines then became private conference tables.
They were nuts about kung fu, worshipping movie hero Bruce Lee's elegant style. They studied both the circular movements of the Chinese method of self-defense and the linear movements of Japanese karate. Being Asian, they were proprietary in their compulsion toward the Oriental martial arts. Bert supplied them with one of the best kung fu teachers around--Bosco Yeung. In a fight, nobody could last against Bosco more than two minutes.
Above all, the boys loved guns. Bert not only arranged purchases for them from time to time, asking no questions, but also let them store weapons in his unlocked living-room closet--in a house with small children who were expected to obey their father's orders not to open the closet door. The Chinese admired Bert's masculine assumption of command over his family. They needed his accommodating nature and mindless discretion in matters pertaining to their private affairs. When Bert once tried to remove a bullet from a wounded boy's arm, the older man was satisfied when the kid told him he didn't know who shot him. "Some other kids chased me," the lad told him, "and I got shot running away."
There wasn't a boy in the group who could get from his father what he got from Bert Rodriguez, except for a stern attitude against drugs. Bert didn't seem to mind when they sat around his house for hours on end and smoked a little pot, and it had been said that on occasion cocaine changed hands at his shop. But Bert had no use for junkies; most of his clientele were macho "biker" types.
As it happened, the Chinese youths were not interested in the heavy stuff. They had their minds on other things. So they never wore out their welcome at Bert's pleasant suburban home in the often foggy hills of seaside Pacifica on a lower-middle-class street named Firecrest. The neighborhood reflected the standard ethnic marbling of San Francisco and its environs --a distribution of North American White, Latino, Black, and Oriental ranging from Korean to Vietnamese.
Bert himself was Latino. He didn't look classically Mexican, but if you were to glance his way without knowing what he was, Mexican is what would cross your mind. He stood 5 feet 6 inches tall, was stocky, but not paunchy. Fairly muscular in build, he sported a mustache beneath a head of thick, dark hair.
When Bert put on a suit (his wardrobe included at least one brown three-piece), he could look fairly respectable, but he was probably more comfortable in a tee-shirt or something that showed off his tattoos. After all, skin pictures were his business. His upper body was completely tattooed--chest, arms and forearms, neck and back. Tattooing was abolished as a punishment in Japan after 1868, so Bert, probably unwittingly, had followed in the footsteps of modern Japan's irezumi gallants who favor total coverage with tattoos as a sign of courage and the ability to withstand pain. Bert's Chinese boys, mostly school drop-outs addicted to kung fu and other expressions of machismo, would naturally have been attracted to that sort of cult. His wife, Sandy, had a small tattoo on her left breast and, like her husband, perhaps elsewhere.
Bert was passably well spoken; he had no accent of any kind. He tended toward the patois of a middle-age street person, such as "Oh, I flashed on this," meaning "I remembered." Things of that sort. Not the king's English. Just ever so slightly sleazy.
The Chinese boys were his friends. Under the auspices of Wayne Yee's Chinese Youth Alternatives, they had catered Bert's wedding to a previous wife, Cathy, free of charge, in 1974. Bert couldn't afford anyone else at the time. They had also helped him do some painting around the shop and were helpful in many things.
Bert had taken his family on vacation to Yosemite in August of that year, 1977, to celebrate his and Bert Junior's birthdays on the 24th. He had asked Wayne Yee to look after the house, but Wayne begged off and turned the job over to one of his most trusted boys, who came out and watered the plants and fed Bert's two dogs. Bert didn't mind Chinese kids sleeping in the house while he was gone because he thought it safer for the security of the property if someone were around. A group of them had made a regular habit of coming around often that summer. He happily gave the key to one or two of them.
Bert was fond of bragging about his accomplishments to the boys, even of his supposed involvement in a homicide in Oakland, for which he offered no proof. Listing his occupation as warehouseman, he had ventured into other fields. He applied for a real-estate broker's license in 1965. It was never granted. He had put in for a day-care license as well. Whether it was issued or not is unknown. But Bert finally found his professional niche at 6435 Mission Street in a blue-collar district of Daly City, where he opened his tattoo parlor in 1974. He was, beyond everything, a tattoo artist.
His home evidenced a certain prosperity. Not luxurious, it featured at least some of the amenities of contemporary life--a family room with a stereo set, a bar, a wall telephone, and a television set placed on top of a garbage compactor; a sunken living room with a comfortable sofa, a coffee table and a railed flight of stairs leading up to the wide front door; an attached garage, and a spacious master bedroom (one of three bedrooms) with a telephone beside the bed. The bedside phone worked, but its ring was nearly mute. Someone had dropped it or tripped over the cord. Nobody thought to repair it, as such an accident could easily occur again in a family with five children ranging from toddler to teens. The ringing of the wall telephone in the family room sufficed for the whole house as there was no phone in the living room.
Bert's Chinese connection had begun when he met Wayne Yee in 1973 while attending kung fu classes at Wayne's Chinese Youth Alternatives on Third Street near Bryant in downtown San Francisco, and later when the group itself moved to Bryant Street. Bosco Yeung was one of the kung fu instructors. Wayne's C.Y.A. also held dances and offered lunch programs and guitar lessons and car-repair classes. Bert went there many times, thus consolidating his friendship with Wayne, Bosco and Gary Pang. Wayne was known as "the boss" or just "Boss." Gary was almost in his league, and another cohort, Robert Huey, had a lot to say, although less than these two. Robert also taught kung fu.
Wayne was the executive director. He and Gary planned C.Y.A.'s activities, which included fishing trips and picnics in the country for the urban-confined Chinese boys. Bert, ever generous, lent equipment to them but never participated in these expeditions. Target and other shooting was practiced on these trips. Proud of his status as head of C.Y.A., Wayne had made it known to Bert that C.Y.A. was the city's only effective organization that really helped kids stay out of trouble, that kept them off the streets. It was a private joke that another "C.Y.A." also kept kids off the street--the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile prison in Stockton--and Wayne made it clear that his was an infinitely preferable alternative.
The relationship which developed between the two men was extremely cordial. By 1976, after Wayne's C.Y.A. lost its headquarters on Bryant, Bert had broken up with his previous wife Cathy (before Sandra) and closed her belly dancing studio next to the tattoo parlor. By this time thoroughly converted to Wayne's self-proclaimed doctrine of aid to the young Chinese underprivileged, Bert decided to do his part in providing his own alternative for Chinese youth and re-opened the dancing studio for kung fu classes. His involvement with Wayne's C.Y.A. and the Chinese boys was an innocent gesture of true, if uninformed and misguided, philanthropy, apart from the obvious advantage of attracting a ready-made crowd to his tattoo business.
There was an open walkway between the tattoo shop and the kung fu studio. The windows of both fronted the street. The studio for training sessions was curtained, as it had been during its belly-dancing days, but the tattoo shop was not. Tattooing was accomplished, however, in a recess at the rear, away from prying eyes that might be disheartened by the torture implied in the application of tattoos. There was usually a small audience for the kung fu classes.
Watching would have been as entertaining as going to one of the new wave of kung fu movies being churned out by the dozen in Hong Kong's burgeoning film industry. Probably conscious of this bonus exposure, Bert hung a lot of "flash" on the walls. Wayne Yee and Gary Pang were instrumental in urging Bosco to go out there as an instructor. Robert Huey joined him.
Bert rarely went to Chinatown, and then usually with Wayne. He once accompanied Bosco and the kids from his own kung fu school to the Hip Sing Tong for a Chinese New Year celebration. He later admitted that by then he had heard of the Wah Ching, but that was the only gang name he knew. Not speaking Chinese and being generally unaware, he observed no undercurrents of hatred or similar emotion flowing between his boys and others at the celebration.
Wayne brought many boys to Bert's tattoo parlor for the classes. There were eight or 10 from Oakland and 15 or 20 from his C.Y.A.. Wayne and his sidekick, Gary Pang, seldom participated, but often hung around to watch the scene and to rap. Self-important Wayne liked to brag, and declared, "These kids do everything I tell them to do." Bert heard him say that often. It seemed to be true.
Several youths who became close to these big shots shared in the perks of such association. Walter Ang and a guy named Albert were elevated to positions as kung fu teachers after steady attendance at Bosco's classes every Thursday night at Bert's. After the training sessions, Walter, Albert, and Bosco, along with several others moving up in the hierarchy, used to tail along with Wayne and Gary and Robert Huey to a Chinese restaurant located a block from the Daly City Civic Center. The restaurant's operators, having already closed to the public at that late hour, promptly re-opened to accommodate these special customers. Unwitting Bert could hardly help being impressed by such grandiose maneuvers.

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2000 Brockman Morris