SF & Illegal Fireworks: Lawlessness, Crackdowns, ’90s Gang Shootout & Shocking Explosion

Prior to the 1990s, authorities routinely looked the other way as Bay Area families piled into their station wagons and headed to San Francisco’s Chinatown District to score illegal fireworks each July 4th holiday — everything from sparklers and poppers to bottle rockets and M-80s.

6 min readJun 29, 2021
AP photo of a former gang member’s house that was blown up & knocked off its foundation when explosives being stored in the basement were ignited by a cigarette. [John Green, AP/San Mateo County Times]

Dating as far back as the late 1960s, Chinese street gangs have controlled San Francisco’s illegal firework trade, centered around Chinatown. The illegal market hit its peak in the mid-‘80s when illegal firecrackers and explosives could be scored from vendors up and down Grant Avenue or from teenage gang members in Portsmouth Square. In the early ’90s, major crackdowns by police culminated in a gang shootout in the middle of Chinatown on a busy Friday night, followed by a former gang member blowing up his Outer Sunset home a few years later.

According to this June 2000 SFGate article, which quotes Chinatown beat cop Officer Leon Sorhondo from the department’s fireworks suppression unit: “It was like the Wild, Wild West out here; it was everywhere. Trash cans, stairways, doorways, in vans, car trunks. We would find them everywhere.”

Steven Zhang/Wikimedia Commons

ABC7 wrote about the bygone era: “It was so brazen in Chinatown during the old days where street sellers would set off firecrackers on Grant Avenue, so the buyers would know who to get the big and best stuff from.”

According to the above June 2000 SFGate article, nearly 12,000 pounds of illegal fireworks were confiscated one 4th of July season during the industry’s peak in the mid-’80s:

Although a good portion of the haul was taken from street sellers, who police say could make enormous profits, the majority came from raids on fireworks-storage facilities across The City, including one bust 10 years ago at a Chinatown public-housing apartment that was stacked to the ceiling with illegal fireworks.

Authorities eventually got organized in the early ’90s when they successfully shut down three out of the four major distributors. This drove the fireworks industry further underground, escalating tensions over territory and resulting in a brazen shootout between rival factions of the gang Jackson Street Boys across Stockton and Clay streets on a busy Friday night in late June of 1995. Seven people were injured, including two bystanders who weren’t seriously hurt. That same summer, police seized a total of 7,000 pounds (later estimated as 8,000 pounds) of illegal fireworks, including M-1000s, M-80s, and barrel bombs.

While most fireworks are imported from China, M-80s and M-1000s are made right here in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area — in local basements, garages, and warehouses, which is a frightening thought considering that the materials used in the explosives are highly combustible.

According to this 1998 SFGate article, M-80s are only 1 inch long and a half-inch wide, but they’re as explosive as one-eighth of a stick of dynamite. The powder is lighter than air and especially dangerous if it lands near appliances such as gas furnaces, stoves, or water heaters.

‘A lit cigarette or even a person’s static electricity can ignite gunpowder,’ Gang Task Force Sgt. Dan Foley told SFGate. ’You have inexperienced people handling these dangerous substances,’ Foley said. ‘They’re putting them in non-ventilated areas and trunks of cars.’

Chinatown’s Grant Avenue and California Street, September 2008. [Michael Beaton via Wikimedia Commons.]

The above 1998 article was in response to an incident that same year in which a former member of the defunct Chinatown gang Asian Invasion blew up his in-laws’ house on 19th Avenue in San Francisco’s Sunset District neighborhood.

His wife reportedly said he lit a cigarette next to his basement stash of illegal explosives. The house was knocked off its foundation at a 45-degree angle, and the two neighboring houses were also destroyed. Windows were blown out for blocks and nearby car windshields shattered. Over 118 firefighters responded to the fire.

The suspect was blown through a wooden wall and suffered burn and splinter injuries, but luckily none of the neighbors or any bystanders were seriously injured in the blast.

Golden Dragon Restaurant, scene of the 1977 massacre. [Wayne Hsieh/Flickr]

The suspect’s former gang Asian Invasion was also involved in the illegal firework trade in the late ’80s and early ’90s before several of its leaders were arrested and the gang disbanded. Some members were then taken in by Jackson Street Boys. Predecessors to the Jackson Street Boys and Asian Invasion include the infamous Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow’s gang Wo Hop To and rivals Wah Ching and Joe Boys, who were involved in the deadly Golden Dragon Massacre in 1977. Founding members of each new gang were former members of previous gangs.

Criminology Professor Sou Lee explains the origin of Asian gangs in his thesis, “Asian Gangs in the United States: A Meta-Synthesis,” which references the work of experts Patrick Du Phuoc Long and Calvin Toy:

[Toy] found that Asian gangs formed during the 1960s when there was a large influx of Chinese immigration. These immigrants were forced to resolve issues by themselves due to the absence of social services, lack of legitimate opportunities, and hostility from other ethnic groups. Additionally, Asian gangs often served as surrogate families and a space for youth to relieve their stress from culture conflicts. Culture conflicts stemmed from the experiences of marginalization from both their Asian and American backgrounds. In other words, they were neither accepted as truly Americans nor were they accepted as wholly Asian. Thus, Asian gangs provided a compromise for this double marginalization by establishing a sense of identity and bonding (Long, 1997; Toy, 1992b).

Mural by Twick of ICP Crew, January 2012. [The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Via Picryl under public domain.]

The paper also mentions that according to sociologist Glenn Tsunokai, these cultural conflicts aren’t as relevant in the 21st century, noting that younger members still seek community and solidarity when joining gangs, whereas older members stick around for the extra income.

[V]ery few Asian gang members in Southern California expressed cultural concerns as a reason for joining a gang. Therefore, it may be possible that due to acculturation and assimilation, cultural conflicts have become less salient in explaining Asian gang membership.

Regardless of who controls the trade, Chinatown’s connection to the illegal firework market endures due to the firecracker’s deep cultural ties to celebration and warding off evil spirits.

Additionally, lack of government support and community/social resources, which could provide Chinatown vendors and behind-the-scenes players with safer options for earning a living, leaves these groups stuck in an industry that puts theirs and their neighbors’ lives in jeopardy.

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out my other recent piece, San Francisco’s ‘TL Bomber:’ Lone Wolf Detonating Bombs in City Streets or Urban Legend? in which I track social media reports of a mythical figure who’s been dropping homemade bombs in the Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill neighborhoods for 20-odd years.




Writer and designer uncovering lesser-known stories surrounding San Francisco culture & history — and beyond.