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    « BACK to Amy Zimmer's portfolio

    Posted 03.31.03
    Shadow World: Battle On Net

    Situated in the eastern corner of Chinatown, at the desolate intersection of Canal and Orchard Streets, the Enternet Caffe was like the fully equipped basement of the friend whose parents were never home. It was the new arcade. It was the late-night hangout for the AKA, LAK and BON crews-groups of young, mostly Asian boys who turned this edge of Chinatown into their private playground.

    "The Enternet Caffe is like a family," beamed Julian, a Taiwanese 22-year-old, with spiky hair, diamond studded earrings, and a slick black leather jacket. Standing on the sidewalk, leaning against the Enternet's glass doors, smoking a joint, he said, "We call it AKA-All Klans Aside. It means no matter where you're from or who you represent, you come here just to chill." Someone overhead Julian and laughed, saying AKA means "Asians Kick Ass."

    The AKA boys-18 to 22-year-olds-would not tell me the true definition. I could be a cop, they whispered loudly. AKA's younger counterpart, the LAK crew-15 and 16-year-olds-joked that their group means "Lazy Asian Kids." Enternet Caffe employees "represent" BON, and most regulars referred to the place as BON, for Battle On Net.

    BON was a PC Bang ("bang" is room in Korean), and these high-speed networked computer gaming centers made their way from Korea and Hong Kong to the West Coast, reaching Fort Lee, Chinatown, and Flushing-East Coast cities with large Asian clusters. BON'S 40 flat screen IBMs made it the biggest PC Bang in Chinatown, though it wasn't necessarily the classiest. Exposed ceiling pipes, a gray concrete floor, partially constructed desks, disorienting fluorescent track lights, ceiling fans, standing fans, and blurry, blaring hip-hop music gave the space a makeshift feel. When BON opened in November 2000, it sold pastries and muffins, but before it closed in March 2001, toilet bowls for sale had replaced the food counter, and in one corner, some computers had been cleared to set up a shop selling bikes, scooters and toy helicopters.

    BON's first several months were wildly popular. Everyone wanted to play Half-Life: Counter-Strike, a first-person shoot 'em up game that posits terrorists against counter-terrorists. When night fell, hordes of boys trekking from the handball courts at Grand and Chrystie Streets four blocks away, gathered around computers and entered abandoned fortresses, skulking around, ambushing each other with AK 47s, bombs and tear gas. Firing blips and bleeps and shots, shouting, "Yo, chill. Chill, nigga" or "I'm amped up baby, don't fuck with me." You could wield a knife and chase your friend sitting next to you through a labyrinth military complex for $2 an hour-if it cost that much at all. Most of the time, regulars got time codes from their friends working behind the counter or they hacked the system and stole the codes to play for free.

    The sidewalk in front of BON was quiet enough for patrons to take their smoke breaks outside. Down the street you'd find a sweatshop, dark plumes coming out of vents, Chinese women entering early in the morning and leaving late at night; Project Reach, a community center that helps young people with legal troubles; and Good World, once a Chinese brothel and now a low-lit trendy bar/restaurant owned by Swedes.

    But the volume inside BON was another decibel-a bunch of over-caffeinated boys jammed in a room playing high-tech bang bang computer games, shooting and stabbing each other for money-waging on the game upped the ante. A handwritten sign stated the house rules: No -- cursing, screaming, banging, annoying others, racial remarks. Nobody read the sign. The BON regulars did not fit the Asian "model minority" myth; most were truants or high school dropouts; they showed off "gangster" tattoos and carried pocketknives. Sitting at a computer instant messaging, an AKA member wearing a black bandana underneath his baseball cap with the moniker "ighettothug" wrote to "iphlythug," "What's up, yo? Where you at?"

    "Run! Run! I stunned him. Go! Ruuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnn! I'm fighting, I'm hitting him," shouted Felix, a 20-year-old BON member with a narrow head and a shock of black hair that stretched his head even more. Felix was coaching his friend on how to play Dark Age Camelot, an on-line team game where characters traverse elaborately fantastical forests, battling other teams, accruing points to advance to the next level. Playing Counter-Strike for over a year grew tiresome, so he brought in Dark Age Camelot and installed it on three computers—just for his friends. Competition and compatriotism sat side by side at BON.

    "You can't play as an individual," Felix said. "If you're a fighter, you need a healer. If you're a healer, you need a fighter to protect you. If you're a captor, you need tanks. And if you have a good rep, people want to play with you." His character had such a good reputation that he sold items from the game on e-bay. Though his mother complained that he was failing courses at City Tech College, Felix was averaging $700 a week from e-bay.

    "I like to play at home better. It's more comfortable. I can eat, smoke cigarettes," Felix said.
    I looked at the empty bottle of Mountain Dew and a pack of Marlboros next to his keyboard. But can't you smoke in BON? I asked.

    "No," he stated. "Well, we can smoke here because we know the people that work here."
    Basically the BON employees let their friends do anything. (An LAK kid once bragged that he had swiped five computers from the place. But later BON nailed the computers down.)

    "I just come here to hang out with my friends," Felix said. Last year when Felix lived in Flushing he still came into Chinatown to play at BON. "There are a lot of these places in Flushing, but I don't know. I'm from Chinatown. I don't really like the people in Flushing. They're just different there."

    "I don't play Counter-Strike anymore. I went to rehab," said John, a well-built 19-year-old AKA member with short bleached hair and light brown colored contact lenses, who came to Chinatown from Hong Kong when he was five. "The first month you play it, you always wanna play it. When you sleep, you see bombs." Sitting behind a friend at a computer station, John said he stopped playing games at BON altogether. "If it was summertime, I wouldn't be here." He'd be out on the handball courts or jogging along the East River. John works out maniacally, and he has the stomach to prove it. He pats it constantly, sometimes lifting his shirt up a bit to reveal how cut he is. But John continued going to BON because his friends did, because it was a place to go.

    Back in October, John enlisted in the Marines. He planned to leave immediately, but then postponed boot camp at until the fall. John is no stranger to the military lifestyle. After dropping out of high school, he volunteered to go to a reform school upstate, where he got his GED and passed the ASE (auto service exam). "I was one of the first Asians up there and when I got there people tried to play me. The first day I got off the bus, this guy tried to rob me. No welcome, no nothing." I asked why he volunteered. "I was very lazy. I spent my whole life playing handball."

    A friend had told him about it, and then he told some friends about it, so he brought a piece of Chinatown with him. It was the worst year of his life, he said—having to wake up every morning at 5am, living under strict rules—but he learned discipline. Now, he has started training some friends, taking them jogging and swimming. When John took Alex, a short, cherubic 16-year-old LAK member, who always wears a red Ralph Lauren hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans, jogging, John yelled at him for lagging behind, shouting, "Why you be stopping like a little girl?"
    John is ready to leave Chinatown, he said, adding that he'll send his paychecks from the Marines home to his mother, who lost her job as a seamstress shortly after September 11th. Another friend of his wants to join too. When I saw John sitting by the handball courts on a sunny afternoon, a gray-haired Chinese man walked up to him asking to translate something. "Why are people always coming to me for this? Do I have the word translator written across my forehead?" I told him no, but he did have a swollen bruise on his cheekbone. "Everybody's asking who I fought, but I just woke up with it."

    One night John came to BON with his brother Jack, who was home on break from broadcasting college upstate. Jack, a striking 20-year-old, with a killer smile and deep dimples, a baseball cap worn at a jaunty tilt shading his green eyes, sat in a plush black pleather chair in front of a computer, condemning BON and his friends hanging out there. "This is a big loser spot. They're just into their games. Without a high school education, there's not much else to do." Echoing his brother's sentiments, Jack said, "Now they're hiding. Like snakes, they move into a warmer area when it's cold; in the summer they be out."

    While chatting with Jack and John, someone walked up to me and said, "These are the J-brothers. They're famous. We're all just tree branches, but he"—pointing at Jack, "is the trunk."
    Jack smirked, responding, "He's PAG—Pussy Ass Gang."

    John quickly added, "Gangs do illegal things. We're not a gang. We're just a group of friends who hang out together all the time, like a chess club, like a computer club."

    "But if shit hits the fan, we all look out for each other," Jack chimed in, cocking his head, licking his lips L.L. Cool J-style.

    While some of the BON regulars hesitated to tell me their stories of crime-ridden past, Jack puffed his feathers. Julian once told me "Jack is the baddest of all of us. He was charged with 'mastermind.' He had ten boys working for him." Julian, who was charged for larceny said, " I was waiting for mastermind. It's a charge for the Gambino family. Mad props. Jack got it when he was 14, and now companies, investors are paying for him to go to school. Jack graduated from the school of hard knocks."

    Despite Jack's protestations, calling his friends losers, every time he visited Chinatown, he hung out wherever AKA hung out. He has been with AKA since his days at IS 131, the Dr. Sun Yat Sen school, where he and his friends spent most mornings running away from truancy cops rather than sitting in homeroom. "One day my mom dropped me off at school. Then she walked away." Jack exited through a side entrance smack into his mother, who brought him directly back to school. "She tried," he told me of his mother. Jack never finished junior high school. He eventually got his GED when he was in a juvenile prison upstate for burglary and robbery, he said. Now he's in college, trying to "be good." (According to Jack, a social worker encouraged him to pursue his degree and got him an internship at ABC television for the summer.)

    Standing on a street corner one night in front of a grocery where Jack's friends stock up on cheap alcohol and cigarettes, he said, "Look at these kids, they're thugs, yo, Look at what they do. They just hang out here all the time. They don't go to school. They don't have jobs, but look they got nice sneakers. They dress nice. How do you think that happens?" I shrugged and he continued, "Some of them rob, they do extortion. Like some of these kids are 16, maybe their parents give them money, but some are 19, 20 -- what parent is gonna give a kid money when he's 19 or 20? They'll say, get a job." Then Jack warned me to watch out for my "green."

    "When you hang out over here with this gang, you're considered a gangster. Like when you hang out with good kids, you're considered a good kid," Jack said, "When you hang out with basketball players, you're considered a basketball player. Who you hang out with defines who you are."
    He added, "I try to stay away from these places."

    As we chatted, someone walked up to us and Jack said, "Be careful. She's a cop, yo." The friend responded, "Yeah, someone else told me that."

    Perhaps the AKA and LAK crews at BON had something to hide; maybe the wanted me to think they had something to hide; maybe they wanted to think they had something to hide.

    John's chubby little buddy Alex has had a tumultuous relationship with authority for years. Growing up with his nine brothers and sisters in the Rutgers projects near the FDR Drive, Alex mostly mixed with other kids in his building who were black and Latino and would hang out on building rooftops, throwing rocks, breaking car windows. "'You look like you're Chinese, but you're really black,' they'd say," mentioned Alex. But he eventually found a group of other Toishons (his Chinese ethnic group) and started hanging out with them. For two years Alex stopped attending classes at Seward Park High School to hang out with his crew. Eventually his parents found out, and now he's back in school, but he still cuts -- a lot. "The principal hates me. She's always picking on me, giving me detention for no reason." Usually he'll go to three classes—one of which includes his friends' lunch period—and then he'll cut out for the day. Alex told me that fights break out at Seward constantly and that the black and Latino students often make fun of the Asian students. When Alex leaves school, he heads to a Vietnamese restaurant and then to the handball courts.

    Three days before BON closed, Alex, and his LAK crew burst inside to boast about someone they had just beaten up in near the handball courts. They delivered the fight's play-by-play to the AKA crew. Clearly the LAK kids look up to the AKA crew. Alex explained, "They're better in a lot of ways—strengthwise, what they know, who they know."

    An AKA kid walked into BON and announced, "Okay, who's responsible for what happened because there's a cop outside around the corner looking for you." Panic-stricken faces from the LAK kids. It was just a joke.

    Out of the 40 computers set up in BON, seven were in use on that evening of the fight. Most people at BON weren't playing games. The LAK kids gathered around the AKA kids who were playing with a friend's pit bull puppy. "That nigga was asking for it," Alex said, showing off his swollen knuckles. He then joined some more LAK friends hanging out on the sidewalk in front of BON, relishing their battle memories.

    After BON closed, Julian told me that his friends wouldn't relocate to another PC Bang, because other groups already have already staked their claim to those places. "Everyone needs a crib, yo," Julian told me. He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "I'm bad ass. You know what I'm sayin?" BON's location—"That's my area, where I come from," he said though he now lives in Woodside, Queens. "Since age 12, that's my neighborhood."

    A pool hall on Eldridge Street has become the new BON; it's just a different game. The AKA and LAK kids get a discount at the pool hall since they know the owners from the White Crane kung fu school, a martial arts school most of them belong to that performs the dragon dance on Chinese New Year's.

    Like BON, the pool hall is an artificially constructed, time-stands-still environment of a casino—always well-lit, sensory overload, and air-conditioned—where you never want to leave, never need to leave. The upstairs has a little cafe area with tables and chairs and a big screen television, a row of video games—action games and gambling games, and a floor full of pool tables. But you'll find the AKA and LAK crews downstairs. They have their own space, sprawled out around two pool tables shooting for money, playing cards, playing ping pong, playing one of the two video games in the basement, smoking cigarettes, smoking blunts, downing coronas, singing along with the deafening hip-hop music. Cell phones are always in use, plans constantly being worked out, figuring out who is where doing what.