Sydney triads bring terror to restaurants

The assault was swift and brutal. As a quiet weekday evening drew to a close, four young men armed with hammers and tomahawks burst into the Superbowl Seafood Steamboat Restaurant in the heart of Sydney's Chinatown. Diners watched in horror as they wrecked windows and fish tanks, grabbing live lobsters and smashing them on the ground.

The assault was swift and brutal. As a quiet weekday evening drew to a close, four young men armed with hammers and tomahawks burst into the Superbowl Seafood Steamboat Restaurant in the heart of Sydney's Chinatown. Diners watched in horror as they wrecked windows and fish tanks, grabbing live lobsters and smashing them on the ground.

Minutes earlier, similar scenes had played out at two adjoining restaurants in nearby Dixon Street, a bustling pedestrian mall flanked by ornate archways. At both the Superbowl and Y2K Café, the clatter of cutlery was replaced by screams and breaking glass as windows, mirrors, aquariums and pastry cabinets were destroyed.

Four Chinatown establishments were targeted during last week's rampage, which the community believes was sparked by a turf war between rival triad gangs. Police pledged zero tolerance; 24 hours later, another restaurant – this time on Sydney's leafy North Shore – was attacked, with three Molotov cocktails hurled at its windows.

Police are studying video surveillance footage of the incidents, but community leaders are convinced they represent the latest phase of an escalating battle between two criminal gangs – Sing Wa and Big Circle – for control of a lucrative restaurant extortion racket.

The violence had apparently been brewing for weeks, with the smaller Big Circle gang determined to expand its territory and intimidate local businesses. Stanley Yee, owner of the Emperor's Garden BBQ and Noodle Restaurant, said: "I've been in Chinatown for 40 years and I've never seen anything like this."

The firebombing of the Sea Treasure Restaurant in Crows Nest the following day may have been carried out by Sing Wa members in retaliation. The Sea Treasure organised a Chinese New Year banquet for a convicted political assassin, Phuong Ngo, at a Sydney jail this year.

One restaurant manager in Chinatown said staff had received repeated demands for protection money. "They're trying to scare people," he said.

A New South Wales state MP, Peter Wong, believes the violence may reflect a generational change in Chinatown, where scores of restaurants, supermarkets and video stores are crammed into a few city blocks. "In the past, Chinese business owners paid protection money as a matter of course," he said. "But the younger generation is more reluctant, and that may be part of the problem."

Members of both gangs originate in mainland China, with Sing Wa boasting 1,000 followers across Sydney and Blue Circle about 100. Sing Wa loyalists favour white baseball caps, while Blue Circle gangsters are often seen sucking on blue straws. There have been several brawls between them in Chinatown karaoke bars. Tattoos between the fingers are said to be a distinguishing feature of both gangs, as are self-inflicted cigarette burns. Machetes, knives and guns are the weapons of choice.

The rampage last week, which came two days after a high-profile patrol through Chinatown by 100 officers, has also been interpreted as cocking a snook at police. Detectives are investigating a possible link with a fight in a nearby shopping centre earlier that day in which one man was slashed with a meat cleaver. Police have mounted round-the-clock foot patrols in Chinatown to prevent further violence.

The New South Wales police minister, Michael Costa, complained that officers had met a "wall of silence", but Dr Richard Basham, of Sydney University, said they did not understand the problem. "Australian police and Chinese citizens are walking the same streets, but living in two different worlds," he said. "Police can only see external issues. They can't see what's going on behind the scenes, and they just don't get it."

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