We are deep in fireworks season right now all over the Bay Area, as every owner of a skittish dog is well aware. But did you know that for decades, people flocked to SF's Chinatown to buy caches of illegal fireworks and law enforcement mostly turned a blind eye?
That's the gist of a new history piece on Medium by onetime SFist writer Leanne Maxwell.
"Dating as far back as the late 1960s, Chinese street gangs have controlled San Francisco’s illegal firework trade, centered around Chinatown," Maxwell writes, adding that "the illegal market hit its peak in the mid-‘80s."
These days, enthusiasts of the annual home-grown fireworks displays that residents of the Mission, Lower Haight, and elsewhere in SF are very familiar with need to travel to other counties or seek out underground fireworks dealers. But back in the 80s, Maxwell explains, you could go to Portsmouth Square or to any number of street vendors along Grant Avenue in Chinatown and buy a full haul.
"It was like the Wild, Wild West out here; it was everywhere," said Chinatown beat Officer Leon Sorhondo in a Chronicle piece from 2000. "Trash cans, stairways, doorways, in vans, car trunks. We would find them everywhere."
The SFPD cracked down on the main distributors of illegal fireworks in the 1990s, and the crackdown was likely spawned in part by a high-profile explosion — a former member of the Chinatown gang Asian Invasion blew his in-laws' house up on 19th Avenue, or rather his wife did, when she lit a cigarette near his fireworks/explosives stash, knocking the entire building off its foundation.
Maxwell brings us another interesting tidbit: Those mini-explosives, M-80s and M-1000s, aren't imported from China like most other fireworks, they're made locally, some likely still in San Francisco.
Photo: David Zawila