On a Wednesday morning during an unbearable late-summer heat wave, I sat in the back seat of my mother’s car, my three-month-old baby beside me, as we cruised along the 85, which runs from San Jose up to Mountain View. My mother was at the wheel, and we were on our way to pick up an assortment of Taiwanese snacks—taro cakes, red bean rice cakes, green mango sorbet, and shao bing—from an outpost of a Taiwanese specialty store called Combo Market. Outside, on the freeway, the tall, yellowed grasses and perennially faded shrubbery looked prehistoric, as if they had been there for decades unmoved.
We decided to take a short detour before picking up the food. My mother made her way toward the 237, and then exited onto Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale. “Mumu Hotspot,” she murmured to herself, as we passed a new hot pot restaurant. We pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript one-story complex: a group of bitonal buildings, cream on top and taupe on the bottom. Each office was marked by a sign whose formatting must have been mandated by the property managers, because the company names were in all-caps, uniformly rendered in a bland and unstylish serif font. I looked around to see what types of businesses were here now: LE BREAD XPRESS, KINGDOM BRICK SUPPLY, BIOCERYX TECHNOLOGIES INC. One would not have guessed we were in Silicon Valley.
There was only one office that appeared empty, with a company placard that was blank. The door to that office was emblazoned with the numbers 1233 in white. When I peered in, I saw no one, no furniture, nothing. It was a small room that might have been a reception area once, with brown carpet that appeared at least a decade old. There were two closed doors adjacent to each other, one of which had a sign that read EMPLOYEES ONLY. An ominous white camera blinked on the floor in the far corner, likely a deterrent for grifters and interlopers.
Eight years ago, I began researching a story that took place at this very office in August of 1995. It was a story I’d heard many times as a child, though in far vaguer terms than are delineated below. The story went like this:
On a Friday morning, a Hong Kong woman named Grace arrived at work. Grace was tall and extremely thin, with a jutting chin and frizzy, permed, shoulder-length black hair. It was around 9:00 a.m., and two of her coworkers, a husband-and-wife couple named Irene and Paul, were outside the office waiting to be let in.
After Grace unlocked the office for the two of them, she realized she’d left something in the car. Upon approaching the office door a second time, she noticed two men in suits coming out the door of the neighboring company, Freshers Soft Frozen Lemonade, a wholesale distributor for ballparks and stadiums. They were also Asian, but darker-skinned than she was. As they approached her, one of them said, “We’re here to see Steven.” Grace told them that Steven no longer worked at the company. “Then can we see your boss?” they asked. They were insinuating that they were familiar with the company by giving Grace a name, but Grace was suspicious. Clients never showed up this early. “Could you come back later?” she asked.
Instead of answering, the men moved closer to her—so close, in fact, that Grace noticed a large, distinctive mole on one man’s chin, as she would later testify. They pushed her into the reception area of the office. The mole-marked man opened his suit jacket, pointed to what appeared to be a gun in the inner lining, and said to her, “You know what I want.”
And she did—Grace had heard of things like this happening recently. People had been kidnapped. A man had been killed. Just a few days ago her coworkers had joked about getting robbed. These events were occurring with such frequency that at times they seemed banal, but even then, she had never imagined it would happen at her own workplace. Grace’s boss had recently installed a new alarm system and distributed panic buttons to all her employees, but the men had cornered her so quickly that she’d had no time to act. “Don’t do anything stupid,” the men said. “This robbery is going to be covered by your insurance, anyway.” Now Grace, Paul, Irene, and another coworker named Anna—who had arrived at the office shortly after the men confronted Grace—all lay face-down on the floor. Soon they would have their wrists and ankles bound with zip ties.
Except for Anna, because she was the only person besides their boss who knew where all the inventory was kept. This was a precaution taken in the event of a worst-case scenario—the kind of scenario that was happening now. One man pushed her into the back room, a warehouse-like space where all supplies and inventory were kept. Anna was a petite Taiwanese woman who spoke broken English. Later, she would recall that she was scared, but on instinct did not think these men were evil. They did not shout or scream or even raise their voices. Instead, they spoke in calm, measured tones. They were peculiar, she thought: more like businessmen than criminals.
Anna pulled out box after box as the man watched (the other stayed with the rest of the employees). These robbers knew exactly what they were looking for, because they had been scouting this office for days. They’d even made an appointment with the wholesale lemonade purveyor next door under the guise that they were interested in purchasing lemonade, so they could keep an eye on this very place. They knew a shipment had come in just a few days ago, and if they could find what they were looking for, they’d be making off with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods. After all, pound for pound, the loot they were after was more valuable than either heroin or cocaine.
The man who was watching Anna seemed frustrated, and he made a phone call. Anna heard him listing the items in the stockroom, a litany of model names. Not wanting to linger too long, the men grabbed several boxes and then left through the back loading dock, where a getaway car was waiting.
What in Silicon Valley at the time was so valuable, so hotly desired, that even gangs accustomed to trafficking drugs had started to take notice? What was at once easily transported, concealed, disposed of, and virtually untraceable? There was only one thing, which the Santa Clara deputy DA would later call “the dope of the ’90s”: computer chips.
Not until twenty years later would I learn just how frequently these robberies were taking place. Even though millions of dollars’ worth of computer chips were stolen, this era of Silicon Valley would largely be forgotten. Computer hardware would eventually give way to the dot-com bubble, after which social media, the cloud, big data, and later, Bitcoin, NFTs, and other increasingly intangible technologies would come to the fore. But for a time, the boom of personal computing transformed Silicon Valley into the Wild West, a new frontier that drew every kind of speculator, immigrant, entrepreneur, and bandit, all lured by the possibilities of riches, success, and the promise of a new life. The Silicon Valley of the ’90s was in many ways an expression of the quintessential American story, but an unexpected one: one that involved organized crime, narcotics trafficking, confidential informants, and Asian gangs. It is also part of my family history. Grace, as it turns out, is my aunt. And the company being robbed? It was my mother’s.
In 1989, Jim McMahon was a thirty-five-year-old mustachioed street cop working the Police Personnel Unit at the San Jose Police Department. He was also the only officer who brought his own laptop to work. The Toshiba T1000 in his possession consisted of a rectangular screen no taller than six inches and a plastic keyboard with cream and gray keys. When closed, the laptop could fit into a briefcase. The IBM Selectric typewriters that the police department used were slow and clunky. With the Toshiba, he could make corrections without white-out.
A captain named Ken Hawks took notice. One day, he called McMahon into his office. “We notice you carry a computer,” he said. In Hawks’s view, McMahon was tech savvy in a way the rest of the police department was not. If he owned a portable computer, how could he not be? Hawks’s assumption was right in some sense. The son of an engineer employed by Lockheed, McMahon had grown up in nearby Cupertino, a few miles from Apple’s headquarters. As a young boy, he had taken a keen interest in electronics. Shortly after he joined the police force at the age of twenty-one, he bought his first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1. He was what people now call an “early adopter.” He had even taught himself to program and tinker with computer parts.
Hawks needed someone to run the High-Tech Crimes Detail, a one-man department that had never been particularly effective. Then, that one man transferred to a different division, looking for a retirement opportunity. This unit was not one McMahon had ever intended to work in. Among police cadres, it did not have the same cachet as, say, the Homicide Squad, the department McMahon had initially set his heart on. To his knowledge, there were no serial killers to catch or whodunnit mysteries to solve when dealing with high-tech crimes.
But unbeknownst to him, here in the heart of Silicon Valley in the late 1980s, computer-related crime was on the rise. Criminals were beginning to use computers for embezzlement and fraud, and pedophiles and pornographers had begun to digitize their operations as well. A July 1989 memo published by the US Department of Justice about computer crime investigations noted, “Police say they arrive at the scene of these criminal networks and discover computers in operation.”
Captain Hawks gave McMahon no choice. If someone was going to investigate computer-related crimes, it should be the guy carrying the laptop—the guy, in McMahon’s words, who “could speak ’tron.” McMahon was given his pick of a partner and two desks in the fraud unit, where he began fielding calls.
At the time that McMahon was conscripted to join the High-Tech Crimes Detail, the police department’s understanding of computers was so poor that its officers often could not identify when a technology-related crime was being committed. Shortly after McMahon was transferred, he got a call from a patrol officer who had pulled over a man at a traffic stop. When asked what he was carrying in his car, the man said “paperweights.” McMahon asked what was written on them. “‘Hewlett-Packard’ or something. It’s ‘twenty megabyte,’” said the officer. When McMahon arrived on the scene, he turned to the patrol officer and told him they weren’t paperweights—they were hard drives.
Soon the number of calls to McMahon increased. An average day might consist of breaking into a suspect’s encrypted computer or driving to the airport to help customs officials identify technological cargo coming in. There were thefts—many of them. People broke in to electronics stores; stockroom employees swiped extra disks and resold them. At one point, several hundred laser-jet printers went missing from Hewlett-Packard—millions of dollars’ worth. McMahon later discovered that they were being packed into 18-wheelers by a prison gang, driven down to Los Angeles, and resold for fifty cents on the dollar. The high-tech crimes evidence room at San Jose police headquarters was beginning to fill up, littered with piles of stolen computers, hard drives, SIMM strips, and microprocessor chips.
Through the crimes that were being reported, McMahon started to learn what was valuable—what thieves wanted to steal and what they could resell, which at that point was almost any piece of computer hardware. In the early ’90s, computer hardware was the bread and butter of Silicon Valley, and global demand for it was starting to surge. In 1989, around 21 million personal computers were sold worldwide. Over the course of the ’90s, that number would more than quadruple. By 1998, worldwide sales would reach 93 million.
In November 1993, McMahon received a call from the FBI. Four years after being assigned to the High-Tech Crimes Detail by Captain Hawks, McMahon had developed a reputation among law enforcement for his technological know-how. Most police departments did not yet have high-tech crime units, nor did the FBI. There had been a big robbery up in Tualatin, Oregon, on Halloween night, and the FBI wanted McMahon to investigate.
The site of the robbery was the manufacturing facility of OKI Semiconductor, a subsidiary of Japan’s Oki Electric Industry Co. Five robbers in matching blue coveralls, masks, and balaclavas, armed with revolvers and automatic rifles, had entered the premises and attacked a security guard. They tied, gagged, and blindfolded twelve employees, and according to McMahon, they also pistol-whipped a few of them. After they took what they had come for, they fled in a van.
Upon arrival, McMahon noted how organized the robbery was. It looked as though it had been carefully orchestrated and executed, like a paramilitary operation. The thieves were, in his words, “pretty slick.” Not only did they already know where the goods were located on site, but they were also familiar with the cargo, transport, and storage systems that OKI used. They didn’t pilfer blindly, like men who had decided to rob the factory on a whim, but rather, they took specific items, a strategy that could have been deployed only with foresight and technical knowledge. An abandoned van found near the crime scene had been sprayed down with WD-40, precluding the collection of fingerprints or DNA. These robbers were not amateurs, McMahon deduced.
As was the case in the theft in Sunnyvale, the robbers had come for one thing only: computer chips. At the time of the robbery, law enforcement guessed that approximately $2 million worth of goods had been stolen. Later, they would discover that this number was closer to $9 million. (In 1993, this amount of money could have bought eighteen houses in Palo Alto. Now maybe just one.)
In many ways, computer chips made for the perfect plunder. They had an insanely high dollar-per-pound ratio, and were in heavy demand everywhere. The path from manufacturer to consumer was long and convoluted, often crossing an expansive gray market, with opportunities for interception all along the way. Criminal punishment for selling stolen property was far less severe than for drug dealing, thereby making computer parts a less risky enterprise. And, as Jim McMahon discovered when he joined the High-Tech Crimes Detail, police officers often lacked the technological fluency to recognize computer chips to begin with.
It wasn’t the first time that McMahon had been called to investigate a computer chip robbery. By then, chip theft had become fairly common. But the kinds of theft McMahon was accustomed to seeing were either one-off burglaries or cases of missing inventory—the accumulation of many small petty thefts, likely by employees. This chip heist was different, in both scale and level of organization.
Of course, the sheer value of the stolen property was staggering. At the time, the OKI robbery was the largest theft of its kind. But it also marked the beginning of a trend in the world of technology-related crimes. Soon reports of chip heists like the one at OKI would make their way to McMahon’s desk with increasing frequency, heists that were planned and executed swiftly and intelligently—almost always by gangs of Asian men.
My mother heard about the OKI robbery shortly after it happened. In 1993, she was thirty years old. She ran a small company called Aristocrat Inc. that bought and sold computer chips, routing surpluses from suppliers to companies that needed them. She was married and living in Cupertino, just a few streets away from where McMahon grew up. In June of that year, she had given birth to a second daughter. I was two at the time. From the outside, there was nothing extraordinary about her: she was just an Asian immigrant working in the technology sector in the Bay Area.
Working in the computer industry had been a matter of time, place, and opportunity for my mother. Unlike her husband, my father, who was an engineer working on inkjet printers at Hewlett-Packard, she was not among the class of highly educated immigrants that accounted for nearly one-third of the Bay Area’s scientific and engineering workforce in 1990. Those immigrants, like my father, had come to the States in the ’80s for grad school, after which they were routed directly into tech companies in Silicon Valley. This was a fairly common, if not archetypal, route to ensuring a steady and often sizable income, which could then fulfill the promise of upward socioeconomic mobility.
My mother, on the other hand, was not an engineer, and in many ways was the antithesis of the stereotypical straight-A-earning Asian student. She had scored abysmally on the SATs and majored in studio art at Cal State, Long Beach. She was vocationally unequipped in a way that made any version of the immigrant success story seem completely out of reach for her. But by 1993, her knowledge of computer chips had swelled to an encyclopedic level. She knew the exact makes and models of the new chips on the market and how much they were worth. She knew where to buy them and where to sell them. And, most important, she knew how to make a profit off them. My parents always joked that my father was book-smart, but my mother was street-smart. While my father ruled by logic and reason, my mother led with intuition and honed instincts.
My mother is a petite woman at five feet, three inches tall. A friend who recently met her described her as “smiley and effervescent.” For my entire life, she’s maintained the exact same haircut, one that is somewhat universal among Asian moms: a chin-length bob with the ends curled in, always parted on the left side. Her hair—which is jet-black like mine, thick, with very few grays even now, at fifty-nine—frames full, youthful cheeks and dark, almond-shaped eyes, whose lids are tattooed with permanent eyeliner (for the sake of convenience, she has said). Her demure appearance belies the fact that she possesses the kind of boldness, persuasiveness, and doggedness that make her a force to be reckoned with, both as a mother and as a person of the world.
As a child, I was embarrassed by those traits. At airplane ticket counters and in restaurants, she could talk her way from clerk to manager, never afraid to ask for the impossible. In foreign countries she approached strangers for directions without pause and could curry the goodwill of a bus driver with whom she did not share a language, solely through gestures and charm. Once, when I was stuck in Florence, Italy, during a terrible snowstorm, all the taxis had stopped running, and I was left without a ride to the airport. I phoned my mother. Hours later, she called back: a middle-aged Italian housewife was on her way to pick me up in a minivan. In a culture that portrayed Asian American women as docile, passive, and shy, my mother was an anomaly. She had the daring of a free climber and the savviness of a salesperson. Who’s to say if this was constitutional or the developed character of an immigrant trying to survive?
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, in the ’60s, my mother moved to Orange County in Los Angeles with her family when she was sixteen. In 1971, the United Nations had voted to admit the People’s Republic of China, thereby ousting Taiwan from its cohort. This worried my grandparents, who feared that China might try to take over Taiwan. Around the same time, her brother, Richard, had been expelled from several Taiwanese schools for bad behavior; immigrating to America was a last-ditch effort to reform him. Richard was my mother’s Irish twin, born 356 days before her. My mother attributes her fearlessness to him; as an uber-athletic, ultra-mischievous child, he would coerce my mother into scrambling over fences and sneaking into neighbors’ yards to steal their fruit.
When my mother arrived in America, she spoke little English. There were no ESL courses at her school, so instead she was held back a grade and put in a class with the delinquent kids, the ones who, according to her, showed up to class barefoot, blasting music from their portable stereos. After school, she washed dishes and chopped raw meat at her uncle’s Chinese restaurant in exchange for her family’s room and board. “You are the girl. You have to stay in the kitchen,” she remembers being told. “I was very isolated. It was a very lonely time.” In Taiwan she had wanted to be a journalist, but in America that dream was no longer tenable. Instead, while she was in college at Cal State, Long Beach, she heard about a part-time job as a receptionist at a company called Delta Lu Electronics in Cerritos. My mom didn’t care what the job was. She needed the money, so she applied.
In 1984, the year my mother started at Delta Lu, the PC industry was on the rise. The year commenced with Apple’s launch of the Macintosh computer during a Ridley Scott–directed Super Bowl commercial wherein a Princess Di doppelgänger in running shorts throws a sledgehammer at Big Brother to free a mass of blue-gray-garbed drones from technocratic dominance. This was Apple’s proclamation that the Mac would save everyone from the dystopia rendered in George Orwell’s 1984—the irony of which should not escape anybody. That same year, CD-ROMs were the new hot technology, Dell and Cisco were just getting started, and Bill Gates appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a floppy disk balanced on his index finger. In Southern California, an enterprising immigrant named Don Lu, eager to ride this wave of technological innovation, began importing memory chips, keyboards, graphics cards, monitors, and motherboards from Japan and Taiwan. Companies and individuals were building their own PCs and needed the parts. As his company grew, he needed a receptionist. So he hired my mother for five dollars an hour.
Delta Lu Electronics was what we might now call a start-up, and because of its fledgling nature, my mother’s job description continually shifted and expanded. She was shuffled between departments, through accounting and returns, learning the ropes of the entire business as she went. After about a year she was promoted to a sales position in a new company called Byte Resources, and unsurprisingly, she became very good at her job: she was keenly attuned to people’s needs and deft at negotiations. While the average salesperson might turn away a customer when they didn’t have a part on hand, my mother never did. Instead, she’d say, “Let me see what I can do for you,” and would call around to suppliers until she found exactly what the customer needed. Then she’d smartly quote a higher price and make a sale. She wasn’t the type of person who needed permission, and in her eyes, anything was possible with a little extra effort.
My parents got married in August of 1987, after meeting at a party in Long Beach. My mother was twenty-four, my father twenty-seven. After a year and a half at Byte Resources, my mother quit her job to move with her new husband to the Bay Area, where he was starting in the Optoelectronics Division at Hewlett-Packard in San Jose. After growing up in Hong Kong and attending university in England, he’d arrived in California to get a PhD in electrical engineering at Caltech. Now he was working on semiconductors in Silicon Valley. In the middle-class suburbs where I grew up, many Asian parents, mostly Taiwanese, Chinese, and Indian, did the same. They worked at companies like IBM, Intel, and AMD, and sent their kids to the best public schools in Cupertino and San Jose.
My parents moved into a seven-hundred-square-foot apartment on Homestead Road in Cupertino, a large boulevard dotted with strip malls and unremarkable one-story houses. While my father was at work, my mother, jobless, passed each day in a state of ennui, waking up at two in the afternoon only to lie in bed and page through whatever newspapers were lying around. She felt lost and directionless, like she was in a foreign country. The feelings were familiar—she had felt the same way when she first moved to the United States. “It was so boring,” she told me. She had no friends and nothing to do. But not long after the move, the phone began to ring. Her former colleagues at Byte Resources were calling. Her customers were asking for her, they said. They urged her to start her own company. My mother considered the suggestion—it was not a bad idea.
Gigabyte was the name my mother chose for her company, which she started in December 1987 with two accountant friends. She was in charge of sales and purchasing, while the other two processed orders via fax machine and managed the books. The PC business was booming now, and the company did well. But after a year, unable to resolve an argument about salaries and commissions, the three decided to part ways. My mother, not one to back down, was confident she could survive without their help. “I’m not a quitter,” she said. “It never came to my mind that I should quit.” In fact, the more challenges that arose, the more she felt compelled to persevere. Undeterred, she decided to start over again, by herself. This time, the company was called Aristocrat Inc. My dad picked the name. When asked over thirty years later how he chose it, he said: “Don’t remember, but probably from some English classic like Monte Cristo.”
When Aristocrat Inc. was robbed, I was four years old and just starting preschool. I have very few recollections of that time, except of things that were told to me later. Even so, the robbery remained a strange, vague aberration in my memory that did not square with my otherwise undramatic, comfortable, and privileged childhood. It was an incident that was referenced and alluded to by my family every so often, but rarely discussed in detail. When I began working in Silicon Valley myself, after college, at the age of twenty-one—the same age as my mother when she started at Delta Lu—the memory of the robbery came to the fore, contrasting sharply with the shiny, manicured world I had plunged into.
By the fall of 2012, nearly all traces of the Silicon Valley my mom knew had vanished. After moving back to the Bay from the East Coast, I began working for a start-up that bought and sold personal data, a concept I didn’t fully understand when I signed my contract but then later discovered was actually quite morally dubious. The tech industry I found myself in trafficked increasingly in the intangible. Earlier that year, Facebook had gone public; WordPress started accepting Bitcoin in November; and I took my first Lyft ride. Hired as a marketing and PR associate, I scrambled to make Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages for the company to help fluff up the brand’s online presence. Around that time, social media had begun to mean something.
The company I worked for tried hard to be a semaphore for a cool new start-up, and as such, the work environment read like a parody. The founders—two brothers from rural Illinois—were avid Burners who participated in a ceremonial, psychedelics-fueled gathering every New Year’s Day to set their “intentions” for the year and were buying up millions of dollars worth of land in New Zealand. On Monday mornings, the company-wide meeting began with a “minute of mindfulness,” which was often followed by a startling if well-intentioned rap by the younger brother, which he called his “flowetry.” It was cute, but also not. In the morning before work, I’d take a train down the Peninsula to swim laps at a company-subsidized gym, after which I’d walk across the street and eat breakfast in the office kitchen. Occasionally I’d take a nap or do yoga in the Zen Room—activities that were encouraged by the company’s “happiness engineer.” The entire experience felt at once frictionless and empty, like bad contemporary art. It was a world apart from the Silicon Valley I had heard about from my mother.
The Silicon Valley in which my mother got her start was volatile, high-stakes, and frenzied. For her, there was no goal of an IPO, no fantasies about artificial intelligence or life extension—there was only survival. Hardware reigned supreme, and the technological infrastructure that today supports our one-click consumption was still in its infancy. (Amazon got its start in 1994. Craigslist surfaced on the internet in 1995. Larry and Sergey conceived of a student project in 1996 that would eventually culminate in a start-up called Google in 1998.) Companies like Aristocrat Inc. would eventually disappear as the internet became a more robust marketplace, diminishing the necessity for a gray market, and making fluid direct-to-consumer sales. But when my mother started her business, the marketplace was decentralized, and demand often outpaced supply. Frequent shortages meant that companies could not find the parts they were looking for through regular distribution channels, so they searched for components like motherboards, memory chips, and hard drives on the gray market. As a result, hundreds of small companies formed, acting as brokers or speculators. Aristocrat Inc. was one of those companies.
As a twenty-six-year-old in 1989, starting a business out of her own apartment, my mother got hold of as many computer industry trade publications as she could find (like PC Magazine and BYTE magazine) and flipped through their back pages, which were full of ads selling and soliciting computer chips. She would jot down the names of companies and phone numbers as she went along. Then she would call potential sources and clients, big and small, introduce herself, and ask to speak to the purchasing department. She was plucky and audacious, with nothing to lose. “I’m just very bold. I’ll call anybody. If I get rejected, that’s fine,” she said. Once, she called Dell Computer Corporation, hoping she could reel them in as a client. Later on, she told me, she realized it was not conventional for a young woman like herself to call the sales department of a large, established company. But at the time she did not know that, and if she had—well, I’m guessing she would not have cared.
Aristocrat Inc. grew quickly. The margins of buying and selling computer chips were slim, the turnaround fast and the volume high. The chip industry, my mother said, felt like the stock market, with boom-and-bust cycles that led to occasional chip shortages, called “chip famines.” She and her employees were like frantic floor brokers in the pit of the stock exchange. The work was high-pressure. The days were long and grueling. Silicon Valley is known for its white-collar labor, but this was not that. My mom was a businesswoman, but much of the daily work of Aristocrat Inc. was nonstop manual labor: moving inventory, packing, and shipping. She says she was lifting boxes until the day before she gave birth—both times. Sometimes she would have a glass of milk in the morning and then nothing else to eat for the rest of the day.
A normal day in the Aristocrat Inc. office began with phone calls to larger brokers and companies with excess inventory to ask for pricing on specific chips. My mother would call around until she found the best selling price. If chips were scarce, she would order them from foreign sources in Taiwan and Japan—she is fluent in Japanese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Cantonese, so she had a lot of suppliers in Asia. Based on the selling prices of the day, she would quote a price to her customers. She had customers all over the world, and notably in South America, where, she said, “people were buying and selling like crazy.” The continent was several years behind in computer technology, which intensified the demand in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. In the afternoon, customers would call and tell her what they needed, after which my mother would call around again to purchase the merchandise. This was a time-sensitive game, with prices rising and dropping quickly. Once, she lost one hundred thousand dollars before the merchandise she had ordered even arrived—the price of the chips dropped drastically while they were still in the air.
My mother recalls that around 1994, chips started becoming very expensive. In July 1993, on the island of Shikoku, in Japan, an explosion destroyed a factory that produced more than half the world’s supply of epoxy resin, a key material in the manufacturing of silicon chips. This disruption in the supply chain led to a chip famine, which resulted in a price hike. The market became increasingly tumultuous. There were stories of Intel employees selling contraband parts in the parking lot. People were scraping the 25 MHz markings off memory chips and reinscribing them with 33 MHz labels—they could make two hundred dollars more per chip if the memory capacity appeared to be larger.
Then, in 1995, Microsoft released a new operating system. For computer technology, this was a seminal year. Fast Company called it “the year that everything changed.” Windows 95 was an even bigger event than a new iPhone release today, or, for those who came of age in the aughts, as I did, a Harry Potterbook launch. The New York Times reported on the news under the headline MIDNIGHT SALES FRENZY USHERS IN WINDOWS 95, and the writer called it “a computer-age milestone.” According to one tech writer, “Windows 95 was the most important operating system of all time… the first commercial operating system aimed [at] regular people, not just professionals or hobbyists.” Many people were bringing computers (and the internet) into their homes for the first time. With Windows 95, the computer became user-friendly, no longer solely the domain of specialists and nerdy technologists. My mother recalls that because of this launch, the demand for chips—both CPUs and microprocessors—was skyrocketing, not just in the United States, but around the world.
“It was a risky business,” my mother told me. The risk grew in tandem with the demand, and there were opportunities for huge losses in almost every part of the business. From the moment she purchased chips from manufacturers in Asia, she had to take exceptional precautions. If chips were being shipped from Taiwan, for instance, she would have to hire an expert to inspect the cargo to make sure none of it was counterfeit or stolen, then pay someone else to pack the shipment in an extra layer of wooden crates so that no one could open it in transit. Once the chips landed stateside, they were delivered by truck to the Sunnyvale office, but only if the truck was not hijacked first, which occasionally happened. And then, after the chips were repacked and shipped, robbers might target the UPS or FedEx trucks.
Once, a client ordered around $180,000 worth of merchandise. The next morning, when the shipment arrived, the client found only sheafs of newspaper and pages ripped out of a telephone book. Sometimes my mother’s own employees stole from her: drivers she hired would come back from suppliers short on merchandise. Though they had insurance against these mishaps, the insurance company eventually dropped Aristocrat Inc. because the risk was too steep, and they had to find a new one. This was an industry-wide problem: by 1994, Chubb, which insured almost one-third of the tech companies in Silicon Valley, had reportedly lost $15 million from high-tech computer theft.
The stories my mother heard only grew increasingly more harrowing: Gangs tortured executives until they handed over their merchandise. A computer company employee was shot and killed in his car. A friend who worked for a module assembly manufacturer was kidnapped at gunpoint. My mother, wary and vigilant, said she purposely drove a clunky old car because she did not want to attract attention. Even so, gangs took notice of Aristocrat Inc.
Forty miles north of Sunnyvale, Special Agent Carol Lee was following these stories too, from her desk at San Francisco’s FBI headquarters. Lee was in her mid-thirties, with straight black hair and a broad, tanned face. She was finally starting to piece things together and make progress on a case that had dogged her for years.
In the early ’90s, the FBI had learned of a Vietnamese-Chinese heroin organization that was closely aligned with Vietnamese street gangs throughout the United States. Their connections were wide-ranging, and they were loosely affiliated with the Triads (including Frank Ma, one of the last Chinese “godfathers” in New York), as well as with several other high-echelon Asian crime bosses in various American cities. But this heroin organization operated differently from the Asian gangs of previous generations.
First, they relied on two key pieces of technology: the cellular phone and the pager. They were financially and technologically savvy, and instead of being tied to one specific location, they operated a national network, with cells and confederates in various cities. Lee’s boss at the time, Kingman Wong, who supervised the Asian Organized Crime and Drug Squad at the San Francisco bureau, noted one other factor that made this group distinctive: though most Asian gangs comprised only one ethnicity, this group was “somewhat of a United Nations,” with several Asian ethnicities (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese) in the mix. Such intermingling was rare. “When they see they have the same goal, they’re willing to break down national barriers,” he said.
Lee had spent some time deciphering this gang. To take down the entire organization, she knew she would have to go straight for the top bosses, the masterminds from whom all directives flowed. It was easy to nab the henchmen who did the dirty work—the drug handling, the physical exchange of goods for money—but they were also easily replaced. In essence, you had to lop the head off the monster. As such, buy-bust scenarios, in which law enforcement descends upon the seller as soon as the goods have been exchanged, would be futile. Lee knew that isolated transactions like those revealed almost nothing about the supply chain. And they provided little evidence for a case against the gang’s upper management.
Lee’s team had narrowed in on one person, a Vietnamese Chinese man in his mid-twenties. He went by at least a dozen different nicknames, but his legal name was John That Luong. He was short and had a Korean girlfriend. Since 1990, Luong had been suspected of drug smuggling and distribution, supported by a coterie of Vietnamese Chinese gang members in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles. The FBI had reason to believe he played a critical role in trafficking heroin between the East and West Coasts. There was also evidence that he had been involved in alien smuggling, illegal firearms sales, credit card fraud, money laundering, and counterfeit currency production. After nine months of gathering evidence against Luong and his associates for their heroin trafficking enterprise, Lee could tell that Luong was a cautious operator. He did not trust many people, and he employed aggressive countersurveillance techniques. Every month he switched cell phones and pagers. When he encountered law enforcement, he gave aliases and fake identification. He also used cloned phones, co-opting an unsuspecting stranger’s number to make and receive calls. One FBI affidavit noted that Luong frequented mostly Vietnamese and Chinese businesses, making it “extremely difficult for law enforcement to surveil him without detection,” because he blended in so well.
After years of traditional investigation—including seven different confidential informants—yielded little about his inner circle, Lee’s team submitted an application to intercept all of Luong’s wireless and electronic communications. In August 1995, just days before the Aristocrat Inc. robbery, a judge authorized the wiretap.
As Lee began listening to Luong’s phone calls, she noticed something unusual. Often, Luong did not sound like he was talking about drugs. Luong and his associates frequently used coded language and nicknames, but Lee, who had spent years tracking Korean meth dealers in Hawaii, could easily recognize a language pattern that insinuated drugs. She also had a general idea of how much dealers paid for heroin and how much they sold it for, but the financial discussions she overheard did not seem to correlate. Luong and his men talked about “big jobs” and staffing those jobs. They talked about scouting job sites, which they often called “fishponds” or “stores.” They referred to goods as “food,” using different types of seafood (lobster and shrimp) to denote specific items. They talked about “tools” that were needed for the jobs, as well as U-Haul trucks, warehouses, and security. Testifying in court later, Lee’s colleague Nelson Low, a special agent on the Asian Organized Crime and Drug Squad, said, “We [started] picking up some sense that maybe these guys were involved in some robberies and things of that sort.”
A few weeks earlier, on July 10, a man named Tony Bao Quoc Ly, who had been jailed in San Francisco for a probation violation, told an investigating officer that he wanted to exchange information for his freedom. He said he was part of a group that was intending to rob a computer warehouse in Minneapolis of its entire stock of computer chips, worth around $1 million. The robbery, he said, was going to happen soon.
To prove he was serious, he provided these details: During the last week of June, he had flown to Minneapolis, cased a computer warehouse, picked out weapons—an assortment of Berettas, revolvers, and semiautomatics—and rented a safe house in Champlin, a suburb twenty miles north of Minneapolis. His co-participants were Vietnamese men from the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Los Angeles—most were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. They would travel to Minneapolis together to rob the warehouse. Ly had been assigned to drive one of the vans. After the robbery, he would take the chips to the safe house, where they would be stored before being shipped to buyers. The group would then drive to Chicago and fly back to the West Coast.
On the night of July 12, at around 9:00 p.m., four armed men confronted two employees as they were leaving the warehouse of a computer company called NEI Electronics in Blaine, Minnesota. The men tried to coerce the employees to reopen the business, but the employees said they could not—they didn’t have the alarm code. The men forced the two employees—a woman and a man—into their van. During the ride, they tried to persuade the male employee to cooperate with them in committing a robbery later, but he refused. Eventually, they dropped the two employees off at a mall and attempted to make an escape.
But their escape was short-lived. The intel from Ly had been relayed to the San Francisco FBI, who then passed it on to the Minneapolis FBI. Tipped off by the Minneapolis FBI, officers from the Blaine Police Department had in fact been surveilling NEI Electronics since the early evening. The police followed the vans and eventually arrested the men. Inside the vans they found bolt cutters, numerous cell phones and paging devices, maps of the Twin Cities, a gun, several rolls of duct tape, plastic wrist cuffs, opaque surgical gloves, an address for a house in Champlin, and the address of NEI Electronics.
The robbers were held at Anoka County Jail, where they made several calls. An FBI agent in Minnesota would later tell the San Francisco FBI that the individuals were involved with a man in California called Ah Sing—his name was mentioned frequently during the phone calls. Ah Sing, it turned out, was one of Luong’s many nicknames, which also included Thang, Johnny, Tony, Duong, and John Dao. A court indictment would list ten in total.
Soon, Agent Lee realized that when Luong talked about going to “look at fishponds,” or when he said, “The store is wide-open. The food is good. Lobster and shrimp only,” he was describing computer chip companies and the parts they had on hand. Guns were called “legs” or “tools.” The “front line” were the crew members performing the robbery.
In reality, Luong and his associates were not just heroin dealers. They were also businessmen who had identified a lucrative opportunity amid a fast-growing industry. They had diversified their revenue streams, and by selling stolen computer chips, they could finance their heroin operation. The intercepted conversations Lee heard were slowly starting to reveal the full scope of Luong’s criminal activities. On August 6, the Asian Organized Crime and Drug Squad intercepted conversations between John That Luong and a man named Charlie about a robbery they were planning in Sunnyvale.
The FBI was beginning to make sense of things. The Luong investigation would be called Operation Bytes Dust.
After the botched NEI robbery in July of 1995, Luong’s gang was strapped for money. The men who were arrested had called for help from jail, and Luong paid sixty-four thousand dollars to cover their legal fees. Wiretaps around this time revealed tension among the group’s top-tier leaders regarding their financial troubles. Luong and his associates started talking about the possibility of creating an emergency fund from a portion of their profits in case things went south again. To mitigate their monetary woes, they decided they should rob more computer companies. In early August 1995, John Cheng Jung Chu, a man who the FBI would later discover served as a sales broker and scout for Luong, gave the name and address of Aristocrat Inc. to two of Luong’s associates as a potential robbery target. Two weeks later, on August 18, they robbed my mother’s company.
My mother was running late to work that day. Her parents were visiting at the time, and when the two men arrived for the computer chips, she was still at home, entertaining. Later that morning, she received a panicked call from one of her employees, Irene, who told her what had happened. My mother told Irene to stop kidding around—it was not funny. But Irene was not joking.
On September 3, 1995, the Stockton police arrested a man named Chhayarith Reth. He was also known as Charlie—presumably the Charlie that the FBI had overheard speaking to Luong just days before the Aristocrat Inc. robbery. Reth had a distinctive mole on his chin, just like the man who had first approached Grace on that Friday morning. Aristocrat Inc. employees had picked his face out of a photo lineup.
Like Tony Bao Quoc Ly, Reth told the police that he had information to give, for a price. A true negotiator, he wanted to be released from jail, and he demanded plane tickets to Cambodia for himself and his fiancée. He also asked that he not receive a sentence greater than five years for any criminal charges. The police said they could not promise him anything. But on the advice of his lawyer, Reth decided to talk anyway.
In front of an audience of police officers from San Jose and Stockton, Reth painted a portrait of an organization that was run like a business, with a hierarchical structure that delineated responsibilities for each individual involved. There was a direct chain of command and an established process for conducting robberies that allowed the group to do so with tactical precision.
At the top of the group, Reth said, were four bosses, whom he called “the main men.” They had started the operation with the help of a Chinese store owner in the Bay Area. Three lived in or near Sacramento, and the fourth lived in Los Angeles. One, he said, was a gambler, and another, named Mady, had two wives. The main men essentially performed the duties of CEO, CFO, and COO, devising strategies, issuing directives, and handling financial affairs. They commissioned armed robberies and paid attorneys’ fees and bail for their crew members—a kind of workers’ compensation that they had the foresight to set aside as an operating expense. Though they were rarely present for the robberies themselves, they coordinated over the phone, occasionally meeting for dinner at a Chinese restaurant to discuss their plans. Reth said he worked mostly for one boss, a man whose name was transcribed on the police report that day as Donovan Wong—likely a mondegreen for John That Luong.
Reth himself was a “crew leader” (also called “crew chief”), one level below the bosses. Crew chiefs conducted surveys of potential targets, recruited crew members, and obtained rental vehicles, weapons, safe houses, and motel rooms for participants. They also supervised the robberies. Reth said that he was one of the most trusted among the multiple crew leaders, with more responsibilities, privileges, and knowledge than the others. Each crew leader had a preference for the ethnicity of the crew they used. Dung employed mostly Vietnamese men; Mark liked Chinese and Italians; Peter used Cambodian and Chinese men; and Vanthieng worked exclusively with Cambodians.
Below the crew chiefs were the “crew,” the soldiers who participated in the armed robberies. The bosses sometimes referred to them as “the little ones,” as many were in their late teens and early twenties, just barely out of high school. They performed the dirty work, holding employees hostage and transporting the stolen merchandise—this was the role Tony Bao Quoc Ly would have played in the NEI Electronics robbery. The crew was composed of “freelancers,” commissioned on a job-by-job basis. For one robbery, Reth said, each crew member was paid two thousand dollars. According to Ly, the bosses received 40 percent of the robbery proceeds and the crews received 60 percent.
To find robbery targets, the bosses worked with “sales brokers,” who had “the inside information.” Reth called these men “connections.” They were the liaisons to the computer industry, and they often ran legitimate businesses of their own. John Cheng Jung Chu, who told the bosses about Aristocrat Inc., was one of these brokers. Because of their established connections, they were also able to assist in the sale of stolen merchandise (for which they received a 10 percent commission). Unsurprisingly, most of the robbery targets they identified were owned by Asian Americans—these were the people they networked with the most. By providing a “shopping list” to the bosses—a list of the parts most desired by buyers—they could ensure successful sales. In some ways, these brokers’ jobs were not so different from my mother’s.
Once a robbery target was identified, crew chiefs and members would scout the site, often multiple times, up to a month before the robbery. During these visits, they would learn as much as they could about the security systems and identify the best time of day to conduct the robbery. Sometimes, in order to get a better look at an office, they would create a ruse and go into a company asking to use the bathroom or for a job application. Once, during a reconnaissance, they noticed that the employees were wearing headphone-like contraptions, whose communication capabilities, they feared, could thwart a robbery. It was too risky. They decided not to proceed.
The FBI would later learn that the group referred to itself as the Company—an apt moniker—and had more than four hundred members spread throughout the United States. The bosses formed a kind of family business. One of the bosses, Huy Chi Luong, a.k.a. Jimmy, was John That Luong’s cousin, and another boss, Mady Chan, was Huy Chi Luong’s brother-in-law. It was possible there were even more bosses than Reth mentioned. The FBI believed there was an older man in the shadows who oversaw them all. The bosses called him Dai Lo, or “Big Brother”—his real name was Son Quoc Luu and he lived in Stockton. Assistant US attorney Elizabeth Lee, who would eventually prosecute the criminal case against the group, would call the Company “a powerful alliance of criminal associates… [that] knew no limits. The Company was designed to make money for its leaders—and it did.”
Back at the San Joaquin County Jail, a detective asked Reth for information about several computer companies that had been robbed: Centon Electronics, Micro Distribution Center, International Memory Source, ASA Computers, CMC, Valtrix, PC Team, MA Labs. He knew them all. Not only that, but also his knowledge of the robberies was detailed, though he claimed not to have participated in any of them. The Centon robbery, he said, was committed in eight minutes, with twenty people involved. During a one-month surveillance, the robbers had made videotapes of the business and learned its security schedule. A twenty-one-year-old, he said, had rented a U-Haul for the job. At ASA Computers, the crew took mostly hard drives. International Memory Source was a small take. Valtrix was hit twice in two months. When MA Labs was robbed, the owner, terrified, had jumped out the window.
With Reth’s arrest, and Lee’s team still on the wiretap, the Company was becoming more vulnerable. The bosses spoke about Reth’s arrest over the phone as Lee and her team listened in. On one call, Luong spoke about the Aristocrat Inc. robbery, later translated as: “That case, there is no evidence. The only unfortunate thing is the mole on the face.” Luong worried that if their group did not bail out Reth soon, he could decide to cooperate with law enforcement and disclose a lot of valuable information. They were unaware that he had already done so.
The Company’s financial troubles intensified, with lawyer and bail fees starting to pile up. Wiretaps revealed that during the fall of 1995, the main men appeared to be fighting over a large sum of money, somewhere between $480,000 and $750,000. “There were a lot of money problems at that time… It caused a lot… of friction amongst the leaders,” Agent Nelson Low later testified in court. As a result of that friction, two of the bosses pulled out of the operation for the time being. Another sensed that something was going awry—he thought he was being followed, so he told the group he was going to lie low for a while.
But their troubles were only beginning. The cell phone, the very technology that had allowed the Company to operate so efficiently and expansively, would ultimately be their downfall. They did not know that the FBI had begun to preempt their robberies via wiretap. Less than two weeks after Reth was arrested, another four crew members were arrested after a failed robbery at a computer store called Qualstar in Reseda, California. In early February of 1996, the FBI intercepted conversations between Luong and his associates in which they spoke about planning some robberies before the Chinese New Year. Exactly a week before the holiday, eleven men attempted to rob PKI Computers in Torrance, California. Luong had spent the week prior to the robbery in Los Angeles, tailing the owners of various computer chip companies. On February 12, when the robbers arrived at the PKI warehouse, they were met by police and arrested.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the FBI continued to employ undercover agents in heroin deals with Luong’s affiliates. On March 4, a courier flew into Newark, New Jersey from Phoenix, Arizona. He was picked up by a man named Bing Yi Chen, who often worked with Luong. Chen drove the courier to a Burger King, where the courier sold seventy thousand dollars’ worth of heroin to an undercover agent in the bathroom.
The bosses were becoming desperate. “If I could only complete one good job, we could get a lot of the guys that are in jail out quickly,” said Luong over the wiretap. Luong and his cousin Jimmy were both running low on money, so they asked Mady Chan for “seed money” to finance the next robbery. In March, they began scouting warehouses for a series of robberies they were planning in Los Angeles.
On a Friday evening in March, just as the workweek was winding down, an employee of ACE Micro in San Diego was leaving his office when he was ambushed by five armed Asian men, some of them wearing ski masks. They forced the employee back into the office and then bound him with cable ties. They took seventy thousand dollars’ worth of computer chips and parts with them. Afterward, Luong received a call from a man who said that it had been “taken care of.” Luong instructed the man to transport the goods to his house in Sacramento. But first they would meet at the Walmart near Elk Grove Boulevard.
When Luong arrived at Walmart the next morning, around 7:00 a.m., he saw police searching a U-Haul vehicle and questioning two Asian males, who were then arrested. When the police searched the truck, they found computer chips and five thousand dollars in cash.
The next day, Lee’s team overheard Luong talking to Jimmy, wondering how the men had gotten arrested. They couldn’t think of a good reason and speculated that the men had hit a parked car. They did not know that the FBI could hear everything they were saying, and that Lee’s team was closing in.
On the morning of April 11, 1996, Luong took his girlfriend, Gina, out for a driving lesson. She had an appointment for a driving test later that week. A little while later, they pulled up to Connie’s Drive-In, a small roadside restaurant owned by his brother Paul and sister-in-law Winnie that served sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs. According to Luong’s lawyer, Luong and Gina had a shift at the restaurant that morning, but when they noticed several police cars, they drove away and went to their friend Tuan Phan’s home, in the suburbs of Sacramento. An hour later, around 11:00 a.m., as Luong was sitting on the backyard patio talking to Gina, he suddenly stood up, took a step, and chucked his cell phone over a brick wall that bordered the yard. FBI special agent William Beck had just rounded the corner of the house. Luong was arrested that day, along with hundreds of his associates across the country.
Luong was only twenty-four years old when he was arrested—my mother’s age when she started Gigabyte. He was five feet, six inches tall and weighed 165 pounds, with a stocky build and black hair. For at least three years, if not more, he had run what amounted to a successful, though illegal, business that spanned the country, without any college education. He had not been in America for even a decade when he was arrested.
Born in Saigon City, Vietnam, Luong was the third youngest of eight children in a lower-middle-class, ethnically Chinese family. His parents had spent their lives continually fleeing from communism, first from China, and then from Vietnam in 1986. Before they immigrated to the States, they spent eight months in refugee camps.
When they arrived in San Francisco, Luong’s uncle picked up the family and drove them to Sacramento, where the family lived with Luong’s grandfather for some time. Luong was fourteen years old, two years younger than my mother was when she immigrated to the States. The entire family took up menial jobs to survive. Luong’s older sisters worked in doughnut shops and grocery stores or as chambermaids in hotels. His older brothers worked at restaurants, just as my mother had. In high school, Luong did well in his math, science, and physics classes, but poorly in English and social studies. This is an oft-forgotten but typical backstory for many Asian American immigrants—the antithesis of the well-to-do Asian, the one who fulfills the model-minority myth.
In 1990, Luong was involved in a car chase, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. He fled to New York City, where he lived under an alias for a few years, before returning to Sacramento with Gina to live with his mother. Later, Luong would be linked to the Pai Sheng, a ship that smuggled more than two-hundred Chinese aliens onto a pier near the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993. He was paid $650,000 for his help. According to his lawyer, when Luong returned to the Bay Area from New York, he enrolled in a continuing education class and began working at Connie’s Drive-In, earning $5.50 an hour. He and Gina had a daughter in 1995.
I learned of Luong’s origin story from a single document submitted by his lawyer that still resides in the court files of this case. It was a plea for leniency, given his background. His history
was not unfamiliar to me—the escape from communism, the limbo of resettlement, the construction of a new life from nothing at all. But even though Luong and my mother both arrived in this country as immigrants, with little grasp of the language, his circumstances were encumbered by the cruelties of far more recent traumas, which perhaps accounts for the different trajectory of his life. In the end, they both became entrepreneurs, seizing opportunities in an industry in which they were underdogs. Where business was booming, both did whatever they needed to do to survive.
In 2012, as memories of the Aristocrat Inc. robbery surfaced as a reaction to the strange workplace in which I found myself, I began to search for a chapter of Silicon Valley history that seemed to have been lost, written over, and completely forgotten. Google searches turned up a smattering of mostly local news articles about the thefts from the early-to-mid-’90s, but the information available online was scant, and everyone to whom I told my mom’s story—mostly friends in their twenties and thirties—was shocked to hear it. For them, as it did for me, it created a sense of fracture and cognitive dissonance in their understanding of Silicon Valley.
How was it that I had grown up here, with immigrant parents who worked in technology (and with classmates who were mostly the children of Southeast and East Asian immigrants who also worked in technology), but still perceived Silicon Valley to consist of the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the world? Who writes the Silicon Valley story? And who is excluded from it? Maybe I had been too naive, glomming on to the narratives that were presented to me and consequently lionizing only the achievements of these lauded white men. Or was it merely that Asian Americans had been left out of the history and hidden away, as they have been since they first arrived stateside?
When I realized that the Silicon Valley I had landed in was focused only on the future, making obsolescent anything and anyone it did not mythologize, I became obsessed with unearthing the past: the Silicon Valley that my mom—and thousands of other immigrants like her—had been a part of. I called my mom frequently with dozens of questions. I talked to my aunt Grace, and my mom’s employee Anna, and the couple of FBI agents who spoke to me very reluctantly. I visited courthouses in San Francisco and San Jose, where I sat in small, windowless rooms paging through thousands of pages of undigitized court files, trying to take photos of important transcripts underneath a desk, where the court clerk could not see me. After several hours, I’d go for a quick lunch, slurp down a bowl of phở, then return and try to get through as many files as I could. It struck me that all the details of these robberies and investigations had been preserved and stowed away in their analog form behind closed doors, in a manner that made them nearly impossible to access. They’d been relegated to a dusty corner, familiar only to those who knew they were there.
I never did interview John That Luong, even though I wanted to. I felt an urgency to bring this story to the fore and a sadness that so many details were lost to the private memories of individuals I could not find, but I was wary, too, of reviving a past that had once been dangerous for my family. I didn’t want John That Luong to remember my mom. It’s a stereotypically Asian way to be, not wanting to draw too much attention to ourselves. But that, too, is how we let ourselves be forgotten.
For my mother, who is a deeply religious woman, the robbery played out as a series of “small miracles.” She counts herself lucky that she was late to work that day. She had heard that company owners often suffered the brunt of the raid. Their families might be held hostage, or they themselves might be tortured. An industry acquaintance, Paul Heng, CEO of the chip manufacturer Unigen, was the target of a kidnapping attempt in 1995, in which armed robbers ambushed his car as he was nearing his house. As he frantically reversed his car, the robbers shot at him. One bullet went through the car radiator.
All in all, the value of the goods stolen from Aristocrat Inc. amounted to around sixty-one thousand dollars, and the majority were returned merchandise, later reimbursed by the company’s insurance. But still, the robbery shattered an illusion of invincibility that my mother had previously possessed. The business of computer chips had always been financially risky, and though she had heard the litany of stories about robberies and kidnappings, the danger had still seemed abstract and distant. When Aristocrat Inc. was robbed, the precarious nature of the industry suddenly became tangible. A robbery was not only possible—it had, in fact, happened. Fearing for our family’s safety, my mother would move us into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains a year later. She bought the house with the money she had made at Aristocrat Inc.
The robbery was, in a way, a wake-up call that forced her to consider her own mortality. “I was dragged into the business and the business was booming. I just couldn’t stop. There was no time to think. It was the robbery that made me stop and think,” she told me. The momentum of the early Silicon Valley computer craze had swept her up, and she had profited from it, but at what cost? After the robbery, she thought about what she would do if she had only one month to live, and she began to realize that running the business was not it. Doing so had caused her a great deal of stress. After dropping me off at school in the morning, she would arrive at the office around 9:00 a.m. In the evening, after bringing me home, she would drive back to the office without eating dinner, and she would often work until 10 p.m. or midnight. When my sister started day care, she’d often be the last child to be picked up. After the UPS shipping deadline of 6:00 p.m., my mom would speed over to get her, but never fast enough to avoid the ire of the day care lady. “I realized there was something more important to me than the company,” she said. “If I were more ambitious, I could have made it bigger. But I’m content with what I have.”
Shortly after the robbery, my mother began thinking about dissolving Aristocrat Inc. But the business was still doing well. Then, as luck would have it, in 1996, an acquaintance offered to buy the company from her. She sold Aristocrat Inc. that year. She would work part-time as a consultant for two more years before leaving the industry entirely in 1998. It was good timing, she later told me: right before the dot-com boom rendered companies like Aristocrat Inc. irrelevant. “It was the beginning of a different era,” she said.
Both my parents were an integral part of the immigrant labor force in the technology industry, but they worked in entirely different parts of Silicon Valley—my father in the more genteel, privileged, and intellectual sector that is typically conjured when thinking about the technology industry; my mother in a rougher, more brutal, and less visible line of work. Luong, on the other hand, did not formally operate in any sector at all but rather in the merciless, dark underbelly of Silicon Valley that is little known to this day. This stratification of Asian Americans along class and ethnic lines continues to abide in the Bay Area and in the United States, where they are the most economically divided of any racial group.
Even knowing this, I was surprised—though I shouldn’t have been—to hear that the underbelly Luong was a part of still exists. In 2011, fifteen robbers stole more than $37 million worth of computer chips from Unigen, the largest chip robbery in the history of the business, and a sum almost twice as large as the biggest bank heist in American history. It was the same company whose owner, Paul Heng, had been ambushed in his car in 1995. When I started reporting this story, my mother urged me to speak to him, and he told me that the very first time he had a gun put to his head was in 1988, even before he started Unigen, when the electronics broker he was working for was robbed. Since Unigen’s founding, in 1991, Heng’s company has been robbed more than six times, most recently in July of 2019. Still, he said, the 1995 incident (the same year that Aristocrat Inc. was robbed) was the most terrifying. When I asked him if he was ever deterred by the robberies, he said no. “Either you go small and quit, or you grow bigger,” he said.
On April 9, 1996, a federal grand jury issued a six-count indictment charging John That Luong with racketeering, RICO conspiracy, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats or violence, and conspiracy to distribute heroin. (RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was originally created to go after mobs and has since become the prosecution of choice against any form of organized crime.) The court trials were long and drawn-out, and Luong did not receive his sentence until 2010: life in prison plus eighty years. For the alien smuggling case, he was sentenced to forty-five months in prison in 1998. He faced a separate indictment for laundering money and stolen cars.
My mother, for her part, does not know John That Luong’s name. Nor is she familiar with the intricacies of the Company or of the FBI operation that led to his capture. Luong was just one leader among several gangs that stole and trafficked computer chips, and my mom was but one small-business owner among hundreds whose companies were robbed. He was no El Chapo, and she was no Sheryl Sandberg. But it was in part because she was also an Asian immigrant that Aristocrat Inc. became one of Luong’s targets.
Kingman Wong, the FBI agent who supervised Operation Bytes Dust, told me that Asian criminals targeted Asian-run companies because they saw the commonality as an advantage. They were more likely to share a language, and the gangs often knew people who worked at these companies—it made their jobs easier. At one point during our conversations, my mother offhandedly told me that the son of a Chinese nanny that babysat me back in 1992 had been part of the gang that robbed a company called Wintec Industries in 1998, during which one of the employees was shot and killed. What I infer from this is that when immigrants prey on their own, they assume the consequences will be less dire, or even nonexistent. Though Luong ultimately received a severe punishment for his crimes, most of the reporting about these computer chip robberies has been buried. If these crimes had been perpetrated against white people, would they have been covered, and remembered differently?
The neighborhood my parents live in now is quiet and bosky, with multistory houses shielded by tall deciduous trees that turn red and gold in the fall. Their house is on a cul-de-sac at the end of a windy, hilly road. A majority of their neighbors have been there as long as, if not longer than they have. Many of them are part of the old guard of tech, like the man two doors down who was a marketing manager at Apple in the early ’80s; he later started the ad agency that created an early iteration of the eBay logo. When my parents moved to this house, so that Luong’s people would not be able to find them, their address was unsearchable on Google Maps. The trick was that you had to use MapQuest—that was the only way to route yourself to their house.
The day we drove to the old headquarters of Aristocrat Inc. in Sunnyvale was the first time my mom had been back to her old office in two decades—and mine too. When my mom described her working days to me before, I’d had a hard time picturing the place where the robbery had gone down, but upon pulling into the parking lot, I suddenly remembered I’d been here before. In my mind’s eye I could see the room where all the office workers sat, desks parallel to one another. That room opened up into an expansive, high-ceilinged warehouse, with cold concrete floors and tall metal shelves filled with boxes. I remember how delighted I was when I got to visit my mother at her workplace, mystified by the abundance of packing peanuts and the seemingly endless rolls of pink bubble wrap, which I’d pull out and pop one by one. In that office, I had perceived a magical, grown-up world full of office accoutrements like staplers and mini receipt-printers and large plastic calculators whose buttons clacked when you pressed them.
At the time I had seen only the surface of things. I was too young to understand the kinds of rigors and tribulations my mom was facing. Back then, and for a long time thereafter, she’d just been my mom, who’d worked for a while, and then stopped, and that was it. But part of becoming an adult is beginning to see your parents as distinct and separate humans, and as this story unraveled, my mom slowly began to appear differently to me. I’d always admired her, but now I felt a kind of awe.
My mother seemed indifferent to the sight of her old office; if she felt otherwise, she did not show it. Maybe she’d never had a sentimental attachment, or else it had waned, and now the place just represented a bounded time in her life that had come and gone. She stayed in the car with my baby—her grandson—as I stepped out and looked around. A couple of bespectacled workers in their late twenties or early thirties, both women, walked by me, plastic bags in hand—they must have gotten burritos or Nepalese momos from the food trucks nearby. The entire complex looked like a relic of the ’90s, much of its facade and coloring unchanged. “It looks about the same,” said my mom.
 The court files offer varying accounts of how many bosses there were. Some documents claim there were three; others suggest four or five.