New Podcast Charts One Man's Journey From Chinatown Gangs to Hollywood

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A street at night, lit up by neon signs, two of which say CHOP SUEY.
Grant and Washington in Chinatown as it once looked. (OpenSFHistory / wnp12.00498)

In 2015, journalist and video editor Maya Lin Sugarman lost her uncle Galen Yuen to a blood infection. To Lin Sugarman, Yuen had been a lovable goofball — a man fond of donuts, offbeat restaurants and Big Brother marathons. It was only when her beloved “popo” (Cantonese for maternal grandmother) died five years later that Lin Sugarman discovered a box of her uncle’s writing that revealed a different picture — a nefarious past she didn’t know he’d had.

Lin Sugarman’s journey to uncover Yuen’s true story is now a podcast titled Magnificent Jerk. Across seven engrossing episodes, we find out that Yuen had been a member of notorious Chinese-American gangs in the Chinatowns of both San Francisco and Oakland. He had acted as a pimp, served time in prison and survived serious drug addiction. Yuen started innumerable street brawls, attempted to extort a family, and was not averse to brandishing guns to make a point. And, in a remarkable twist, when he finally left his criminal past behind, he used his street knowledge to start a career in Hollywood.

Yuen’s experience in Hollywood, as told by Lin Sugarman in the Apple Original podcast, is a startling reflection of the racism that was rife in the entertainment industry in the 1990s. Yuen’s biggest project, Crazy Six, started as a script he wrote about Asian American gangs and a drug deal set in Oakland. (The “Crazy Six” of the title was named after a Chinese American gangster Yuen knew.) By the time Hollywood was done with the project, it was a movie set in Eastern Europe starring Rob Lowe, Burt Reynolds, Ice-T and exactly zero Asian American actors.

Lin Sugarman’s deep frustration about the fate of her uncle’s movie here is plain to hear. Still, she jumps at the chance to watch it on a big screen when the opportunity presents itself.

A young, slender Chinese American man with chin length hair stands in a living room wearing a black and white floral shirt, his hands in his pockets.
Galen Yuen in the 1970s, the same era he was involved with the Suey Sing gang. (Courtesy of the Yuen family)

After the whitewashing of Crazy Six, Yuen decided to use the gumption and tenacity that once made him an effective gangster to help other Asian Americans in the movie industry. He set up an agency called Asian Talent Force and attempted to negotiate better roles and more money for his clients. Still, Yuen’s own acting career consisted largely of bit parts and small, often stereotypical roles in movies like Kindergarten Cop, Cyborg 2 and Crank: High Voltage. Yuen was offered very few opportunities to write. One exception was Riot, a four-part TV movie about the unrest in LA that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Yuen was hired to write the Asian American perspective. The fact that he was not of Korean descent — as most of the Asians caught up in the riots were — did not matter to the producers.


Yuen’s story is peppered with grief, misadventure, ambition and, by the end of his life, attempts at redemption. Lin Sugarman explores her uncle’s history with a keen curiosity that occasionally lapses into anxiety and trepidation. Still, she doggedly pursues Yuen’s truth even as she worries her family will harbor resentments towards her for doing so. (Some of the most engrossing conversations in the podcast happen between Lin Sugarman and her worried aunties.) As she explore’s Yuen’s past, Lin Sugarman must also contend with the fading memories of those who knew her uncle, as well as the fears of gang violence victims too scared to speak on the record, even 50 years later.

Magnificent Jerk would have benefited from more detail about the history of gangs in San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatown districts. We are offered only cursory information about the Suey Sing crew that her uncle was a part of, and few mentions of the other gangs that were also active at the time. We get some sense of the gang members’ motivations — anti-Asian discrimination certainly played a part — but extra background about the whens, hows and whys of the Chinatowns’ criminal underworld would have given the podcast sturdier ground to stand on.

The beating heart at the center of each episode of Magnificent Jerk is Lin Sugarman. The rollercoaster of emotions she experiences as she finds things out about her uncle that she would rather not lends an engaging intimacy to the proceedings. And though Lin Sugarman ultimately uncovers many of her uncle’s darkest secrets, one gets the impression that Yuen would probably enjoy the final impression of him left by Magnificent Jerk. It is, after all, the first chance Galen Yuen — a complex, multifaceted, talented person — has had to exist in public without the stereotyping that dogged him in life.

‘Magnificent Jerk,’ an Apple Original podcast, premieres on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023.