Enter the Dragon Head
Raymond Chow says he's left his gangster days behind to help bring peace to Chinatown's streets. Is he for real?
By MARY SPICUZZA
Published: August 1, 2007
Raymond Chow ducked the instant rival gang members opened fire. But he suspects he survived the Golden Dragon Massacre, a shooting at a Chinatown restaurant that left five dead and about a dozen people injured, because of seating preference. He and his fellow gang members always sat in the corner.
The infamous 1977 massacre was not Chow's first shootout, and it certainly wasn't his last. "Pretty much every street in Chinatown I have been [in a] shoot out, I have had a gun battle from the past," Chow said, walking along Waverly Place on a recent sunny afternoon. For him, it all comes back to this narrow street that dead-ends at the old Golden Dragon, which has since been renamed Imperial Palace Restaurant. "All that pretty much started in this alley," he said, pointing out various shootout locations from his past.
Back then Chow was an ambitious rising star in the Hop Sing Boys — a gang linked to a fraternal organization named the Hop Sing Tong. The Hop Sing Boys were then fighting for control of the streets of Chinatown with rivals like the Wah Ching and Joe Boys.
Many knew him by his nickname, Shrimp Boy. His grandmother had given him the moniker as a boy to ward off evil spirits — in the belief that evil spirits can't find little children if they don't know their names. Chow, who now stands about 5 feet 5 inches, also happened to be the smallest of five brothers, and the nickname stuck.
Shrimp Boy built his reputation as one of Chinatown's most notorious gangsters, one with an extensive rap sheet including everything from extortion and armed robbery to attempted murder and involvement in the heroin trade. Then he got busted in the 1990s while reportedly trying to unite different Asian criminal organizations, or triads, to create an international empire with Peter Chong, a reputed crime boss with a group named Wo Hop To.
It looked like Chow, who had spent most of his adult life in prison, was going to grow old there. That is, until Chong — who'd fled to Hong Kong — was extradited to the United States to stand trial. Chow was freed about four years ago after testifying against his former partner in crime.
Now Chow says he's changed his ways — or is at least making different choices — and leading a law-abiding life. He says he wants to help the community he used to "terrorize" by working with youth to help keep them out of gangs. And he's also the new leader, or Dragon Head, of a prominent tong, the Hung Moon Ghee Kong Tong ("Supreme Lodge Chinese Freemasons of the World").
Chow's appearance has changed, too. He still wears a couple of earrings in one ear, but his head is now clean shaven and his tattoos are usually barely visible under his conservative business shirts and Chinese tops. Still, walking toward Uncle restaurant last month, he said his notorious reputation made for a rough transition when he was released from prison. "When I come out of jail and I walk [down the street], everybody scared to say hi to me," he said. "Nobody really want to talk."
Now it seems as if the opposite is true. Each time we walked together around Chinatown, Chow was met with smiles, waves, and greetings called out from street corners and shop windows. Many called him "Big Brother," or "Dai Lo!"
"Now, today, they call me Dai Lo, as love, it's respect, it's to honor me," the 48-year-old Chow explained. "For the older people, to honor me like that, I'm grateful. And I take them as my teacher, my friend, and my family."
Of course, it's a word that Chow (born Kwok Cheung Chow) knows quite well. In the world of Asian organized crime, Dai Lo has another meaning: crime boss.
Raymond Chow traces his bad-boy roots back to his childhood in Hong Kong. He says that by age 9 he'd joined triads, longtime underground societies notoriously linked to organized crime — and activities like illegal gambling, extortion, and racketeering.
And he got caught up in gangs again soon after his family moved to San Francisco. When Chow arrived in 1976, he was 16, didn't speak English, and was quickly drawn to the familiarity of thug life. "As a new immigrant, I come here and I feel I don't have that security, I don't feel the safety," Chow said. "That's why, the first thing is, I go back to where I come from. The gang."
Chow insists that, as bad as he was, he only extorted from gambling dens and other illegal operations and not legitimate businesses. But he says he was sent to San Quentin State Prison at 18 after robbing law-abiding engineers at a party. As Chow tells the story, he'd been led to believe beforehand that he would be holding up a shady parlor. When he got to the party, he realized his error, but because his gun was "already drawn" he went ahead with the robbery. He was released after nearly eight years behind bars, but soon got into a fight and shootout with rival gang members. He served another three-year sentence and was released in the late 1980s.
It was then that he started working with a man named Peter Chong, who allegedly was sent to San Francisco to gain a foothold in the United States for a Hong Kong-based triad known as the Wo Hop To. Chow, who already had plenty of experience with extortion and other illegal activities, was recruited to be Chong's lieutenant.
Chow was, by all accounts, a very dedicated soldier who devoted his days to various criminal schemes. "After following him, he did nothing else but," said retired FBI Special Agent Joe Davidson, who helped do surveillance on Chow for several months when he was with Wo Hop To. "When the wire was up, that's all he did."
And the two men grew extremely close — Chow introduced Chong as "uncle to us all" when his boss led a toast at his wedding.
Together, Chow and Chong were rumored to be trying to unite triads under the umbrella of a global empire to be called the Tien Ha Wui, or "Whole Earth Association." As it grew, their Wo Hop To employed a level of sophistication FBI agents have compared to the mafia. They are believed to have gone beyond extortion and loan-sharking to arms dealing, the international heroin trade, and underage prostitution — not to mention orchestrating an arson attempt on one of Chong's properties.
When the pair and their associates got busted in the early 1990s, Chow landed in federal court facing a litany of charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law providing extended penalties for those involved in criminal organizations. Chong, who was also indicted on numerous charges, skipped town and fled to Hong Kong.
Shrimp Boy says he didn't resent the fact that Chong fled, leaving him behind to catch all the heat. But he felt Chong betrayed him by trying to "have his boys pin everything" on Chow. A federal judge sentenced Chow to more than 20 years in prison for gun charges.
But nearly a decade later, Shrimp Boy got his revenge on his former criminal mentor. After Chong was extradited from Hong Kong to face charges in 2000, Chow agreed to testify against him about everything from an alleged murder-for-hire plot of a rival Boston gang leader to the Wo Hop To's involvement in the international heroin trade.
Even though words like "honor" and "loyalty" come up in nearly every conversation with Chow, he says it wasn't a hard decision to dish dirt on his former "uncle." He says he believes it was Chong who stabbed him in the back by using their former underlings against him. "I don't do people wrong," he says.
He proved to be the prosecution's star witness, even though his braggadocio on the witness stand raised eyebrows. According to court documents, at one point Chow said: "If you're asking me which gang did I join, I did not join any gang. I owned the gang. ... All those people who were walking the streets of the Bay Area, all them were controlled by me."
Chong's defense has portrayed Chow as a career criminal willing to lie in court to avoid serving his time in prison. Lawyers for Chong filed a brief appealing his conviction in April 2004, accusing Chow of "obvious fabrication" and a "ludicrous attempt" to suggest Chong launched a murder for hire. "He has admitted longtime involvement in prostitution activities, and at the time of his arrest in 1992, owned a brothel in Pacifica staffed by girls as young as 13 or 14," the brief says of Chow.
In exchange for his testimony, Chow was offered a reduced sentence.
Some law enforcement officials at the time of Chow's release warned that the government was making a big mistake by sending a dangerous criminal back into the community.
However, retired Special Agent Davidson says he believes Chow "did a good job" in court testifying against his former boss — adding that he had already served 11 years in prison.
Davidson, who served on the organized crime squad and was based in San Francisco from 1980 until he retired in 2005, knows firsthand that Chow was no angel. Still, he thinks the feds did the right thing by making a deal with Chow. "If you're going to catch the devil, you gotta go to hell," Davidson said. "You gotta deal with demons to get the head demon. You're not going to deal with priests, or with schoolteachers."
It's been about four years since Chow got out of prison. He still doesn't have a full-time job.
He dutifully follows the conditions of his supervised release, checking in with immigration officials at least three times a week — Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays — and wears a monitoring device around his ankle. When I asked how he makes a living, he says he's been working as a business consultant for friends, adding that his rap sheet has made finding a 9-to-5 job difficult. He drives a slick, black Mercedes-Benz, but says his friend's family sold it to him at a discount. "I'm broke," he said.
Obviously, being broke would be a big change from his lucrative past. He's said that, by age 17, he was extorting about $30,000 a week as protection money from illegal mah jong parlors.
One recent check-in with the woman who works at the front desk in the immigration office went like this:
Woman: "Mr. Chow, did you bring us employment verification this time?"
Chow: "What's that?"
Woman: "Employment verification? Are you still ... ?"
Chow: "Not yet."
Woman: "Not yet. Are you still ... ?"
He assured her he'd have something soon.
Still, there wasn't a hint of antagonism in their conversation. She even admired his deep-red shirt with a dragon on it ("A gift from China," he said), and encouraged him to wear it when he met with the SF Weekly photographer. "Red looks good on you," she said with a smile.
Chow says he's looking for a full-time job but, for now, has been keeping busy with his volunteer work and his responsibilities as Dragon Head of the Hung Moon Ghee Kong Tong.
He's been Dragon Head for only about a year, but under his watch his tong has already received a certificate of honor from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thanks to Assemblywoman Fiona Ma. Chow insists that he refuses to fail Ma and the other community leaders who believe in him, that he now understands vengeance isn't about machine-gun shootouts. "My best revenge is my success," he said.
Over the past month, he invited me to join him as he helped hand out bags of jasmine rice donated by members of a Buddhist temple to senior citizens in Chinatown. He talked with children and teens at a barbecue hosted by United Playaz, a violence-prevention program with the slogan "It takes a thug to save a thug." And he was one of the speakers at a 200-person banquet held in July at the Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Avenue, where he talked about the importance of providing educational and recreational activities for youth, especially new immigrants.
"Now, he's start[ed] doing a lot of things for Chinatown!" business owner Glenn Tom said proudly, nodding approvingly at Chow. Tom, who owns numerous businesses including the Cathay House Restaurant on California Street, has known Chow since he was a teenager. And he repeatedly said he's thrilled the longtime bad boy is finally following his advice "to behave and be a good boy." He even gave Chow a ring that matches his own — a gold one with a jade oval surrounded by diamonds.
Sitting between Tom and Chow, their friend David Wong said he thinks Chow's demonstrated devotion to community service will win over the skeptics who believe he's still secretly "making some fast money" on the side. "From the bottom of my heart, I believe he is changing," said Wong, who runs the Ying On Labor & Merchant Association. He wants people to judge his friend not by his past, but by his actions.
But not everybody is buying Shrimp Boy's story as a tale of redemption. For example, Chow also participated in a recent press conference with members of the new committee calling for the recall of Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. Chow says he joined the committee because he's an advocate of the proposed 17-story city college building in Chinatown, a design Peskin has called a "monstrosity." But Peskin suspects Chow has other motives. "I think he's making a play for legitimacy in Chinatown by hopping on the issue du jour," Peskin said. "And I think his presence is bizarre and designed to intimidate." Chow says if more people believed that he'd gone clean, he'd be far away from San Francisco, living under an assumed identity in the federal Witness Protection Program. He says federal prosecutors initially promised him witness protection, but, in the end, they never came through. He suspects law enforcement is allowing him to walk the streets of San Francisco as bait — adding there's a long line of people looking for revenge.
Brian Stretch from the U.S. Attorney's Office said that, as part of Chow's plea agreement, the government agreed to make an application for the federal Witness Protection Program and an S-visa on his behalf. However, Stretch said he couldn't provide additional information about Chow's situation because it's not public record.
Some say he should have never been released and believe Chow is partly to blame for a flare-up of Chinatown criminal activity not long after he got out of prison. "He's the worst of the worst," California Department of Justice Special Agent Ignatius Chinn told local CBS affiliate KPIX last year. "They made a deal with the devil and now the devil's out."
Allen Leung played many roles in the community. He was a businessman who founded a martial arts studio with his brothers, as well as a travel agency that later became an import-export business. He sat on city commissions and task forces.
He was also a leader in both Hung Moon Ghee Kong Tong and Hop Sing Tong. Whereas the criminal behavior of triads is quite clear, there's a bit more mystery around the activities in tongs. Tongs are generally fraternal organizations established for social and business purposes. Some (like the Hop Sing Tong) have been placed on the FBI's list of criminally influenced tongs, while others are seen as benevolent organizations devoted to promoting Chinese culture.
Despite Leung's apparent power and respect, he also had enemies. In February 2006, a masked gunman entered Leung's Chinatown import-export business and repeatedly shot him in the head in front of his wife. The murder remains unsolved — a mystery with Chow at the center of it.
In 2005, about a year before his execution-style killing, Leung went to the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI and told them he feared for his life, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He also informed the FBI of an alleged extortion plot. He told a federal agent that Chow had shown up at Hop Sing Tong in late 2004, demanding $100,000, the Chronicle reported. At the time, Chow was also Leung's second in command at Hung Moon Ghee Kong Tong.
In February 2005, several tongs and a restaurant were tagged with red paint, seen as a threat that danger was coming. Leung and other Hop Sing Tong board members called an emergency meeting, but voted to not provide the money. Soon after, Hop Sing's doorway was sprayed with bullets. The tong then received an anonymous letter, which had a New York return address but had been postmarked in San Francisco. The note, addressed to Leung and two other men, read: "Someone open fire at your front door, but you're just chicken shit, no response to it, just keeping your mouth quiet. Having this kind of leader makes all the tongs lose face. I have a poem to dedicate to you. It says you should be embarrassed for a thousand years and your reputation stink for ten thousand years," according to the Chronicle.
Chow denies demanding money from Hop Sing Tong, and says most of what he knows about all of these allegations he learned in the newspapers. He adds that he's "not the problem" and can't control some gang members trying to use his name in their own extortion plots.
But Chow has once again found himself under fire. "We have a suspicion," Special Agent Chinn told KPIX last year after Leung's death. "We don't have proof. That's the test. We've never been able to get enough evidence against him or his gang to prosecute him for a couple of unsolved homicides in San Francisco."
Chow isn't the only one under suspicion. The day after Leung's murder, an anonymous caller to the worldwide Sound of Hope radio station said, "You want to know who killed Allen Leung? Call Chinese Consulate and Chinese Chamber of Commerce," according to the conservative John Birch Society publication, The New American. Leung was an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He was also involved in a lawsuit with tong members in New York.
Hundreds gathered at Leung's funeral in Chinatown. One mourner in particular stood out: Raymond Chow. Chow showed up wearing a crisp white suit surrounded by black-clad mourners. He was one of the few called by name to bow in front of Leung's casket, a sign of honor, and spoke briefly before he and the other members of the Hung Moon Ghee Kung Tong bowed in unison.
Chow says wearing the white suit wasn't a power play, but rather a sign of "the highest respect." He adds that family members, those closest to the deceased, often wear white to the memorial service or funeral to show respect. "At that time, I'm representing my tong," he says.
Chow declined to discuss the investigation into Leung's death, saying he didn't want to interfere with law enforcement. He also stressed that he's just asking for police to be fair with him, rather than try to blame him for any and all crimes in Chinatown. He has no interest in going back to jail, he says, and is determined to "walk straight" and not fail the people who believe in him. As evidence, he offered that he now often walks alone along the streets of Chinatown, rather than with the huge group he always had surrounding him in his gang days. "When you walk straight, you don't have to look over your shoulder," he says.
But he does take some precautions. His black Mercedes, complete with leather seats and a sunroof, has additional safety features. It's bulletproof.
At the recent Fourth of July picnic hosted by United Playaz, Chow had barely walked in the door when a teenage boy rushed up and gave him a hug.
"That's our future," Chow said.
Jeremiah Español, 15, said that hearing Chow speak at gang-prevention events has taught him "we can change." He added that he's been staying out of trouble, and trying to teach his "gang-banger" friends to unite rather than fight each other.
Chow said he doesn't try to tell teens like Jeremiah what to do, but shares his story and encourages them to think carefully about the choices they make. He encourages them to stay in school rather than drop out like he did. "I don't know how to read, how to write, I don't have no education," Chow said.
Rudy Corpuz Jr., the founder of United Playaz, believes Chow has changed a lot of young lives by sharing his story and encouraging youths without judging them. "He's a dragon warrior," Corpuz said. "I fell in love with this homeboy. I did, man."
But Chow says kids just like someone who respects them enough to be honest with them about life on the streets, and are smart enough to know when they're being lied to. Of course, that can make for some awkward interactions. "Sometime I ask the kids [what parents have said about me] and they say, "You used to chase people in Chinatown with machine guns.'"
His response: "That was a long time ago."
He adds that police have been asking his friends plenty of questions about him. And last year officers searched his tong headquarters as well as the Hop Sing Tong building, and took out boxes of documents from each. Still, Chow insists he isn't worried because he and his tong are devoted to peace and love, and he's got nothing to hide.
I asked if he's afraid that somebody, maybe Chong, would send people to try to hurt him. He says people have tried, but nobody has been able to "swallow" him yet. As Chow and I walked along Washington Street one afternoon last month, he seemed more concerned about me than getting whacked by Chong's men. The wind had picked up and fog was blowing in, and he suggested that I wear a coat to keep warm. If anything, Shrimp Boy is a gentleman.
Still, he insists that he hasn't really changed much from his gangster days.
"I cannot say that I'm the good person," he says. "But I can tell you I'm not the bad person, either."
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