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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Gangster Who Couldn't Shoot Straight


Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow thought he would clean up as Peter
Chong's Number Two Man.
Instead, Chow just took a bath.

From the way he's been written about in the local papers, you'd think that Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow was some sort of master criminal -- an underworld genius like Moriarity, the archfiend who squared off against Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, Chow was more like another fictional criminal: Kid Sally Palumbo, the hapless Mafia leader modeled on "Crazy Joey" Gallo in Jimmy Breslin's classic cosa nostra comedy, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The FBI affidavit that details Chow's misdeeds as the Emperor of Chinatown's rackets portrays him as the "Dragonhead" of the Chee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Freemasons, a branch of a secret society that was originally founded during the Ching Dynasty and is suspected of a variety of criminal activities including extortion, prostitution and illegal gambling.

The affidavit also identifies Chow as a leader of the Hop Sing Tong, another secret society involved in criminal activity. As a boss of the Hop Sing, Chow supervised "underlings" who were directly involved in racketeering, the affidavit says.

As part of a negotiated plea of guilty in a racketeering case involving the Hop Sing in the late 1990s, Chow admitted that he had dealt heroin and cocaine, engaged in loan sharking, murder for hire, arson, robbery and illicit gaming.

Sounds like a genuine nogoodnik, right?

What the affidavit doesn't say is that Chow was a flop in most of these activities. The proof of that is the fact that he has spent much of his adult life in state and federal penitentiaries. His first trip to the big house came in 1978 when he was arrested for a string of robberies. He did an eleven year jolt for those crimes and paroled out in 1985.

Only two years after hitting the street, however, Chow was involved in shooting incident and was busted again. The gunplay earned him another three years in the state pen.

When he got out, he ran into a man named Peter Chong.

Peter Chong wanted to amalgamate various
Chinatown gangs into a single national syndicate.

Now Chong actually was a criminal mastermind. An ambitious member of the Wo Hop To triad, one of China's largest criminal organizations, Chong came to the U.S. posing as a promoter of Chinese entertainers, like Amy Yip, a big star in Hong Kong. In fact, Chong put on a number of Chinese language shows that drew their audiences from Chinese expats living in America, but the song and dance business was just a front.

What Chong was really in the U.S. for was to build a nationwide syndicate of Chinese gangs into a single mob headed by his own Chinese organization, the Wo Hop To. 

The umbrella group he established was fancifully referred to as the "Whole Earth Association," and consisted of troops recruited from disparate Asian crime gangs, many of which had previously been at each other's throats. 

They included the Hop Sing Tong and its youthful auxiliary, the Hop Sing Underlings; a Hop Sing splinter group from Portland, Oregon; Other members were part of the old Wah Ching street gang that had been involved in the infamous Golden Dragon massacre (Chow was at the Golden Dragon the night of the shooting, but the gunmen responsible for the attack missed him and his associates); the Jackson Street Boys; and the Suey Sing Tong.

Chong even sent some associates to Boston to assassinate another gangster as part of a plan to bring Beantown's On Leong organization into the fold. 

He enlisted Chow as a deputy because Chow knew the Bay Area and had his own small following within the Hop Sing Tong. Chow, in turn, recruited members of the Hop Sing Tong and another gang of young street criminals, the Jackson Street Boys, as enforcers for Chong's Whole Earth Association.

Remember that Chow's career as a racketeer had been anything but stellar up to this point. He was a small timer with a small timer's outlook, and Chong was the real brains behind the Whole Earth group. His partnership with Chong didn't turn Chow into an overnight success as an organized crime leader, either -- he still was short sighted and prone to the kind of violence that almost certainly would draw the attention of law enforcement agencies.

For example, "Shrimp Boy" sent some of his deputies in the Hop Sing group back to Boston to eliminate Bike Ming, a rival gangster, in a Golden Dragon-style ambush; the underlings blew the job and had to return to the Bay Area.

Chow himself traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to pick up a load of heroin. That caper also fell through -- Chow, gripped with paranoia, funked out on the purchase. On his return through New York he was stopped by the cops and caught with $12,000 in buy money. He was eventually released but the cops grabbed the cash as evidence and Chow failed to bring back the drugs that had occasioned the entire trip.

During the same period, Chow attempted to kidnap Norman Hsu, a wannabe bag man for the Democratic Party who supposedly owed the Wo Hop To a wad of money. That scheme, too, fell through:  shortly after Chow grabbed Hsu, the car he was transporting the abductee in was pulled over by police; Hsu made himself scarce and Chow was lucky to escape without being arrested.

Meanwhile, underlings were getting pinched right and left for petty crimes. Theoretically, Chinese organized crime has the same code of silence as the Italian Mafia, but the underlings had no real discipline and were given to blabbing to the police the minute they were arrested, even for minor crimes.

By the early 1990s, the cops and feds were putting together a complete organizational chart for the Whole Earth Association. The process accelerated when they convinced a federal magistrate to let them tap the telephones of Chong, Chow and other key Wo Hop To players. Now the gang was under federal scrutiny and it was only a matter of time before arrests would be made.

The last straw seems to have been an arson fire that was set in 1992 by Andy Li, 18, a "red pole" or enforcer for the Wo Hop To, and Chol Soo Lee, a Korean man with a long prison record. The fire was supposed to destroy a three-unit apartment house in the Richmond District that Chong had been using as a house of prostitution. 

The arson Chol Soo Lee had been hired to set left him crippled and disfigured.

Neither Li nor Lee had any prior experience as arsonists, however, and after they had sloshed the structure with gasoline, the pilot light on a kitchen stove touched off the fuel. Not only was the building set afire, but the flames also horrifically injured the two would-be firebugs.

The Whole Earth Association was crumbling. Chong split and turned up years later in Macao. Without him as the glue to hold the association together, it was doomed. 

Between the probe by the feds, the wiretaps on top members' phones and the loose lips of Hop Sing Underlings and other junior-grade gangsters, law enforcement began to roll the organization up from the bottom, persuading lower-level members to give evidence against their bosses in return for a break in sentencing.

Chow found himself in federal court with a dozen former criminal associates testifying against him. He took a fall for gun running and drew a twenty year sentence, though the racketeering charges lodged against him ended in a mistrial. Even Chow, Peter Chong's right hand man, found the prospect of a negotiated plea impossible to resist. Had he held his mud and taken the full fall, he would probably still be serving time in the federal joint.

Instead, he turned state's witness against Chong. 
And Chow played a role in its collapse -- not because he turned state's evidence and testified against Chong, but because he and his confederates were so inept that every crime they attempted ended up leading the feds back to Chong and his crime organization.

Mind you, both the Hop Sing and Jackson Street gangs remain a serious criminal threat in San Francisco, even though Chong was sent to prison and remains there. On Nov. 22, 2010, for example, Michael Tsan, an identified member of the Jackson Street Boys, was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for extorting the operator of a Chinatown Mah-Jong parlor.

It was not Tsan’s first brush with the law: in 1995, he was a passenger in a car with two other gang members when rivals opened fire on them in an ambush at the intersection of Bernard and Taylor streets, wounding two people and killing one.

Five years later he was arrested as part of a gang sweep by 140 FBI agents and a host of other law enforcement officers connected to a massive loan sharking operation that preyed on the patrons of Bay Area card clubs.

In the case that led to his most recent conviction, federal prosecutors said Tsan had been pressuring the Mah-Jong operator for an extended period, taking money from her to “protect” her gaming operation. In March of this year, she refused to make the payment and Tsan responded with violence, striking her and threatening her life. He was arrested a month later and pleaded guilty to a single count of extortion earlier this fall.

“Extortion is a deplorable and rarely-reported crime,” said Stephanie Douglas, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Northern California, after Tsan was sentenced.

The conviction will allow the citizens of Chinatown to rest easier said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, the head U.S. prosecutor in San Francisco. 

Tsan is a relatively minor figure in the Jackson Street Boys, a gang that federal prosecutors said largely supplanted Chong’s Wo Hop To organization by the year 2000. Law enforcement agencies say the gang is involved in loan sharking, the sale of illegal fireworks and the extortion of legitimate businesses. One leader of the San Francisco group, Simon Shixiang Ruan, was arrested by Seattle police in 1997 as he was trying to establish a branch of the gang in Washington State.

The Jackson Street Boys have clashed repeatedly with rival gang members in a series of violent confrontations, some of which have resulted in deaths. According to an affidavit filed in connection with the 2000 loan sharking investigation, the gang’s members rely “on intimidation and their reputation to collect the money . . . The consequences include the sending of underlings to threaten, assault and possibly shoot those who own money.”

Chow may have had some role in those crimes, but hardly as the world class villain he seems to be in news accounts.

His attorney, Tony Serra, says "Shrimp Boy" has gone straight and the charges against him are bogus; that seems equally unlikely. If a leopard has trouble changing his spots, think of how difficult it must be for a tiger shrimp to switch his stripes.

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