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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.