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Twice Burned 

A Hong Kong mob's attempted takeover of Chinatown went up in flames when a gang arsonist snitched. Now Peter Chong, the mob's alleged U.S. leader, is in custody and feeling the heat.

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
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Chol Soo Lee and a friend drove the Great Highway in darkness, discussing how they would set the fire. Lee was a little nervous. He'd never burned down a house before, but the job paid $25,000, and he'd promised his friend $10,000 for his help. They had flashlights, candles, and a few 5-gallon water jugs filled with gasoline. Lee figured they would just spread the fuel around the house, light the candles, and split.

It was past 2 a.m. when they turned up Lincoln Avenue and parked at the corner of 47th Avenue, the two men would later testify. Lee, a rangy, middle-aged Korean man, led his friend to a door left unlocked at the back of a house. Upstairs, the place looked as if it had been ransacked. There were holes in the walls, clothes and papers strewn across the floor.

Lee's friend found a fancy watch in one of the rooms. "Leave it there," Lee told him. In another room, the friend noticed a portrait of their boss, Peter Chong, on the mantel. "Should we take this with us?" the friend asked. "Leave it," Lee said.

The men started splashing gasoline on the floors, the walls, the furniture. Just as they were backing out of the bedroom, it unexpectedly caught fire, possibly touched off by a pilot light or an electrical spark. The air smelled of smoke and gasoline, but the men kept moving, soaking everything in sight. There was so much fuel on the floor, Lee slipped and fell on his back. He tried to get up, but slipped again. His friend tried to help him up, but fell to the floor as well.

Just as the two managed to stand up, the whole house burst into flames.

Lee placed his hand over his heart as he watched his friend struggle with the back door, then kick it open. Outside, the men rolled on the cement porch to put out their burning clothes. Lee saw a water faucet on the side of the house and tried to drink from it, but the handle was missing. He heard a neighbor yelling something in a foreign tongue.

The two took off, flying down the road as the burning house became a wavering yellow blur in the rearview mirror. The car smelled like burnt hair. Lee's throat was still parched. He pulled out a cigarette, and as he flicked the lighter, he noticed the skin on his hand peeling away.

When they arrived at the UCSF emergency room, Lee lay down on a stretcher while his friend made up a story in English about how someone had tried to kill them. The nurses swarmed around Lee, pulling off his smoldering clothes. When they asked what happened, he pretended not to understand their questions. Then he blacked out.

Lee incurred third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body as a result of his botched arson attempt in 1991. During numerous ensuing surgeries, doctors had to cut his Achilles' tendons, forcing him to stump along flat-footed for the rest of his life. Adding insult to injury, Lee was never paid for his work that night.

That proved to be a costly mistake on the part of his employers.

Lee may have been burnt to a crisp, but he could still talk. The stories he had to tell federal authorities would help bring down the Wo Hop To, the first and only Hong Kong organized crime triad ever known to have attempted a wholesale takeover of San Francisco's Chinatown gangs.

Peter Chong, the man whose house Lee torched that night, was sent by the Wo Hop To to San Francisco in the late 1980s to expand the triad's operation across the Pacific. The crime mob's leaders envisioned the beginning of a global empire that would be called the Tien Ha Wui or "Whole Earth Association." The name came from a comic book story of supervillains joining forces to conquer the world. From a base in San Francisco, the triad aimed to extend its tentacles across the country, in "all the cities where there are Chinese."

But after a series of missteps, including Lee's botched arson attempt, the Wo Hop To collapsed before hitting its stride. Chong fled the country in 1992, just days before a grand jury indicted him on a long list of felony counts, including murder for hire, drug trafficking, extortion, and arson of his own house in an attempted insurance scam.

For eight years, Chong managed to elude the grasp of U.S. authorities. But last month, in an unprecedented gesture of international goodwill, the Hong Kong government extradited him to the United States.

Chong is now back in San Francisco, in federal custody, awaiting a trial that may finally close the book on a remarkable crime story begun more than a decade ago, a saga that played out on a world stage.

The level of sophistication the Wo Hop To brought to San Francisco surpassed anything local law enforcement officials had ever seen before. This was no mere street gang; it was an organization on par with the Italian Mafia's La Cosa Nostra. Now that Chong is in the hands of the United States government, the inner workings of this organization may finally come to light, and the public will get its first look at the man who reportedly tried to establish headquarters for a global crime ring in San Francisco, only to trip over his own ambitions.

Though officially illegal, triads maintain a stronger -- and more public -- presence in Hong Kong today than any form of organized crime in the United States. The criminal fraternities began as patriotic organizations in mainland China centuries ago, formed to overthrow the Ching Dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty to power. The British coined the term "triad," based on the triangular symbol worn by members, representing the three essential elements of heaven, Earth, and mankind.

But over time, these organizations migrated to Hong Kong, where they degenerated into secret societies, wielding tremendous influence over the country's public life. The triads control the standard gambling and extortion rackets, and have branched out considerably from there. They are part of the fabric of the country's booming film industry. They control segments of the country's public transportation system by demanding fees from the private bus lines for permission to drive down city streets. They also have a hold on Hong Kong's tight housing market, not to mention the city's currency exchanges, courtrooms, and, of course, politicians.

Hong Kong law enforcement officials estimate there are 15 triads in Hong Kong, the largest numbering 35,000 people. With approximately 2,000 members, the Wo Hop To, translated as "Harmoniously United Association," is not anywhere close to the largest triad in Hong Kong, but it carries a lot of prestige. Based in the Wan Chai neighborhood, Hong Kong's nightclub district made famous in the novel The World of Suzi Wong, the Wo Hop To manages large-scale gambling operations, as well as a thriving prostitution market.

In anticipation of the impending Communist takeover of Hong Kong in July 1997, triads such as the Wo Hop To began expanding their networks worldwide in the late 1980s, starting in countries with big Chinese immigrant communities, such as Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada. But the crown jewel was the United States, and sometime around 1989, the Wo Hop To sent Peter Chong to San Francisco to gain a foothold for the organization.

Chong had worked directly under the Wo Hop To's suspected top official, or Dragon Head, for years, according to statements made by federal law enforcement officials. He had been around the business all his life, and learned over time that it was best to keep a low profile.

A thin man now nearing 60, with a long face and closely cropped gray hair, Chong knew how to blend in with a crowd. Those who knew him describe him as soft-spoken and low-key, a leader whose talent lay in his ability to bring people together. Disguising his wealth, he dressed comfortably in clothes off the rack, often wearing slacks and a collared shirt without a tie.

"He has soft hands," says a jewelry store owner in Chinatown. "He looks like the owner of a restaurant, or a video store."

Chong's inconspicuous demeanor, local investigators say, hid a seasoned veteran from the Hong Kong criminal underworld with an acute business sense. And as he quietly landed in the Bay Area in 1989, he was likely aware that San Francisco was a city of lightweights, the ideal market for a hostile takeover.

The modern history of Asian organized crime in San Francisco officially began on Sept. 4, 1977, when three young men entered the Golden Dragon restaurant on Washington Street and sprayed the room with bullets, killing five innocent people and severely wounding 11 others. The intended targets of the fusillade escaped without a scratch.

The Golden Dragon Massacre was the worst mass slaying in the city's history at the time. It effectively changed the relationship between the people of Chinatown and the San Francisco Police Department, which had been marked by mutual hostility up to that point. Police had never attempted to understand the neighborhood's culture. Chinatown denizens distrusted the police and kept their mouths shut whenever there was trouble.

"This is a tragedy we're constantly faced with," Police Chief Charles Gain told reporters after the shooting. "Chinese persons will not talk [to police]." Gain accused Chinese-American citizens of an "absolute abdication of responsibility," and blamed their reticence on a "subculture of fear" in Chinatown.

The Golden Dragon incident was a wake-up call, prompting police to form a gang task force to make inroads in the community. That meant cops going into the neighborhood to build relationships not only with merchants and residents, but with the people they were arresting. The Police Department began gathering intelligence in Chinatown, and slowly, over time, nurtured at least a small amount of trust.

Meanwhile, following the Golden Dragon Massacre, a gang called the Wah Ching emerged as the dominant force in San Francisco's Asian underworld, a position it would hold for more than a decade. Led by a man named Danny "Ah Pai" Wong, the Wah Ching was, in essence, a glorified street gang with control over the local gambling and protection rackets. The Wah Ching's main rivals, the Hop Sing Boys, the Joe Boys, and the Cheung Chee Yee, went into decline during most of the 1980s, allowing Wong to run his operations in relative peace and prosperity.

"The Wah Ching were living in fat city," says Sgt. Dan Foley, who has worked in the Chinatown unit of the department's gang task force since its inception. Wong was so comfortable, Foley says, that he failed to see Peter Chong and the Wo Hop To triad coming until it was too late.

Chong arrived with a network of contacts in place. A few years earlier, the organization had sent someone to do reconnaissance and build relationships with gang leaders eager to join a larger organization. Chief among these leaders was Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, head of the Hop Sing gang that had been chased out of San Francisco by the Wah Ching a decade before. Upon his arrival, Chong adopted Chow as his lieutenant in charge of the organization's day-to-day operations.

The two made a fine pair. Chong was lean and refined, Chow squat and pugnacious. Chow grew up in San Francisco, a street fighter with a history dating back before the Golden Dragon Massacre. In a sense, he was relic from the era when gangs had free reign in Chinatown. Chow was convicted for a string of robberies in 1978, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was paroled in 1985, but two years later was arrested after he opened fire at someone in a restaurant. Although he missed his target, he was sentenced to three more years. He was released just in time for Chong's arrival, having missed more than a decade of life in the outside world.

"Chow was still living in the past when he met up with Peter [Chong]," says Foley. "As far as he was concerned, it was still 1978 when you can shoot up a restaurant if you're pissed off, and no one would say a word or ask any questions."

Chow had a loyal following of Hop Sing gang members in Oakland who enlisted in the Wo Hop To organization, but he needed to branch out. He began by opening a boy's athletic club in the basement of the Hop Sing Tong family association in San Francisco where he could recruit new members. Chow found a bounty of starry-eyed teenagers who had grown up on Hong Kong gangster films and jumped at the chance to join an international crime ring.

"Suddenly all the kids on the street were talking about the Wo Hop To," says Harry Hu, an investigator with the Oakland Police Department. "That was something we hadn't heard before."

As membership grew, recruitment became even easier. Before long, the Wo Hop To was assimilating little gangs into its growing mass, swallowing the Suey Sing, gangs from the Tenderloin and Sunset, even some factions of the Wah Ching. Chow made it clear that all gangs in the area would have to join this new umbrella group, or suffer the consequences.

As the Wo Hop To made its presence felt, Danny Wong, leader of the Wah Ching, was suddenly forced to decide if he would stand his ground or follow the crowd. Wong had been on top for so long, he decided to stay put, even against the advice of his confidants within law enforcement. "We warned him," says Foley. "We said, 'Hey, these guys are serious. You better get out of town.'"

But Wong wouldn't listen, until his closest bodyguard was shot dead. Then Wong lashed back, sending a gunman to empty 25 rounds into a car full of Wo Hop To leaders outside the Purple Onion in North Beach. Moments later, another gunman opened fire on a second group down the block. Two people were killed, eight were injured. Among those shot were the Tsan brothers, who had defected from the Wah Ching to the Wo Hop To.

Things were getting ugly, and before they got any uglier, Wong extended an invitation for a peace talk with the Wo Hop To at the Harbor Village restaurant, one of the most resplendent Chinese restaurants in the city. Sources told the FBI that the top leaders from both organizations attended the banquet, including Peter Chong, who offered a toast to a cease-fire. The gang commanders repeated the toast a month later at Chow's wedding, where the groom introduced Chong as "Uncle to us all." It appeared that the two sides had reached an accord.

Within a year, however, Danny Wong was found in his car with a bullet in his head, and the Wo Hop To had the undisputed run of the town.

Joe sits at the window of his restaurant along a busy Chinatown street, smiling as he thinks back to an encounter he had with Peter Chong almost a decade before. Only a few long strands of hair cling to his mostly bald dome, but Joe's smile reveals a mischievous, youthful vigor. The restaurant is empty and quiet, except for the bubbling of a lobster tank.

His was always a quiet establishment, with a few regulars and tourists on the weekends. One Saturday night during a summer in the early 1990s, he says, a loud group of young men came thundering in the door just before closing time. They ordered dozens of plates of food. "They bring in bottles of beer. They smoke cigarettes and drop them on the floor," he recalls, shaking his head. He clucks his tongue. "Kids. Boys."

Then almost as quickly as they had come in, the young men left -- without paying the bill. When Joe tried to stop them, they pushed him aside and strode out the door.

They came again the next weekend, but Joe locked the door before they could enter. The young men shouted at him through the glass, but eventually moved on.

The next morning, a man came to visit. He politely introduced himself as Peter Chong, and apologized for the rude behavior of the boys the night before. "I tell him I never want to see those boys again," Joe says. "They smoke, they drink, they not pay."

Chong reached inside his coat pocket, pulled out a thick wad of bills, and placed it on the table, Joe recalls. It was a stack of bills, 1 or 2 inches thick. Five thousand dollars. Chong asked Joe if it would be enough to cover the tab from then on.

"I tell him, 'Yes -- but no drink and no smoke,'" Joe says, laughing. He peers out the window, grinning at the memory. "Five thousand dollars," he says with a shrug.

Before Chong's criminal connections came out in the newspapers, he made a name for himself in Chinatown as a generous if somewhat shady businessman. He quickly became a familiar face, always unassuming, always keeping his bodyguards at a good distance. He could be seen in the city's parks playing cards, or simply strolling along the streets, passing out his business cards to merchants and restaurant owners, according to police. He was especially popular among the working class, the waiters and street vendors who knew him from the gambling dens. Chong always tipped generously, and would sometimes give money to the waiters to help them pay off their gambling debts.

"There was the perception that he had a good heart, almost like Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor," says a former director of the Chinatown Youth Center. "We called him the Social Worker Gangster."

Chong helped the nonprofit, which is partially supported by city funding, fulfill its mission, the former director says, by quelling street violence and even keeping kids out of gangs. The Wo Hop To's inclusiveness brought the city's myriad street gangs under one roof, calming, at least temporarily, their bitter rivalries. And when staff at the Chinatown Youth Center identified individuals who were doing well in school, or simply wanted out, Chong would release the kids from their gang obligations at the nonprofit's request. "In a sense he was an ally," the former director says.

Chong also had an indirect relationship with city government in former Police Commissioner Pius Lee, who now sits on the Port Commission. Tony Poon, a top official in the Wo Hop To, according to investigators, was Pius Lee's brother-in-law. While Lee was serving on the Police Commission, Poon was shot four times in the melee outside the Purple Onion. He was also caught in a police raid, allegedly managing one of Chong's gambling dens.

When Poon was later called to testify before Congress, he was asked if Lee had ever told him to keep his nose clean. "When he came to visit me in the hospital [following the shooting], he mentioned once," Poon told the panel. "He suggested I be careful, and not work in Chinatown."

Lee says he has heard of Chong from the Chinese newspapers, but says he has no knowledge of his brother-in-law's activities and has no recollection of visiting him in the hospital.

Chong had a business in North Beach called New Paradise Investment Co. and a bar in Oakland called the Marigo, both named after massage parlors run by the Wo Hop To in the nightclub district of Hong Kong. He sponsored a number of concerts around town, one featuring Amy Yip, the so-called "Madonna of Hong Kong," as well as a series of Cantonese opera performances at the Pagoda Palace. He also did charity work, such as a fund-raiser he put together called the People's Republic of China Flood Relief Campaign, which landed him on the cover of a Chinese newspaper lauding him as a community hero.

"It was all a part of projecting an air of legitimacy," says Sgt. Dan Foley. "We'd be talking to Chong and he'd be telling us what a great job we're doing, then he'd hand us his business card. 'Call me if you need anything,' he'd say."

Chong's primary business, however, was the Wo Hop To. He ran it like a corporation, building a solid management structure, stressing efficiency, and constantly pushing his subordi-nates to put aside their differences and work as a team.

"There was one focus: to make money," says Gilbert Jue, another former employee of the Chinatown Youth Center. "Before the Wo Hop To, one group was doing the gambling stuff, another was handling drugs and prostitution. Then Chong came along and said, 'Hey, let's do it all. It's not about fighting for honor or the name or reputation, it's about making sure that no one else comes in and tries to take your money.'"

Chong made himself the chief executive officer of the Wo Hop To's western branch. He became the figurehead whose name lent the organization prestige. When the Wo Hop To's top man in Hong Kong came to visit America he stayed with Chong, according to federal law enforcement officials. Chong also played host to Wayne Kwong, the reported head of the On Leong gang in Boston, when he came to San Francisco to forge an alliance with the Wo Hop To.

Chong had a majority share of every gambling den in Chinatown, according to a community member, calling himself "Mr. Tam," who testified before Congress. Each of the approximately 50 gambling parlors in Chinatown would pay protection fees by the table -- $200 for mah-jongg, $400 for fan-tan, $750 for pai gow -- funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chong every week. Chong was also the top guy in the organization's "Big Five" sports betting ring, sources told federal law enforcement officials, another lucrative venture. At the zenith of his power in San Francisco, federal law enforcement officials say, Chong had a stake in every aspect of Chinatown's criminal underworld, and was sending much of the profits back to Hong Kong.

"Peter Chong is frightening because he is intelligent, organizationally powerful, and has tremendous manpower behind him," Mr. Tam declared in his testimony.

But Chong always remained above it all, keeping his hands out of the organization's day-to-day affairs. That job was left to Chow, who took the role as chief operating officer. Chow took care of the organization's enforcement arm. It was his job to recruit new members, according to court records, usually ranging in age from 14 to 20 years old. And often, much to his chagrin, it was his job to play baby sitter.

Built like an anvil, with a round, handsome face, Chow had grown up on the streets and could speak to the "underlings," as they were called, with the authority of someone who had led the authentic gangster life. "You guys are all brothers," Chow told the group, according to the testimony of a former member. "You should not be afraid to go to prison, it's kind of good to go to prison. ... When you step out on the street, you can expect to go to prison ... you may even die."

Chow could be vicious. When initiating new members, he would lead them through a series of 36 loyalty oaths, each ending in a promise of death if broken, former gang members testified. He would snap a photograph of each underling and write the young man's address and the names of immediate kin on the back to further ensure absolute loyalty. Then he'd often take the underling out to Ocean Beach with a portion of the gang, explaining that they were going to fight a rival bunch. When they got there, the group would turn on the rookie and beat him into the ground as a final trial.

Chow used the underlings for intimidation, an important aspect to the business. The kids didn't have to think much, but they frequently had to fight, investigators say. Occasionally, a group would rob a restaurant, but otherwise the underlings' role was limited to shaking down local merchants who refused to pay protection fees or terrorizing the families of gamblers with bad debts.

In return, the underlings could eat for free in any restaurant in Chinatown. The organization always paid their legal fees. It even maintained a house of prostitution in Pacifica where the underlings could get their kicks, according to court records. They got to be a part of something glamorous and bigger than themselves, with traditions dating back to the 17th century.

But they were still kids, who sooner or later would make mistakes.

Amy Yip, the "Sex Bomb" of Hong Kong, took the stage at the Caesar's Tahoe Circus Maximus showroom in the heat of September 1991. As she sauntered down the stage to greet her fans, the cleavage from her abundant breasts caused a frenzy in the crowd as a pack of male groupies rushed the stage.

Yip had begun her career in soft pornography, the star of Jailhouse Eros and Sex & Zen. Since then she had moved into the mainstream as a singer. Her fans did not come to hear her sing, however. They came to watch her wiggle across the stage.

The room at Caesar's Tahoe was packed, a virtual who's who of Asian organized crime. Plainclothes cops circulated through the crowd, mentally placing names with faces. The event was a testament to the influence Peter Chong had garnered since he had arrived in the Bay Area a little over a year before. It was also a sign of his pull across the Pacific, where the triads controlled the Hong Kong film industry. Yip was a major star, and Chong was the man who brought her over. It was said Chong had closed all the gambling dens in Chinatown and chartered buses to bring up all the city's gamblers. In addition, the underlings had hit all the Asian neighborhood merchants in Oakland and San Francisco, according to newspaper reports, "encouraging" them to buy VIP tickets at $100 a pop. The boys now ringed the room, glowering in their black suits.

But Chong couldn't devote his complete attention to the show. That morning he had received a call from Sgt. Foley back in San Francisco, informing Chong that his house had burned down. Foley said he believed it was arson, and he was on his way up to interview Chong at that very moment.

The next morning the two sat down to talk. Foley, according to a police memo, asked Chong if he knew a man by the name of Chol Soo Lee. Chong said he was acquainted with the gentleman. When asked if he had any enemies, Chong shook his head. Everyone in the city respected him. He said he had taught his friends not to drink so much, because it would only get them in trouble, the police memo says. He had taught Raymond Chow not to fight because it would land him in prison. He had told his friends to run gambling halls to earn their livings. Chong says he knew it was illegal, "but the police don't bother if there is no killing." He told Foley that he had earned $100,000 a day in Hong Kong, and a lot of people owed him money, which they sent to him in San Francisco. But because he had run gambling dens in Hong Kong, he said he couldn't stay away, "like an old football player."

As the conversation wound down, Foley mentioned that Chol Soo Lee ran the risk of dying from his injuries, but Chong did not respond.

Life changed for Chong upon his return from Tahoe. The quiet businessman who had always blended into the crowd suddenly became more conspicuous. And under the glare of law enforcement's increased scrutiny, the business began to unravel.

The fire had prompted unwanted media attention, largely because of Chol Soo Lee's past. Lee had been convicted of a gang slaying in 1973, and later fought successfully to have his conviction overturned. He became something of a cause célèbre during the trial, and eventually the subject of the 1989 film True Believer.

Now here he was with third-degree burns all over his body. And the neighbors were talking, telling reporters that the house had been the scene of constant activity in recent months, with many sharply dressed Asian males coming and going. "They weren't very discreet," a neighbor told the newspapers. "We always suspected there was drug activity."

At that point, the public had never heard of Chong, but law enforcement knew exactly who he was. Federal authorities had obtained permission to place wiretaps and were listening every time Chong or Chow held a telephone conversation. When Amy Yip repeated her performance at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco the following week, there was an even more obvious police presence in attendance than at Tahoe. A couple of months later, Chong and other leaders in the Wo Hop To were subpoenaed to testify before a Senate subcommittee investigating Asian organized crime. Chong refused to answer any questions.

Chong and Chow knew their conversations were being monitored, so they tried speaking in codes, calling guns "liquors" and the police "the bad guys" or the "ghosts," but it was easy to make mistakes, which gradually took their toll on the organization's security. Suddenly cops seemed to be everywhere, watching their every move. Following the hearing, Chong was arrested for running a dice game in Portsmouth Square. It was a minor charge, but it was the first tangible sign that law enforcement was on to him.

To make matters worse, the kids were fighting amongst themselves.

"All these guys [the underlings] were supposed to be under the same roof, but there was bad blood going back farther than Peter Chong and his Wo Hop To," says Phillip Wong, a sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department. "There was still a lot of animosity when they saw each other."

Chow, never a paragon of maturity himself, had a difficult time controlling the boys. Chow's inability to maintain order forced Chong to become more involved in the gang's everyday affairs. Once, when an underling shot his comrade in the stomach over an old grudge, Chong stepped in, personally beating up the shooter and giving the victim $3,000 for his suffering, according to the victim's testimony.

"You should withdraw and ponder," he told Chow after another collision within the ranks. "You should ask Keung Kid [another Wo Hop To lieutenant]: 'Hey, why did you play on the small ones last night? They wanted to say hello to you, but you stared at them and ignored them.' Then you see what his explanation is. If you listen, that means you are neutral and want to be fair. You and Keung Kid are both under me right?"

Despite the increased police attention and his organization's internal squabbling, Chong, in an incredible act of hubris, pushed forward with even bigger projects, as if he were still invisible. In Hong Kong, the triads did as they pleased; Chong might have thought things would be the same in San Francisco. It didn't help that his right-hand man, Chow, was still living in 1977, when Asian gangs ran herd through the streets of Chinatown.

But things had, in fact, changed a great deal in the 15-odd years following the Golden Dragon Massacre. The San Francisco Police Department had made a concerted effort to build relationships within the community, with good results. "Restaurant owners, bar owners, local merchants were sick of these gangs wreaking havoc in the neighborhood, and slowly they began to talk," says Foley. "More importantly, we were getting to the kids in the Wo Hop To. As soon as these guys got in trouble, their loyalty to the organization faded quickly."

Chong stubbornly continued laying the groundwork for his Whole Earth Association. This required mending his relationship with Wayne Kwong from Boston. Kwong had been staying at Chong's house and lost many valuable items in the fire after his host failed to mention that he planned to torch the place. Kwong later testified that he had confronted Chong about his loss: "I said that he just -- he did not have a heart for me."

Perhaps as compensation, Chong agreed to send his underlings to assassinate Kwong's chief rival in Boston, according to court records. At the same time, Chow was networking with a gun supplier in Portland, and establishing a heroin connection in Atlantic City. But wherever Chong turned, the police were there.

Three underlings traveled across the country with the intention of killing Wayne Kwong's rival, Bike Ming, in Boston. They planned to spray a restaurant -- where he was eating -- with bullets, in a repeat performance of the Golden Dragon Massacre. But when they arrived they found police officers guarding the place and had to abort the mission, one later testified.

Around the same time, when Chow traveled to Atlantic City to sample a large supply of heroin, he saw cops everywhere, preventing him from completing the deal. He then traveled to New York, where he was arrested in La Guardia Airport for suspected drug dealing while holding $12,000 in cash.

Chow was released and the charges were eventually dropped, but from that point on, he knew something was amiss beyond the wiretaps on his phone. The police seemed to know the organization's every move. A "two-five," or informant, was in their midst, and he was determined to discover who it was. In reality, many of the underlings, caught for petty crimes, were talking to the police by that point, but Chow found his target in a girlfriend of one of the Wo Hop To's Oakland lieutenants.

Madeline Lee, or Mayflower, as she was called by her friends, had known Chow for years through her boyfriend, Tim Huang, who helped establish the Wo Hop To in the Bay Area. She was a pretty young woman, petite, but tough. She and a few associates had performed a series of robberies in Oakland for her boyfriend, turning over the proceeds to the Wo Hop To. Chow became suspicious that Lee was a police informant when she didn't serve any time after she was caught in a robbery attempt, even though she had the same criminal record as her partners. As Chow suspected, Mayflower was, indeed, acting as a confidential informant, and she would pay the price for her indiscretion.

When Mayflower stepped outside the Club Touche in lower Potrero Hill one night, four young men pounced on her. They broke her shoulder and knocked out a few of her teeth before the club's bouncers chased them away, the kids later testified. But while Lee lay bleeding on the pavement, she noted the license plate of the car carrying her attackers away from the scene.

Chow was on the phone the next day with a friend, describing the incident on a recorded call. "Last night they beat up Mayflower ... the bitch who caused all you guys to go insider. ... She was beaten up till she dropped, that Mayflower. I will play her bit by bit."

Meanwhile Lee, not realizing she was now a known snitch, called Chow to tell him she had been assaulted. "Find out who beat me up," she told him. "I saw them driving away with this license plate ...."

"I'll look into it," Chow told her.

This news, of course, worried Chow. If Lee reported the license plate to the police, the attack could be linked back to the gang. So he instructed his underling to report the car stolen. That way, if Lee reported the license plate, they could always claim that someone else had been driving the car.

Then he ordered the boys to attack her again.

This time they fell on her outside the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Oakland. But before things got ugly, a passing cop intervened, and arrested an underling named Raymond Lei.

Lee still didn't realize who was behind the attacks, however, and she called Chow a second time. "It happened again," she said. "What's going on? I'm scared. I want to get out of here."

Chow didn't waste any more time eluding her questions. He told her in no uncertain terms to drop the charges. "I don't care what happened to you. Drop the charges against Raymond Lei," he told her, then repeated his command in a subsequent conversation. "I want you to show them that, hey, we are all of the same group, you know, not outsiders."

But Lee did not drop the charges, and the arrest of Raymond Lei, combined with Lee's identification of the car from her previous beating, spelled the beginning of the end for the Wo Hop To. With the cooperation of other informants like Chol Soo Lee, Wayne Kwong, and numerous underlings, police gathered enough evidence to arrest the top officials involved with the organization.

When they appeared at Chong's door in October 1992, warrants in hand, however, police found an empty apartment. Apparently tipped off, "Uncle" had fled town just days before.

Chow was also missing when police came to his Beale Street town house, but they found his wife leaving the building with a pistol in her purse. Police discovered a champagne-colored Jaguar in the garage and $50,000 in cash stashed in the apartment. Chow, unlike his boss, was still in the country, and was soon arrested. In 1995, he was convicted on six counts of gun trafficking and sentenced to 24 years in prison. The federal government's attempt a year later to convict Chow and other reputed leaders of the Wo Hop To on racketeering charges ended in a mistrial. U.S. Attorney William Schaefer decided to postpone retrying the case until Chong could be returned to the country.

Virtually all of the 19 individuals named in the original indictments either pleaded guilty or were convicted on at least some of the charges brought against them.

But not Peter Chong.

To its credit, the U.S. government has persisted against long odds in its pursuit of Chong. The fugitive was arrested shortly after he fled the United States, but two months later, Hong Kong officials released him, stating that the Justice Department had failed to provide adequate evidence that Chong was, as the U.S. government claimed, leader of the Wo Hop To crime syndicate. But in 1995, the United States returned with an amended indictment containing new and stronger evidence. This time Hong Kong complied with the request for extradition. Chong, however, remained missing until 1998, when he was arrested in a Hong Kong airport coming in from Taiwan.

While in custody, Chong appealed the extradition, first claiming he would not receive a fair trial in America on account of his race. When that failed, he claimed that Hong Kong, turned over to the People's Republic of China in 1997, was not a sovereign nation and had no right to extradite him. But that failed too, and last month, U.S. marshals escorted Chong back to this country to stand trial.

"We're obviously grateful Hong Kong decided to do this," says U.S. Attorney Schaefer.

Sgt. Foley says the streets grew quieter after the collapse of the Wo Hop To. Aside from a few isolated incidents, "the open violence stopped. There were no more shootings in broad daylight."

But gang activity has continued in Chinatown, with a group calling themselves the Jackson Street Boys. The three brothers who lead the gang, Bobby, Johnny, and Tommy Tsan, began their careers years ago with the Wah Ching, then defected to the Wo Hop To when Chong came to town. The Tsans were among the shooting victims outside the Purple Onion, and later, Bobby Tsan was arrested with Peter Chong for gambling in Portsmouth Square. But the Tsans were never charged when law enforcement swooped down on the Wo Hop To, and since then, they have picked up where their former organization left off, shaking down local merchants and running small-time gambling dens, police and recent gambling and extortion indictments allege.

"It's the same stuff on a smaller scale and without the same visibility," Foley says, "which is a benefit to the community because it's less likely young people will join the gang. The community has really benefited without all these gangsters hanging around."

In March, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged 19 individuals associated with the Jackson Street Boys, including the Tsan brothers, for alleged crimes connected with gambling dens and extortion. Though Foley would not comment on the indictments, law enforcement officials say the arrests were made in an attempt to persuade more people to testify against Chong upon his return.

Chong has appeared in court twice over the past few weeks, represented by attorney Maureen Kallins, who also defended Chow a few years ago in the racketeering case that ended in a mistrial. In her closing arguments of that case, Kallins said Chong was the one the government should be going after, not Chow. She now finds herself in the sticky situation of representing the same man she blamed in a previous trial.

Kallins now argues that the government's case is based on the unreliable testimony of lowlifes who have pleaded guilty to "sweetheart deals," adding in a written argument to Magistrate Wayne Brazil that the government's star witness and "resident psychopath is an admitted gangster, arsonist and witness for hire."

She scoffs at the notion of the Whole Earth Association, dismissing it as the title of a Hong Kong comic book. "It's all an absurd fiction," she says. Her client is a family man, she says, a humble entertainment promoter. "He's basically a very nice guy. His business operations have always been legitimate."

Chong appeared thin and a bit haggard, dressed in red and prison pink, as he appeared in court last week hoping to be released on bail. Kallins told the judge he could be safely released while awaiting trial. Chong is in bad health, suffering from a urinary tract infection, and has no intention of leaving the country, Kallins told the court.

Chong's kids live in the area, Kallins said, and his daughter, Kitty, is in her last year of medical school. Chong would live with Kitty, Kallins says; to be separated from her would be akin to cutting off Chong's right arm.

But prosecutor Schaefer reminded the court that Chong didn't appear especially concerned about his daughters when he was running from the law for years. Facing a life sentence, Chong would have good reason to flee the country again, this time to mainland China, where the United States would have a much more difficult task in bringing him back.

Brazil decided to deny bail and Chong remains in federal custody. Nine years after an arson that went awry, Peter Chong will finally feel the heat.

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Matt Isaacs

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