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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

Page 2 of 8

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.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs


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