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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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"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."

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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