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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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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.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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