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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 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.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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