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The Rat who became King: Triad boss Raymond Chow

By David Amoruso

Raymond Chow’s life story is one tailor-made for the cinema. It’s a rags to riches tale containing violence, murder, betrayal, political corruption, and secretive Chinese criminal brotherhoods in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s the story of a gangster who ratted on his Triad boss only to go on and become the leader of the underworld himself. Only in America.

Born in China, Chow’s grandmother bestowed him with the nickname “Shrimp Boy” to shield him from evil spirits. Little did she know that her young boy would grow up to haunt many people himself, even sending some off to the spirit realm… allegedly. 

As a teenager on the mean streets of San Francisco Chow (photo above) had no qualms about violence and immersed himself in the gang life. He joined the Hop Sing Boys where, the San Francisco Gate reported, “Chow quickly distinguished himself […] with his blend of charisma and ruthlessness.” As a result, between the late 1970s and the end of the 1980s, he spent two stints in prison totaling a combined decade behind bars for robbery and assault.

After having proven himself as a capable enforcer Chow made it big in the 1990s. Together with Triad boss Peter Chong he embarked on an ambitious plan to combine several American Tongs and Chinese street gangs into one big Triad, which was to be called Tien Ha Wui, or Whole Earth Association. Before they could achieve their goal, however, law enforcement indicted them on a host of racketeering charges. Chong managed to flee to Hong Kong in 1992, but was extradited to stand trial in the United States in 2000. He was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of fifteen years.

Chow's trial had already taken place in 1996 and had ended in a mistrial. But he was subsequently convicted of gun charges and given a twenty-five-years to life sentence. It was too much for Chow who had seen enough prison cells in his lifetime. He cut a deal with the government, pleaded guilty in federal court to racketeering involving murder for hire, conspiracy to distribute heroin, arson and other crimes, and testified against Chong, his former boss. As part of his deal, Chow was released from prison in 2003.

Fresh out of prison, Chow claimed to be a reformed man who found religion and wanted to do good. He wanted to help young kids stay away from gangs. Members of law enforcement found it interesting that while warning youngsters to stay away from gang life, Chow himself went straight back to the streets of Chinatown and renewed his contacts with members of Asian gangs, including his former Hop Sing Tong underlings.

He did so without being shot on sight as a known informant or, in street slang, rat. Apparently, there is no “stop snitchin’” movement in Chinatown.

The Hop Sing Tong was now led by Allen Ngai Leung, already the boss of the Chee Kung Tong, who had become the leader while Chong and Chow were in prison. He arrived in California during the 1970s, at the age of twenty. During the late seventies, he became a member of the Hop Sing. As he became a successful businessman, he started playing a bigger role within the Tong, quickly becoming its leader. When Chow was released from prison, an associate of his allegedly sent word to Leung that several young Hop Sing members needed money “to do business.” When the Hop Sing Tong leadership voted against lending the younger members money its front door was shot at by unknown assailants the next day.

It was all too much for Leung, who decided to cooperate with authorities in solving this case. It was a dangerous move, and one that didn't have a happy end. In February of 2006, Leung was shot to death in his office by a gunman wearing a mask while his wife watched in horror.

No one has been charged with the murder. And though Chow was a suspect, he was never charged. During Leung's funeral hundreds of people came to pay their respects, among them a cabinet minister from Taiwan. Raymond Chow was also there, telling Chinese reporters he came to pay his respects to “Big Brother,” a term used by Triad members to pay respect but also indicate one of their leaders. He did so, while wearing a white suit - photo below. Authorities claim it was a sign of disrespect and that he had taken control, though Chow denies that. “The white suit he wore was a sign of humility and respect, and it was his combination of life experiences and his well-known reformation that caused the elders of the community [who] asked him to be Dragonhead of the Chee Kung Tong,” according to a filing by Chow’s attorneys.

The king is dead, long live the king. Chow now ascended the throne of the San Francisco Chinatown underworld.

And the feds took notice.

Always on the lookout for a career-making “Mr. Big” the FBI was keen to take down Raymond Chow. Starting in 2009 the FBI kicked off an undercover operation aimed specifically at gathering enough evidence of Chow’s criminal activity to put him back in jail. One undercover agent managed to become friendly with a member of the Chee Kung Tong, as a result of this, another undercover FBI agent posing as an Italian-American “made guy” from the East Coast was introduced to Chow.

In the following years, the undercover agent started the long process of winning Chow’s trust and getting him to participate in criminal activities. From his conversations with Chow and other Tong members it became clear that he had infiltrated a bonafide criminal organization.

During one meeting at a karaoke bar, Chow allegedly whispered into the agent’s ear that, “although [he] was no longer involved in criminal activity, [he] knew of and approved all criminal activities within his organization.” He described himself as a judge, who, “when there is a dispute between the organization’s members and if one member kills another member, Chow decides if the killing was justified.”

Talking to George Nieh, the agent found out more about the group’s hierarchy. “Nieh explained that he is also considered a leader within the organization, but that [he] still reports to Chow, whom [he] described as the equivalent of a general.” Nieh lead Wah Ching, a San Francisco street gang, and is also a member of Chee Kung Tong, sometimes working as Chow’s driver.

According to prosecutors, from March 2011 through December 2013, Chow, Nieh, and four others collectively laundered $2,290,000 in purportedly illicit funds for the undercover agent. They were paid a 10% fee for their work.

Pushing even further, the undercover FBI agent now asked three other gang members to launder $1,048,764 in drug proceeds for him. Others would launder $1,5 million more.

Each time Chow (left) made the introductions and accepted cash gifts but stayed far away from the actual activities. It proved to be insufficient to dodge an indictment.

In March of 2014, Chow was charged with seven counts of money laundering, two counts of conspiracy to transport and receive stolen liquor, and one count of conspiracy to traffic untaxed cigarettes - with the contraband provided by the FBI.

Along with Chow, prosecutors hit several of his underlings, including George Nieh, as well as former state Senator Leland Yee and former school board member Keith Jackson, two men who seemed squeaky clean. But, according to the indictment, both men engaged in corruption, bribery, and trafficking firearms with Chow and member's of his organization. Jackson was also charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics and a murder for hire conspiracy.

This past summer, Leland Yee and his cronies entered guilty pleas, while in early September six of Chow’s co-defendants pleaded guilty, including George Nieh. Former senator Yee will be sentenced on October 21.

Now, only “Shrimp Boy” remains standing tall while professing his innocence. And he is doing so loudly with interviews in many regional and national newspapers and on social media. His personal Facebook page frequently features “Free Shrimp Boy” merchandise and messages offering proof of his innocence.

Though he faces up to 20 years in prison for each money laundering count alone, he is eager to take his case to court. His trial is scheduled to begin on November 2.

As that date nears, the prosecution continues to add more charges to Chow’s indictment. With the help of two of Chow’s co-defendants, 37-year-old Kongphet Chanthavong and 42-year-old Andy Li, who have agreed to testify against their former boss, prosecutors plan on charging Chow with soliciting the murders of his predecessor Allen Leung, in San Francisco in 2006, and of a former associate, Jim Tat Kong, in Mendocino County in 2013.

Because of the added charges Chow is entitled to a 30-day delay, but he refuses to take it. “I have been waiting for this trial for a very long time,” he told the judge. “I don’t want to wait any more time and I’m looking forward to the start of the trial.”

If he is found guilty he has more to worry about than life in a cell. His reputation as a government witness might not have been a problem on the streets of San Francisco, but it will surely be an issue in prison.

At age 55, Raymond Chow is no longer the physical threat he once was when he came up through the ranks sporting his boyish nickname. After dodging prison once by ratting, it’s karma that he now finds himself going up against two former underlings snitching on him.

It proves once more that despite all the brash talk there is no loyalty among thieves.

On August 4, 2016, a judge sentenced Chow to two life terms in prison for racketeering and murder. "Shrimp Boy" plans to appeal his sentence.

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