Chow will stand trial starting Monday in San Francisco on a 140-count indictment that centers on the federal government’s claim that Ghee Kung Tong, the Chinese fraternal organization he heads, is a criminal enterprise that partook in weapons trafficking and money laundering, among other transgressions. The stakes were significantly raised last month when prosecutors added additional charges that Chow oversaw the (unsolved) murder of his predecessor and a rival gang member.
Six of his co-defendants, including former California state senator Leland Yee and several people who worked under Chow in Ghee Kung Tong, have pleaded guilty. Chow, who maintains that he’s not guilty, will stand trial alone.
The verdict will define Chow’s true present identity for an anxious audience of followers, including many residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Chinese American community.
Is he Shrimp Boy, the allegedly ruthless, seasoned criminal who wouldn’t think twice before ordering the death of a man he wanted to dethrone? Or is he Raymond, a reformed community leader who spent his days hosting dinner parties and planning field trips for his girlfriend’s school-age daughter?
It’s a saga ripe for a movie plot — in fact, Chow had been set to profit from a book and movie based on his life — involving shady dealings, misplaced allegiances and millions of taxpayer dollars either fruitlessly squandered or well-spent in the name of justice.
‘A holy man’
Fifty-five years ago, he was born in Hong Kong as Kwok Cheung Chow. Shortly afterwards, his grandmother nicknamed him “Ha Jai” — literally, in English, “Shrimp Boy.” Though the moniker was a jab at his physical stature, it came to take on darker undertones, following him into the criminal underground.
From age 9 onward, Shrimp Boy proved that he could pack a punch several times stronger than what might be expected from a boy with his slight frame. “Shrimp Boy puffed up his tiny body,” the New York Times reported, “and told people he had won fights even when he lost.” With a brawl that turned bloody for an opponent, he earned a reputation as a “local gang hero” before even hitting puberty.
As a 16-year-old, Chow and his family — two parents, four brothers and the aforementioned grandmother with whom he shared an intimate bond — moved to San Francisco. There he attended high school for just one month, long enough for a teacher to give him the English name “Raymond.” He quickly rose in the criminal ranks on Bay Area streets, feeding a vocation that caused him to be variously arrested, charged and imprisoned for racketeering, illegal gun sales, prostitution, drugs, money laundering and conspiracy to deal stolen property.
When he was released from prison in 2003, however, Chow vowed to pursue a normal existence. Three years later, he became the “dragonhead,” or leader, of a San Francisco-based Chinese fraternal association called Ghee Kung Tong.
Federal investigators allege that this new role, though ostensibly innocent, came with a few aliases of its own. “Dai lo,” a Cantonese phrase meaning “big brother,” primarily referring to a gang leader. And “489,” a prominent position in the Triad, a transnational network of the world’s most powerful branches of Chinese organized crime.
Their case relies on the work of an undercover agent, “UCE 4599,” who infiltrated Chow’s organization using the fictional identity of “Dave,” a member of the Italian organized crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra. Dave developed a close relationship with Chow, and allegedly engaged in criminal activity with Ghee Kung Tong with Chow’s tacit approval.
Chow’s lawyers, Curtis Briggs and J. Tony Serra, argue that the agent’s behavior amounts to “outrageous government conduct” that should render the prosecutors’ case against Chow invalid. In a motion for dismissal filed last week, they claimed that UCE 4599 was himself responsible for some of the criminal activity that he reported, as body wire recordings showed him seemingly encouraging a drunk Chow to accept illicit cash.
According to the transcript of one recording, Chow says, “No, no, no,” as the agent tries to hand him an envelope stuffed with money related to illegal acts. During a similar taped exchange, posted to Chow’s Facebook page, he tells UCE 4599, “I’m gonna finish my [book]… I’m gonna have my own income, man.”
But the agent persists, responding: “That’s okay, that’s alright, man. … And until that time, it’s a respect thing, brother. You know? I love you man, you know.”
Serra, Chow’s lead attorney, told the New York Times this October that his client is an ex-convict who truly “had an epiphany” and was committed to living a “straight” and normal life. Known in the California law community as the eccentric, plainly-clothed lawyer who took an oath of poverty, 80-year-old Serra works almost exclusively pro bono and has defended the likes of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
“Law is a class struggle,” Serra said. Judges are “bullies” and juries are “the last avenue to the common mentality, and there is something beautiful in the American mentality.” Serra has been twice convicted for tax evasion, happily recalling his prison sentences to the Times as akin to “locking a doctor who likes to practice medicine in a hospital.”
Of his client’s supposedly “beautiful,” beatific demeanor, Serra didn’t mince words. “He’s soft and gentle and considerate and empathetic,” he said. “Every time I go to talk to Shrimp Boy, it’s like being in the presence of a holy man.”
A Shrimp Boy both feared and loved
Chow’s public Facebook page features a photo of him clad in all denim, laughing as he sits astride a playground pony in a sunny breakfast cafe. Chow holds a white baseball cap above his head in a “tipping” gesture, like a cowboy. A caption reads: “Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Make your decision after you meet me and get to know me. I got to laugh today and I hope this photo does the same for you.”
The photo was posted on March 19, 2014 — three days after police officers broke down the door of Chow’s girlfriend’s house and greeted him with semiautomatics drawn.
Chow told the New York Times that he cooperated that morning because he wanted to minimize the trauma for his girlfriend’s daughter and two dogs. “I didn’t sell no drugs,” he recalled thinking as he laid on the living room floor with handcuffs. “I didn’t have no gun. I didn’t have no money. I kind of laughed. What I did is okay! I’m a changed man!”
This redemption narrative is one that many seem to have bought into. The one photo alone is filled with comments expressing support. One user wrote, “I met you and you are a sincere man and very likeable!” Another said simply, “We love you Shrimp Boy!”
Within months, a “Free Shrimp Boy” movement began. Hip T-shirts were made. Images of Chow’s cheery round face were proliferated. Despite a lurid past of convictions on serious criminal charges, Chow seems to have convinced many that he’s no longer the lawless maven that he once was.
Will this public popularity help his case? His lawyers argue that he was unfairly targeted to begin with. In a previous motion for dismissal, they painted Chow as someone who had been a victim of government exploitation and racial profiling. Serra believes federal investigators spent around $3 million in taxpayer dollars trailing the defendant from 2008 to 2014 — and now, he says, they need something to show for it.
The defense claims that some of the allegations against Chow are no more than petty cultural misunderstandings.
They note, for instance, that the undercover operation was called “Operation Whitesuit” after the all-white suit that Chow wore to the funeral of his Ghee Kung Tong predecessor, the man he allegedly murdered. The motion claims that the government believed Chow’s color choice to be an arrogant omen of his rise to power; yet, as has been pointed out, white is a customary mourning color for the Chinese.
During a taping for the TV series “Gangland,” Chow boasted, “In this city, I’m the man that calls the shots.” He later called this a grammatical error (English is his second language), according to the New York Times, and said he actually meant to use the past tense.
But prosecutors aren’t buying such claims of naivete. According to their filings, Chow intentionally avoided direct involvement in criminal activity in order to protect himself against the very charges that have befallen him. Yet, every crime committed was supposedly approved under his watchful dragonhead eye.
The criminal complaint’s central affidavit alleges that Chow presented two distinct versions of himself during his frequent interactions with the undercover agent: “It should be noted that throughout this investigation, Chow has made several exculpatory statements about how he strives to become legitimate and no longer participates in criminal activity.”
On the very next page: “Nonetheless, while making these self-exculpatory statements and references to apparently legitimate business activity, Chow also frequently makes inculpatory statements confirming his knowledge of and involvement in criminal activity.”
Until the end of the trial, at least, Chow will remain a different person to different people.
To his lawyer, “a holy man.” To federal prosecutors: a false idol, and an alleged criminal overlord and murderer. To onlookers, a gripping biopic waiting for the Hollywood treatment.
But to the notorious figure himself, this melange of messy personal history and conflicting accounts adds up to a simple identity. This October, Kwok Cheung Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow told the New York Times, “I’m a good man, I’m a regular man.”
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