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The Shrimp Boy Sessions: A Jailhouse Conversation with the Alleged Gang Boss

Max Cherney | November 21, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Sauntering through San Francisco County Jail's fluorescent-lit visiting area—the black shoulder patches on his orange jumpsuit indicating a maximum security detainee—Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow plops down on a metal stool facing a glass partition. A bit of an intricate Chinese-dragon tattoo peeks above his collar as his thick fingers operate a phone system that looks like it hasn't been upgraded since the 1980s.

Head shaved, still maintaining a meticulously groomed mustache above his upper lip, Chow spends several minutes fiddling with the phone before he can get it to work. Then, after seven months of public silence, perched inches away from me and grinning, Shrimp Boy speaks.

“I feel great!” he exclaims, his dark-brown eyes wide. “I’m in a good mood, very positive about my situation.” Phone in his left hand, gesticulating with his right, Chow begins a conversation with me that will continue over four separate visits, all without his lawyers present. Aside from the orange-and-black getup—a sharp contrast to the tailored two-piece suits that had become his calling card on the outside—Chow looks almost unchanged from March 26, the day he was arrested by federal agents on a 228-count indictment. He’s slightly paler as a result of his 23 hours a day in locked-down isolation, but otherwise outwardly upbeat and energetic, even joking about the bland food. “They give us a lot of peanut butter. I don’t like it much,” he says, laughing. “It was better before, back in the day, because the inmates made the food. Now we get a lot of beans and potatoes. Not much meat.”

The 5-foot, 5-inch Chow—dubbed Shrimp Boy by his grandmother because of his size and to ward off spirits—spends much of his time in his roughly five-by-eight-foot cell meditating and working on his case. It doesn’t bother him, he insists, that some of the other people charged in the sprawling federal racketeering case, including disgraced state senator Leland Yee and the conspiracy’s accused linchpin, political consultant Keith Jackson, are free on bail, living their lives. “I have no negative feelings on that,” he says with a shrug. But he does believe that it’s unjust to keep him locked up pending trial. “The situation is unfair to me. Money laundering is all I got charged on, no violence related to me—it’s just the system. I feel bias and prejudice against me, but I’m not angry about it.”

I ask Chow whether he feels safe, wondering if a man who has already served 20 years in prison and has a history of criminal associations—and, presumably, many enemies—is anxious or uneasy to be back behind bars. Not in the least, he says. “I’ve been in the system for a long time. And when I’m in the system, I have a lot of people who I know, who I trust. I feel really safe. I’m the OG here. They give me a lot of love. I walk by and [there’s] nothing but welcoming [and] people saying hi to me.”

On my second visit with Chow—our first is cut short by technical problems with the ’80s phone—I’m drawn to his tattoo, the barely visible but permanent reminder of his criminal past. It’s an immense work of art, covering his back and much of his chest. Chow obligingly relates the story: “During a prison riot in Tehachapi [where he had been transferred from what was then Chino State Prison], I saved a kid—he got stabbed twice.” Chow makes a knifing motion toward the right side of his chest. “They stabbed him in the lung, so I brought the kid to the prison hospital and convinced the nurses to take him. When he came out, the kid appreciated what I did—he wanted to give me an American-dragon tattoo. But I’m Chinese, so I explained the Chinese dragon to him, and without seeing a picture he got it exactly right, all over my body. It’s the only tattoo I have.”

I ask Chow where he finds his strength now, with the government accusing him of crimes that, if proved, could mean more than 100 years in prison. He is characteristically unfazed. “I’m innocent. I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” he says, gaze steady, scrutinizing my reaction. “All the people who are supporting me, that’s what’s keeping me strong. I’m not going to fail.”

The government has charged Chow with presiding over a multimillion-dollar crime syndicate involved in gun and drug smuggling, political corruption, and money laundering. Much of that activity was allegedly under the umbrella of the Ghee Kung Tong, identified by the feds as a de facto Chinese mafia organization. Chow begs to differ: “My organization is not what they call a secret society,” he says. “People misunderstand—it’s not a secret. It’s a private self-help group, helping people, our people. It’s about loyalty, trust, honor. As the chairman, it’s my job to help people.”

The title “chairman” is interchangeable with “Dragonhead,” an ominous-sounding moniker deployed by the government in court filings. When I ask Chow about the notoriety that comes with being Dragonhead, he laughs, insisting that there’s nothing scary about it. “It’s about respect from people for knowledge, wisdom, courage, respect, honor—it carries honor, tradition, and history.” Specifically, he explains, he would help people get jobs, connect business associates, and assist with community projects. His lawyers show me 20 pages documenting Chow’s public appearances between 2008 and 2011—a period that overlaps the federal investigation, which Chow’s lawyers believe began sometime before 2009. The pages and pages’ worth of projects range from a youth speaking tour to the Chinatown Night Market—which was eventually killed by then-mayor Gavin Newsom—and a museum to honor the history of Chinatown’s tongs (Chinese-American community organizations whose name means “hall” or “gathering place”). “I was starting to do a lot of community work, to put myself out there,” Chow says. “I’m not here to terrorize the city or people. I’m here to benefit people.”

Tapping his index finger against the metal countertop on his side of the glass, Chow drives his point home: “Just because some people involved in tongs [are committing crimes] doesn’t mean that everyone in a tong is criminal.”

Weeks later, I sit down in a Starbucks with Chow’s longtime girlfriend (who requested that her name not be used so as not to harm her job opportunities). She says that she’s inspired by Chow’s positive attitude. He is not just putting on a good face for me during our visits, she says—he’s upbeat with her as well: “Raymond is amazingly thankful.” In the government’s charges against Chow, she sees a bias that stems from his reputation and his criminal past. “The Raymond I know, he’s someone trying to lead a good life and trying to give back,” she says. “If I believed he was doing anything wrong, do you think I’d risk myself, my daughter over that? No. It makes me sad.”

Along with press conferences and a public relations blitz, my series of interviews with Chow is part of a concerted campaign by his legal team to challenge the government’s narrative and to exonerate their client in the collective imagination in advance of trial proceedings, which are likely to kick off next year. Insistently criticizing the government’s approach to the case, Chow attorney and famed civil rights advocate J. Tony Serra tells me at his North Beach office that he—along with his fellow counsel, Gregory Bentley and Curtis Briggs—intends to put the system on trial. Curtis Briggs’s elder brother, Cory Briggs, also an attorney, recently filed a civil action on Chow’s behalf against San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, demanding documents related to an alleged illegal contribution of approximately $20,000 from an undercover federal agent to Lee’s 2011 campaign for mayor. The presumed goal of the suit is to characterize the FBI’s investigation as a haphazard fishing expedition into murky waters in search of a headline-grabbing catch. Failing at that, the lawyers argue, the government put the fix on Chow, the colorful ex-con with a chest full of tattoos and a gangster’s nickname.

When Serra announced in April that he planned to bring on Chow as a pro bono client, it signaled Chow’s intent to mount a vigorous defense. “If [Chow] wanted to cut a deal, he would have selected defense counsel that would do a better job schmoozing the U.S. attorney,” legal scholar David Levine of UC Hastings College of the Law tells me. “Tony Serra is an iconoclast and a true believer,” Sam Singer, a crisis PR specialist, says of Chow’s lead attorney. “He believes his client is 100 percent innocent. The news media and public really enjoy someone who believes. There’s little he can say that will harm his case.” Chow’s girlfriend confirms that she and Chow are relishing the chance to go to trial, almost excitedly talking about the possibility. “We’re not normal,” she says. “We do things out of the box. We like to be different, creative. And Tony and Curtis and Greg [Bentley] are the first attorneys [Chow] doesn’t have to fight.”

After Serra announced that he was taking on this particular client, rumors swirled about an unwritten though widely known aspect of Serra’s criminal defense practice: He doesn’t represent snitches. This presents a potential problem, as Chow’s previous stay in prison was curtailed in 2002 when he cooperated with federal prosecutors to bring down another gang leader. “I don’t represent a snitch,” Serra wrote in response to my query on the subject. “I represent a beautiful man who 12 years ago transcended a lifestyle most people never have the courage to walk away from. He experienced a true epiphany after prison and became a role model for many unfortunates. He has devoted his life since then to bona fide social causes.”

The government portrays Chow in a very different light, as a dangerous thug who has never given up his past—to this day living in the United States without citizenship, with a deportation warrant awaiting him, and still socially tied to alleged criminals in Chinatown. It’s not an entirely unfounded argument: By his own admission, Chow was involved in criminal activity off and on from the time he arrived in San Francisco from Hong Kong more than 40 years ago until his release from prison in 2002. His rap sheet (which is nearly 10 pages long—I viewed a physical copy at his lawyers’ offices) reveals serious crimes. In 1978, he was sentenced to 11 years in state prison for armed robbery. Released early, he got nabbed again for assault and was imprisoned on that charge until 1988.

Monitored by the FBI since the late 1980s, Chow was indicted in 1992 and convicted in 1996 for gun trafficking, a charge that was rolled into a racketeering indictment that named 19 other defendants. In that case, the government accused Chow and a man named Peter Chong (then the leader of the Wo Hop To, an Asian gang with roots in Hong Kong) of attempting to unite Asian criminals across the country. After serving nearly 10 years in federal prison, Chow agreed to collaborate with the government in exchange for a reduced sentence. His testimony was critical to Chong’s eventual conviction in 2002. Chow got out of prison that year, but was detained by immigration authorities until 2003.

Chow tells me that the underworld has transformed in the years since he was released from prison. “A lot of things have changed about organized crime—it died out after 9/11. When that happened, the whole thing changed. Com- puters, technology, wiretaps—it’s so easy to catch up with people.” He also sees a difference in the way that criminal societies form, with younger people showing less allegiance to their criminal forebears. “As a society, we are losing the culture,” he says. “The new generation isn’t related to the old generation. There’s not the same loyalty and standards as back in the day. There’s no loyalty. They talk about loyalty, but it doesn’t succeed—not the same standard.”

Despite Chow’s insistence that organized crime as he knows it has fallen by the wayside, the government’s narrative says otherwise. Outlined in a lurid 137-page affidavit, the investigation reads like a screenplay: Goodfellas of the West. There are allegations of Chinese secret societies, a corrupt gun-running senator (the disgraced Leland Yee), illegal marijuana grows, and violent thugs running amok within and beyond Chinatown. Since the feds first announced the charges in March, the public has learned that the investigation was even more sweeping than it first seemed, touching politicians such as Mayor Lee and San Francisco supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, none of whom were implicated in any wrongdoing. In recent court documents, federal prosecutors even mentioned music mogul Suge Knight, rapper Too $hort, and comedian Katt Williams (though, again, they have not been formally swept up in the charges).

What’s intriguing about this particular indictment is that the feds initially presented an account of unchecked greed, arranged paid assassinations, political corruption, and profiteering involving a colorful cast of 29 defendants. Since then, the U.S. attorney has refined the allegations, stating that there are, in fact, two separate conspiracies. The first racketeering charge is tied firmly to the Ghee Kung Tong, including Chow, Keith Jackson and his son Brandon, sports agent Marlon Sullivan, George Nieh, Kevin Siu, and 11 others. Siu and Nieh (the purported leader of the Wah Ching street gang) were allegedly laundering profits from fake criminal enterprises set up by an undercover federal agent, referred to in the indictment as UCE 4599. As the investigation proceeded, Nieh and Chow allegedly dragged the other people into the operation, eventually expanding to moving cocaine, marijuana, guns, booze, and cigarettes illegally—and, of course, laundering the proceeds.

The second racketeering charge surrounds state senator Leland Yee’s alleged gun-running operation—in which he allegedly attempted to ship black-market weapons from Filipino revolutionaries via the United States to North Africa—and political corruption ring. The feds have said that Yee took bribes from undercover agents in exchange for political favors such as influencing marijuana-related legislation, issuing a proclamation honoring the Ghee Kung Tong (proposed and paid for by UCE 4599), and funneling state government money to a fictitious company, Well Tech, set up by the feds. Yee and Keith Jackson are the only two indicted in the second racketeering charge.

As I pore over the 570-and-counting documents entered into the public record, Jackson emerges as the man who ties Yee’s sphere of influence to those allegedly involved in Chow’s Ghee Kung Tong. When the feds first infiltrated the tong and came into contact with Jackson, they had no knowledge of Senator Yee’s alleged illegal political activities or his ambitions as an international arms trafficker. At the time, in 2010, Jackson was spending time with Chow because he hoped to use Chow’s community influence to support massive redevelopment on the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard site.

Chow allegedly introduced Jackson (who later would be named a consultant to the Ghee Kung Tong, a title given to people who donate money to and show support for the organization) to UCE 4599, who was inducted into the tong at the same time as Jackson. At first, Jackson asked the undercover agent to contribute to Yee’s 2011 bid for mayor, allegedly bragging about his close relationship with the then state senator and about how much of San Francisco’s budget would be under Yee’s control if he were elected. As Jackson began to ask UCE 4599 for illegal donations more frequently, the agent introduced Jackson to another agent who, he claimed, was interested in having some influence in politics. This set in motion the FBI’s investigation of Yee.

During our last interview, I ask Chow about his relationship to Yee. Chow says that all he knew about the senator was his community work. “I think I saw him at the Starr King Elementary School events, the school’s car wash, things like that. But we ran into each other at a lot of functions. He was very good with the community—that’s all I know about him.”

A metal gate slams shut, sending a clang through the visitors’ area. Chow pulls the receiver closer to his mouth. We’re talking about his past life, a youth lived in thrall to crime and violence. “The first firecracker [you lit], how did you feel?” he asks rhetorically. “That kind of exciting feeling, the rush, that kind of violence, you can get addicted to it—some people chase that kind of feeling. When I was younger, I had that kind of craving. When you get older, you get the understanding that it’s bad. But I never killed no one. I feel good about that.”

Chow explains that this is the sort of thing that he tells young people when he speaks to them—a service for which he’s been recognized by the city of San Francisco and the state. He tells me that he aims to be open and honest in responding to whatever questions kids have. “When I talk with the youngsters, I always say to them, ‘Be careful what you ask me because I’ll answer truthfully.’ They always want to know, ‘What is it like to fire a gun?’ They really want to know all those type of questions. They want experiences. Life, a journey to experience.”

Chow frames his transformation from criminal to model citizen as the result of a breakthrough that came after considerable self-reflection and thought. Following his release from federal custody and several months of detainment by federal immigration authorities, he began to reenter society in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “I was lost, separated from society for many years, and it was very difficult,” he says. “I lived with my brother, meditating by Ocean Beach, settling down my thoughts, looking—looking for my future. I don’t want to be sitting home as a useless person. I was looking to do something with meaning.”

Chow was seeing a therapist at the time. “But the therapy wasn’t helping much,” he says. “I don’t have nothing, I don’t have no meaning out there. So I started to do a lot of community work, put myself out there. I want to do this. I think I can help. A lot of youngsters can do better. A lot of them need guidance.

“I want my culture, my history to be known, American-Chinese history—especially for my people, so the Chinese young people know where they came from, know how to respect the past. That’s what I tried to do, send a very good message: to stand up for themselves, talk about it, and get to know about it.”

Chow says that it became even more important to him to engage with youth and steer them away from his former lifestyle when he developed health problems that he links back to the life of a gangster. “Two years ago I had [a heart attack]. All the alcohol, drugs, smoking—now I’m paying for it, what I did to my own body. All the things you do in the past will catch up with you and affect your body. Now I take seven or eight pills every day because of all that from the past.”

That past is something that he has been unable to shake—and won’t be able to until his trial. Despite facing charges that threaten to keep him in prison for the rest of his life, Chow is thinking about the moment when he will be free. Talking with me and Curtis Briggs over speakerphone in Briggs’s office, Chow laughs loudly and says to his lawyer, “You guys owe me a couple of drinks once I get out, right?”

I ask him what he likes, and he laughs again: “Mojitos.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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