When Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow walked the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown in one of his natty suits, bright pocket square ablaze, he exuded power.
Almost from the moment he arrived from Hong Kong in 1976 at the age of 16, he was a force in the local underworld, working as an enforcer for a local fraternal club called the Hop Sing Tong, shaking down gambling dens and running prostitution rings, according to authorities and his own accounts.
He once told prosecutors he was in charge of all Asian crime in San Francisco, and admitted that he partnered with a leader in an ancient Chinese criminal group, or Triad. But after three stints in prison, he said he was going straight.
The ever-swaggering Chow, 5-foot-5 with a shiny bald head and pencil moustache, spoke to at-risk youth about the dangers of gang life, became involved in community politics, and claimed to be pitching a movie to Hollywood about his life. Social workers believed his transformation, and soon he was being honored by the likes of San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
"All the criminal past I had, I cannot deny that," he said at a press conference in front of City Hall in 2009. "But today I do not represent crime. I do not represent violence and gangs."
That new persona crumbled this week when he was arrested as part of a sweeping federal corruption investigation — one in which State. Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was charged with conspiring to deal firearms for campaign contributions. Two dozen associates were also arrested.
According to the 137-page affidavit made public Wednesday in support of the criminal complaint, Chow, 54, vascillated between claims to undercover agents: that he had truly given up crime, and that he was a crime boss who simply didn't get his hands dirty since his last prison stint. He allegedly told them that when a member of his organization killed another, he decided if the killling was justified.
The affidavit alleges that he made introductions and took payments for allowing various acts of money laundering and smuggling to occur.
He was arrested at his girlfriend's house in San Francisco and faces charges of money laundering, conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines and conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes that bring a potential maximum prison sentence of 115 years.
Local law enforcement officials say they never bought Chow's public claims of legitimacy. But they also didn't buy the big-shot international figure he purported to be in more secretive circles of Chinatown.
They suspected he had lost clout in the underworld, living hand to mouth on payments from whomever he was able to scare, according to Ignatius Chinn, a San Francisco police officer and former California Department of Justice agent who spent two years investigating Chow prior to his 1995 conviction.
"The local gangsters have a saying: 'Follow the shrimp if you don't want to eat,' " Chinn said.
Chow had been something of a colorful caricature of late, parking himself at the Redwood Room near Union Square, chatting with tourists or Silicon Valley newcomers drawn to his gangland tales. A YouTube video called "Meeting Raymond Chow" shows him joking with Norwegian tourists.
He talked to reporters and was the subject of an episode of the History Channel show "Gangland."
In that episode, he said he first joined a gang in his native Hong Kong at age 9, when he stabbed someone. When he moved to San Francisco, the kung fu devotee quickly made a name for himself as the leader of the Hop Sing Boys.
A gang war erupted in 1977, in part over the distribution of fireworks. When rivals opened fire in the Golden Dragon restaurant, where Chow was dining, they killed five innocent people, wounded 11 others and shattered Chinatown's reputation as a safe tourist destination.
Chow escaped unhurt. But the next year, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison and went to San Quentin on armed robbery charges. He was released early but went back to prison for assault with a deadly weapon.
He was back on the streets again in 1989, and the FBI began wiretapping him.
In 1992, he and 19 others were charged in a 108-page racketeering indictment for an alleged scheme to bring Asian gangs on both coasts under the umbrella of a Triad, the Wo Hop To, in Hong Kong. Chow faced 48 counts, including murder-for-hire, heroin trafficking, conspiracy, violent racketeering and importing firearms. He was convicted on the gun charges and sentenced to more than 23 years in prison.
Chow testified against his partner, Peter Chong, in exchange for a reduced sentence in 2001 and was released in 2003.
Chow had promoted himself as a legitimate businessman ever since. The city gave him a certificate of honor, thanks to Supervisor Fiona Ma. He received plaudits from Feinstein and other high-level politicians based on a "Change Agent" award given to him by Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services.
His Facebook page has a photo of him with former Mayor Gavin Newsom.
"The people who believed him were people from outside the community who found the best in everybody and didn't know what was going on," said Chinn, the San Francisco police officer.
The senior group's executive director, Cathy Davis, feels tricked by Chow. "He really made a bad name for a lot of people we try to honor," she said.
The latest investigation began when an FBI agent posing as an East Coast member of La Cosa Nostra met Chow in May 2010, saying he was looking to launder money from various illegal enterprises. According to the affidavit, signed by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel Pascua, Chow told the undercover operative that he could not be involved directly but would make introductions for him.
By that June, Chow was on a chartered fishing boat off Oahu with two undercover agents, talking about how he could get military-grade tungsten from China cheaply, among other potential schemes, the affidavit said.
Chow introduced them to political consultant Keith Jackson, a key fundraiser for Yee, to get "inside deals" done, and to other associates, but continued to say he didn't want to know about any criminal acts.
He said he suspected the Justice Department was watching his every move, and that he was broke, taking $200 to speak to classes about the "evils of alcohol and drugs."
At the same time, Chow seemed unable to stop boasting about his power, according to the affidavit. He said he "dropped" the last person to threaten him, that he could move hundreds of kilos of drugs if he wanted to, and that he had mediated disputes between lower-level gang members.
Between March 2011 and December 2013, five associates of Chow laundered a total of $2.3 million, and took a 10% cut, in a scheme sanctioned by Chow, according to the FBI affidavit.
The agents then pushed to get involved in some of the illegal enterprises the Chinatown gangs were involved with. Chow was allegedly paid $28,000 for three schemes to sell stolen liquor and cigarettes, and then $30,000 for facilitating a money laundering scheme.
As he sat with an undercover agent and George Nieh, a leader of the Wah Ching gang, Chow said, "How am I hanging out with outlaws like this?"
Nieh said, "You are an outlaw too."
Chow laughed. "I am innocent," he said, according to the affidavit. "I don't have no knowledge of the crimes you commit to pay for my meal, that is very bad. … I'm still eating though, I'm hungry."
Times staff writer Christopher Megerian, in Sacramento, contributed to this report.