The arrest of state Sen. Leland Yee shook California political watchers Wednesday, but for followers of Bay Area crime it was the arrest of a San Francisco figure known as "Shrimp Boy" that caught their attention.
Both Yee and Raymond Chow, AKA "Shrimp Boy," were arrested in a serial of raids in a sweeping public corruption probe.
Chow was at the center of organized crime in San Francisco's Chinatown for decades, according to federal court documents. On his Facebook and Twitter accounts, he bills himself as a reformed gangster who now advocates on behalf of children.
Chow was born in Hong Kong in 1960 and came to the United States at 16. His grandmother, documents and law enforcement sources say, gave him the nickname "Shrimp Boy," in part because of his small stature.
Hop Sing Tong gang
Once in the country, Chow joined the Hop Sing Tong gang and eventually became a leader. He got involved in selling heroin, extortion and racketeering and was eventually arrested for armed robbery as a young man, court documents show.
Chow was convicted of armed robbery in 1978 and spent more than seven years in prison.
In 1986, Chow was indicted on various criminal charges, including assault with a deadly weapon, mayhem and possession of a firearm, and served three years in prison.
At some point, Chow forged an alliance with triad member Peter Chong, who told Chow he was a member of the Wo Hop To gang and their organizations eventually unified into one, according to records. Chow, Chong and a third gang leader then formed an umbrella organization called the Tien Hu Wui, the Whole Earth Assn., to oversee all the gangs' business, according to federal court documents.
In 1995, Chow was convicted on a variety of federal firearms and prostitution-related charges. He was sentenced to 280 months in prison for the firearms offenses. The gang, according to federal court documents, engaged in loan sharking, and exerted control over local gambling dens and restaurants in addition to regularly collecting fees from businesses.
'He was up to something no good'
"You could always count on one thing, that he was up to something no good," said Ignatius Chinn, a former California Department of Justice agent who spent two years investigating Chow prior to his 1995 conviction.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Chinn said Chow "was used to doing things his own way and getting things his own way. … He was always an organizer; he was always a person who was behind the scenes."
Chong, the triad leader from Hong Kong, controlled the gang's activities and with Chow serving as one of his two lieutenants, court documents say.
But after Chong was captured and tried on racketeering charges, Chow agreed to testify against his former boss in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Chow was released in 2003, and in recent years has insisted he has turned his life around and become an upstanding citizen. He has granted requests for interviews and Bay Area media outlets have written stories about his efforts at redemption.
In 2006, Chow was awarded a "Certificate of Honor" from the city of San Francisco.
Fiona Ma, a San Francisco supervisor at the time, defended the decision to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Raymond Chow says he's learned his lesson the hard way and wants to be a positive influence on the lives of young people," she said. "I'm an optimist and want to believe that people mean what they say, but only time will tell."
A year later, in a profile on Chow, S.F. Weekly reported that the former criminal was keeping busy with volunteer work such as handing out rice in Chinatown and serving as an informal motivational speaker for children.
In a 2012 story and video for ABC-7 News in San Francisco, Chow said, "I want to do something for the kids. I want to do something for the community. I want to do something for myself."
At the end of that year, Chow took to his Facebook page to say he was "not allowed to work. Not allowed to make one penny," a complaint he raised years earlier in the S.F. Weekly story.
'I stay positive'
However, photos posted across his profile show the former criminal clean-shaven in a variety of tuxedos, posing with the like of former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, NFL football player Vernon Davis and Randy Jackson of the Jackson Five.
"I survive because of my friends and family that love me and take care of me. I do not commit any crime or any illegal activity," he wrote in the December 2012 Facebook post. "I stay positive and know that one day I will be free and successful."
But some longtime law enforcement officials have been skeptical for years.
Asked if he believed Chow had gone straight in recent years, Chinn, the former investigator said, "One word would answer that – no."