VICE: The Strange Tale of ‘Shrimp Boy,’ the Old-School Chinatown Gangster Being Sent Back to Prison

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Kwok Cheung Chow, a.k.a. Raymond Chow, a.k.a Shrimp Boy, at the Ghee Kung Tong headquarters in San Francisco in 2007.

VICE (by Max Cherney):

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was convicted by a San Francisco jury Friday on 162 separate charges. Prosecutors painted a picture of him as a dangerous thug who ran a well-oiled crime machine dealing in drugs, illegal booze, and cigarettes—a heartless operator willing to murder in cold blood when necessary. As a result, Chow is likely facing life in prison, though he plans to appeal.

The conviction brought to an end nearly two years of legal wrangling and drama that was extensively followed by the local media. At one point, Chow’s lawyers made headlines by trumpeting court documents they said implicated local government officials in unethical behavior at best and criminal corruption at worst—though none have been formally charged.

Twenty-nine men and women, including Chow, were named in the initial charging documents—a lurid 137-page affidavit that included the now-convicted former State Senator Leland Yee‘s apparent aspirations as an international arms trafficker. The now-disgraced Yee pleaded guilty in 2015 to a single racketeering count centered around his alleged arms business and propensity for taking bribes from government agents. (He’s awaiting sentencing.)

I was closer than most to the case, covering it for a local magazine, a blog, and a weekly newspaper. I first met Chow at the San Francisco county jail, a soul-sucking compound in the belly of the city’s “tech district,” South of Market. The metal stools, thick glass windows, and ongoing clang of gates smashing shut made for onerous circumstances, but Raymond and I continued a dialogue throughout his trial. I always found him irreverent and upbeat—Chow’s longtime girlfriend told me after the verdict that he’s “insanely strong” and “very Buddha-like.”

He was willing to candidly discuss the government’s accusations, proclaiming his innocence and describing Ghee Kung Tong, the local organization the feds say was involved in all sorts of illegal activity, as a “private self-help group.” (Tongs are fraternal organizations for Chinese-Americans and are sometimes accused of being fronts for crime.)

It’s a weird way to get to know another human being, through glass and over a telephone, via conversations the government is likely recording and will almost certainly use against the prisoner if possible. “I don’t want to make friends like this,” Chow told me during one visit. He later offered to cook us dinner when he got out.

I have never shaken Shrimp Boy’s hand, but know more about his life than many of the people I talk with regularly on my current business reporting beat. That might have something to do with the way Chow throws out details of his life in a manner that seems almost reckless: During the trial, he admitted to doing blow, “cut[ting] someone up” at the age of nine (he details the experience in an unpublished memoir he shared with me), buying sex after getting out of prison, and even taking money from undercover FBI agents—though he maintained that he wasn’t taking the dough in return for overseeing criminal behavior of his alleged associates.

Chow has undeniable charisma. He’s big-mouthed and big-hearted and always (if you believe him) looking out for the immigrant community he’s a part of. According to those close to him, the man is broke enough that he had to live with relatives and his girlfriend upon getting out of prison in 2002, his most recent stretch in the federal pen. (Somehow, though, Chow always seemed to wear tailored, two-piece suits on the outside.) If he does have millions of dollars, even his lawyers have no idea where all the cash is—they took on this marquee client pro bono.

Chow is represented by the office of famous defense attorney J. Tony Serra, which is how I started covering him in March 2014. I was lucky: Curtis Briggs, an associate of Serra’s I had previously worked with, was angling to bring Chow on as a client. The man trusted me, and invited me over to listen to the call as he pitched Chow from their offices in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood—a building that reeked of weed. (“We do things differently,” one of Serra’s staffers told me.)

Tony Serra, right, an attorney for Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, pictured at left, listens to speakers at a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, April 10, 2014. 

I watched and listened as Briggs, a tall, handsome ginger in a suit, reeled in Shrimp Boy. The lawyer worked with a frenetic intensity and passion, and as we waited for the call, Briggs and former-gangster-turned-community-leader Eli Crawford offered their take on the local character.

To hear Chow’s defenders and friends tell it, he’s a community worker of sorts—Crawford described how he and Chow had been giving talks to the city’s troubled youth. In Chow’s memoir, he writes about speaking to high schools, middle schools, and at-risk youth—all to stop kids from following in his footsteps. He also writes that he partnered with a local politician and organized a series of talks about Chinese culture and heritage, for which the city presented him with an award honoring his contribution.

Of course, Chow also has a history of criminal activities including armed robbery, arson, and assault. In his early days, he was a gang enforcer and describes in the book the surgical precision he deployed when hurting enemies. “Beating someone down for a living is a science, ain’t nothing random about it,” Chow writes. “You appraise the target for strengths and weaknesses…. Inflicting injury is a delicate balance, like a recipe you season to taste. You have to be able to evaluate the level of damage you’re doing while you work, and you can get pretty damned good at figuring in the cost of an injury right there, heat of the moment. Most importantly though, you have to know when to stop.”

Later, Chow claims in the unpublished book, he founded a band of home invaders that robbed people all over the Bay Area. He also claimed to have run a brothel and siphoned $250,000 in profits from that operation into a growing coke distribution business back in the 1980s.

But according to Chow and his supporters, that criminal life ended in the 1990s. Indicted on racketeering charges in 1992 and convicted in 1996, Chow was part of a massive case that sent an atomic shockwave through the West Coast crime world. The feds disrupted what might have eventually become the largest heroin trafficking ring in America: The crooks’ plan was to unify disparate gangs and start shipping in smack from the Golden Triangle in huge quantities.

Chow was released from prison in 2003 after cutting a deal with the feds and testifying against his former boss and mentor Peter Chong. (Chow claims in the memoir he had no choice because Chong betrayed him by paying for Chow’s lawyer to take a lavish trip to Macao, sending her off with $60,000 worth of designer handbags—and an agreement to drop Shrimp Boy as a client.)

At the time, Chow recalls in his memoir, the decision to testify against Chong challenged his view of the world. “Some 30 years before, as a child, I’d set out to become a gangster,” he writes. “I sacrificed 20 of those years—the prime of my youth—locked up, a key player in a world that completely vanished beneath my feet. All the gang leaders, dope pushers, scandalous ex-cons and tough guys I’d known were long forgotten and out of the game. Everybody I’d come up with in Chinatown had flipped or cooperated somehow. Once upon a time, they all believed in our code and lived by it. Now every last one had shattered it.”

Those claims may have contributed to Serra taking on Chow as a client, since the attorney doesn’t usually represent people who might be called snitches. “I represent a beautiful man who 12 years ago transcended a lifestyle most people never have the courage to walk away from,” the defense attorney told me when I was writing for San Francisco. 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.

As a free man, Chow rubbed shoulders with celebrities, talking loudly and publicly of making a film about his life story. In 2006, after a community leader named Allen Leung was gunned down, Chow took over his post as top boss, or Dragon Head, of the Ghee Kung Tong. (Chow was convicted for arranging Leung’s murder on Friday.)

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow with a man his girlfriend says was a federal undercover in 2011.

Federal prosecutors vigorously argued during the trial that Chow’s work in his community was nothing more than a disguise, offering him cover to oversee a group of old-school Chinatown thugs and their illicit money-making schemes. The gang allegedly trafficked drugs and untaxed hooch and smokes, plotted murders, laundered money.

For their part, Chow and his lawyers maintain the case is bigger than the one-time crook—and insist the investigation shed light on how power in San Francisco really works. They say Judge Charles Breyer was prejudiced against the defense from the start, chopping down their witness list from 48 to less than ten and refusing to consider evidence that implicated city officials. Briggs called Breyer an “attack dog whose sole job was to guard the elite’s secrets and to usher Chow as quickly as possible to life in prison.”

It took a lot of balls to do this with America watching, but that is an indication of just how comfortable the people he is protecting really are, and it illustrates their time tested trust in him,” Briggs added.

Both Serra and Briggs have vowed to appeal, and Briggs argues they have a good shot, though Friday’s verdict was obviously a resounding win for the prosecutors—a victory observers were pretty much anticipating. As Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If you have tapes that are perfectly consistent with informant testimony, then juries convict a great deal of the time.” He added that he expects the verdict to be upheld.

Whatever happens with the appeals, Chow is going to spend years behind bars, an environment he knows well by now. And the networks of local political power and crime he spent much of his life in will hum along without him. Shrimp Boy supposedly got his nickname from his grandmother in Hong Kong, who apparently believed that a pseudonym would protect the short kid from evil spirits.

Highsnobsiety: A Beginner’s Guide to the Yakuza

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Highsnobsiety.com (by Mark Edwards):

Japan is widely-acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest countries. In the Economist’s ‘Safe Cities Index 2015’, two Japanese cities are ranked in the top three, with Tokyo topping the list, and Osaka coming in third place. So, with this in mind, it’s strange to think that Japan is also home to one of the world’s largest and most notorious organized criminal networks – the yakuza.

This iconic underworld of criminals has been made famous in films like Fireworks, Youth of the Beast and Battles Without Honor and Humility, depicting the yakuza as an intimidating bunch famed for their violent behavior. But beyond the simplistic “suits and shades” stereotype of the Japanese mobster, the inner workings of the yakuza are secretive, complex, and as steeped in traditional Japanese values as any other part of the country’s culture.

If you’ve always longed to understand the a little more about the cryptic and labyrinthine honor codes or delicate power balances that underpin this infamous crime syndicate, here’s your chance…

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ORIGINS
The word ‘yakuza’ has its roots in a Japanese card game: a blackjack variant called oicho-kabu. In the game, a three-card-hand’s value is determined by adding each card together, and then using the smaller number from the resulting two-digit figure to indicate a score. For example, when added together, a hand of 8+9+3 = 20. The smaller number in 20 is 0, which means it scores no points. In fact, this is the game’s worst possible hand.

This losing hand of 8-9-3 is referred to ya-ku-za (ya, or yattsu, means ‘eight’; ku means ‘nine’, and za, or san, means ‘three’). The word yakuzaliterally means ‘good for nothing’. And this explains much of Japan’s attitude to the group.

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The word yakuza links back to of the origins of the network, which can be traced back to two Japanese social classifications – gamblers and merchants. During the Edo period in the 17th century, both of these groups were regarded as the dregs of society. Merchants were known as tekiya – peddlers of stolen goods, often with shady reputations. Gamblers were called bakuto, and were known for playing illegal dice and card games.

Both bakuto and tekiya were groups of outcasts, living outside the norms of Japanese society. But this slowly changed. The merchants started to form organised groups that were formally recognized by the Edo government. The gamblers banded together in gambling houses. This eventually led to loan sharking, which required the bakuto to employ their own security personnel.

These embryonic gangs of semi-legitimate criminals and delinquents were regarded by Japanese society with a mixture of fear and contempt. Nevertheless, they attracted new members and gained new influence, and went on to form alliances throughout Japan, eventually being referred to under the collective name: yakuza. These roots can still be seen in today’s yakuza, with some ceremonies still containing elements from the criminal network’s humble trade and gambling origins.

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MEMBERSHIP AND STRUCTURE
In the 1960s, police estimates put yakuza membership at around 184,000 – an all-time high. Recent figures suggest the current total number of yakuza members is somewhat lower, at 53,500 (the smallest number on record). This shrinking but still significant yakuza population is divided into 20-or-so large conglomerate groups, which in turn contain hundreds of gangs. The largest conglomerate is the Yamaguchi-gumi family, whose membership is put at around 27,500. This makes it the single largest criminal organisation in the world.

Yakuza groups are organised using a hierarchical structure that works much like a family. Each recruit is referred to as a kobun (child), and has a father, known as oyabun. This parent-child relationship operates throughout every level of the yakuza, from top-level conglomerate bosses (known as kumicho), all the way down to new recruits.

To strengthen these familial bonds, the parent-child relationship is honored and strengthened in a ceremony known as sakazuki. The words akazuki can refer simply to ceremonial cups, but it can also describe a ritual in which loyalty and allegiance are pledged through the symbolic sharing of sake.

Typically, the “parent” will pour the “child” a modest measure of sake, followed by a larger measure for himself. The two will then sip from each other’s cups, in a highly elaborate ceremony that’s often followed by a booze-fuelled feast.

When a kobun receives sake from an oyabun, they have officially passed their initiation into their yakuza family. At this point they’re ranked in a similar way to older or younger brothers. They’re also required to cut ties to their real family and swear allegiance to their local boss.

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RITUALS
Within the strict hierarchical structure of the yakuza, there are certain rituals that are designed to ensure every member knows exactly where they stand. The most well-known of these is called yubitsume, or “finger-shortening.” This gruesome atonement ceremony is required of a yakuza member when saying “sorry” simply doesn’t cut it.

First, the wrongdoer places a piece of white cloth on a table. Then, once they have tourniqueted their little finger with a piece of string, they place their hand on the cloth. Next, taking a razor-sharp knife, they sever their little finger above the top knuckle, and wrap up the resulting piece in the white cloth like a gift. Finally, they present the gory parcel to their oyabun. At this point, when the oyabun accepts the finger, they are also deemed to have accepted the kobun’s apology.

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Yakuza members are wise to learn from their mistakes: subsequent wrongdoing means that they have to amputate the next knuckle of their little finger. And so on, and so on, as long as they are seen to be transgressing the group’s strict code of conduct. It’s not uncommon to see more mature yakuza members missing significant portions of both sets of digits.

The yubitsume ritual is said to have its origins in the time when yakuzamembers carried swords. Without the top part of the little finger, it’s much harder to grip the sword handle firmly. This meant that the member missing the finger would be increasingly dependent on their senior members for protection, drawing them closer to the gang.

Today’s yakuza members are less likely to carry swords. But considering golf is a wildly popular pastime in Japan, a missing little finger can still cause a serious disadvantage…

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TATTOOS
One of the most iconic images associated with the yakuza is their intricate, full-body tattoo designs, which are an integral part of the group’s history and culture. These designs can sometimes be seen peeking out from beneath shirt-sleeves or collars: tattoos are considered taboo in Japan, so they’re typically worn in such a way that they can be concealed.

The traditional yakuza “body suit” often has an unmarked strip that runs up the centre of the stomach and chest – this means a traditional open kimono can be worn without openly displaying a tattooed torso. It also gives the body a place to sweat – which is important in preventing liver failure.

This culture of body art is more than just decorative: thanks to Japan’s traditional tattooing technique, irezumi, it’s a very clear way for members to demonstrate their ability to withstand excruciating pain for long periods. Irezumi tattoos are hand-poked – which means that ink is jabbed by hand into the skin using needle-tipped wooden tools. This process is time-consuming, uses toxic ink and is extremely painful – 80% of those aiming for the full “body suit” are unable to stick out the whole process. The technique may be excruciating, but it yields incredible results. The colours are vivid, and it’s possible to achieve subtle gradations in tone that are impossible with an electric tattoo gun.

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Those who do go the distance find that creating the full body suit is a lifetime journey, and one that requires them to form an intimate bond with their tattoo artist. These master artisans will often spend time getting to know their client before deciding on a theme for the tattoo design. Popular subject material includes koi carp, which symbolize courage and power, and cherry blossoms, which symbolize the fleeting nature of life (in other words, the yakuza way of saying, “life fast, die young”).

Yakuza members often meet in onsen (Japanese bath houses). These places are highly traditional, and require visitors to be naked – which means they cannot carry concealed weapons. While everyone is unclothed, unarmed, and equally vulnerable, tattoos serve as an effective way of intimidating other yakuza. A full body suit is a very clear demonstration of extreme physical toughness. For non-yakuza visitors to the bath house, the arrival of a bunch of tattooed heavies generally serves as a clear announcement that it’s time to hit the road.

YAKUZA ACTIVITIES
Different yakuza groups involve themselves in different forms of business, to varying levels of moral questionability. Not all of them are entirely unscrupulous: for instance, Japan’s largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, forbids its members to engage in drug trafficking (yet this doesn’t stop them from earning an estimated $6bn a year!).

In general, however, the yakuza are known for engaging in fairly shady activities. These can range from the sex-trade industry, gun smuggling, illegal gambling, blackmail, extortion, protection racketeering and even politics. The yakuza even has an interesting way of playing the stock market – gangs will buy stocks in businesses, and then send members to board meetings. Once there, they use personal information to intimidate other board members, who are pressured to make payoffs in order to save their reputations.

Where blackmail or extortion are concerned, yakuza techniques are carefully crafted to uphold the Japanese values of politeness and honour. Instead of simply demanding cash, yakuza members will ask corporate leaders to give to fake charities, or attend fake benefits or golf tournaments, all requiring donations at ludicrously inflated prices.

It’s easy to imagine the criminal underworld as a place continually fraught with paranoia at its discovery by the police. But, in Japan, the mafia hides in plain sight – often with its own offices, business cards and corporate websites. It’s not illegal to belong to a yakuza gang. In fact, senior members even register themselves with the police, and some have their own pensions!

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These semi-legitimate organisations even take part in activities that are actively beneficial to the community. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate provided disaster relief to the stricken communities — including a helicopter that they just happened to have lying around! — and the group was praised for responding much faster than the Japanese government. After the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the same group opened their offices to refugees, and sent trucks to affected areas to deliver tons of food, blankets and supplies.

Although they are widely hated by the Japanese public, yakuza gangs are a surprisingly effective method of keeping troublemakers off the streets. Their hierarchical structure requires potentially out-of-control youngsters to adhere to a strict code of behavioural conduct (or risk losing their fingers), which is a counter-intuitive but efficient way of insulating the Japanese public against random acts of violence.

In fact, it could be said that without the ‘balancing’ force of the yakuza, Japan would be a much more dangerous place. And this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that the country is, in fact, not a safe place in spite of the yakuza, but rather, in some part at least, because of it.

Japan’s biggest Yakuza organization, the Yamaguchi-clan, cancels Halloween

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The Daily Beast (by Jake Adelstein): 

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It’s been over a month since Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split into two rival factions, and, ever since, people here have been waiting for something to go bump (or be bumped off) in the night.

But it appears the first victim in the looming gang war is nothing more or less than the gang’s annual Halloween festivities, which had become a yearly event at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe.

Each Oct. 31, the gangsters famous for their permanent costumes (tattoos, missing digits and the like) invited ordinary citizens, mostly small children in “scary” outfits, to have fun with extortion, demanding Japanese candies and snacks.

In front of the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters—and yes, all of Japan’s designated mafia groups have well-known headquarters—a sign has been posted in Japanese noting the cancellation of the annual trick-or-treat exchanges:

Every year on October 31st, as per custom, we have held a Halloween [event], but this year, due to various circumstances, the event has been called off. We realize this is causing great regret to those parents and children who looked forward to this, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. In great haste, we humbly inform you of this.

The 6th Generation Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters.

The Sankei Shimbun was the first to report these unhappy tidings on Oct. 21, but all through Kobe, certainly, the sad news was reverberating.

It might surprise many in the West that a notorious syndicate which makes its money through blackmail, racketeering, extortion, and other crimes distributed candy to the neighborhood children each year, but the custom fits a pattern.

The Yamaguchi-gumi has been in business since 1915, when it first began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe, a port city. The Yamaguchi-gumi has always tried to cultivate good relations with the locals, hosting an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals.

In the past, the group even followed a New Year’s tradition of giving o-toshi-damato children who came to visit, o-toshi-dama essentially being envelopes full of cash with ornate New Year’s greetings written on them.

A little money buys a lot of good will. And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.

The police label such organizations boryokudan—violent groups—but the Yamaguchi-gumi still insists that it is a humanitarian organization providing discipline and homes to social outcasts, and dispensing street justice. Most of its victims and the police would disagree with that definition.

It’s not clear when the Yamaguchi-gumi began celebrating Halloween, but Kobe is an international city where, in some neighborhoods, a U.S.-like traditional Halloween has taken root. One Kobe resident in her thirties, who prefers not to be named saying anything related to the Yamaguchi-gumi, tells The Daily Beast she remembers her international school classmates paying Halloween visits to the headquarters even 20 years ago. She says that the first time her classmates went shouting “trick or treat,” the hapless yakuza who answered the doorbell was utterly befuddled. After trying to figure out what to do, he ended up giving each of the children 1000-yen bills ($10) and told them to go away.

And thus, perhaps, a tradition began.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, like any corporation that has lasted over 100 years, is certainly PR savvy. The official policy of the organization is to give no on-the-record interviews by active members. However, the organization allows yakuza fanzines to photograph events and in October of 2011, the Sankei Shimbun printed an on-the-record interview with the 6th generation leader of the group, Kenichi Shinoda aka Shinobu Tsukasa, in which he explained the rationale of the group’s existence and justified its legality.

There was no official response from the Yamaguchi-gumi on why this year’s festivities had been canceled, but a low-ranking underboss told The Daily Beast over the phone that “Trouble is brewing with the breakaway faction, the so-called ‘Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi,’ and we don’t want to take a chance that some innocent child is embroiled in violence. That would be unforgivable.”

Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan’s foremost expert on the Yamaguchi-gumi, said that he believed the Yamaguchi-gumi split would result in all yakuza losing power and might herald the end of the yakuza themselves.

Speaking at a press conference last week, Hideaki Kubori, a lawyer specializing in dealing with yakuza related problems, said, “There was a time when the yakuza were thought to be a necessary evil. They aren’t necessary anymore.”

This may be true, but for some Kobe trick-or-treaters the group would be missed.

A veteran detective with the Hyogo Police Department, speaking privately, is skeptical of the announcement. “It’s a way for the Yamaguchi-gumi to remind people that the old guard has always been careful to get along with the local populace and that they’re not all bad.”

He added, “It’s a very cost-efficient form of PR for them. The candy is cheap and they don’t even need to spend money on costumes. Most of them have faces so scary already that they look like monsters without doing anything at all.”

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