Mike Koozmin/the s.f. examinerGhee Kung Tong Vice President Chung San Sztu looks through an antique safe used by one of the founding fathers of modern China on Monday. The safe was damaged during an FBI raid last week.

Exposing Ghee Kung Tong, the group caught up in Leland Yee scandal

The circular puncture hole in the red door at 36 Spofford St. in Chinatown is all that mars the building’s exterior. But on the third floor, the aftermath of an FBI raid last week is apparent.

There is the wreckage of an office, a torn-open safe its centerpiece. The door of the safe — reportedly used by one of the founding fathers of modern China, Sun Yat-sen — lies on the floor on a bed of rubble and debris.

Such is the state of the headquarters of Ghee Kung Tong, a more than 150-year-old fraternal organization.

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, its leader, or “Dragonhead,” was among 26 people arrested last week in a series of raids that also netted state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. The arrests were the culmination of a yearslong federal undercover investigation. The suspects face a raft of charges, including murder-for-hire conspiracies, arms trafficking and drug sales.

Much of that activity, according to the FBI affidavit, was centered on Ghee Kung Tong, an organization that has known its share of controversy (in 2006, its previous Dragonhead, Allen Leung, was murdered).

But several of the organization’s leaders who spoke with The San Francisco Examiner say it’s not a criminal enterprise. Rather, like many other groups in Chinatown, it was founded during the Gold Rush to aid Chinese people living in America.

A tong is akin to an Elks Lodge, said leaders of Ghee Kung Tong, and they were originally founded centuries ago as secret societies to overthrow China’s foreign leaders.

But that kind of action is a thing of the past.

“It is unfair to associate any kind of crime with the association,” said Katy Shu, a leader of Ghee Kung Tong. “A lot of people in the community are members, but what they do on the outside has nothing to do with the tong.”

That characterization, according to the affidavit and a former federal prosecutor, is a simplification — at least as far as Chow’s tong is concerned.

A nonprofit, the organization’s 2012 tax filings don’t list Chow as a leader. Instead, they show 12 directors, three of whom were arrested Wednesday.

Chung San Sztu, one of the tong’s vice presidents, told The San Francisco Examiner that Chow is the group’s Dragonhead, but they never have their names on the paperwork.

Chow’s name not appearing on the group’s paperwork was no surprise to William Schaefer, a former federal prosecutor who worked on a Chow case involving illegal firearm sales a decade ago.

“You often find the paper trail doesn’t have the names or include the largest names on paper,” Schaefer said. “That is just obviously common sense.”

The first Chinese immigrants to come to America in large numbers came from the Pearl River Delta in southern China. When they arrived, they formed self-governing associations that doled out work and patronage, as well as justice.

“This is the system that the Chinese immigrants brought over because it helped them figure out how to survive in America,” said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society. Laborers arriving would first come to the association and find a place to live and work, she added.

“They have since morphed more into social organizations,” said David Lee, a San Francisco State University political science professor, of tongs and other associations. But most Chinese “people who no longer have cultural connections to Chinatown anymore tend not to join. They are more a relic of a bygone era.”

Ghee Kung Tong has chapters as far away as New York and Cuba — in fact, the Cuban arm of the group visited Chinatown this past Lunar New Year.

These groups’ continuance, said Sue Lee, comes from newer immigrants and their long connections to Chinatown.

“One of the reasons these associations continue is because they own property,” she said. Individuals were barred from owning property when the associations were created, so they bought property. Now membership offers stature and influence. These associations offer free events for members and collect rents.

But Schaefer and the affidavit paint a grayer picture of Ghee Kung Tong and groups like it.

“The Hop Sing Tong had two very different orientations,” said Schaefer of one of Chinatown’s tongs formerly associated with Chow. “It was never a clear-cut division where you could differentiate between the two.”

In a series of meetings and recordings, the FBI’s court document portrays that duality.

In a recorded conversation relayed in the affidavit, “Chow said he was afraid of the [tong] being tagged as an ‘underworld society’ and ‘participating in organized crime.’ Chow said whenever members of the [tong] get together they would be ‘participating in organized crime.’”

In a 2013 meeting, James Pau, a director on Ghee Kung Tong tax documents who was arrested in the raid, told an undercover FBI agent, “There are a legitimate side and an illegitimate side of the [tong]. The legitimate side of the [tong] focused on serving the Chinese community and its members. The illegitimate side of [tong] focused on illegal activities that make the [tong] and its member’s money.”

Court documents aside, Sue Lee said the coverage has really mischaracterized Chinatown.

“Gambling dens, opium, brothels — give me a break,” she said. It all harks back to old stereotypes that make Chinatown sound “lurid, and foreign and exotic.”

“It’s not like every Chinese person is a member of these organizations or have any idea of what’s going on,” she said.

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