Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow had the epiphany to leave his life of crime behind, while meditating at Ocean Beach after his 2003 release from a decade in prison.
Such was the story the alleged Chinatown gangster told jurors in a San Francisco federal courtroom Monday under relentless questioning from his defense attorney Tony Serra. Monday was the first day of the defense case in Chow’s trial, where he faces murder and racketeering charges.
At the outset of his testimony, Chow, 56, described how his childhood allegiance to a Hong Kong gang prompted his entry into the criminal world. By the time his third stint in prison was over in 2003, however, Chow said he vowed to change his life and not even collect the “more than half a million dollars cash” he said people owed him.
“When you try to collect your money you’re going to be person of interest,” Chow explained. “I [made] up my mind I’m not going to do anything illegal.”
The most heated moment in court came when Chow shouted that he did not kill — or order the killing of — Allen Leung, former leader of the fraternal organization Ghee Kung Tong. Leung refused to lend Chow tong money and told the FBI he feared Chow was going to hurt him. Leung was shot dead inside his Jackson Street business in February 2006.
Federal prosecutors allege that Chow ordered Leung’s death.
When he was released in 2003 from his longest prison stint, Chow said he was the subject of much gossip on the streets of Chinatown, with people speculating whether he would involve himself in criminal activity again or whether there was a hit placed on him for testifying against a former associate.
“It’s gossip,” Chow said in broken English and with a thick Chinese accent. “The rumor they talk about me is false … I’ve been waiting for this chance in court to tell everybody I do not kill Allen, I did not order kill of Allen, or talk about killing Allen … I am innocent on that. That’s a fact.”
Sharply dressed in a burgundy suit and pink shirt, Chow said his criminal life began when he was as young as 8 years old, in his hometown of Hong Kong, when he first had contact with the notorious Triad, a branch of traditional Chinese crime organizations.
By the time he was 16, when he moved to San Francisco with his parents, Chow was already an experienced gang member, having dabbled in drug dealing, robbery and extortion, among other crimes as part of the Triad. By the time he was 9 he had already “cut somebody up,” and at 12 he experienced his first prostitute.
“I’m vicious at that time as a young boy,” Chow said in broken English, an interpreter at his side.
Chow talked about his first contact with the Hop Sing Tong, a Chinatown gang he is alleged to have led. Three previous arrests and convictions, in the late 1970s, late 1980s and mid-2000s, led to what Chow called his desire to leave criminal activity behind after being released from prison in 2003.
When defense attorney Tony Serra asked Chow if he changed his attitude “toward participating in criminal activity,” Chow answered, “Yes.”
Chow described how after his 2003 release, when he lived with his younger brother and feared retaliation for testifying against his former associate Peter Chong, he went to Ocean Beach to meditate and clear his mind.
Chow testified he achieved clarity and determined he no longer wanted to live a life of crime. “That is the day I decide myself, I say to myself, I’m not going to involve in no conflict of interest or any illegal business on the street,” Chow said.
Serra, his attorney asked, “Did you make some kind of vow to be not involved in further criminal activity?” to which Chow replied, “Yes.”
Early Monday afternoon, a juror unexpectedly attempted to leave the courtroom, prompting a brief recess. Ultimately, the juror was dismissed from the case due to health reasons and an alternate was appointed.
Chow was arrested after a high-profile sting with more than 20 other defendants, including former state Sen. Leland Yee, in March 2014.
In addition to charges that he ordered Leung’s death, Chow is accused of ordering the death of Jimmy Tat Kong, an alleged gangster who ran several illegal marijuana grow operations. Kong was found dead in a minivan in rural Mendocino County in 2013.
Chow is expected to continue his testimony Tuesday.