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Chol Soo Lee and a friend drove the Great Highway in darkness, discussing how they would set the fire. Lee was a little nervous. He'd never burned down a house before, but the job paid $25,000, and he'd promised his friend $10,000 for his help. They had flashlights, candles, and a few 5-gallon water jugs filled with gasoline. Lee figured they would just spread the fuel around the house, light the candles, and split.
It was past 2 a.m. when they turned up Lincoln Avenue and parked at the corner of 47th Avenue, the two men would later testify. Lee, a rangy, middle-aged Korean man, led his friend to a door left unlocked at the back of a house. Upstairs, the place looked as if it had been ransacked. There were holes in the walls, clothes and papers strewn across the floor.
Lee's friend found a fancy watch in one of the rooms. "Leave it there," Lee told him. In another room, the friend noticed a portrait of their boss, Peter Chong, on the mantel. "Should we take this with us?" the friend asked. "Leave it," Lee said.
The men started splashing gasoline on the floors, the walls, the furniture. Just as they were backing out of the bedroom, it unexpectedly caught fire, possibly touched off by a pilot light or an electrical spark. The air smelled of smoke and gasoline, but the men kept moving, soaking everything in sight. There was so much fuel on the floor, Lee slipped and fell on his back. He tried to get up, but slipped again. His friend tried to help him up, but fell to the floor as well.
Just as the two managed to stand up, the whole house burst into flames.
Lee placed his hand over his heart as he watched his friend struggle with the back door, then kick it open. Outside, the men rolled on the cement porch to put out their burning clothes. Lee saw a water faucet on the side of the house and tried to drink from it, but the handle was missing. He heard a neighbor yelling something in a foreign tongue.
The two took off, flying down the road as the burning house became a wavering yellow blur in the rearview mirror. The car smelled like burnt hair. Lee's throat was still parched. He pulled out a cigarette, and as he flicked the lighter, he noticed the skin on his hand peeling away.
When they arrived at the UCSF emergency room, Lee lay down on a stretcher while his friend made up a story in English about how someone had tried to kill them. The nurses swarmed around Lee, pulling off his smoldering clothes. When they asked what happened, he pretended not to understand their questions. Then he blacked out.
Lee incurred third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body as a result of his botched arson attempt in 1991. During numerous ensuing surgeries, doctors had to cut his Achilles' tendons, forcing him to stump along flat-footed for the rest of his life. Adding insult to injury, Lee was never paid for his work that night.
That proved to be a costly mistake on the part of his employers.
Lee may have been burnt to a crisp, but he could still talk. The stories he had to tell federal authorities would help bring down the Wo Hop To, the first and only Hong Kong organized crime triad ever known to have attempted a wholesale takeover of San Francisco's Chinatown gangs.
Peter Chong, the man whose house Lee torched that night, was sent by the Wo Hop To to San Francisco in the late 1980s to expand the triad's operation across the Pacific. The crime mob's leaders envisioned the beginning of a global empire that would be called the Tien Ha Wui or "Whole Earth Association." The name came from a comic book story of supervillains joining forces to conquer the world. From a base in San Francisco, the triad aimed to extend its tentacles across the country, in "all the cities where there are Chinese."
But after a series of missteps, including Lee's botched arson attempt, the Wo Hop To collapsed before hitting its stride. Chong fled the country in 1992, just days before a grand jury indicted him on a long list of felony counts, including murder for hire, drug trafficking, extortion, and arson of his own house in an attempted insurance scam.
For eight years, Chong managed to elude the grasp of U.S. authorities. But last month, in an unprecedented gesture of international goodwill, the Hong Kong government extradited him to the United States.
Chong is now back in San Francisco, in federal custody, awaiting a trial that may finally close the book on a remarkable crime story begun more than a decade ago, a saga that played out on a world stage.
The level of sophistication the Wo Hop To brought to San Francisco surpassed anything local law enforcement officials had ever seen before. This was no mere street gang; it was an organization on par with the Italian Mafia's La Cosa Nostra. Now that Chong is in the hands of the United States government, the inner workings of this organization may finally come to light, and the public will get its first look at the man who reportedly tried to establish headquarters for a global crime ring in San Francisco, only to trip over his own ambitions.