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Raymond Chow ducked the instant rival gang members opened fire. But he suspects he survived the Golden Dragon Massacre, a shooting at a Chinatown restaurant that left five dead and about a dozen people injured, because of seating preference. He and his fellow gang members always sat in the corner.
The infamous 1977 massacre was not Chow's first shootout, and it certainly wasn't his last. "Pretty much every street in Chinatown I have been [in a] shoot out, I have had a gun battle from the past," Chow said, walking along Waverly Place on a recent sunny afternoon. For him, it all comes back to this narrow street that dead-ends at the old Golden Dragon, which has since been renamed Imperial Palace Restaurant. "All that pretty much started in this alley," he said, pointing out various shootout locations from his past.
Back then Chow was an ambitious rising star in the Hop Sing Boys a gang linked to a fraternal organization named the Hop Sing Tong. The Hop Sing Boys were then fighting for control of the streets of Chinatown with rivals like the Wah Ching and Joe Boys.
Many knew him by his nickname, Shrimp Boy. His grandmother had given him the moniker as a boy to ward off evil spirits in the belief that evil spirits can't find little children if they don't know their names. Chow, who now stands about 5 feet 5 inches, also happened to be the smallest of five brothers, and the nickname stuck.
Shrimp Boy built his reputation as one of Chinatown's most notorious gangsters, one with an extensive rap sheet including everything from extortion and armed robbery to attempted murder and involvement in the heroin trade. Then he got busted in the 1990s while reportedly trying to unite different Asian criminal organizations, or triads, to create an international empire with Peter Chong, a reputed crime boss with a group named Wo Hop To.
It looked like Chow, who had spent most of his adult life in prison, was going to grow old there. That is, until Chong who'd fled to Hong Kong was extradited to the United States to stand trial. Chow was freed about four years ago after testifying against his former partner in crime.
Now Chow says he's changed his ways or is at least making different choices and leading a law-abiding life. He says he wants to help the community he used to "terrorize" by working with youth to help keep them out of gangs. And he's also the new leader, or Dragon Head, of a prominent tong, the Hung Moon Ghee Kong Tong ("Supreme Lodge Chinese Freemasons of the World").
Chow's appearance has changed, too. He still wears a couple of earrings in one ear, but his head is now clean shaven and his tattoos are usually barely visible under his conservative business shirts and Chinese tops. Still, walking toward Uncle restaurant last month, he said his notorious reputation made for a rough transition when he was released from prison. "When I come out of jail and I walk [down the street], everybody scared to say hi to me," he said. "Nobody really want to talk."
Now it seems as if the opposite is true. Each time we walked together around Chinatown, Chow was met with smiles, waves, and greetings called out from street corners and shop windows. Many called him "Big Brother," or "Dai Lo!"
"Now, today, they call me Dai Lo, as love, it's respect, it's to honor me," the 48-year-old Chow explained. "For the older people, to honor me like that, I'm grateful. And I take them as my teacher, my friend, and my family."
Of course, it's a word that Chow (born Kwok Cheung Chow) knows quite well. In the world of Asian organized crime, Dai Lo has another meaning: crime boss.
Raymond Chow traces his bad-boy roots back to his childhood in Hong Kong. He says that by age 9 he'd joined triads, longtime underground societies notoriously linked to organized crime and activities like illegal gambling, extortion, and racketeering.
And he got caught up in gangs again soon after his family moved to San Francisco. When Chow arrived in 1976, he was 16, didn't speak English, and was quickly drawn to the familiarity of thug life. "As a new immigrant, I come here and I feel I don't have that security, I don't feel the safety," Chow said. "That's why, the first thing is, I go back to where I come from. The gang."
Chow insists that, as bad as he was, he only extorted from gambling dens and other illegal operations and not legitimate businesses. But he says he was sent to San Quentin State Prison at 18 after robbing law-abiding engineers at a party. As Chow tells the story, he'd been led to believe beforehand that he would be holding up a shady parlor. When he got to the party, he realized his error, but because his gun was "already drawn" he went ahead with the robbery. He was released after nearly eight years behind bars, but soon got into a fight and shootout with rival gang members. He served another three-year sentence and was released in the late 1980s.