Born in Hong Kong in 1960, Chow came to the United States at 16 and was reportedly nicknamed "Shrimp Boy" by his grandmother, in part due to his small stature.
After dropping out of high school, Chow rose within the ranks of the local Hop Sing Tong gang after he and his crew survived a 1977 shooting at a Chinatown restaurant that left five dead and about a dozen people injured.
Chow then spent a few years inside San Quentin Prison for a robbery conviction, and after his release, he started working with the Hong Kong-based Wo Hop To triad, one of numerous Chinese underground societies linked to organized crime. Chow has admitted that as a gang leader, he ran prostitution rings, smuggled drugs and extorted thousands of dollars from business owners in the 1980s.
"He was given like an unofficial position of being a leader, but to say he was sophisticated, no. He was more like a forceful brute," said Ignatius Chinn, a former California Department of Justice agent who spent years investigating Chow in the early 1990s. "If he didn't get his way, he would just beat the door down and that was how we put cases on him."
Although he ultimately was convicted of gun charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in the 1990s, Chow cut a deal to win release and returned Chinatown several years ago, pledging to stay straight. His work with at-risk youth soon won accolades from prominent politicians. But the complaint alleges that Chow used his position as the dragonhead of the Ghee Kung Tong to launder money, receive and transport stolen property and traffic in contraband cigarettes during a FBI sting.
Longtime residents and observers said the startling allegations revealed the continued presence of organized crime in the popular tourist attraction and home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia.
"Chinatown is a very safe place and usually the crime you hear about there is just robberies and people being taken advantage of," said Joseph Leung, editor for the San Francisco edition of The Sing Tao Daily, the largest circulation Chinese newspaper in the U.S. "That's why this is all so shocking."
The pre-dawn FBI raid Wednesday at the Ghee Kung Tong's office, next to a massage parlor and across from a benevolent society where elderly people play Mah Jong, also brought into focus its centuries-old history. The tong was founded in the late 1880s to support immigrants from Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Pearl Delta region.
Amid morning rain showers Wednesday, federal agents and fire crews stormed the building armed with a circular saw and jaws of life to crack a safe that authorities say was at least a century old.
The organization is among dozens of active tongs, or family associations, in Chinatown, and Chow assumed control when its former president, Allen Leung, was shot to death by a masked gunman at his import-export store in 2006, said David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
"The killer was never caught and there was speculation that Shrimp Boy may have had something to do with it," said Lee, who also teaches political science at San Francisco State University. "He kind of became like a gangster celebrity. He was on parole, he had an ankle bracelet and he became a fixture at political events for a while."
The 137-page complaint, whose many twists are reminiscent of "American Hustle," does not reveal whether Yee had any connection to Chow before the FBI got involved.
Yee, a progressive Democrat born in China, built his political fortune partly through Chinatown connections and had never lost a race until his failed bid for San Francisco mayor in 2011.
A few years before that, Chow's own political star began rising. Around 2008, he began meeting with at-risk youth to talk with kids about how to stay on the straight and narrow, said Rudy Corpuz Jr., executive director of the youth-led violence prevention organization United Playaz.
"He wasn't just the average guy on the street corner when he had that life, he was somebody you wouldn't mess with. And he's little so people were like, 'Damn, that little guy had that much power?" said Corpuz Jr., who said Chow's redemption story helped change hundreds of young lives for the good.