SAN FRANCISCO -- The notorious Chinatown criminal known as "Shrimp Boy" spent nearly a decade carefully crafting his "redemption story," inspiring kids to defy lives of crime and reaping proclamations from local and state lawmakers touting his "tenacity and tireless dedication to the community."

All the while, though, 54-year-old Raymond Chow was acting as a mob boss, connected Wednesday in a jaw-dropping 137-page federal complaint to state Sen. Leland Yee. Chow's extensive illicit operation included everything from drug trafficking and gun running to money laundering and murder-for-hire that stretched all the way to China, federal officials said. The Hong Kong native, who stands 5-foot-5, was nicknamed "Shrimp Boy" by his grandmother when he was child to ward off evil spirits whom she believed wouldn't find him if they didn't know his real name.

But federal officials have held him in their sights ever since his 2003 release from prison. Undercover agents infiltrated his criminal enterprises and the Ghee Kung Tong fraternal organization in a Chinatown alley near Clay and Washington streets, where Chow was the leader known as the "dragon head." On the street, people called him "Dai lo," which can mean both big brother and crime boss.

To former San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sat next to Chow at a Chinatown banquet in 2007, Chow was creepy.

"Despite his affable laugh and high-pitched voice, I just got a very scary vibe off of this guy," Peskin said Wednesday. "He can be very intimidating. When I walked away from him, I remember thinking this is a dangerous, seething, scary human being. Diabolical is exactly the word."

In interviews with those who know him and material gleaned from the complaint and other sources, Chow emerges as a sinister megalomaniac intent on creating a celebrity image to lionize himself as well as to throw off authorities. He was shopping his autobiography "Son of the Underworld," to book publishers and movie producers. His Facebook page is filled with portraits of himself in blue velvet and lavender suits, silk ties and pocket squares. In one, he sits astride a black motorcycle. In another, he is barechested, a muscle shot showing off his black dragon tattoos. In the rest, he poses chest out and shoulders back with the likes of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and 49ers star Vernon Davis.

The printed proclamations from politicians are also posted from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Assemblyman Tom Ammiano -- awards that city insiders say are routinely "given out like candy." One, however, was from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for "working in the trenches as a change-agent."

To Peskin, even though Chow may have been lecturing school children, the mayor should have known better. "Ed Lee knows who he is," Peskin said. "That would be like the president of the United States giving a certificate to Al Capone."

One of the allegations in the federal complaint states that Yee, who had been campaigning for secretary of state, sold a proclamation honoring Chow's Ghee Kung Tong group for $6,800.

For years, Chow insisted to television reporters and community members that he had cleaned up his act, but expensive cars and fancy clothes fueled skepticism over whether he had gone legit. He kept up the charade, authorities say, even as he accepted an envelope stuffed with illicit cash from an undercover FBI agent.

"I am rehabilitated," he said. "You are very, very bad."

On Wednesday, authorities raided the Ghee Kung Tong building, which is also affiliated with the Chinese Freemasons. With a cumbersome circular saw and Jaws of Life, firefighters cut through a century-old safe on the third floor. Reporters pressed into the narrow alley littered with cigarette butts and sunflower seeds, but many shopkeepers and pedestrians in the neighborhood refused to discuss the flamboyant fixture of their community. Men playing mahjong in storefronts closed the drapes. Shopkeepers peered out windows but avoided questions.

But Jenny Hom, who owns a flower shop across from the raided building, said this: "We believed he changed. But it is up to the judge to believe it."

Chow moved from Hong Kong to San Francisco when he was 9. When he was 17 and a member of a local street gang, he survived a famous massacre in 1977 at the Golden Dragon restaurant when rival gang members came in guns blazing. Chow's criminal rap sheet dates back to 1978 and includes multiple federal racketeering indictments that have included allegations of attempted murder, murder-for-hire, gun trafficking and other crimes.

In a local TV interview several years ago, Chow was unapologetic.

"When people take a shot at me, I took a shot at them," he said with a smile. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at jsulek@mercurynews.com and Robert Salonga at rsalonga@mercurynews.com.