HE SEEMS an unlikely Godfather, despite the rough-hewn exterior. Soft spoken, polite and just a little vain if the perm is anything to go by, Guo Liangchi, alias Ah Kay, looks more like a businessman on the rise than the head of a Chinatown gang. Authorities in the United States beg to differ. ''He's a very bad guy. He's a stone-cold killer,'' one law enforcement source said. ''He has the money, he has the connections to the proper authorities all over the world to operate this scheme,'' another said. Although authorities know there are many syndicates, they believe Guo, 28, is the dominant smuggler of illegal immigrants from China to the US. They say he controls the Fuk Ching, a ruthless street gang in New York's Chinatown but travels to China's Fujian province - the heart of the smuggling trade - at will. It took the running aground of the rusty Honduran-registered freighter Golden Venture off New York earlier this month to spark the authorities into looking at the claims against Guo and the Fuk Ching. Ten died in that smuggling operation, which was designed to bring almost 300 illegal Chinese ashore, prompting US President Bill Clinton to step up measures to beat the traders in human cargo. Agents investigating the tragedy believe Guo is a leading figure in the global network of enforcers, corrupt shipowners and shipping agents that links Fujian, Hongkong and the US - plus a score of places in between - and brings in thousands of illegal immigrants from China and generates millions in profits for the smugglers. Guo, who went to the US from China, started his career when he was 15 years old as an enforcer and debt collector. He was arrested in 1985 after threatening to kill a restaurant owner and blow up his shop if he did not pay US$36,000 (HK$280,800) extortion money. Guo, after serving 21/2 years in jail, was deported to China in 1988. He sneaked back to the US in 1989 and became the leader of the gang. The Fuk Ching's territory is a little kingdom of three blocks near the towering Manhattan Bridge where Chinese men rule with a violent code of criminal ethics. Other Chinatown gangs live in fear of the Fuk Ching because of its brains and cunning. Its secret is to sub-contract business enterprises out to silent partners. While smuggling people has become its most lucrative racket, law enforcement sources estimate the Fuk Ching is also involved in drugs, gambling and prostitution. As organised crime analysts point out, what distinguishes the Fuk Ching from other gangs is its success as a slave trader, charging US$30,000 per soul, which is paid off in the gang's sweat shops, restaurants and brothels. The gang is believed to have strong links to the Fukien American Association, a loose-knit business and community association on Fuk Ching territory. In the mid-'80s, the gang was a violent group of hooligans who intimidated shop keepers with demands for protection money and loan-sharking. It has evolved into something far more menacing. Another key player is Paul Wong, alias Fuzhou Paul, one of the founders of the gang. Detectives say the shrewd, quick-tempered Wong has become a multi-millionaire in heroin deals with houses in Fujian and Manhattan. Authorities claim he has a substantial interest in the Golden Venture and is a key player in immigrant smuggling. Two of his other ships landed successfully on the eastern seaboard near Boston, it is claimed. Wong's criminal career started when he formed the strong-armed specialist gang, the Green Dragons, in the New York borough of Queens. At one point he fled the US one step ahead of murder and racketeering charges. Federal sources leaked to the New York press that Wong formed the Dragons after a gang war. At one point Wong allegedly put Guo on a hit list. The two later settled their differences. As Catherine Palmer, an assistant US attorney in Brooklyn who put 13 members of the Green Dragons behind bars, said: ''They were chief rivals for a long time. Maybe they have settled their differences. There are always alliances of greed.'' Wong is believed to be in Fujian, where he keeps in contact with the New York end of the operation by mobile phone. Smuggling poor Chinese to the US can be a messy business. In January 1991, 12 low-level associates of the Fuk Ching were arrested for kidnapping a Fujian illegal then beating him senseless with a claw hammer and threatening to kill him. The victim was handcuffed to a bed, and forced to beg his family on the phone to come up with money. He was rescued by police after a tip-off. In the house police found three hand-guns, an AR-15 assault rifle and US$40,000. Then, two weeks ago, police arrested two Fuk Ching gang members in a Brooklyn apartment. They were holding 13 illegal aliens in a basement. Wayne McKenna, co-ordinator of Operation Dragon, a federal task force that monitors immigrant smuggling, said: ''With these people, you have to re-think the way organised crime works. ''This is not the Mafia but a core group of gang members who organise a syndicate that is very far-reaching. Greed and money are the major factors.'' And it is greed, federal agents say, that may topple the Fuk Ching. The breakthrough came in January, a few weeks after some gang members formed a splinter group when they became convinced Guo was pocketing more than his fair share of money from alien smuggling profits. Two rebels were killed in a shoot-out at a New York store - but a third, Xin Danlin, escaped. He has since become one of those endangered species - an FBI witness. Guo got the message and went to China to mastermind the smuggling business from there. But time ran out for his brothers Liangwang and Liangqun, who took refuge in a ''safe'' house in New Jersey. The duo and two other Fuk Ching members were killed in a gangland shooting. With the death of his brothers, his top enforcers, Guo lost hands-on control of the voyage of the Golden Venture. The plan went hopelessly wrong. The ship left Bangkok in February with 90 Chinese aboard and a month later picked up another 200 in Mombasa, Kenya. In the Atlantic near Boston it was supposed to transfer its human cargo to smaller vessels, which would dump them on shores near New York and Boston. The plan was for convoys of vehicles to transport the aliens to safe houses in New York and Boston. But without the Guo brothers, the scheme fell apart. Bruce Nicholl, co-ordinator for organised crime investigations at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service in Washington said: ''We're quite sure [Guo's] brothers being killed had something to do with the failure to make contact with the pick-up boats.'' Guo has the means to come and go as he pleases with false passports, although the latest intelligence is that he is controlling his alien smuggling operation from a town near Fuzhou. US authorities have dismissed information coming out of China that he has been shot by rival gangsters. They believe Guo manufactured the story in an attempt to ''take the heat off'' himself. But the bottom line is the gang remains intact although its principals are presently ''resting'', leaving the donkey work to trusted lieutenants. And that three-block piece of territory in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown remains a fiefdom of terror with eager young ''soldiers'' waiting in line to carry out the instructions of the Fuk Ching.