I was interviewing Hong Kong tycoon Albert Yeung in his office on a recent afternoon when he suddenly changed the subject to ask whether I knew that his forebears had come from Chiu Chow, a region in south China famous for breeding tough guys. A Chiu Chow is the Chinese equivalent of a Sicilian. I took the bait, and told Yeung that some people had advised me to stay away from him because he was reputed to be a dangerous man. He did not even try to conceal his delight. "Do I look dangerous to you?" he asked, with a mischievous laugh.
Yeung is the chairman of Emperor Group, a huge Hong Kong consortium involved in real estate, financial services, watches and jewelry, publishing and other businesses. He does not look dangerous. He is 52, a small man, lively, with a boyish face. If he looks anything, it's rich. He wears hand-tailored suits and shirts and A. Testoni shoes that cost as much as $2,000 a pair. He owns a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes, all with expensive license plates. (Hong Kong businessmen are big on lucky numbers, and coveted plates are auctioned to the highest bidder.) In March 1994, Yeung paid $1.7 million for a plate bearing the single digit "9," which was considered especially lucky because the Cantonese word for nine sounds like the word for dog, and it was the Year of the Dog.
But Yeung's reputation, at least to some, is indeed that of a dangerous man. Emperor is Hong Kong's leading player in the foreign exchange market, and one of Yeung's top currency traders was a man named Michael Lam. In November 1994, Lam went to work for a competitor of Yeung's. On December 9, Lam returned to his old office at Emperor to ask for unpaid salary and bonuses, and was told to meet Yeung that evening at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Lam and other eyewitnesses later informed the police that the meeting turned ugly. "You are a bloody guy," Yeung was reported to have told Lam, seething. "You will lose your left leg." Yeung allegedly escorted Lam out of the hotel with his arm around Lam's shoulder--a signal of peace to a group of men surrounding the hotel. "Otherwise," Yeung is said to have warned Lam, "my guys outside will put you in real trouble."
The men surrounding the hotel were believed to be triads, so-named for their membership in Chinese secret triad societies. Triads are the world's largest criminal fraternity, and Hong Kong, with four major triad societies and numerous smaller ones, is home to more ethnic Chinese gangsters than anywhere else on earth. One society, the Sun Yee On, has by itself at least 30,000 members, and possibly 60,000. The low estimate is larger than the Hong Kong Police Force, and the high estimate is equal to nearly one out of every fifty males in Hong Kong. (Women can't be triads, but boys as young as 10 are recruited by all the major societies.) Apart from running the rackets in Hong Kong--illegal gambling and prostitution, for instance--triads are active in legitimate enterprises, such as the property market and public transportation. Meanwhile, their powerful influence is felt worldwide in counterfeiting, arms dealing, alien smuggling and money laundering. Hong Kong is a key transit point for the Southeast Asian heroin and methamphetamine that pour into the United States, and triads play a key role in the drugs' transshipment. Triad societies are more loosely structured than Mafia families; the benefit of membership is solidarity, the ease of finding criminal partners and the threat that one's triad brothers can be called upon to perform acts of violence. And triad violence tends to be gruesome because of a tradition of using a meat cleaver, or "chopper"; the chopping off of one or another limb is a trademark triad method of registering disapproval.
Michael Lam therefore may have had good reason to fear for his leg. As it turned out, he suffered no serious bodily harm, but he told the police that his ordeal continued after he left the hotel. He said he was escorted back to his old office, where he was held captive overnight and forced to kneel and serve tea. To further humiliate him, he claimed, Yeung threatened to order the most junior employee on the premises to slap Lam twice in the face.
The following day, December 11, Lam's new boss tipped off the police, and five eyewitnesses from the hotel and the office, including Lam, were promptly summoned to give statements. The police were already familiar with Albert Yeung. According to press reports, in 1980, Yeung, then a member of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, tried to persuade the victim of an assault by a jockey not to testify and spent six months in jail for attempting to pervert the course of justice. In 1986, he was convicted of illegal bookmaking and given a suspended sentence of six months. In March 1994, former Brooklyn Congressman Stephen J. Solarz was forced to withdraw his bid to become U.S. ambassador to India because he'd had business dealings with Yeung. Solarz protested that he had believed Yeung to be "totally respectable," until the American consul in Hong Kong told him that Yeung was a triad. Solarz says he confirmed this accusation to his satisfaction and immediately severed all ties to Yeung. Yeung denies that he is a triad, or that he is involved in criminal activities, and he attributes the charge to "jealousy" over his success in business.
Three days after Lam went to the police, Yeung was relaxing at a karaoke chib with one of Emperor's business partners, the film star Jackie Chan, when he was arrested by officers from the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau and charged with criminal intimidation and false imprisonment. He went on trial the following May. Lam was the first eyewitness to be called, and he proved useless to the prosecution. He said his heart was beating fast, and added, "I am very frightened. I do not want to give evidence." The next eyewitness, a friend of Lam's who had provided a detailed statement to the police just five months earlier, claimed he could no longer remember the incident--his memory, he said, had been impaired by an anesthetic he'd been given to treat a football injury. After the other three eyewitnesses also complained of memory loss, the judge dismissed the charges, declaring, "I cannot be sure justice has been done." The press was sarcastic. "To have five cases of amnesia in two days is terrible," editorialized the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's largest English-language daily.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the entire affair never made it into the press. Earlier this year, I met privately with one of the officers who arrested Yeung, and he explained why the police waited three full days to take action. "That's how long it took for me to get permission to arrest Albert," he told me, in tones of disgust. "In spite of the blatant nature of the offense, the boss wanted to get legal advice first. And when Albert was led away, a police inspector actually uncuffed him. This is the police force we're facing now"--that is, in the days leading up to Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty. Why was Yeung, who had done jail time in the past, accorded such special treatment? This reputed organized-crime figure has become rather tight with the men who run the People's Republic of China and who will, after July 1, gain sovereignty over Hong Kong. Indeed, Yeung's arrest was inconveniently timed--it caused Beijing to hastily cancel a scheduled meeting between Yeung and President Jiang Zemin.
Beijing seems to have forgiven Yeung for that small embarrassment. When I visited Yeung, he handed me Emperor's glossy brochure, which was filled with photographs of himself posing with senior officials of the central Chinese government, some of whom are his business partners. Yeung has been cultivating his relationships with top Chinese government and party officials for years. He recalled to me the propitious time when he began his courtship, shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989: "China is in very bad shape. Nobody wanted to be their friend. But we go there, one of the big tycoon from Hong Kong, and start to make friends with the top people, and invest money there. And they appreciate this." One of those appreciative friends is Xiao Yang, China's minister of justice. In November 1992, Yeung hosted a banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to celebrate the launch of the first private bank in the history of the People's Republic, which Emperor and a subsidiary of the Ministry of Justice own together. The following June, the ministry became the second-largest stockholder, after Yeung himself, in Emperor International Group, the publicly traded part of Emperor Group; it purchased 84 million shares, representing 4.74 percent of the company's enlarged capital. Yeung told me that when the ministry asked to buy the stock, he broke the news to Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission, which had barred him from overseeing his own financial services division because of his criminal record. "They didn't believe it," he said, laughing. Yeung carries his business relationships with the highest officials in the Chinese government as a shield against his doubters. With neatly circular logic, he argues that his influential friendships prove that he is a fit figure with whom to be friends. "If I'm a criminal, if I'm a triad," he asks, triumphantly, "how can they trust me? "
Easily, it turns out. Of all of the treacherous aspects of Hong Kong's reunification with China, the most treacherous--and the least noticed--is that it will seal what amounts to a cooperation pact between the triad societies and the Communist Party. This dreadful alliance, of the world's largest criminal underground and the world's last great totalitarian power, has received surprisingly little attention in this country, even though the U.S. Justice Department has identified triad racketeering as a significant global threat. Even more ominously, this alliance is not accidental. It was part of Deng Xiaoping's reunification plan for Hong Kong from the very beginning, and dates from the early 1980s, when China and Britain were negotiating the return of Hong Kong to the mainland in 1997.
We know this because this past May, Wong Man-fong, the former deputy secretary-general of Xinhua, China's news agency in Hong Kong (which reputedly acts as a de facto embassy), admitted it during a forum at Hong Kong's Baptist University. Wong said that in the early 1980s, at Beijing's behest, he "befriended" Hong Kong's triad bosses and made them an offer they could not refuse: China would turn a blind eye to their illegal activities if they would promise to keep peace after the handover. "I told them that, if they did not disrupt Hong Kong's stability, we would not stop them from making money," Wong said. No one knows why Wong made this astounding disclosure about China's secret dealings with crime bosses, but there is even more to the story than he acknowledged. In the past few years, Hong Kong triads, emboldened by their friendship with the Communist Party, have expanded their illegal activities into China. Today, the four major triad societies of Hong Kong--the Sun Yee On, the 14K, the Wo Shing Wo and the Wo Hop To--have outposts in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other mainland cities, and are expanding in size and power at an impressive rate.
The West's apparent blindness to the ramifications of a working alliance between a great power and a great criminal network is striking for its persistence. Deng had been openly hinting at an underworld accord for years. In September 1983 and June 1984, while China was still negotiating with Britain to regain Hong Kong, and again in early October 1984, only days after a handover agreement had been reached, he made remarks about triads at the Great Hall of the People that were surprisingly and pointedly positive. On each occasion, he promised that China would allow Hong Kong to govern itself as long as its administrators were Chinese "patriots" who cherished the mainland; and each time, he spontaneously brought up the subject of the triad societies, whose power in Hong Kong, he pointed out, was "very great." Of course, he said, not all triads were bad. Many of them were good. Many of them, he said, were patriotic.
At the time, a lot of people dismissed this as an old man's mysterious mumbling. Patriotic gangsters? It was true that triads had originated as a nationalist movement, but that was long ago. The first triads, according to legend, were seventeenth-century monks intent on overthrowing the Manchus, who had conquered China in 1644 and established the Qing Dynasty. (To this day, triads lean heavily toward Buddhist mysticism.) By the nineteenth century, however, the Manchus were still in power, and the triad movement had largely degenerated into a criminal underground, based primarily in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Qing Dynasty was toppled at long last in 1911, when Dr. Sun Yat-sen--himself a triad--and his followers established the Republic of China. In 1927, another triad-turned-political-leader, Chiang Kai-shek, recruited members of his Shanghai triad society, the murderous Green Gang, to put down China's emerging Communist Party; in April of that year, the Green Gang slaughtered Communists by the hundreds. When the Communists finally seized power in 1949, hordes of Shanghai triads fled for their lives to Hong Kong, establishing that territory once and for all as the world headquarters of Chinese organized crime. After that, the triad societies of Hong Kong, with few exceptions, professed allegiance to the Republic of Taiwan and regarded the Communist Party as a bitter ideological enemy. So, in spite of Deng's cryptic comments, Hong Kong savants predicted for years that, by the time China took over Hong Kong, the triads would have fled a Communist crackdown by emigrating to the four corners of the world.
The experts overlooked Deng's pragmatism. One of his best-known sayings was "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." He apparently reasoned that the triads were too significant a power in Hong Kong to be ignored, and that their traditional ties to Taiwan made them unpredictable, but that, fortunately, they could be bought. So he bought them: the Sun Yee On, the largest Hong Kong triad society, no longer requires initiates to pledge allegiance to Taiwan; now it is to the People's Republic of China that they swear.
Deng was also a great believer in crony capitalism. (Another of his famous sayings, "To get rich is glorious," sounds a lot less like Communist ideology than it does the triad credo.) Since the early 1980s, a number of government departments have been allowed to invest in private enterprise, with business partners of their choosing, even from outside China. Among the departments that have done so are the Ministry of Justice; the Public Security Bureau, China's national police force; and the People's Liberation Army, China's military. The PLA in particular has pursued Deng's get-rich philosophy with a vengeance--its multibillion-dollar portfolio includes hotels, cellular-phone networks, airlines and pro-basketball teams. It has been widely reported (see "The Betrayal of Hong Kong" by Stan Sesser, TNR, March 10) that Hong Kong's merchant class has invested heavily with mainland officials and cadres as a means of establishing good guanxi--the Mandarin word for "political connections." It is less well known that Hong Kong's gangster class has done the same.
Among the most popular ventures shared by Chinese officials and Hong Kong triads are the businesses that triads know best--nightclubs, karaoke bars and brothels. In Shanghai, where the People's Liberation Army owns a string of nightclubs with the Sun Yee On triad society, and where the Public Security Bureau operates several high-class houses of prostitution (including one called the Protected Secret Club), the parallels to the roaring '20s are unmistakable. In those days, the military and the police joined with the Green Gang in the very same endeavors.
Shenzhen, the south China city just across the border from Hong Kong, is the largest outpost for triads operating in the mainland. Called "the city that Deng built," Shenzhen became the late chairman's first laboratory of experimental capitalism in 1979. Since then, it has been utterly transformed, from a quiet village of rice paddies to a noisy, booming metropolis of 3.5 million people, replete with skyscrapers, shopping malls, discos, high-tech manufacturing, a stock exchange and even a Disneyland-style theme park. It has also experienced a dizzying rise in violent crime and drug abuse, and has some of the pushiest hookers in the world. Here, too, the triad pimps are operating with the government. In a recent issue of Apple Daily, Hong Kong's leading Chinese-language newspaper, a reputed member of the 14K triad society boasted that he and his triad brothers had established "terrific guanxi" with Communist officials, and cited a thriving partnership in cross-border prostitution.
Vice rackets are not the only such partnerships. Chinese officials and Hong Kong triads are believed to have joined hands in smuggling contraband in and out of China--from illegal aliens, stolen cars and bootleg cigarettes to more mundane items like air conditioners. One authority on triads says the "great fear" of the Hong Kong police is arms smuggling by triads in alliance with the People's Liberation Army. "You can't arrest a PLA officer; you can't even stop and search their wagons at the border," he says. It is possible that the worst scenario--heroin traffickers in league with mainland officials--will not occur, because the Communist government will draw the line somewhere. But no one really knows.
Nor is there any reason to think that the triads' role in the mainland will be limited to moneymaking ventures. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, a staggering number of Hong Kong citizens--as many as 1 million, or about one-sixth of the total population--marched in the streets. The protests dramatically altered China's view of Hong Kong, which until then had been seen as apolitical and concerned only with business. It was then, some believe, that China began looking seriously at triads not merely as investors, but as a means for maintaining social order. Some people are worried that the Chinese government may try to use the triad societies of Hong Kong in the way that Chiang Kai-shek used the Green Gang--as secret police.
It is not a frivolous concern. Robert Youill, a former detective inspector with the Hong Kong Police Force, and now a private eye for the Pinkerton agency in Hong Kong, told me that a few years ago he arrested a triad on a blackmail charge, and that "the guy spilled his guts, and admitted he was a spy for Xinhua, the China news agency." Lai Ting-yiu, the deputy editor-in-chief of Next magazine, Hong Kong's largest newsweekly, foresees triads being used by the mainland to rig district elections in Hong Kong, and to kidnap people the Communist Party wishes to punish. The latter may already have occurred: in 1993, James Peng, a naturalized Australian born in China, was abducted from a hotel room in Macao and brought to Shenzhen to stand trial for fraud--though his real crime, it appeared, was that he had offended a former business partner, Deng Xiaoping's niece. He got eighteen years in jail. His kidnappers were believed to be members of the 14K triad society. For the United States and other parts of the world, China's accord with organized crime is cause for considerable alarm--triads are great exporters of misery. For Hong Kong, the consequences may be more immediate: the rule of law cannot long survive such an arrangement. Deng had vowed that Hong Kong's legal system and judiciary would remain essentially independent of China for fifty years after the handover, and his promise of "one country, two systems" was codified in the Basic Law, the constitution drafted by China and Britain to serve Hong Kong until the year 2047. Yet China's recognition of "good" and "patriotic" triads is itself an assault on the legal system of Hong Kong, where mere membership in a triad society has been illegal since 1845.
The disclosure this past May about Beijing's secret parlay with triad bosses provoked anger and disbelief in Hong Kong. The territory supposedly had grown complacent about its triad societies, because street crime in Hong Kong is relatively low, and because triads are said mostly to kill and maim one another. But the complacency is a myth, and so is the notion that the innocent are spared from triad violence. In January, young Sun Yee On members got into a territorial dispute with young members of the Wo Shing Wo and firebombed a karaoke club in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. Seventeen people died. In May of last year, two days before the launch of a gossipy new Hong Kong magazine called Surprise Weekly, two well-dressed men walked into the office of the publisher, Leung Tin-wai, escorted him to the conference room, closed the door and severed his left forearm with a chopper. The debut issue of Surprise Weekly was published on schedule, but a triad-related article was omitted. The public was outraged.
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's incoming chief executive--handpicked by China--has made no public comment about the triad societies, and he declined to be interviewed for this article. But Tung seems far more interested in cracking down on "subversives" like Martin Lee, the eloquent barrister who heads Hong Kong's pro-human rights and pro-civil liberties Democratic Party, and who is an outspoken advocate for the rule of law, than on organized crime. Tung has already warned Lee that his public pronouncements critical of China will be "carefully read and interpreted"--a chilling admonition, in light of Article 23 of the Basic Law, which will make sedition against the mainland a crime in Hong Kong.
Tung's newly appointed attorney general, Elsie Leung, meanwhile, seems unlikely to prove much of a triad-fighter. Leung has no background in criminal law; she is a family lawyer who got her law degree by correspondence course. Her qualification for attorney general, it seems, is her love of China. She is a founding member of a pro-China political party and a member of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, which meets regularly in Beijing. Leung claims to see no conflict of interest in serving both as Hong Kong's top law official and China's apparatchik. Five days after being appointed attorney general, she warned that, after the handover, it may be illegal in Hong Kong to chant "Down with Li Peng"--China's prime minister, who played a central role in the Tiananmen massacre. It appears that Hong Kong will soon be a safer place for "patriotic" gangsters than "unpatriotic" barristers.
Not surprisingly, morale is rather low these days at the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) of the Hong Kong Police Force. Many of the bureau's veterans to whom I spoke earlier this year had recently quit that branch of the force, or had left the force altogether. "The criminals are gaining an upper hand over the police, and doing it quite quickly," one former OCTB officer told me. Those who remain in the anti-triad bureau may soon find that a lot of senior triad office-bearers are simply untouchable. Kenneth Yates, a Toronto police detective, has handled a number of Southeast Asian heroin cases with the help of the Hong Kong Police Force, which he describes as "the most professional and efficient police agency I've ever dealt with." But come the handover, he says, "You can see what's going to happen, and it's very sad. If they arrest somebody, and some bureaucrat from China says, 'You drop the charges on that guy,' they'll have to do it. We know it and they know it."
To make matters worse, the British officers who used to hold many of the senior posts on the police force have departed in droves. In anticipation of the handover, all branches of Hong Kong government have been severely localized"--that is, Britons in positions of authority largely have been replaced with Hong Kong Chinese. The British might have stood a better chance of bucking pressure from the mainland and going after the triad bosses--it helps in such situations to have a foreign passport.
It was a former London cop named Brian "Bash" Merritt, who, as a chief superintendent in the Hong Kong police in the 1980s, led the most ambitious charge to date against a triad society. In February 1986, Anthony Chung, a former Hong Kong policeman who had become a "Red Pole"--or enforcer-for the Sun Yee On, turned himself in and asked for protection. He had run into trouble over a gambling debt with another Red Pole, and believed he was going to be chopped to death. Chung agreed to work as an undercover informant. The case was ultimately turned over to Merritt, who saw an unprecedented opportunity to attack the Sun Yee On at the very top. Chung claimed to have dealt directly with the "Dragon Head," or boss of the society, whom he identified as Heung Wah-yim.
The story of the Heung family is an illuminating one for anyone trying to understand the nature of the triad societies, and of the societies' changing relationship with the law in Hong Kong. When Anthony Chung offered his services to the police, he was given a warm reception; the police were well acquainted with the Heung family. Heung Chin, the deceased family patriarch, had founded the Sun Yee On (or New Righteous and Peaceful Society) in 1919. A native of Chiu Chow, Heung built up the Sun Yee On over the course of a half-century--he continued to call the shots from Taiwan after being deported there in the early 1950s--leaving behind an established criminal enterprise that was alleged to have been taken over by a new Dragon Head, Heung Wah-yim, his eldest son. Heung Wah-yim ostensibly worked as a law clerk for Samuel Soo and Co., a solicitor's firm, although evidence presented in court suggested that the job was merely a front. On April Fool's Day, 1987--the day was deliberate--Merritt sent a squadron of his officers to arrest eleven suspected members of the Sun Yee On, including Heung Wah-yim. The police searched Heung's law office and, in a filing cabinet, found a list of about 900 numbered names that appeared to be a membership roster of Sun Yee On office-bearers. It was a giddy moment for the police; Michael Horner, one of the arresting officers, told me he had a cardboard box placed over Heung's head as he was led away.
The following October, Heung Wah-yim was brought to trial, along with one of his sons, a son-in-law and three other alleged officers of the Sun Yee On. The five other suspects had pleaded guilty. It was billed as the biggest organized-crime trial in Hong Kong's history. The prosecutor, a burly Australian named Kevin Egan, told the court, "In a nutshell, the Crown case against Heung Wah-yim is that...he inherited his father's title as the leader of the Sun Yee On." Egan believed his case, which was built primarily around the testimony of accomplice witnesses, was a strong one. The first of those witnesses was Anthony Chung, who described his 1981 induction ceremony, at which an official, wearing a Taoist monk's robe and clutching a wooden sword, lined Chung and eleven other recruits against an altar, and had them drink "red flower wine"--a mixture of Chinese wine, drops of their own blood and the blood of a freshly beheaded chicken. Two years later, he said, he was taken to meet Heung Wah-yim, who was introduced as the Dragon Head, and whose approval was required for Chung to be promoted from ordinary member to Red Pole. "I understood that he was the highest-ranking officer in the Sun Yee On," Chung told the court. A second Sun Yee On Red Pole told a nearly identical story.
Heung voluntarily took the stand in his own defense, and Kevin Egan cross-examined him for a day and a half. "He was hostile," Egan recalls. "The impression I got was, he was outraged that anyone would dare prosecute him." Heung testified that he was actually the president of a local chapter of the Lions Club, and that the list found in his office was a list of prospective donors to Chinese festivals.
On January 20, 1988, after one day of deliberation, the all-male jury convicted Heung Wah-yim, his son and son-in-law and two others of triad-related offenses; the sixth defendant was acquitted. The judge sentenced Heung to seven and a half years in prison. The police were jubilant. Using the seized name list, which the jury had effectively found to be a directory of senior Sun Yee On officials, the force turned up the pressure on the society. "We were locking up people day and night," recalls Robert Youill, the former police officer.
Heung spent the better part of two years in jail before his appeal made its way to Sir Ti-liang Yang, the chief justice of Hong Kong. Sir Ti-liang, who had been knighted by the Queen shortly before Heung was sentenced, was so tough that the Hong Kong bar dubbed his court "the Court of No Appeal." The hanging judge handed down his decision on December 13, 1989, and it was a surprise. He ruled that the name list had been wrongly admitted because the expert witnesses put on by Egan, including a staff sergeant with thirty years' experience in triad crime, were unqualified to authenticate it. He also ruled that the two Red Poles could not corroborate one another because they were fellow accomplices to the crimes being charged--a legal argument he had rejected in the past. Two British expatriate judges serving under Sir Ti-liang assented, for the most part. The jury verdict was quashed, and Heung walked out of prison, declaring, "Justice is fair."
Kevin Egan still boils at the memory of Sir Ti-liang's decision. "I thought to myself, this is a hometown verdict," he says. "Here's a notoriously right-wing judge, suddenly standing on his fucking head to let the biggest bunch of damned criminals off." Egan soon resigned as a Crown prosecutor, and became a defense attorney, with a subspecialty in representing accused members of the Sun Yee On. "I now act for them," he told me on a recent afternoon at his law office. "I have been called a Mob lawyer." It was a humid day--like most days in Hong Kong--and Egan was wearing a lumberjack shirt open at the collar, displaying a hirsute, barrel chest and a gold chain and crucifix. He also wore a gold Rolex and a gold pinkie ring. Barristers, who argue cases in court, work in concert with solicitors, who prepare briefs, and one of the solicitors with whom Egan works regularly is Heung Wah-yim's son, Heung Chin-wai. "He's the son of the Dragon Head," Egan says.
Heung Wah-yim, now in his mid-60s, has been less active of late. Today, the most powerful of the Heungs is the tenth of the Sun Yee On founder's thirteen children. He is Charles Heung, a man in his late 40s, with slicked-back hair and a sensitive face. While in his 20s, he acted in Taiwanese kung-fu movies; in 1984, he and his brother Jimmy Heung founded a movie production company in Hong Kong called Win's Group. (Jimmy has since split with Charles to pursue non-cinematic interests.) Hong Kong is the Hollywood of Asia, the world's second-largest exporter of films after the United States, and Win's is Hong Kong's No. 1 hit-movie factory. Virtually every major star in Hong Kong, apart from Jackie Chan, has made a film for the Heungs. Charles says he and Jimmy named their company Win's because "every film is a battle." He has occasionally acted in his movies; in the 1992 gangster film Arrest the Restless, for instance, he played an incorruptible cop.
Charles was one of several Heung brothers identified in 1992 by the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations as top office-bearers in the Sun Yee On. Two years later, a former Red Pole for the Sun Yee On, testifying in a Chinatown racketeering case in a Brooklyn federal court, identified Charles as one of "the top guys, the biggest," in the society. A year after that, the Commission for Canada sent Heung a letter rejecting his application for a visa, citing evidence "placing you squarely on the ruling council" of the Sun Yee On.
Heung agrees that his family has what he calls "a Mafia background," but says that he personally has little knowledge of such things, and has had to labor hard to overcome the stigma. "I do more work than other producer because I know the negative side, having to live under this family name," he says. He also admits that some people may fear him, but says his business philosophy is to get top actors and actresses and directors to make movies for him because they like him. "I tell you one thing, perhaps you understand a little bit," he says. "Maybe the actor shoot one film because they afraid of you. Okay. But one or two or three more, you have to give what they want."
If movie people find it agreeable to work for Heung, that is fortunate, since there are few alternatives. The film industry in Hong Kong has basically shrunk to Win's and Golden Harvest, the studio of Jackie Chan. Even a couple of years ago, when there were many more production companies, there were few alternatives to Heung for an entirely different reason. A good many of those other companies were run by triads of a particularly nasty bent, men who resorted to coercive means--including kidnapping and rape--to persuade actors and actresses to make movies for them, and Heung provided a safe refuge. Jet Li, the biggest martial-arts star in Hong Kong, began making movies exclusively for Heung after his manager was shot dead, in April 1992.
Though the police had no proof, a producer named Chan Chi-ming was a suspect in some of the acts of violence perpetrated against movie people in the early 1990s. "It was such an absurd situation," says movie director Gordon Chan. "Everybody hates the Heungs, but then Chan Chi-ming and the other triads get in the business, and suddenly everybody is yelling for help from the Heungs." In June 1992, Chan Chi-ming went to Shenzhen, the border town in south China, for a business deal, and was promptly arrested. He was initially arrested for arms smuggling, which carried the death penalty. Ultimately, he was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with one of Shenzhen's many hookers. (Even though the Public Security Bureau owns brothels, extramarital sex is still officially a crime.) He was imprisoned for a year, and then released, looking, in the words of one business associate, "very pale and thin." It is widely believed that Charles Heung orchestrated Chan Chi-ming's arrest; when I asked Heung if this was true, he laughed and said his influence was not so great.
It is, though, very great, and it will be far greater still after July 1. For Charles Heung is co-owner of the Top Ten, a ritzy nightclub in Beijing, and another co-owner of the Top Ten is Tao Siju, head of the Public Security Bureau--China's chief of police. The Top Ten is a multi-story complex that includes a restaurant, a discotheque and a dozen private karaoke lounges. On April 8, 1993, only days after the Top Ten opened its doors, Tao Siju gave an informal press conference to television reporters from Hong Kong; and, after conveying the unhappy news that the "counterrevolutionaries" who protested at Tiananmen Square in 1989 would not have their long jail terms reduced, he turned his attention to the subject of triads. "As for organizations like the triads in Hong Kong, as long as these people are patriotic, as long as they are concerned with Hong Kong's prosperity and stability, we should unite with them," he said.
Charles Heung's guanxi is not limited to the Public Security Bureau. In August 1993, he and Jimmy Heung opened a multimillion-dollar, 200,000-square-foot movie studio in Shenzhen. Their local partner was a mainland company called the Shenzhen Donglong Group, of unknown ownership, though a possible clue was provided at the gala opening party by the presence of an illustrious guest: Ye Xuanping, a powerful Communist Party cadre and former governor of Guangdong province. In 1992, Ye's eldest son, Ye Xinlong, moved to Hong Kong; a year later, he and Charles Heung both became directors of a Hong Kong investment company.
Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong police appear simply to have given up on trying to enforce the law against the Heung family. When I attempted to pose questions about the Heungs to a senior officer in the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, he stiffened and looked embarrassed. After I closed my notebook, he explained that if he spoke to me about the Heungs, "I will be committing suicide. I do not mean that the Heungs will kill me. I mean that my career will be finished."
On a recent afternoon, Charles Heung invited me up to his striking new corporate headquarters in Kowloon. The eye-popping decor--purple industrial chic--was suggested, he said, by his wife Tiffany, an ex-model from Taiwan. Heung asked a business associate, a man named Cecil Yow, to sit in. Yow is a bald former advertising man who speaks English with a slightly plummy British accent. As Heung gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling with his arms folded, Yow spoke of Heung's "visionary" decision to make big, bold strides into China while others were still taking cautious little steps. "Mr. Heung said, 'I must invest in China; this is going to be my future,'" Yow told me.
I asked whether Heung had difficulty making friends in China, considering his father's criminal history and close associations with Taiwan. Yow lost his cheerful demeanor for the moment. He looked over at Heung, who seemed utterly unperturbed, then cleared his throat, and said, "That's nothing. That's another generation. There's no impact, no grudge. Because Mr. Heung has done so much over the last few years to help the development of the movie industry in China. He's done co-productions with local studios that can't even pay wages. He comes in and generates revenue for them. I mean, how patriotic can you get?
"The arrangements between the triads and Beijing are not aberrant features of today's Hong Kong, but emblematic ones. Hong Kong, broadly speaking, is fast becoming a gangster society, an infinitely cynical place where nearly everyone's political allegiance seems to be for sale. Consider Tung Chee-hwa, the multimillionaire shipping magnate who is stepping in as Hong Kong's new chief executive. He also bore loyalty to Taiwan until 1985, when Beijing literally bought him away, as it had just done with the triads. Tung's late father, C.Y. Tung, who founded the family shipping empire, fled Shanghai with his then 12-year-old son in 1949 when the Communists took power, and established close ties to Taiwan; it is believed that his fleet of ships was used to transport some of the art treasures that Chiang Kai-shek looted from Beijing's Palace Museum. By the time C.Y. died in 1982, his overextended shipping empire was on the brink of bankruptcy, and, three years later, Tung Chee-hwa appealed to the Taiwanese government for a desperately needed loan. Had Taipei agreed, Tung would surely not be chief-executive-designate of Hong Kong today; but it said no, and Beijing came across with the money instead--$120 million, the third-largest government bailout of a corporation in history, after Chrysler and Lockheed.
Tung is far from the only political turncoat among Hong Kong's new power elite. Sir Ti-liang Yang, the judge who overturned the Heung conviction in 1989, is another example. Last year, he renounced his knighthood and ran as one of three candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive. Everyone knew the winner would be Tung--the race was fixed by China, which selected the 400 "voters" from Hong Kong's populace--but the former Sir Ti-liang was rewarded for helping maintain appearances, and now has a seat on Tung's cabinet. Once a champion of Hong Kong's liberal Bill of Rights, he has since lent his voice to its inevitable repeal.
I mentioned this turncoat phenomenon--which has been dubbed "instant-noodle patriotism"--to Christopher Patten, the departing British governor of Hong Kong. He smirked. "These are flip-flops of heroic proportions," Patten said. "I just don't know how people can do it--to move as it were from Buckingham Palace garden parties to the Great Hall of the People with no intervening stopping-off point."
The few who cannot be bought--Democratic Party leader Martin Lee, for instance--must seem quite an oddity to Beijing. "Once I was invited to a picnic lunch," Lee recalls, "and another guest was the vice director of Xinhua. And I heard him say, 'Quite frankly, Martin Lee is a person we can do nothing about, because he is financially independent and is not greedy for money.' That's how they put it. I don't have to sell my soul for more." Lee also makes little sense to one of his former clients, Albert Yeung of Emperor Group, whom Lee defended unsuccessfully in 1980, when Yeung was sentenced to jail for witness tampering. "Martin Lee is my friend, but I'm very sorry he make statements against China," Yeung says. "It's bad to the Hong Kong people, and not true. Hong Kong will become much better after change hand. This I can guarantee. "
Yeung can much better understand a woman who used to work for him, and who perhaps best exemplifies the gangster culture of Hong Kong politics. Her name is Rita Fan. This past January Fan was chosen by Beijing to head the Provisional Legislature, the undemocratically elected body that is about to replace the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's rough equivalent of our Congress, on which Martin Lee serves. Lee was most recently re-elected to the Legislative Council in 1995 by a popular-vote landslide, but he will have served less than half his four-year term by July 1, when Fan and company move in and push him out.
Fan is 52, a woman with a fixed smile and a drab, cadre-style wardrobe who has spent the last fifteen years in politics--although, she says, she really has no stomach for the profession, because politicians can be so "discourteous." If Tung Chee-hwa is the king of instant-noodle patriots, Fan is assuredly the queen--an only-in-Hong-Kong story of self-reinvention. Like Tung, she was born in Shanghai, and fled with her father, Tse Ta-tung, in 1949, to escape the Communists; her family settled in Hong Kong, with money. Fan says her father was a successful businessman, the agent for a number of European paper mills. She studied science and worked as a student adviser before being asked by the British government in 1983 to sit on the Legislative Council, which was then all-appointed. She remained a legislator for nine years and, for the last three, also served on the cabinet of Lord David Wilson, then the governor of Hong Kong. In that capacity, she strongly endorsed the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1991. For her services to the colonial establishment, Fan was awarded the title of C.B.E.--Commander of the British Empire.
When Chris Patten became governor in 1992, Fan left both the cabinet and the Legislative Council. She says now that she quit because she disagreed with Patten's policy of "open confrontation" with China. Patten has a different recollection. "I chose not to retain her," he says. "She walked out saying she'd never have anything to do with politics again." Less than a year later, Fan had become a political adviser to Beijing and, before long, announced that she'd been "misled" when she supported the Bill of Rights. Fan says now that "I actually was never a pro-Britain figure, even though some people may have seen me that way."
Around the same time that Fan switched political camps, she was hired by Albert Yeung to be Emperor's general manager for administration. Yeung told me that Fan's husband, an accountant, has been a friend of his for more than twenty years, and is today one of Emperor's auditors. Fan says she was aware when she took the job that Yeung had served time in jail, but that "I always hold the view that if someone has done something wrong, and paid his dues, there is no reason to discriminate against him anymore." She worked for Emperor for two years but then quit, she says, because her daughter in Canada was seriously ill. The daughter recovered after Fan donated a kidney; even her critics praise her for that.
She has a lot of critics. For all her years in politics, Fan has never run in a genuine election and, judging from public sentiment in Hong Kong, would not make a very good showing if she did. At her office on a recent afternoon, I asked her whether she had any difficulty with the fact that eight people who will serve under her on the Provisional Legislature had been trounced by popular vote in the 1995 election. She did not. "Winning an election and losing an election is no big deal," she said. "And those who win today may lose tomorrow, and vice versa."
Before leaving, I could not resist asking one more question. Was it true, I inquired, that her late father had fled Shanghai in 1949 not merely because he was a businessman and a capitalist, but a member of the Green Gang, the triad group that had slaughtered Communist Party members by the hundreds? The rumor had been circulating for some time, and, if it were true, I thought it would add a final ironic touch to the story of Rita Fan. At the very least, I expected that the question would get a rise out of her.
She did not bat an eyelash. "In those days, when I was young, the grownups would do their thing, and we kids did not ask too many questions," she said. "So I do not know."
It occurred to me then that her nonchalance was the only logical reaction. In the new spirit of Chinese reunification, when gangsters are patriots, what possible difference did it make?