"A Means of Maintaining Social Order"

by Fredric Dannen

1997 by Fredric Dannen.  All Rights Reserved.   Reprinted with permission.
Originally appeared in The New Republic July 14 & 21, 1997

This is the second of three installments presenting Fredric Dannen's ground-breaking investigation of the Triads and their relationship to the Chinese Communist party.  Part I is still available for those who missed it.

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.   DT

Part III: "Making all the Right Movies"

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