PARTNERS IN CRIME - Part III

"Making All the Right Movies"

by Fredric Dannen


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


This installment concludes the three-part presentation of Fredric Dannen's ground-breaking investigation of the Triads and their relationship with the Chinese Communist party.  Part I and Part II are still available individually, or you may choose to view the entire article in one file.

Deep Times would like to thank Mr. Dannen for his generosity in allowing us to present his work.


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? DT


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