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True crime. Casually done.

Yip Kai Foon: One of Hong Kong’s Most Notorious Criminals (With a Penchant for Armed Robbery)

It’s the 9th of June 1991 on Mut Wa Street1, Hong Kong. The relentless and merciless summer heat is beating down on an endless wave of human traffic that fills the pavements. People plod slowly through the streets jammed shoulder to shoulder, finding themselves unable to rapidly advance through the old tightly packed streets – even without the horrendous humidity that adds laborious effort and discomfort to every step taken, and every breath drawn. The only thing that shines brighter than the sun on this hot day is the glistening gold that stuffs the windows of the many jewellers that ply their trade in this district.

To you or me dear viewers, all of these stores would blend into much of a muchness, but the subject of today’s video however was the most discerning customer, and he was looking for a very specific type of jewellery. But he wasn’t looking for customer service, value, exclusive selections, or any other facet you or me may use to stratify these seemingly carbon copy establishments from one another… he wanted a store with lax security.

The Chow Tai Fook2 was such a store. As the clock ticked past 13:00 the store was all but silent, save for gentle conversation between customers and colleagues, the muffled ambience of the street beyond the bounds of the store’s windows, and the mellow drone of the air conditioning compressors working to keep that blistering summer heat at bay.

This serenity was shattered in an instant, when the store’s heavy glass door was fiercely barged open and slammed into a thick mahogany display case with a deafening crack that cut through the building. Customers and colleagues alike snapped their heads in the direction of the sound and saw five heavily armed men pouring into the building. Fear filled their beings as the realisation dawned on them – it was a robbery!

The robbers were dressed in the uniforms of their illicit profession: trainers on their feet, jeans on their legs, thick winter coats on their torsos, balaclavas on their faces, sports bags over their shoulders, pistols on their hips, and AK47’s in their hands.

The man leading the charge into the store raised his rifle to the ceiling and clamped his finger on the trigger, a storm of 5.56mm bullets was unleashed from the terrifying implements muzzle and a snowstorm of dislodged plaster fell gracefully from the now porous ceiling as everyone inside dropped to the ground and dived for cover. Men and women alike began weeping as they shoved their hands into their ears with every ounce of strength they could muster, desperately trying to stop the deafening ringing that now consumed their focus.

This was exactly what the robbers wanted of course, who having caused suitable chaos could now set about securing their loot undisturbed. The men all lunged at specific cabinets, never tripping over each other or getting in each other’s way before driving the butts of their rifles through the thin sheet of annealed glass that stood between them and their pay day. They lay their arms in the amalgamation of precious jewellery and broken glass that now lay in the cabinet and sweeped it into their bags. Then the gang rotated clockwise to fresh cabinets like a well oiled machine, and repeated, and repeated once more until the store was completely picked clean of valuables, with all the subtlety and grace of a vulture picking apart a fresh carcass.

Outside of the store a panic was ensuing. The initial burst of fire as the gunmen entered the store reverberated across the entire street. The concentrated mass of pedestrians previously squeezed onto the tight pavement diffused across the road as they began fleeing in all directions. This panic continued to crescendo outwards across the Kwun Tong3 district and soon even people out of range of the deafening reverberation joined the fleeing crowd. This fleeing crowd was soon noticed by the officers of the Kwun Tong Police Station, which sat just a couple of hundred of metres away from Mut Wah street.4

SuperIntendent James Elms, who happened to be in the station eating lunch raced out into the street, and began pushing through the fleeing crowd to find the source of the panic. The crowd quickly thinned as they followed the trail, and within a matter of minutes he found the presumed source: the ommiously empty Mut Wah street.5 He drew his revolver, and after radioing for backup began cautiously advancing into the street. He hugged the exterior walls on his left flank for some semblance of cover and moved forward, slowly and hesitantly peering into alleys, shop windows, and under cars, having absolutely no idea what he was expecting to find or where he expected to find it. Suddenly he saw it: a balaclava shrouded head poke out from a jewellery store door. It pivots from left to right, quickly surveys the street, and disappears back into the store.

Not wanting to escalate a potential hostage situation he did all he could do: he continued to hug the wall and closed the distance as fast as he could without making so much noise as to announce his presence. SuperIntendent Elms wasn’t particularly phased at this point, he expected this to be a simple smash and grab robbery, the kind of dull affair which typified armed robberies in Hong Kong in this period: one or two guys with hammers, he’d pounce on them, they’d either surrender or get shot, and he’d be back in the station before his cup noodle lunch was even cold. What he was not expecting was for five men carrying automatic rifles to erupt out onto the street.

Unfortunately for Superintendent Elms, his police uniform was a familiar sight for the hardened criminal gang, who spotted him immediately. They had planned for exactly this eventuality. Calmly, one of the gang, now no more than 20 yards away, makes eye contact with him, raises his AK47, points the muzzle squarely at him, and squeezes the trigger. Elms, who fortunately had not been hit in this opening volley returned the favour, and emptied the modest 6 round cylinder of his .38 calibre Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolver towards the bandits.

The men begin to return fire, but could only get a few rounds off before the barrels of their rifles are quickly thrown down by the leader of the gang, who gestures for them all to hurry and follow him. The group sprints towards a final store and piles inside, but this time two remain outside. With military precision the two gunmen take up parallel positions on the street, one in each lane of the road, drop onto one knee for stability and lay down suppressive fire whenever Superintendent Elms pokes his head above the car he had taken cover behind.

Fortunately for SuperIntendent Elms those reinforcements he radioed for earlier began to arrive. Officers in cars and vans planted their right feet to the floor as they tore towards Mut Wah street, engines screaming against their redlines, and dismounted officers arrived on the scene with empty lungs and blistered feet as every available officer raced to save their pinned down comrade.

The thieves have other ideas however, and fire upon any officer who enters within range of their beastly implements. The arriving officers are armed with the same .38 calibre revolver as Superintendent Elms, and are completely outmatched by the superior firepower of the bandits. They form a road block at both ends of the street and wait, unable to either rescue Elms, or stop the robbery – twenty men and counting are being held off by two.

The Police Tactical Unit (PTU) and Special Duties Unit (SDU) are attempting to push through to the scene with heavy weaponry aplenty, but the powerful Mercedes’ and Audi’s carrying them are restricted to a walking pace by the afternoon gridlock of the Kowloon6 Peninsula – their bases too far away from the scene for them to be accessible by foot.

The thieves are finally satisfied after clearing their fifth jewellery store on the street. The two men on the street are joined by two more, who likewise take to their knees and begin taking potshots at the police lines: gentle spirited reminders that they were woefully outgunned, and were to stay back if they didn’t want to finish their shift in a casket. The fifth man ran to a small microvan parked in front of the Chow Tai Fook,7 throws his bag in the back, starts it up, swings it round in a violent j-turn and parks it in the middle of the defensive line the men had formed.

Methodically the men take it in turns to one by one throw their bags in the back, jump into a seat, and then provide covering fire from the van for the next man, who repeated the process. The final man, the gang leader, leaves the police two parting gifts before jumping into the van: his middle finger, and the rest of his magazine which he sprays wildly into the police lines. The tiny vehicle then takes off down the street, with all haste its microscopic engine could muster, turns into a small alley the police had overlooked, and disappears.

This entire saga didn’t even last 15 minutes, and in that time the gang fired 54 rounds at the police, robbed five stores, and made off with $5.4 million HKD ($700,000 USD) in jewellery. It was carefully planned, and expertly executed by a master criminal gang. The man who we heard barking orders at the robbers, and unceremoniously giving his opinion finger to the police before making his escape was their leader. His name was Yip Kai Foon.8 He was Hong Kong’s most infamous and dangerous gangster. He was a man who stole millions of dollars with the use of an AK47, and this is his story.

Early Life

You will often read articles, and watch documentaries regarding Yip Kai Foon which claim his formative years are unknown, wrapped in mystery, and illusive. This is not the case, and in fact we have a remarkably detailed understanding of the man’s early life. I (George) discovered this through the use of a small, but ingenious research hack I like to call: “reading the Chinese sources.”

Born in 1961 in Shanwei City9, Guangdong Province10, a young Yip Kai Foon was born into the tragically typical poverty that defined many Chinese lives before post Mao “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” reforms transformed the country into the economic juggernaut it is today. His childhood home had straw on the roof, mud in the walls, dirt on the floor, and no running water or electricity. He received a basic education at a small community school in the then village of Shangcuo. His education continued until 1970, when the destructive winds of the Cultural Revolution arrived at his small village. We aren’t sure exactly what happened after then, all that we do know is that in 1971 there were no more teachers to continue the young Kai Foon’s education, and his studies stopped after the Primary 3 level.

Shanwei
Shanwei. By Drnan tu, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Yip Kai Foon’s paper trail disappears at this point, so therefore little, if anything is known about his later childhood and teenage years. We can, however, have a reasonable guess that it wasn’t exactly a period overflowing with joy, happiness, and prosperity for the young man. Likely he engaged in petty criminality, and generally did what he had to do to support his family in those difficult times.

Eventually he made the same choice many southern Chinese men made in that period, he went to the economically verdant and bountiful lands of Hong Kong to make his fortune.

Arrival in Hong Kong, and Early Crimes

A 17 year old Yip Kai Foon arrived in Hong Kong in 1978 as an illegal immigrant, and for a time tried to lead an honest and law abiding life before eventually being seduced by the swift and ample pay days that came with a career in armed robbery.

When he arrived he took up employment in a fan factory owned by Liu Luanxiong,11 a famous and very successful business magnate who still operates in Hong Kong in the present day. According to Luanxiong Yip Kai Foon was a very professional and hard working employee: he always arrived on time, always worked hard, took very little sick leave, and didn’t join his fellow employees out on strike.12

Yip Kai Foon did not keep up this honest steak for long however. Friends of Kai Foon who spoke to the press in the years following his downfall spoke of two major push factors that drove Kai Foon into the life of violent crime that made him famous.

The first, quite pragmatic reason was that Yip Kai Foon had accumulated a series of eyebrow-raisingly large gambling debts, to say nothing of his financial obligations to his family back home. Therefore he needed money, he needed it now, and robbery provided an obvious means by which to acquire large amounts of money quickly.

The second, more abstract reason was that Yip Kai Foon gradually became consumed by bitterness due to his poverty, and the seemingly lavish luxury all of his fellow Hong Kongers appeared to enjoy. He after all was a child of peasants, he never got the opportunities many others took for granted, and now he was fighting for scraps (both literally and figuratively) in a city whose wealth was expanding exponentially. Every time he left his tiny communal dormitory he would be greeted with the sight of a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Louis Vouitton handbag and it appears the resentment that built up was simply too much for him to bear. If he couldn’t get the luxuries he craved through honest hard labour, he would take them.

Yip Kai Foon’s first (known) robbery was on the 10th of October 1984. He led a five man gang to the King Fook13 Jewellery Company in Tsim Tsa Tsui14 and executed a crude and unrefined version of the model that would come to dictate his robberies for the rest of his criminal career. The gang stormed inside the store, having chosen it for its weak security and proximity to viable escape routes, waved Soviet TT33 pistols in the air, let off a few rounds, then while the staff were distracted with terror smashed the display cases, threw the jewllery into sports bags, before jumping into a stolen getaway car and disappearing before the police could respond.

The second (known) robbery was on the 27th of October 1984. This time the target was the Dickson Jewellery Store in Central. Once again the gang of five stormed inside, created havoc, stripped the store bare of jewellery and fled before the police could even arrive on the scene.

Between both of these robberies over $2 Million Hong Kong Dollars ($250,000 USD) worth of goods was stolen. But Yip Kai Foon was still young, inexperienced, and naive. It wouldn’t be long before he slipped up, and was firmly behind bars.

Arrest

The increasing audacity, frequency, and severity of Yip Kai Foon’s robberies made him a major target for the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, who were hot on his tails to try and apprehend him, and see this dangerous man removed from Hong Kong’s streets. Time and time again, the police’s network of underworld informers would provide intelligence about Kai Foon trying to fence some of his plunder, but like a phantom the man would have completed his sale and disappeared by the time officers, uniformed or otherwise arrived on the scene to hopefully catch him red handed. While this cannot be verified with any other evidence, so take it with a pinch of salt, veteran officers interviewed for the completion of this episode spoke of a rumour that Kai Foon even took to completing his sales outside of police stations. Whether this was due to some grandiose scheme about hiding in plain sight, or simply an enormous pair of proverbial criminal testicles, no one could elaborate further.

This would not last forever however, and whether to the arrogance of hubris, bad luck, or simple statistical inevitability, Yip Kai Foon’s winning streak would come to an end, and a masterfully executed plain clothed police sting operation would see him arrested before the end of the year.

2 months after the King Fook Jewellery Store Robbery, Commissioner of Police Roy Henry tasks Officer Gregory Lam of the Crime Intelligence Bureau to get the evidence to see the thief arrested and charged by any means necessary. The two converse and over the course of several days debate the merits of different approaches to snagging him.

Gregory Lam was overwhelmingly opposed to trying to catch him in the act, believing it to be too slow, and too dangerous of an approach. Commenting in a later TV interview he noted:

When he committed these robberies he and his gang are very well trained. They act quickly, and they can finish the job within a few minutes.”

The pair instead decided to attempt to intercept him while he was in the process of fencing his stolen goods, believing he would be off guard, easier to subdue, and hopefully unarmed… Commissioner Roy Henry then formally greenlit the operation, allocated Gregory Lam men and resources, and quipped about looking forward to hosting the armed robber in his cells.

With few leads, and little information to go on Lam starts making full use of his comprehensive network of underworld informants, ordering them to keep their ears to the ground for people, and exchanges that fit the slim pattern of information they do have.

They know that their suspect is a Rolex man15 after looking for common threads in the inventories of goods stolen during raids, and the types of jewellery stores he hits. They also know that logically, the stolen goods have to be fenced, as one can’t exactly barter portions of a Rolex watch for Big Macs and rent payments. Accordingly they task their informants specifically to be on the lookout for questionably large quantities of Rolex watches being moved, with questionably few authentication papers.

Due to the extensive breadth and depth with which the police’s network of informants penetrated the dark underbelly of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld it didn’t take long before Officer Lam found their man.

Gregory Lam then set about assembling a crack plain clothed team to pose as buyers, and snare their suspect. Sergeant Lee Kwong Ming16, a veteran officer already highly decorated for bravery is chosen to lead the undercover operation.

Now viewers, I could give you a suitably exciting and dramatic retelling of the arrest myself. But instead, as the knowledge hungry wrinkle brains that I know you all are. I think you would all much rather hear this tale’s conclusion from the horse’s mouth, so let us hear it in Sergeant Lee Kwong Ming’s own words:

My direct superior finished the meeting and called me into the room. He told me that he has a mission for me. He said there is a case about selling stolen goods, and we would like you to pretend to be the buyer in this mission. I was handed the money and my superior said “don’t lose the money, this is a big responsibility, give it your best and do it properly.”

We met him, and the robber said “only one person will come inside the car. So I walked him alone to the car with the money. My other colleague was a few meters away. I hand the bag to Kai Foon and thought maybe I should remove the money from the bag to distract his attention. I took ten thousand dollars out, and I said to the robber “look, here’s the money!” and I started counting it in front of him. But he was holding a gun and he started looking around (left to right). He used both hands to count the money. When I saw this I thought it was a good chance. I made a dash towards him and tried to grab the gun from him. Then I shouted: “Don’t move, Police!” Then I put the gun to Yip Kai Foon’s head and grabbed his hand. But he removed the gun and started firing! Bang! Bang! Bang!

I told him: “Put your hands up, otherwise i’ll shoot you!” We kept fighting each other for a while. Bang! Bang! Bang! I put my hand on top (of the gun) to stop him and it started bleeding. But still I kept hitting the robber many times. Me and my colleague eventually subdued him”.

With that Yip Kai Foon was finally behind bars… but not for long.

The Prison Break.

In 1985 Yip Kai Foon was sentenced to 18 years at Stanley Maximum Security Prison.17 Built in 1937 this cathedral of incarceration was considered one of the finest correctional facilities in the British Empire. An 18 foot tall reinforced concrete wall flanked the facility on all sides, which was in turn was dressed with lashings of razor wire, and a healthy sprinkling of guard towers manned by the finest marksmen of the Hong Kong Correctional Services. It was highly staffed, with one armed guard for every two inmates on shift at all times of day.

Even if you could escape from this imposing facility, where would you go? As you may well know if you’ve ever consumed a single piece of media about the city, Hong Kong isn’t exactly a city overflowing with space and handy secluded places one could hide from the law, with some districts of the city housing as many as 340,000 people per square mile.18

This brief survey of the situation would no doubt discourage most of us from attempting to escape Stanley Prison, certainly it would me, as I happen to not be terribly partial to receiving large calibre rifle rounds to my back. Such conclusions were not formed by Yip Kai Foon however, who on the 24th of August 1989, after serving 4 years of his sentence decided that the whole incarceration malarky had become somewhat irksome, so he decided he was leaving.

Like an apathetic yet wise high school student trying to bunk off school, Yip Kai Foon laid the groundwork of his excuses early, commenting to anyone who would heed him that he was suffering from a bit of a dicky belly. Then, after a couple of days of no doubt superb acting he clutched his stomach in mock agony, and fell to the floor during caged exercise. Screaming and writhing in agony the guards rushed over to Kai Foon’s side.

He articulated about agonising aching around his abdomen. Normally ill prisoners were taken to the custodial ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, but through damned luck, wouldn’t you believe it, this ward happened to be full to capacity, so Yip Kai Foon was thrown on a stretcher, and driven by ambulance to Queen Mary Hospital 10 miles away, on the other side of Hong Kong Island instead, and placed into general admissions. If you’ll allow me to don my tin foil hat for just a moment ladies and gentlemen in the audience, I’m going to go out on a whim and guess that this was not in fact a coincidence, and may in fact have been planned by Kai Foon.

To prevent the obvious from happening, two armed Police Sergeants were placed at Yip Kai Foon’s side 24/7 during his stay in hospital, and he was handcuffed to his bed.

Surely” the Senior Wardens no doubt reasoned: “He won’t be pulling any naughtiness now”. But as particularly astute viewers have no doubt deduced from the title of this chapter, naughtiness, was in fact pulled.

Yip Kai Foon claimed he had to go to the bathroom, the guards hesitated, not sure if it was safe to remove their prisoners shackle for even a moment, but eventually they acquiesced to his request as they wished to spare him the indignity of having to relieve himself in a bedpan without any physical ailment to force the need of one.

He was escorted to a bathroom, and insisted he was going inside alone. As the door slid shut all appearances of his supposed stomach ailments disappeared, and Kai Foon began frantically searching the bathroom for any possible means of escape. Immediately he noticed the slim privacy window that sat just at the peak of the wall. High and small enough to afford a man his dignity and prevent passersby from seeing his bowel movements, but just thin enough to allow some light into the room. Fortunately for Kai Foon, light was not the only thing that fitted through this small window, and after some inelegant scrambling he pulled himself through the window, and dropped down onto the hard gravel of the hospital’s perimeter path that sat outside.

Yip Kai Foon immediately started sprinting away from the hospital. Unsure of his bearings he bolted straight down a hill adjacent to the hospital until he found a road. He threw himself in front of a car occupied by a 37 year old man and his six year old son, who ironically had been headed to Queen Mary Hospital to pick up his wife. Kai Foon jumped inside and barked at the man to start driving to anywhere but the hospital. They took the southbound road towards Aberdeen, a relatively sparse district on the western edge of Hong Kong Island.

Yip Kai Foon also took the man’s clothes. According to the man’s police testimony Kai Foon was surprisingly cordial during this encounter, although he did admit that due to the prison fatigues he was clad in, he decided the best course of action was to humour him and not try his patience.

After an impulsive change of plan, Yip Kai Foon ordered the car stopped at Wong Chuk Hang19 en route to Aberdeen and jumped out of the car. He then apologised to the man for the inconvenience caused, and lamented that on account of having just escaped from prison he had nothing to offer the man to show his appreciation for his cooperation. Kai Foon then joined the back of a queue along the edge of the street, hopped onto the next bus, and disappeared.

The Criminal Continues his Crime Caper

Immediately after his escape from prison Yip Kai Foon went dark. Very little is known about his activities during this period, with police believing he slipped across the mainland border and took refuge in his home in Haifeng.20 Here he had a large network of friends and family who protected him, sheltered him, and the lack of extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China in this period meant he could enjoy some rest and relaxation without having to constantly look over his shoulder.

The China – Hong Kong border in this period was notoriously porous. It wasn’t very long, but it was very complicated politically and geographically which made it hard to police. Using Dai Fei21 (Big Flyer) speedboats (highly modified speed boats, stripped of all their unnecessary weight and equipped with anywhere from 4 to 8 very powerful outboard engines) Yip Kai Foon was able to essentially enter and leave Hong Kong entirely at his own leisure.

It is also believed that during this period on the mainland Yip Kai Foon acquired the AK47’s that would come to be so famously associated with his crimes. Contrary to what you will hear some articles state Kai Foon did not use Chinese produced weapons, but Soviet ones. These weapons came into China following the Sino-Vietnam War, when unscrupulous mainland triads used the chaos of the war to secure caches of weapons from surrendered or war weary Vietnamese forces.22

In June 1991 Yip Kai Foon returned to Hong Kong, using the aforementioned Dai Fei speedboats to effortlessly slip across the border. Almost Immediately after this he committed the infamous Kwun Tong Robbery we discussed at the start of this episode, which lest we forget saw Kai Foon rob five jewellery stores in a single day while facing heavy police resistance. This robbery saw a $1,000,000 Hong Kong Dollar ($128,000 USD) bounty put on his head, and he was formally listed as Hong Kong’s most wanted man.

The years 1991-1996 became a veritable an orgy of robbery and criminality for Yip Kai Foon, as he hit jewellery stores again, and again, and again. All his robberies fit the same pattern we discussed in the introduction: Get some heavily armed handy blokes, hit weakly defended stores close to fast escape routes, hit them hard, hit them fast, and respond to any attempts to resist with volleys of furious 7.62mm AK47 fire.

Yip Kai Foon and his crew operated with military efficiency and professionalism. They were well trained, they were motivated, and their robberies were planned and practised meticulously.

Hong Kong was mesmerised by Yip Kai Foon, as his heists grew more and more audacious, and he grew into something of a criminal celebrity. Security footage of him brandishing his rifle is plastered across every single news station and news paper. Teenagers and youngsters in particular become enthralled with Kai Foon’s exciting criminal persona. Children in playgrounds spent their recesses reenacting his latest robbery, with sticks filling the role of the veritable AK47. The regulars of blue-collar drinking holes held toasts to Yip Kai Foon, whose targeting of “the wealthy” and relatively collateral damage free robberies had made him something of an up and coming folk hero in certain circles.

The Hong Kong Police pulled out all the stops attempting to bring Yip Kai Foon to justice and prove once and for all that there is no glamour in his lifestyle. The Police Tactical Unit, a semi-elite branch of the Police which received a higher standard of tactical training, and whose officers were qualified to graduate from carrying revolvers to carrying submachine guns and automatic rifles was allocated extra funding, and saw its ranks swell. The Special Duties Unit, a hyper-elite unit which blurred the line between SWAT team and military special forces received crates of new cutting edge weaponry, and was sent to train with the SAS in the United Kingdom. Even regular officers on the beat carried Yip Kai Foon’s photo at all times, and were issued with extra compliments of ammunition for their revolvers in case they were to encounter him.

His robberies during this period were too numerous for us to be able to examine each of them in depth, so let us now take a quick cursory view of all the “KNOWN” robberies Yip Kai Foon can firmly be linked too:

9th of June 1991: Five Jewellery Stores are robbed in Kwun Tong, as discussed in the introduction. 54 shots were fired at the police, and the gang escaped with $5.7 Million Hong Kong Dollars ($700,000 USD) in Jewellery.

10th of March 1992: Yip Kai Foon and his gang raid two Jewellery Stores on Tai Po Road, Shim Sha Po. 65 shots are fired at the police and they escape with $3 Million Hong Kong Dollars ($385,000 USD) in Jewellery.

6th of January 1993: Yip Kai Foon and his gang raid a jewellery store on Nathan Road, Mong Kok.23 30 rounds are fired at the police, and a female passerby is tragically killed. One of Kai Foon’s accomplices is shot in the back of his head as the gang make their getaway, his body is dumped out of the fleeing car. The gang escaped with $2.5 million Hong Kong dollars ($320,000 USD) in Jewellery.

12th of May 1995: Yip Kai Foon, moonlighting with another gang, steals $29 Million Hong Kong Dollars ($3.75 million USD) worth of gambling chips and cash from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Macau.

Kidnappings

A popular man in Hong Kong’s pre-handover underworld, Yip Kai Foon nurtured and grew a large network of trusted confidants and associates, which only grew exponentially with the man’s own infamy. One such man in Kai Foon’s network was one Cheung Tze Keung24, a notorious tycoon kidnapper, robber, and arms smuggler in his own right, who Simon willing will hopefully become the feature of an episode himself in the not too distant future.25

After becoming formally acquainted with one another in the summer of 1996, the two men quickly formed a deep and well rooted fraternal bond, over common interests such as drinking, gambling, women, robbery, and firearms. More pertinently, Tze Keung shared Kai Foon’s own personal grievance with the sparkling opulence of Hong Kong’s bourgeois class, and the pair soon decided to take up arms (literally and figuratively) against Hong Kong’s rich elite, and began plotting kidnappings.

Accordingly the two men sat down one night with a bottle of baiju26 and a copy of the Tin Tin Daily News’ Hong Kong rich list and began discussing the viability of each of them. Henry Fok Ying Tung27 was almost immediately discounted. Initially Henry Fok seemed like a most promising candidate for a kidnapping: he was worth just under $30 billion Hong Kong ($3.8 Billion USD) on account of his enormous property empire, and had a large number of loving family members and business dependents who would all be most interested in securing his swift and safe return.

The problem was that Henry Fok was the vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of the People’s Republic of China28, having ascended to the position in March 1993. This made him very possibly the most powerful Hong Konger on the mainland, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you viewers, the pair did not relish the prospect of angering that proverbial dragon! Naturally, Henry Fok was immediately discounted.

The next possible target they discussed was Liu Luanxiong, another wealthy property magnate who we have already met in today’s episode. Yip Kai Foon immediately voiced an objection to this. If you remember viewers back in 1978 when Kai Foon had first arrived in Hong Kong, one of his attempts at going straight and finding gainful employment was at a fan factory owned by Luanxiong, and he was very empathetic towards the young Kai Foon, making sure he had a place to stay, a stomach full of food each day, and generally helping him adjust to life in Hong Kong. Betraying this kindness was absolutely unacceptable to Kai Foon, and thus Luanxiong was disqualified from further consideration.

Ultimately however, all of this pontification was rendered moot, and Yip Kai Foon would never be able to add kidnapping to his criminal resume, as it was in the midst of planning this operation, that Kai Foon was finally arrested once and for all, and placed behind bars.

Final Arrest

On the 13th of May 1996 a nimble Dai Fei boat was cutting its way through the waters off the Hong Kong peninsula, headed from the Chinese Mainland towards the Kennedy Town district of Hong Kong Island. It was a typical smugglers craft of the period: a hulking and powerful speed boat, once a prestigious status symbol for a Hong Kong playboy, corrupted and bastardised for an altogether more malicious purpose. Its bourgeois teak decking had been discarded, to lighten the craft, make it faster, and help it outrun the Maritime Police. Its soft and thick leather seating had been stripped away to create more space for the various illicit cargoes carried by the criminal courier in command of the craft. Inside were three men, a helmsman driving, and two men resting.29

The Maritime Police presented no threat at all as previously alluded to, as always the meagre and underpowered boats provided to them by the British couldn’t keep up with highly customised criminal craft, and they simply glided past any officer who attempted to intercept them.

Propped against the port side of the vessel was the familiar figure of Yip Kai Foon, bored from this troublesome chore of having to jump the border by boat. This was now routine for Kai Foon, what for most would be a stress inducing endeavour, was now for him no more exciting or adrenaline inducing than a typical Hong Kong business man’s morning commute crammed onto an MTR subway car. Yip Kai Foon was wrong to be complacent however, as the day would close with him firmly behind bars never to be free again.

From the past discussions about the Hong Kong Police’s response to Yip Kai Foon’s crime spree, you may be expecting his downfall to be the result of some masterly planned and executed sting operation, executed by Hong Kong’s bravest and most experienced officers. But no. Instead Yip Kai Foon’s downfall came from that most fearsome facet that even the most fastidious fellow is powerless to prevent; bad luck.

The smugglers had chosen a normally quiet and secluded spot far away from the bustling urban sprawl that filled most of Hong Kong island to land at. Unfortunately for them three regular police officers just so happened to be patrolling by when they noticed the familiar silhouette of a Dai Fei boat heading for the wharf ahead of them. They ducked down, kept low, and quickly formed a perimeter around the wharf before the boat made land.

They took position behind the most solid cover they could find among the industrial bric-a-brac that littered the area and waited. The sergeant leading the group ordered them to draw their revolvers and stay hidden, using his hands to silently communicate orders to his men as the boat moored close by.

He peered through a crack in the crate he was hiding behind, not wanting them to escape he waited for the men to turn off their engine and fully secure their boat to the quay before making his move. Then when the moment was right, he gripped his revolver firmly in his right hand, got eye contact with his men, held up his left hand with all five fingers extended and began to silently count down with them:

5… 4… 3… 2… 1..

With the coordination of a crack military drill team the officers leapt to their feet and began barking at the men:

“Police, get down! On the ground! Now!”

Two of the three men did exactly that: one dropped to his knees and placed his hands on his head, and the other held out his arms and lay face down on the quay. Yip Kai Foon however, was not feeling so compliant. He leapt back into the boat, ducked behind the port side of the vessel, grabbed an AK47 which fortunately had a full magazine, and cocked it.

The police, unaware of the impending danger, moved in to secure the two surrendered men and find Yip Kai Foon. They were unable to reach any of them before Yip Kai Foon raised the muzzle of his rifle and welded his finger to the trigger.

In a rare moment of unprofessionalism for Yip Kai Foon he emptied the 30 round magazine in one single burst, dragging the weapon from side to side attempting to hit as many of the officers as possible.

As terrifying as this no doubt was for the officers, it was most fortunate that Yip Kai Foon lost his cool and emptied his magazine at them. From my own personal experience both on the fun and scary side of 7.62mm AK rifles, firing them automatically renders them rather inaccurate, as the first round will go where you want, and the rest will go where they want.

Fortunately this meant the officers were able to dive for cover, and by the time Yip Kai Foon had inserted a fresh magazine into his rifle and cocked it once again all three officers were behind solid cover and emptying the cylinders of their revolvers towards him.

In this shoot out the officers revolvers were at less of a disadvantage than they had been previously, they were much closer to their assailant than officers in the past had been, and they had much more solid cover than him also. The exchange of fire continued so ferociously that the bright stream of muzzle flashes could be seen on the other side of victoria harbour.

It took three rounds to bring down Yip Kai Foon. The first impacted his lower torso, after he took his attention off the officers for just a second to tell his criminal companions to escape. The second impacted in his side just below his arm pit as he left himself vulnerable during a mistimed magazine swap. The third round impacted in his lower torso and lodged in his spine

Yip Kai Foon screamed out in pain as the first round landed, and his screams only crescendoed as his body continued to be torn apart by an avalanche of .38 special. Finally after the third round he could take no more, he threw his rifle down to the floor, bellowed: “Fuck it, I surrender!” and collapsed into a heap on the floor. He would never walk again, as that final round left him paralysed below the waist.

The police rushed Yip Kai Foon to hospital, alarmed by the amount of blood he was losing, they secured the boat, and they dispatched search teams to try to find the two men who escaped. Inside the boat they find the usual mountain of cascading white powder one would expect to find in a smuggler’s boat, and a cache of Soviet produced weaponry: including pistols, rifles, and 2kg of explosives.

Trial and Death

Your gut is probably telling you now dear viewers that Yip Kai Foon’s story is coming to a close, and indeed you would be correct in that guess. Kai Foon was now paralysed below the waist, and the Hong Kong Correctional Services certainly had no intention of allowing him to repeat his escape. Despite his now permanently handicapped state, he was surrounded by officers armed with military arms and armour every moment of his remaining life. Have a look at period press footage from his trial, you’ll notice no reporters mobbing the windows of his armoured prison van for photos: because the police were under orders to shoot anyone on sight anyone who approached the van.

His trial began in February 1997 and shockingly, prosecutors find that there is a lack of evidence to firmly link Yip Kai Foon to all of the robberies. No one was ever arrested for those crimes, and no damning evidence was ever recovered from the crime scenes, meaning that ultimately it actually proved to be quite difficult to nail him beyond reasonable doubt for those robberies.

Instead prosecutors opted for the Al Capone model of prosecuting: the “Look, we all know its him anyway, so let’s just stack what charges we can absolutely prove against him and nail the bastard” type of approach, and admittedly I (George) am no lawyer ladies and gentlemen, but that sounds perfectly agreeable to me.

Instead he was charged with:

  • Using Firearms to Resist Arrest.
  • Possession of Unlicensed Explosives.
  • Escaping from Custody

After a month-long trial, Yip Kai Foon is sentenced to 41 years in prison in March of 1997 and is sent back to the familiar walls of Stanley Prison. Kai Foon would never taste freedom again, because as much as the spirit was surely willing, he was now (literally) a broken man and he lived out his remaining years behind bars.

This is not to say his prison time was uneventful however, quite the contrary.

In 2003 he got married in prison, he was allowed the pleasure of wearing civilian clothes for an entire day, and clad in his finest suit exchanged vows with a mainland chinese woman. The pair divorced on August the 25th 2015 after 12 years of marriage, which to be honest, I think is quite a good run for a marriage that had to be consummated through steel bars.

On May the 23rd 2006 he was returned to court once again, after being found to be a ringleader of a prison smuggling operation, which through the use of corrupt prison wardens snuck sizable quantities of mobile phones, drugs, and other paraphernalia into Stanley prison. He denied these charges, but was nonetheless found guilty of four counts of “smuggling illicit goods into a prison”.

In April 2009 he was convicted of assaulting prison warden Gu Yuanke30 who he claimed had been mistreating him and violating his dignity. Despite pleas of mitigating circumstances and self defence, he was found guilty of these charges also.

He continually appealed his sentence on humanitarian grounds, eventually getting his total sentence reduced to 36 years. These efforts were ultimately pointless however, Yip Kai Foon was diagnosed with lung cancer in the late 2000’s, and as he proved unresponsive to treatments, his physical form became weaker and weaker with every passing moon, it was obvious that the inevitable was looming.

In November 2016 Yip Kai Foon filed a complaint with the Hong Kong High Court regarding his being denied traditional Chinese medicine by the Hong Kong Correctional Services. This ruling actually ended up setting a precedent about a Hong Kong prisoner’s right to access traditional Chinese medicine should they wish for it.

If this chapter has so far given you the impression of a raging bonfire gradually dimming down to the thin flicker of a candle light, that was very much intentional. Yip Kai Foon was weakening, and was not long left for the world.

On the 1st of April 2017 he was rushed once again into Queen Mary Hospital after complaining about agonising pain, and the correctional ward proved unable to stabilise his condition. But this time there was no prison break, no hijinks, and no escape. His condition continued to worsen over the coming days, and he passed away on the 19th of April at 01:00 at the age of 55.

Right up until the end he was surrounded by multiple Police Officers clad in military issue body armour, armed with submachine guns and automatic rifles. Even as he had one foot in the grave no risks were taken, proving he truly was Hong Kong’s most dangerous man.

Legacy

As discussed earlier, Yip Kai Foon came to achieve something of a folkloric status during his life, and this reputation has only continued to grow after his death, as clear memories of his brutal crimes slip further and further into the annals of myth.

Fans of Yip Kai Foon will paint him as a battered and downtrodden everyman who snapped in the face of a deeply plutocratic system, and only ever targeted wealthy people and businesses who had money to lose anyway.

Certainly one man who would disagree is James Elms, who had the following to say about the man:

Yip Kai Foon as far as I’m concerned is no different from any other criminal. He did it for money. He didn’t do it as Robin Hood did to distribute to the poor.”

On the flipside, then local legislator Leung Yiu Chung who met with Yip Kai Foon many times from 2005 had a very positive takeaway of him, and believed him to be a reformed man. On the matter he stated the following:

I was very surprised when I received a letter from Yip Kai Foon. Because I never think that this guy would send me a letter, and I didn’t know what he wants. From his face you can’t tell he’s a bad guy. He was very nice. He was very kind as well. And when you talk with him, he is very polite. Because he has a wife and daughter in (mainland) China, and he really wants to stay together with them. So he said is there any possibility for him to have the early release. He said he want to be a good husband, a good father and to be a good man in the future. His daughter is studying very well in school, and wants to be a lawyer in the future. And he said he wants to be a happy family in the future. ”

Then Chaplain at Stanley Prison Tobias Brandner also had a very sympathetic view of man. Stating the following:

There is genuine repentance in prison definetly. There are people who are suffering under the weight, under the burden of the crime that they have committed. They know very much that they have brought pain and suffering on another family, on their own family also. I have baptised Yip Kai Foon in prison and I believe I wouldn’t have done it if he had not turned to Christianity.”

Personally as someone who grew up in agonising poverty, dressed in all but rags and with holes in my shoes, it is certainly easy to glamourise Yip Kai Foon on an emotional level, particularly when in the context of the crippling inequality that gripped Hong Kong in the 1990’s. But ultimately I personally must dismiss these emotional notions and focus on the fact that he was a violent, brutal criminal.

Yip Kai Foon had no issues risking killing when it stood between him and his goals, and every single police officer, jewellery store clerk, and member of the public who ever had the muzzle of his AK47 pointed at them all had family members eagerly waiting for their return home who didn’t deserve to become the victim of a rolex loving armed robber. Correspondingly, once again, I believe it is only fair that no matter how exciting his tale might have been, that we remember him as the violent criminal he was.

What do you, the beautiful, handsome, worldy, big wrinkle brains in the audience think? Maybe I am missing a valuable perspective that would make me see him differently – let us know down in the comments!

Dismembered Appendices

  1. I (George) got a bit carried away with the research on this one to be honest viewers. I found Yip Kai Foon’s story so fascinating that I became somewhat engrossed by his crazy life. I always try to visit archives and use primary documentation as much as possible in my scripts, but may have gone a bit overboard with this one, and researched it to the standard that I normally reserve for my academic work. Correspondingly many thanks and acknowledgments need to be proclaimed for the various people and organisations that made this script possible:
  • Firstly I would like to thank the Hong Kong Police Force Data Access Department, for being exceptionally accommodating to my constant nagging and pestering for information.
  • Secondly I would like to thank the Hong Kong Police Old Comrades Association and The Royal Hong Kong Police Association. Who were able to put me in direct communications with officers involved in this case, or their surviving families.
  • Furthermore I would like to thank Officer James Elms for submitting to a sit down interview, and being most welcoming and accommodating in the execution of it.
  • Furthermore, I would like to thank Television Broadcasts Limited for allowing access to their archives, and the producers of “Hong Kong’s King of Thieves” for blowing the dust off of their raw interview footage and forwarding it to myself.
  1. It’s something I am noticing more and more with every script I produce for Simon and the Casual Criminalist, but when researching Yip Kai Foon I encountered a hell of a lot of contradictory discourse in popular discussion of the man’s life. I have done all I can to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff, but I will hold my hands up and admit that mistakes may have been made. Where possible I deferred to primary documentation of Yip Kai Foon’s life, failing that I fell back upon seemingly well cited secondary documentation. In the absence of satisfactory secondary documentation,I generally sided with Chinese over English sources except in cases where the Chinese story seemed flatly unbelievable or absurd. I am lucky enough to be able to read Chinese (or read it as well as a foreigner ever can anyway), and as I was taught at university, always defer to the original language source where possible – as it removes one more potential layer of error and misunderstanding in depending upon someone else’s translation.
  1. Because I am currently in possession of my own bodyweight in primary documentation relating to Yip Kai Foon. I feel the urge to do something more with it, and explain his story in a more detailed and comprehensive manner. I was thinking maybe I could put together a book in which I dissect every minute of the man’s documented life… Let me know in the comments if this is something you may like, I have a publisher in China who likes me and owes me a favour! Plus, I’m not going to lie… I’m also quite partial to money!
  1. One of the major problems I encountered in completing this script was that there was simply too much to talk about, which, I know, there are worse problems to have as a writer! Still, I have had to cut out, or only quickly mention lots of crazy stories which more than warranted further extrapolation in themselves. I opted to focus on a few of the more crazy heists and confrontations in detail, to give you the audience a flavour of just how daring and insane they were, and instead try to built the rest of the script around the major developments and changes in Yip Kai Foon’s life, as well as try to put more of the focus onto some of the brave officers who finally brought him to justice. Hopefully you all are happy with how I’ve put this one together!

1 Woo H-Wa Street

2 Chow Tie Fook (Long oo as in coot)

3 K-Won Tong Street

4 Woo H-Wa Street

5 Woo H-Wa Street

6 Cow-Loon

7 Chow Tie Fook (Long oo as in coot)

8 Yip Kai Foon is actually a horrible transliteration of his name… but it is the one that’s most familiar so I deemed it the most appropriate. In mandarin it would be pronounced Yee (As in See) Ji (As in Jim) W-An

9 Shan-Way Shee (As in See)

10 Specifically Confucius Gate, Meilong Town, Haifeng County, Shanwei City, Guangdong Province. Pronounced: Gwan-Dung

11 Li-Oo Lan-Shong

12 Yip Kai Foon left a very positive impression on Liu Luanxiong. After his arrest and imprisonment in 1996 Liu Luanxiong donated amply to Yip Kai Foon’s defence fund. Liu Luanxiong also financially supported Kai Foon’s wife and daughter following his arrest, paying off their mortgage on the mainland and funding his daughter’s law degree.

13 F-Oo-K, long oo as in toot.

14 Ji-En Sha Js-Ui

15 Great taste

16 Exactly as you’d go to pronounce it: Lee Kwong Ming

17 Fun family connection: My great uncle Sub Inspector Charles Goodwin was the head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Yau Ma Tei Police Station and was interned by the Japanese in Stanley Prison in 1941, before being killed in 1944 for refusing to collaborate with the Kenpeitai occupational police.

18 The district in question is Mong Kok, well worth a visit as there’s some great restaurants and nerd emporiums there now.

19 Pronounced as written.

20 Hi-Feng

21 Die-Fay

22 I had the pleasure of examining one of Yip Kai Foon’s AK47’s, and can clarify it is not a Chinese Type 56 AK as many sources state, but a Soviet AKM.

23 Coincidentally, in the building where I lived when I first moved to Hong Kong!

24 Ch-Ern-G, J-Ze, K-U-Ng

25 His claims to fame include ransoming businessmen and their families for over $2 billion Hong Kong Dollars, over $200 million Hong Kong Dollars worth of robbery from Kai Tak Airport.

26 Bye-Ju. A very nice Chinese alcoholic beverage, I particularly recommend the 5L, £2 bottle of state distilled stuff you get at mainland supermarkets…. I have many fond and blurry memories on the mainland powered by that stuff.

27 Henry F-O-Ck Y-Ing T-er-ng

28 Sorry for the mouthful Simon!

29 This still happens too by the way, in December 2021 the Maritime Police Seized 1.25 tons of Ketamine from a speed boat trying to jump the border.

30 Goo Wann-Ke

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