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True crime. Casually done.

Cheung Tze Keung: The Billionaire Kidnapper

Written by George Colclough

It’s the 23rd of May 1996 in Hong Kong. Inside the recently completed Bank of China Tower an army of well heeled white collar workers toiled away to keep the big arrows on their graphs pointing upwards. The days were long and tiring for this economic ensemble, who counted down the seconds as the clock swung around to 6 o’clock: quitting time.

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As soon as the clock struck six, thousands of men and women up and down the height of the tower let out a deep sigh of relief and began shuffling towards the ground floor. Their days had been long, hard, and tiring, and they all just wanted to get home with as few dramatics and inconveniences as possible. None more so than Victor Li Tzar Kuoi[1], who joined the caravan of fatigued financiers after an arduous days toil.[2] But where most of his colleagues drifted towards Central MTR station, and the managers drifted towards the taxi rank, Victor Li curved off towards the car park, where he fell into the triple quilted luxury of a Nissan Presidents rear seats, because he was not just any banker, he was the eldest son of Li Ka Shing[3]: Hong Kong’s richest man.

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Victor Li Tzar Kuoi’s chauffeur began driving towards the family mansion on Deep Water Bay Road. Fortunately for Victor Li, the route was regular and familiar, and he was able to slip into a light sleep as his chauffeur followed his regular route free of input from him. Unfortunately for Victor Li, the chauffeur was not the only person who was familiar with his route…

Victor Li’s serene sleep was interrupted when the car in front suddenly slammed on its brakes, and forced his chauffeur to execute an emergency stop and he awakened with a violent jolt. Anger jointly erupted from both driver and passenger toward that idiot driver in front, but was quickly replaced by fear as the car behind them leapt out into the other lane and screeched to a halt beside them, and the car behind that quickly closed the gap and pulled in behind them, boxing them in from all sides. Balaclava shrouded men carrying AK47’s piled from the three cars and stormed towards Victor Li’s Nissan President.

One of the men began furiously pulling at Victor Li’s door handle; he tried it half a dozen times in quick succession before giving up and he then reported back to the gang leader that it was locked. The leader then calmly marched around to the front of the car, raised his AK47 to the driver and barked a simple command at him:

“Open it. NOW!”.

The driver hesitated, petrified with fear, and the assailant, growing impatient and irate, quickly swung his rifle over to the unoccupied passenger seat and put a single round through the windscreen. The drivers ears rung in deafening pain, but he just managed to make out a follow up command that was screamed at him:

“I said now!. Hurry up![4]

He fumbled around at the controls and eventually hit the door unlock button. The gang descended on the car like vultures on a fresh carcass and bundled Victor Li into the boot of the car they previously swung alongside. The rest of the gang then piled into the passenger seats, and the leader paused to apologise to the driver for frightening him, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind giving it an hour before he reported the kidnapping. They then took off down the road, making sure to slow down and blend in with the traffic when they were out of visual range of all witnesses.

Victor Li remained in the boot, desperately trying to manoeuvre his body around the tight confines he found himself in. He began fumbling in the darkness around the edge of the boot, desperate to find some kind of release lever – or any way of escape… but he had no luck. The stress and anxiety that consumed every cell and fibre of his being only continued to crescendo; Did they plan on killing him? Was this revenge for someone his dad had wronged? Endless possibilities and potentials played in Victor’s mind, none of which had a happy ending.

His pontificating was eventually dispelled when he felt the car take a sharp turn. The ride became suddenly much bumpier, and he felt them moving much more slowly – he assumed they had come off road. He turned his mental attention instead to processing these new events, but before he could reach any conclusions the car slid to a halt. He heard the four doors of the car open and shut, muffled chattering, and footsteps scurrying all around him. Then the sound of a heavy diesel engine, that crawled closer and closer towards him.

Suddenly the darkness that filled his vision was interrupted with a blinding light as the boot of the car was flung open, and he was hooked from the car and bundled into the back of a cargo van. Two of the men climbed in with him, pulled the door shut and gagged him, blindfolded him, and bound his arms behind his back with rope. He was given some bizarrely reassuring words:

Listen rich boy. We just want your daddy’s money yeah? So be a good little boy and play ball, and we’ll make sure you get back to daddy with all your limbs still attached, right?”

With that, the kidnappers burnt their getaway car, and disappeaedr deep into the New Territories.

The next day, May the 24th, the lead kidnapper woke up bright and early just before the break of dawn. He enjoyed a hearty breakfast of Iron Buddha tea, and several cigarettes and set out to seize his day. First item that was on his to do list: an important business meeting at a particular mansion in Deep Water Bay. He grabbed everything he needed to make a compelling sales pitch: a Soviet TT-33 pistol, and a several pounds of explosives jury rigged to his chest in a crude home made bomb vest.

He promptly arrived and was warmly welcomed inside the Li family mansion. He was asked if he would like some tea, but declined and was shown to Li Ka Shing’s office. He cut straight to business. He showed him a polaroid photo of Victor Li tied up next to a copy of todays newspaper, opened up his jacket to reveal him bomb vest, and said:

If you want to live with your complete family again, I need one billion dollars, cash… and no funny business or I pull the cord.”

Surprisingly, Li Ka Shing made no attempts to negotiate, and immediately, and calmly agreed to his terms.

If you’re finding it odd dear readers how calm Li Ka Shing was, between the kidnapping, the losing of a billion dollars, and the pistol in his face. You aren’t the only one. The kidnapper himself found the serenity of the situation odd, and asked Ka Shing how he could remain so calm in such a stressful situation. He responded:

“Because it is my fault this time, I have such a high reputation in Hong Kong, but I have no precautions at all. For example, if I go to the beach early in the morning, I will drive my car to the New Territories at 05:00 in the morning. Basically, a few cars can surround me on the road and I have no precautions at all. I really need to be more careful, and you have made me aware.”

Despite his willingness to comply, Li Ka Shing did not have a billion dollars simply lying around his mansion. So he offered the kidnapper $40,000,000 in “petty cash” he had been able to assemble since he learned of his son’s kidnapping, and the presumed ransom that was coming.

The kidnapper made a counter offer, he was nothing if not a superstitious man, and owing to the number four being unlucky in Chinese culture, he offered Li Ka Shang a discount of $2,000,000 on the deposit, which he accepted, which brought the total ransom up to 1.038 billion Hong Kong Dollars (135 million USD).[5]

Li Ka Shing asked for a day to arrange the ransom, to which the kidnapper agreed, and the two parted cordially as could be in the circumstances.

The next day Li Ka Shing received a call from the kidnapper, he instantly recognsied his familiar voice. He had instructions for him:

“You’ve got my money… good. At some point today we will come to your mansion in a blue Toyota Corolla. One person comes outside to make the exchange, you or anyone else I don’t care. If I see two or more people, the deal is off and we leave. If I see any police, we kill your son, and as many of your family as we can before the police take us down, got it?”

And that is exactly what did happen, true to their word, the kidnapper and his gang arrived at the mansion, and in a surprisingly cordial exchange 1.038 billion dollars is counted, Victor Li was released from the car, and the gang sped away.

Days turned into weeks in the Li household, and the family began to move on and get back to their normal lives. Li Ka Shing was happy to simply have his son returned unharmed, money be damned. The stress and anxiety that permeated the air and conversation during those agonisingly stressful few days was replaced with serenity and calmness.

This peace was shattered however, when several weeks later a call was forwarded to his office, and a hauntingly familiar voice sat on the other end of the line. It was the kidnapper… Ka Shing instantly turned as pale as a bedsheet as dread consumed him, his heart began smashing against his ribcage 200 times a minute as he ran hypothetical situations through his head, none of which predicted a happy ending to this phone call.

Had another family member been taken? Surely not… he had upped all their security with what he thought was a blank cheque… but why else would be calling? Nervously he summoned the breath from his lungs to ask the kidnapper what he wanted now, terrified of the answer he will receive….

“Why are you calling?” Li Ka Shing asks.

“Mr Li… can you teach me how to invest my ransom money?”

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Ladies and Gentleman in the audience, let us all now just take a moment to pause and fully appreciate what we just heard. This man had secured a billion dollar ransom from Li Ka Shing, and had now called him up to politely ask for tips on how to invest it.

Li Ka Shing responded much more politely than I would have done in this situation it has to be said,[6] telling the kidnapper:

I’m afraid I do not have an answer. I could teach you to be a good man if you asked other things, but, you do not. You have only one path, fly far and high or else your ending will be a sad one.7

But just who was the kidnapper I hear you all screaming?

His name was Cheung Tze Keung[7]; a man who ransomed the children of business moguls for billions of dollars, a man who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from armoured vans, a man who to some was a working class hero and a modern Robin Hood, and to others was the terror of the 1990’s, and a man who to others is simply the epitome of pre handover Hong Kong’s celebrity gangster. If you thought Yip Kai Foon’s story was crazy ladies and gentlemen in the audience, buckle up, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Early Life

Born on April the 7th 1955, Cheung Tze Keung was born to a farming family in the mountainous area of Zhaoxing, Guangxi province on the Chinese Mainland. His family were dirt poor during his infant years, and his sister died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward. His father eventually smuggled his family into Hong Kong to try and find a better life for themselves.

They settled in Causeway Bay, and Cheung Tze Keung attended primary school in Hong Kong between the ages of 6 and 11. He was a bright and hard working high achiever in school, but was constantly bullied and harassed for being a newly arrived immigrant from the mainland. Eventually, he learned that might was right, and overcame his bullying by punchign his way to the leadership of the toughest gang in school.

His father was a poor and humble man by birth, and had little formal education, and even less money to support his family’s new life in Hong Kong after their arrival. Fortunately however he did so happen to have quite the knowledge of, and interest in traditional Chinese medicine, so after working as a labourer, living modestly, and saving what money he could, he made the undeniably pragmatic choice to open a medicinal herb store on Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei. He also ran an illegal Zifa lottery to supplement his family income.

Life began to improve for the Cheung family after opening their medicinal herb store and lottery racket. They were by no means rich, but through hard work and labour they had escaped the worst depths of crushing poverty. They had enough money to enjoy life from time to time, and Tze Keung eventually dropped out of school at age 11 to help his father run the family business.

Cheung received the remainder of his education on the streets of Yau Ma Tei. Here he was exposed to all kinds of vices and corrupting influences.

He was first arrested at the age of 12 for pick pocketing, and by the age of 16 was already a 14K Triad member. Between the ages of 12 and 20 he was arrested over 15 times for assault, theft, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and a plethora of other minor offences.

Cheung Tze Keung’s parents had not abandoned hope for their young son to go on the straight and narrow however, and they arranged for him to be taken on as a tailor’s apprentice by a family friend in Yau Ma Tei. Surprisingly, the tailor who took him under his wing spoke very highly of him in later interviews, claiming Tze Keung took to the work like a bird to flight, and was nothing but a hard working, diligent and enterprising employee.

This was no temporary vocation for Cheung Tze Keung either, he began to see his pockets fill up with money, and liked what he saw. Seeing a more comprehensive market in serving Hong Kong’s wealthy expatriate community he took his time to learn English, attended two adult language learning courses at a local High School, and began to save money.

Eventually he took $50,000 HKD he had managed to save, and opened a store in

Mid-Levels, a wealthy district of Hong Kong island inhabited by wealthy foreigners and the local elite.

Life continued its solid upwards trajectory for Cheung Tze Keung, who by now had completely abandoned his petty criminality. His $50,000 HKD investment quickly became $100,000 HKD cash in his pocket, and he met and married the love of his life, Luo Yanfang[8].

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Being the wrinkle brains you are dear readers, you have no doubt deduced by now that this honest streak did not last forever. This fine channel is not called The Casual Couturier, and you did not click on a video about Hong Kong’s finest tailor… Sure enough, it did not take long for Cheung Tze Keung to surrender to the seductions of his old habits, when he found his climbing of the economic ladder to be a bit too slow for his liking.

One day in late 1989, Wang Feng Qi[9], an old friend from Cheung Tze Keung’s criminal past who had never abandoned criminality, just so happened to visit his store to check in on his pal. Drinks and pleasantries were shared aplenty in the pairs re-union, but one anecdote in particular stuck in Tze Keung’s mind:

“If you want to become prosperous, you have to go the wrong way and have a careful plan. We are just like tailors, we need to be seamless, but unlike tailors, our rewards are vast and considerable.”

With that phrase a seed was planted in his mind. A seed that would be watered and nurtured by Cheung Tze Keung and Luo Yanfang’s own materialistic desires, and it didn’t take long for that seed to bloom into a verdant flower… of armoured van robbery.

Armoured Van Robberies

Cheung Tze Keung’s first armoured van robbery occurred at 12:30 pm, on the 22nd of February 1990. The police received a distress call from a security company, pleading for help. One of their armoured vans left the Cargo Terminal at Kai Tak International Airport at 11:30 am, and was supposed to call every half an hour to report that all was well. They had spent the last half an hour trying to get information: they called the car-phone in the armoured van, the personal phones of the crew, and they even called the family members of their crew to try to find “any” information, and finally, fearing that their van had been robbed, they decided to get the police involved.

Their fears were confirmed at 13:30 pm when police received a call from a clearly distressed and exhausted security guard. They explained how shortly after leaving Kai Tak Airport the car in front of them slammed its breaks on, and five large, balaclava clad men, all armed with pistols piled out of the car and began screaming at them – they barked at the driver to unlock the doors of the van, then put his hands up in the air well away from the steering wheel. The driver and passenger were pulled from the armoured van, and bundled into the back. Cheung Tze Keung and one of his associates then firebombed their original car, took the guards place in command of the armoured van, and the other three robbers jumped in the back to gag, blindfold, and bind the security guards.

Then they drove to the temporary housing estate (now Megabox Mall) in Kowloon Bay – just a few hundred yards from the Kai Tak Cargo Terminal. They moved the van’s prize: 40 boxes of Rolex Watches into another truck they had stored waiting. Finally they firebombed the armoured truck, sat the bound guards up in a comfortable position on the ground… and disappeared.

Total haul for this robbery: Rolex watches worth $30 Million HKD (4 million USD).

Personally, I’d be quite happy with a $30 Million dollar payday myself, but this was not the case for Cheung Tze Keung. He was annoyed that he had simply let himself get distracted by procuring big ticket items, with no regard to how they would actually fenced or liquidated. Fencing goods of any type and value was a risk, as Tze Keung’s  associate, and old friend of the channel Yip Kai Foon would happily have attested to. He found that he struggled to sell the watches for their retail value, people expected a discount for handling stolen rolexes… consequently he vowed to only rob cash in the future.

The second, and final armoured van robbery Cheung Tze Keung and his crew would carry out occurred on July the 13th, 1991. Following a similar pattern as before, a Republic National Bank truck carrying banknotes from Taiwan leaves Kai Tak International Airport Cargo Depot at 08:15am. As soon as it was out of sight of the cargo depot, it was pounced on and had its route blocked by a car, three armed masked men poured from the car and using pistols encouraged the drivers to disembark and comply.

The truck was far more heavily guarded this time, with 4 guards who carried a total of 2 shotguns between them onboard. This heavier security was to no avail however, as all the guards made the quite pragmatic choice that their life was worth considerably more than some bankers profits and complied fully. They then firebombed their first car again and drove up to the nearly completed building site of Tate’s Cairn Tunnel, where they transferred their loot, and the two shotguns, which they decided to keep into a truck that was left waiting. They then firebombed the armoured truck, and left the guards in a comfortable position to be found or wriggle free of their own accord.

Total Haul for this robbery: $170 million HKD (22 million USD) in cash, and two Remington Model 870 shotguns.

This winning streak would not last forever however, Cheung Tze Keung had made mistakes – large, glaring mistakes that would soon lead the police straight to him and see him thrown before a judge before he could commit another robbery.

But how I hear you scream in the audience?! His plan sounded rather watertight did it not? He changed vehicles multiple times, destroyed evidence… What went wrong?

Indeed Cheung Tze Keung was extremely meticulous in making sure he did not leave any evidence behind, even going so far as to have his crew super glue their fingers to avoid leaving prints. But it was not meticulous enough, because when the wrinkle brains at the Hong Kong Police Force’s CID began examining what evidence they did have, they uncovered a papertail that pointed squarely to Tze Keung.

Firstly, both robberies were connected by having almost identical modus operandi.

Then, detectives noticed that both robberies hit the highest value cargo being moved on their respective days, leading them to believe that an insider was involved – as what were the odds of two random robberies just so happening to hit the most valuable vans each time?

With this in mind, they created a very large proverbial venn diagram, and saw who, if anyone happened to land in the middle. They discovered only one single person of interest: Luo Yanfang, whom you may remember as Cheung Tze Keung’s wife.

Not only was Luo Yanfang employed by both companies when they were robbed, she was employed in the same role…. as a data input officer. In both companies she had full knowledge of the timings and routes of every armoured van, she could see what goods they carried, she could see the amount of security guards posted to each van, and the amount of firearms being carried. Needless to say, the police found her somewhat suspicious.

The police knew she couldn’t be directly involved in the robberies, as the security guards interviewed all unanimously agreed that only men robbed them, and what’s more she had a watertight alibi: being at work during both robberies.

Suspicion then naturally moved onto her close male friends and family. The police began running background checks of Cheung Tze Keung (among) others, and found that his tailors had been robbed 18 times in the few years it had been open. Either Cheung Tze Keung had biblically bad luck… or he was bent as a nine bob note.

Having a (correct) hunch that Cheung Tze Keung could be their man, they arrested him, and brought him in for a lineup in front of the security guards. Luckily for Tze Keung, somehow no one fingered him, and he was released on a $10,000 HKD (1200 USD) bail.

Unluckily for Cheung Tze Keung. The following day one of the guards returned to the police station. He claimed that in fact he did recognise the man, and gestured to a photo of Tze Keung. He claimed that he hadn’t recognised him at the time – as the lineup had brought back all of the traumatic memories of the robbery and he was completely mentally distracted, but as he left the station and thought about it for the rest of the day, he was completely, 100% sure it was him!

Cheung Tze Keung was immediately re-arrested and charged with the robberies. Following a short trail, on the 12th of September 1991 he was found guilty of armed robbery, and sentenced to 18 years, in this channel’s familiar stomping ground of Stanley Maximum Security Prison.

The loot from these robberies was also never recovered, so if any of our Hong Kong readers happen to ever see a tall white man hanging around villages in the New Territories with a metal detector and a shovel, don’t mind me – I’ve suddenly developed a passion for archaeology!

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Acquittal

I imagine your thinking now dear readers that it was a pretty open and shut case – Cheung Tze Keung had been positively ID’d by one of the security guards and there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence to support the claim… but no. Through some legal trickery, clever manipulation of the facts, and a healthy application of expensive lawyers, which he could now afford for absolutely no reason at all, Tze Keung would eventually see the verdict overturned, and return to the streets a free, and (technically) innocent man.

Cast your mind back a minute or so dear readers, to the testimony of the security guard who ID’d Cheung Tze Keung… Remember how he had returned the following day to ID him – that is exactly what Tze Keung’s lawyers exploited to build their case to argue an unfair conviction.

He kept attempting to appeal his sentence again and again, and time after time was met with rejection and denial. The judiciaries (quite reasonable) logic being that even if the testimony of the guard was a bit shaky, the amount of circumstantial evidence that quite clearly pointed to Cheung Tze Keung more than holds the conviction together.

Eventually the stars aligned for Cheung Tze Keung however, his case was heard by a forgiving judge who was in a good mood, and his case was formally repealed, and after 3.5 years in prison, he was released on June 22nd 1995.

Kidnappings

Cheung Tze Keung was a free man once again, and while he had no intention of returning to life on the straight and narrow, he also had no intention of returning to the, apparently, “MEAGRE” pay days that his career in armoured van robbery previously yielded unto his bank account.

I mean… $160 million for a day’s work? Chump change! Who ‘ever’ could be satisfied with such a tiny sum of money?[10]

Certainly not Cheung Tze Keung, that’s for sure. Who had spent his three and a half years behind bars dreaming of bigger, better, and more profitable criminal enterprises than humble armoured van robbery.

The what was easy for him: Hong Kong was the richest city on earth, full of billionaires. Just kidnap them and their children, easy![11].

The how was what really consumed Cheung Tze Keung’s time in prison. Which people to kidnap, how to kidnap them, what tools would you need, who could he depend on for his crew, would security be heavy? I won’t bore you all dear readers with a day by day account of his musings from inside Stanley Prison, but just know that by the time he was finally released in June 1995, he was VERY well prepared.[12]

We are already intimately familiar with Cheung Tze Keung’s first kidnapping, where on the

23rd of May 1996 Victor Li was kidnapped and ransomed for 1.038 BILLION Hong Kong Dollars[13] – and after this the Cheung family were living a life more reminiscent of that of a Qing Emperor.

They lived in an enormous 3,000 square foot apartment in Ho Man Tin[14], decorated with life size buddha statues made from real gold, sphinx statues carved in the likeness of Luo Yanfang, champagne fountains in the kitchen, and enough marble to restore the colosseum.[15] Cheung Tze Keung drove around the streets of Hong Kong in a bright yellow Lamborghini Diablo Roadster. A Hong Kong celebrity in his own right now, he partied with

Jackie Chan and many other famous faces. His family travelled the world, touring Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. They stayed at the most expensive hotels, and handed out $10,000 USD tips to street painters as they went.[16]

So what could possibly drive Cheung Tze Keung to put all of this on the line and risk another kidnapping when he was already over a billion dollars in profit? Don’t forget Cheung Tze Keung had got away with this absolutely scott-free, Li Ka Shing had never called the police, and never would.

The answer: Gambling.

Cheung Tze Keung was an obsessive and compulsive gambler. The Casino Lisboa in

Macau was as much a home to him as his families apartment in Ho Man Tin, at it’s worst Tze Keung managed to lose $20 Million Hong Kong Dollars in a single sitting. After a while, his fortune was quite simply nearly spent, and he had to get more money. So inevitably, with his old trade as a tailor being unable to keep him up to the standard to which he had become accustomed, he blew the dust off his old plans, and plotted more kidnappings.

The next target was Sun Hung Kai Properties Chairman Guo Bing Xiang[17], who was kidnapped by Cheung Tze Keung and his gang on September the 29th 1997. This kidnapping largely followed the same pattern as Victor Li’s kidnapping, with a few differences in execution and difficulties as a result.

This time, they had kidnapped the billionaire proper, rather than one of his children. This surprisingly gave them significantly less leverage than kidnapping an heir: it was conceivable that Victor Li could have become more trouble than he was worth, and the gang would simply have killed him and sought another opportunity. They couldn’t kill Guo Bing Xiang, as any prospect of ever being paid would go with him – and Bing Xiang knew this.

Furthermore, Guo Bing Xiang  was significantly less compliant than Victor Li and his father had been. They initially demanded a two billion dollar ransom, and Guo Bing Xiang flatly refused this, his only counter proposal being that they release him immediately and they’d all think no more of it.

Cheung Tze Keung’s response to these issues? Torture. Guo Bing Xiang was placed inside a 4×1 foot crate, and left curled up for days. He was never let out of the box until he became more agreeable, he was left in the small crate to eat, sleep, drink, and defecate.

On October the 3rd, after six days inside the box Guo Bing Xiang gave in, and negotiations began. They agree on a six hundred million Hong Kong Dollar (80 million USD) ransom, and after making the call to his family to organise the money, Guo Bing Xiang is released from the box.

It’s important readers that we remember the toll this torture took on Guo Biang Xiang. The poor man suffered greatly during this ordeal, and he found himself emotionally scarred, being all but a shut-in in the immediate wake of the kidnapping. He was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, and it took him over a year of daily, intensive psychological treatment and counselling to be able to return to something resembling his normal self. Still to this day he suffers from occasional night terrors and claustrophobia.

Downfall and Arrest

Cheung Tze Keung’s downfall came as quick as his rise. One moment he was the darling of the Hong Kong underworld, a celebrity gangster who had totally gotten away with it. He had cars, money – then the next minute he was being tied against a post in Guandong to face a firing squad.

Like the cliched downfall arc of any good mobster movie, Cheung Tze Keung’s fall came because he got too greedy and too complacent. He made sloppy mistakes and assumed that just because he had been able to manipulate a legal system once before, he would be able to do it again.

His downfall came when he began planning his third kidnapping. Now this was to be a big one, bigger than any he had carried out before and more… explosive to boot. For this he had penned a very specific shopping list: AK type rifles, 4,000 rounds of 7.62x39mm ammunition, 2,000 detonators, 700 metres of fuses, “crates” of tear gas and explosive grenades, and the piece de resistance: 1000kg of explosives – for context at home dear audience, this is the same explosive yield as a V2 rocket.

Shockingly, he managed to find the bulk of this shopping list seemingly reasonably easily, as on January the 8th 1998 his first shipment arrives at the Sai Wan docks; from a country I shalln’t mention because their immigration department is already crabby with me enough as it is – but here is a clue: it’s not China or Russia![18] In this initial shipment was 800kg of explosives, several crates of bullets, and a healthy sprinkling of AK type rifles. This cache is immediately loaded onto trucks, snuck past the dock’s security, and hidden in an old village house in Ma Tso Lung, Sheung Shu.

Reports are mixed on what Cheung Tze Keung actually planned to do with such a healthy cache of weapons. Some of his associates interviewed after his downfall say he eventually planned an assault on Stanley Prison to rescue his comrades – including our favourite gold robber Yip Kai Foon. Others state he was planning some kind of campaign against Tung Chee-hwa, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Whether this campaign would have been a typical kidnapping, or drifted into the realm of terrorism… we can only speculate.

Whatever his intentions were, with this healthy injection of armaments into his organisation Cheung Tze Keung needed to get his crew back together, so crossed the border to the Chinese Mainland to gather his followers.

His first stop was Guangzhou[19] to find Hu Jishu, the number two in his criminal enterprise. They spend a day together in Guangzhou drinking, catching up, and chewing the fat before making their way to the Imperial Hotel in Shenzhen[20] on January the 16th. They stay here for several days, making plans, and gathering their comrades, but a problem starts to emerge. As each day passes Cheung Tze Keung spends less time at the planning table, and more time at the window twitching the curtains, getting increasingly paranoid about his being watched by the police.

The twist here folks is… he wasn’t wrong. The police had been tailing him constantly since he left Sai Wan docks. Cheung Tze Keung’s fame was proving a double edged sword, because as soon as a dockworker saw him entering the docks with a truck, they called the police, who in turn had been sticking to him like glue ever since. Not only had they been tracking his movements, but plain clothed officers saw through high powered binoculars as he hid his cache in Ma Tso Long.They tailed him right up to the border, and then handed the operation over to their comrades in Guangdong.

After humouring his well founded paranoia, Cheung Tze Keung and his ever swelling gang relocated to Zhuhai, and stayed at an apartment in the Seaview Garden Tower Block. His paranoia continued to crescendo, so he relocated again to the Zhuhai[21] Golf Club, reasoning that plain clothed officers pursuing him wouldn’t be able to follow him inside as non-members, without giving their identities away. This worked great for a solid two hours, until the pursuing officers simply jumped a fence, and then found his car in order to deduce which villa he was staying in. Tze Keung then relocates AGAIN, but this time unknowingly is actually successful in shaking his pursuers off his scent.

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The trail went cold for a few days, until Guandong’s CCTV operators, who had been briefed to be extra vigilant, found him in Zhuhai Department Store in the afternoon of January the 24th. Plain clothed officers swarmed the car park of the store, but hung back, and waited for him to appear before they made their move. Hours passed, and Cheung Tze Keung’s car still sits idly in the car park. Growing impatient, the officers decide to make their move. They called in uniformed officers, who began to surround the department store, and blocked both vehicle and pedestrian exits. Tze Keung, who had been amusing himself in a bar located inside abandoned his car, and managed to flee on foot after he rather ungracefully vaulted a wall at the rear of the building.

He found himself at the Gongbei[22] Hotel close by, called Hu Ji Shu and informed him that his paranoia was not unfounded and he could feel the net closing in on him. Ji Shu tried to calm the increasingly erratic Tze Keung, who apparently by this stage was more paranoia than man. Ji Shu snuck into his hotel room that night, and arranged for his brother to bring spare change of clothes for them both the following morning. The pair then took a taxi from the rank outside of the hotel, reasoning that all their cars were probably tagged and being traced, and headed for Jiangmen[23].

All seemed calm in the taxi and Cheung Tze Keung started to finally relax, his heart dropped to a resting rate for the first time in days. Everything would be fine in Jiangmen, the pair reassured themselves, it was under-developed, more remote, there were basically no CCTV cameras. They planned to lay low for a few weeks, get new clothes, new cars… and everything would be fine they told themselves.

That may well have been correct, but they never got the opportunity to find out. Just outside of Jiangmen at 12:10 in the afternoon, the taxi crossed Waihai[24] Bridge just on the perimeter of the city, and is pulled over for what appears to be a routine traffic stop. A very mild mannered traffic control officer asked for the driver of the taxi to please leave the car and come to his cabin so they could check her paperwork, to which she obliged.

As soon as the door on the aforementioned cabin closed and the taxi driver was out of harm’s way, dozens of SWAT officers burst from the bushes, from behind barricades, and out from drainage ditches. They screamed at Cheung Tze Keung and Hu Ji Shu to place their hands on the seats in front of them where they could be seen. Two of the officers then manoeuvred around to the rear of the taxi, and lined up nice clean angles of fire into the back of the criminals heads in case there was any funny business. The pair were then dragged from the taxi, handcuffed, and thrown into the back of a police van – firmly under arrest once and for all.

Trial

Now that Cheung Tze Keung was finally in custody, the police moved to dismantle his entire operation. The Hong Kong and mainland police knew EVERYTHING; Cheung Tze Keung had been living as the criminal celebrity for quite some time now, hardly being subtle or incognito: and the police on both sides of the border had been exploiting this to gather every single piece of intelligence on him they could, ‘just in case’ he ever went back to his old ways.

As soon as word came from the Jiangmen police that he was in custody, Hong Kong police launched an enormous timed operation to secure his cache of weapons, and all of his associates at the exact same time all over the city, so that none of them had opportunity to be warned and flee. Mainland forces in Shenzhen, Guangdong, Zhuhai, Macao, and Jiangmen did exactly the same, snatching all of his associates and arms off the street in one perfectly timed swoop. In total, 36 criminals, including Cheung Tze Keung himself were arrested.

Needless to say Cheung Tze Keung was caught red handed, and was firmly up the proverbial creek without a paddle. But this did not seem to sink in to Tze Keung, who was the absolute picture of arrogance during his arrest: he (tried) to insist that he his arrest was wrongful and he was going home, complained that his cell wasn’t luxurious enough, and taunted the police officers – explaining to them that they would all look like absolute nobs when he walked free. If for no other reason, he was arrogant because he believed he would answer for his crimes in a Hong Kong court, not a mainland one, the latter having the death penalty, and the former not doing.

Cheung Tze Keung confessed to the kidnappings without hesitation when in custody, as he believed he was in the clear for those crimes. He hoped that by showing remorse and repentance for something he couldn’t actually be convicted for he would be afforded leniency in line with the longstanding Chinese criminal justice principle of “leniency to those who confess their crimes, and severity to those who refuse to cooperate”. Unfortunately for Tze Keung, his confessing for only some of the crimes he was clearly guilty of destroyed all appearances of sincerity.

Cheung Tze Keung denied paying for the explosives, but not his involvement with the cache altogether. His strategy here was quite blatant: to salvage his life, not his freedom by reducing his role from that of a leader, and therefore the principle offender for the trading of explosives – a capital offence, to that of a humble hired goon – guilty of simply handling explosives. Tze Keung was a pragmatist and a survivor, he was confident that he would be able to continue his criminal career if he could simply avoid the death penalty and escape with his life.

Ultimately however Cheung Tze Keung’s luck had run out, and on the 5th of December the following guilty verdict was returned:

“Defendent Cheung Tze Keung is guilty of illegal trading of explosives and is sentenced to death; is guilty of kidnappings and is sentenced to imprisonment for life, deprivation of political rights for life and confiscation of RMB 662,000,000; is guilty of smuggling of arms and ammunition and is sentenced to imprisonment for life, deprivation of political rights for life and confiscation of RMB 100,000. It is the decision of this court to impose capital punishment, deprivation of political rights for life, and confiscation of RMB 662,100,000.

After this verdict was returned two large officers immediately flanked Cheung Tze Keung and ushered him out of the courtroom. With no reprieve for a last meal, or to relieve himself, Tze Keung was led straight out of the coutroom and towards the yard. The opulent marble and carved wood that lined the walls of the courtroom gradually gave way to unpainted concrete as they descended down a long staircase.

A heavy steel door opened onto a drab looking courtyard. Cheung Tze Keung was pushed outside and was greeted by the sight of 6 Correctional Officers standing at attention, with Type 53 SKS rifles all secured across their chests. The two officers who led Tze Keung from the courtyard pushed him to a thick wooden steak planted firmly into the ground, secured him upright to the post, blindfolded him, and walked away.

An officer then marched adjacent to the lined up officers, came to a halt with a heavy stamp, and barked orders to his men:

“Section, ATTENTION!”

“Make Ready”

“Aim”

“FIRE!”

A deafening chorus filled the courtyard as the six men unleashed their volley, and Cheung Tze Keung slumped to his knees, dead. The life and story of history’s most prolific and successful kidnapper, was over.[25]

Morality

To some people in Hong Kong and Guangdong province Cheung Tze Keung was, and remains something of a folk hero; a Robin Hood type figure who stuck it to the rich, and was always generous and kind to the little guy, but does he deserve this legacy?

As a humble YouTube script writer, these big moral questions tend to be considerably above my intellectual paygrade, but if you were to force me to pick a side, I would come down condemning Cheung Tze Keung wholeheartedly. As someone who grew up exceptionally poor myself, it is easy to surrender to this very sexy, but let’s be frank rose tinted image of Cheung Tze Keung. The man was a violent criminal who had no issues using extreme violence and torture when it suited his ends, and thats enough to earn him my contempt.

Up To his death he remained proud of both the scale, and technical accomplishment of his crimes, and the (as he perceived it) lack of bloodshed. He believed the van robberies were only robbing insurance companies, who had money to lose, and that kidnapping the rich didn’t matter, because they were hardly left without after losing the (as he perceived it) trivial amounts of money he took from them.

What do you Simon, and you the audience all think?

Dismembered Appendices

  • I wanted to give correct and proper context for the capital punishment judgement, but couldn’t find an appropriate place for it in the main body of the script, so allow me this appendice please dear readers! At face value, it appears as though Cheung Tze Keung was executed the day his verdict was rendered, and while this is technically true it misses some context. In China after a trial conducted by an Intermediate People’s Court concludes with a death sentence, a double appeals process must follow. The first appeal is conducted by a high people’s court if the condemned appealed to it, and since 2007, another appeal is conducted automatically (even if the condemned oppose the first appeal) by the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China (SPC) in Beijing, to prevent the circumstances in which the defendant is proved innocent after the death penalty – an obviously irrevocable punishment – has been administered. So in reality, the verdict was ‘given’ after the exhaustion of this appeals process.
  • I (George) am heavily indebted to the scholarship of Professor Kam Wong and Zeng Mingming for the completion of today’s script. As a writer I always endeavour to bring you the most well researched posts possible, but often find myself diving into areas that frankly are significantly above my intellectual pay grade. Books such as “One Country, Two Systems: Cross Border Crime between Hong Kong and China” by Professor Wong are invaluable sources for myself as a writer, who wishes to accurately report on a complicated legal matter without having to complete another bachelor’s degree prior. I would strongly recommend his book to anyone fancying a brain melting, but fascinating insight into the Hong Kong and PRC legal systems, as well as Chinese Tycoon by Zeng Mingming (with the latter sadly only being available in Chinese).
  • I also owe thanks to the Police Forces of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai – all of whose respective Data Access Departments were most accommodating in my requests for information, as they always are.

[1] Victor Lee-Zay-Jew

[2] A clarification for Simon! The reason for translations occasionally being so separated from reality is… colonialism! There are two primary transliteration models you will see being employed for Mandarin: Wade-Giles, and Pinyin. Wade-Giles was developed in the 19th century by two western men named, shockingly, Wade and Giles – their approach to transliteration can be summarised as “This funny Eastern language is a bit tricky init, we ain’t having that!”, consequently transliterations in this system can end up sounding only vaguely reminiscent of their original form, if not flatly incorrect, for example Mao Zedong, becoming Mao Tse-tung. Wade-Giles is obsolete, but continues to persist in various ways. Pinyin was developed in the 1950’s by, get this, actual Chinese people and everything, what a radical concept! Generally, I opt for Pinyin transliterations of Mandarin in my scripts, except in instances such as a name which is commonly known by its Wade-Giles transliteration, and it’s Pinyin transliteration, while more accurate is different to the point of being unrecognisable. Cantonese also has a similar dynamic of the old outdated transliteration system, versus the new, actually useful one. But to spare this footnote becoming as long as the main post itself, we shall save an explanation of Cantonese for another post!

[3] Lee Ka Shing – exactly how you’d naturally go to pronounce it as a native English speaker!

[4] Please note that the quotes in today’s episode are generally far heavier laced with blue language than I have depicted – but for the sake of my and Simon’s delicious, sweet monetisation I have omitted them!

[5] Coincidentally 1038 is also the stock number of CKI Holdings Limited owned by Li.

[6] I suspect I would have told him to take that idea, and stick it somewhere dark and smelly. 7 In the business, we call this foreshadowing.

[7] Cher-ung T-ze Kerng

[8] Loy Yeen-Fong

[9] Wang Fang Chi

[10] I hope my sarcasm is evident here, or else I’ll look a right nob!

[11] When listening to Cheung Tze Keung’s statements and comments on the matter himself, this discussion is actually where you see a hell of a lot of his anti-rich, pro proletarian ideology come through: He rarely talks about the billionaires of Hong Kong paying their ransom because they loved their family. Oh no, that was a regular human emotion, and individuals with the cut-throat instincts to make it to such levels of wealth were anything but human in Cheung Tze Keung’s eyes. Instead, he discusses how they would pay up because they were important to the business – with many of Hong Kong’s billionaires promoting their family members to senior and critical positions in the business. Having brushed shoulders with the odd billionaire from time to time, I’d be the first to admit the ultra-wealthy’s connection to reality can seemingly be a bit shaky at times… but I feel Tze Keung was taking it to a very extreme and dark place here.

[12] Fun extra titbit for you all – remember Yip Kai Foon’s two mates who fled when he got shot? One of those was Cheung Tze Keung, who was working with Kai Foon to smuggle equipment into Hong Kong for his own kidnapping operation.

[13] Which depending on your source could still be history’s biggest ever ransom.

[14] Shockingly, this is actually huge for Hong Kong.

[15] And here’s me being impressed just when one of my Hong Kong friends doesn’t have to shit where they shower.

[16] It is also speculated that during this time Cheung Tze Keung began an anti government terrorist operation. As his coming into fame and fortune just so happens to co-incide with a a serious rise in petrol bomb attacks at Stanley Prison and trucks and heavy goods vehicles committing hit and runs on police booths and checkpoints, and this fad just so happened to fade after his eventual arrest.

[17] G-wow Bing-Cheng

[18] Don’t read this out Simon! But for your curiosity…. America! I’m already not allowed in America visa-free due to the amount of “naughty” countries I hang around in, so let’s not give the TSA any further reason to go rifling around my bottom when I visit!

[19] Gwang-Joe

[20] Shen-Jen

[21] Zoo-Hi

[22] Gong-Bay

[23] Ji-Ang-Men

[24] Why-Hey

[25] I hope you’ll forgive me a little whinge now dear audience. You know that ‘fun fact’ you always see: “oNlY oNe mAn iN A fIrInG sQuaD iS gIvEn A rEaL bUlLEt”? It’s absolute bollocks. For starters, blank rounds look VERY different to live bullets, they have no head, instead the casing extends further and roughly mimics the shape of a bullet head, and is then pressed together at the end. Even if someone else loads your rifle, blank roads produce no recoil, you know if you’ve fired a live round or a blank!

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