Luck runs out for Big Spender gangster

Hong Kong's underworld hardman faces a firing squad, writes Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines
Sunday 15 November 1998 00:02 GMT

"RICKY" declines to give his real name, but he is a little scared and a little excited to have known Cheung Tze-keung, also known as the "Big Boss" and "Big Spender', one of the most notorious gang leaders ever to emerge from Hong Kong's criminal underworld.

"If he were here he'd definitely have bought us a drink," said Ricky, looking around the shabby bar in Wanchai's former red-light district. He got to know the Big Boss by hanging around the fringes of Hong Kong's criminal fraternity.

"I never thought of him as a crook or a killer", he said. "He's a real nice guy, not like some of those tough guys who throw their weight around."

This made no impression on the Chinese court which sentenced Cheung to death last week. True to form, the 43-year-old showed no flicker of emotion. He was afraid of nobody, including the policemen who allegedly beat him up to obtain confessions. He was the sort of gang leader who prided himself on committing crimes no one else would dare to try.

Unlike most big-league criminals he was not a Triad member. Actually, the bosses of the Triad gangs were slightly in awe of Cheung when they met him around casino gambling tables. They saw him as wild and reckless. The Big Boss was introduced to a life of crime by his father, who operated an illegal gambling operation and sent his son out to run numbers. He acquired his first criminal conviction at 16, and spent most of his youth in and out of street fighting gangs and remand centres.

But Cheung was not content to remain just another small-time crook. In 1991 Hong Kong citizens learned the extent of his ambition when he was convicted of masterminding the hijacking of a security van outside the airport, gaining the biggest haul of cash in the territory's history of robberies. Although the conviction did not stand, a second trial found fault with the identification of Cheung, he emerged from jail in a bitter and even more determined mood.

While the traditional masters of organised crime, the Triads, have tended to keep well away from Hong Kong's tycoons, Cheung started work on a plan to kidnap the ten richest.

He began in May 1996 with the wealthiest family of all. Victor Li, the eldest son of the shipping billionaire Li Ka-shing, was seized from a car as he was returning to his father's house. Cheung deliberately kidnapped the son rather than the father, because he wanted almost pounds 108m and he wanted it within 24 hours. He knew that only Li Ka-shing himself would be able to get his hands on so much money so quickly. His strategy worked and was probably the biggest ransom ever paid, anywhere.

Cheung later told the Chinese police that he said to Li Ka-shing, "I take unconventional steps to get rich. Money is the most important thing in life, but it's only me who can get away with kidnapping tycoons".

His second victim was Walter Kwok, head of one of Hong Kong's biggest property conglomerates. Unlike the Lis, the Kwoks were not so co-operative, requiring a bit of roughing up before the captured tycoon realised that Cheung meant business. His wife eventually managed to get her hands on pounds 48m to secure her husband's release.

Cheung's gang was a fluid group consisting of hired thugs and crooks who flitted in and out of the Big Boss's company. They specialised in armed robberies, accumulating caches of weapons sufficient to start a small-scale war. They also assassinated in cold blood those suspected of being informers. In some ways Cheung was a typical gang leader. He liked good food and wine, lived in a number of ostentatious apartments and drove flashy cars.

Yet the reason he was known as Big Spender was because of a voracious gambling habit. Haunting casinos, particularly those in nearby Macau, where many of Asia's crime bosses gather, he would think nothing of gambling millions of pounds in a single session. He is reported to have once lost HK$200m (pounds 16m) on a game.

In other ways, however, he had none of the airs of other crime bosses. He did not throw his weight about or move around with a big retinue of thugs, as they did. A decade ago he befriended a group of journalists working for Hong Kong's commercial radio station. One of them recalls him as "a nice, outgoing, cheerful self-confident guy". He thought he was in the jewellery business (but only to the extent of holding them up with AK-47 rifles) and owned some restaurants.

While the journalists drank alcohol in his company, Cheung sipped orange juice. He seemed to like hanging out with foreigners and learning English. The only hint of his other life was that "he was very much a leader type of guy".

They discovered his main obsession, however, when he took them home for dinner. In the master bedroom, a massive letter "M" was carved into the bed's headboard. "What does that stand for?" the journalists asked. "Money," he said.

Cheung appeared unassailable for years, but his luck evaporated with his arrest and conviction in Guangzhou on charges of kidnapping and possession of 800kg of explosives and weapons. He is appealing, but this time his chances of winning a reprieve are extremely remote. The most likely outcome is death by firing squad, with the bill for the bullet being sent to his family.

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