You have almost certainly seen the image. A man stands on a Hong Kong pavement speckled with old spots of chewing gum. He is dressed in a tidy outfit of white runners, blue jeans, a black jacket and a balaclava that covers most of his face. His knees are bent to guard against the recoil of what he is holding in his hands: an AK-47, aimed out of frame.
This CCTV footage was captured outside a Nathan Road jewellery shop in the first week of January 1993. A gang had invaded the shop, robbed it and were making their getaway when they were confronted by police. The thieves fired 30 rounds, killing a woman who happened to be passing by. One member of the gang was shot by police as they made their escape in a getaway car. His comrades dumped his body in the street when they switched vehicles.
That kind of violence would be unthinkable in today’s Hong Kong, which has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Gun crime is so rare it dominates the news for days, as when a woman recently shot her family in a Taikoo Shing shopping mall. But in the decade before the city’s 1997 handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong was gripped by a crime wave that saw police battling heavily armed criminals in the streets of its busiest neighbourhoods.
“We were being called upon quite frequently to the extent that it was almost considered routine,” says Barry Smith, a Chief Superintendent with the Hong Kong Police. He joined the force in 1983 and soon made his way into the Special Duties Unit, also known as the Flying Tigers, an armed response unit trained to handle terrorist attacks and other serious incidents. At the time, they were one of the few branches of the Hong Kong police equipped to handle the robberies.
“AK47s, 7.62 pistols and hand grenades were frequently used,” says Smith. “The police on patrol were very aware of the fact they could easily come across an armed robbery at any time and I am sure they dreaded getting the radio call to respond to one in progress. They only had a .38 revolver which was no match for an AK47. There was a lot of pressure on us to put a stop to this violence both from the public and the media.”
The early 1990s was the golden era for Hong Kong film and the crime wave certainly had a cinematic quality – including a colourful cast of characters. There was “Big Spender” Cheung Tze-keung, a bon vivant who kidnapped Victor Li, the eldest son of tycoon Li Ka-shing, and walked away with HK$1 billion in ransom. Triad boss “Broken Tooth” Wan Kuok-koi kept Macau under his thumb as he flaunted his criminal lifestyle with flashy cars, three high-profile marriages and a blockbuster movie he made about his own life. “Teeth Dog” Yip Kai-foon was the king of robberies, earning billions of dollars by holding up Hong Kong jewellery shops with AK-47s.
The impending handover added a grand historical sweep to the drama. “[The criminals] thought, ‘This is our last opportunity to make money before the Chinese army comes in,’” says Smith. It’s a sentiment echoed by the 2016 film Trivisa, which followed the intersecting paths of three crime lords — Yip Kai-foon, Cheung Tze-keung and Kwai Ping-hung — in the years leading up to 1997. The film captures the urgency of those final days under British rule, when Hong Kong was making its way through the mountains and nobody knew what was on the other side.
The crime wave couldn’t have happened without China. The 1980s and early 90s were a wild era when the country’s strict Maoist system was being dismantled in favour of something more capitalistic. There was money to be made and everyone wanted some. With few checks and balances on local governments and institutions like the People’s Liberation Army, corruption was rampant, and military-grade weapons like AK-47s spilled into the black market.
Yip Kai-foon was among the first to take advantage of this new firepower. He started his criminal career early, In 1984, at the age of 23, when he led a team of five mainland men in robbing two jewellery stores in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central. That led to his arrest and conviction, but in 1989, five years into an 18-year prison sentence, he managed to flee custody by faking appendicitis and attacking his guards when he was being treated at Queen Mary Hospital. He fled to the mainland and returned to Hong Kong two years later with a cache of AK-47s. In a daylight robbery so brazen many passersby thought it was a film shoot, he and his accomplices robbed five goldsmiths in Kwun Tong, firing 54 shots at police as they made their escape.
Between the robberies led by Yip and other criminals, shootouts in the streets of Hong Kong became shockingly common. The gangsters always seemed two steps ahead of the police. Smith recalls his unit being called out to Sham Shui Po following an armed robbery that Yip had staged in March 1992. Their goal was to root out Yip’s gang and they took pains not to reveal themselves to the public or the media, using encrypted radios and code words known only to members of the unit. “All of our vehicles were disguised as delivery vans or dry cleaners,” says Smith.
Tipped off to an address that the Criminal Investigation Division believed was being used by Yip, Smith and his unit prepared for a raid. “On a given signal we started to used manual breaking kit to get through the outside grill gate when an old man came to the door,” he recalls. “Although very frightened he had the wits to open the doors and we stormed inside but it turned out he was the only occupant.”
They were soon given another address. That too turned out to be a dead end. “And so the night continued with CID seemingly on a fishing expedition with us as the anglers,” says Smith. “It was not until around four in the morning we were finally stood down with every raid being unsuccessful. The [operations commander] suggested the officers all go to the airport hotel for the buffet breakfast. I remember also ordering a pint of beer to wash it all down as my next move was a long sleep at home.”
No sooner than Smith had returned home, his pager beeped with a message from his station. “When I phoned up the office I was told we had been called out again to Lau Fau Shan,” he says. It was another failed mission; Yip and his crew were nowhere to be found. Hot, tired and frustrated, Smith’s unit returned to their station in Fanling. “I remember the van I was in stopping at a traffic light whereupon I promptly fell asleep,” he says. “I awoke some time later and we were still sat there with other vehicles driving around us. Everyone in the vehicle was asleep in full kit including the driver.”
Across the Pearl River estuary in Macau, police were having a similarly hard time fighting Broken Tooth – no doubt because his reach extended into just about every corner of Macau’s notoriously corrupt institutions. Although Macau’s authorities had always taken a hands-off approach to organised crime, in the mid-1990s Broken Tooth had launched a vicious gang war over control of the city’s casinos, and the escalating violence had pushed the Portuguese colonial government to finally do something.
In a last-ditch attempt to thwart him, the government called in a prosecutor from Lisbon. Antonio Marques Baptista was nicknamed Mr. Rambo for his hulking physique. He was relentless in his pursuit of Macau’s gang lords, going so far as to join many street operations, but he was thwarted by the unwillingness of local police officers to deal with the city’s triads. In a small, tight-knit city like Macau, many officers knew triad members personally, and they did not want to risk retaliation.
Even when confronted by obvious violence, they failed to act. In one incident, described by journalists Alison Dakota Gee and Paulo Azevedo in a sensational 1998 story for Asiaweek, “a man ran screaming through the [Hotel] Lisboa, pursued by three suspected triad members waving knives. There were three armed policemen stationed in a jeep outside the hotel, and the man was stabbed to death metres from their post.”
Baptista finally got his chance to act when a bomb exploded underneath his minivan while he was out for a jog. Police connected the bomb to Broken Tooth and stormed the Lisboa’s VIP room, where the gangster and his entourage were sat watching Casino, a movie starring Simon Yam in a role based on Broken Tooth’s own life. It was a cinematic twist almost too perfect to believe – and indeed, many in Macau whispered that the bombing had been staged in order to give the police an excuse to finally nab the city’s most notorious criminal.
(Smith is arch when asked about Macau. “We never thought about Macau much as we had our own problems,” he says. “The thinking then — and now — is that their police force was much less capable than our own with a lower standard of equipment and training.”)
The crime wave came to an end with the handover. Yip Kai-foon was finally captured in 1996 when he was surprised by two patrolmen in Kennedy Town, which led to a shootout that left him paralysed. He died of lung cancer last year while serving his sentence. Cheung Tze-keung fled to the mainland after a botched attempt to kidnap then-Chief Secretary Anson Chan, and he was eventually arrested after buying explosives in a plot to bomb Hong Kong government buildings. He was tried, convicted and executed by mainland authorities in 1998. Wan Kuok-koi served 14 years in a specially constructed Macau prison. He was released in 2012 and is now involved in Cambodian casino projects run by mainland Chinese companies.
Now that the years of armed robberies and spectacular shootouts have receded into the past, Hong Kong seems fascinated by this bygone era of celebrity criminals. Trivisa did well at the box office and won five awards at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards; it is just the latest in a series of film and television productions about Hong Kong’s crime lords.
As someone involved in the hunt for Yip Kai-foon, Barry Smith doesn’t begrudge the public for their fascination with these kinds of criminals. But, always the good officer, he is quick to issue a reminder that crime doesn’t pay. “[Yip] died a sad and lonely figure in prison,” he says. “I suppose that should be the real message for the public.”