Thursday, November 26, 2015   

Crime lord returns

Staff reporter

Friday, September 28, 2012

The sharp end of Macau's gambling industry - the end where you can find people you don't want to cut across - is about to be honed. For set to return to the business soon after a long spell behind bars is a notorious boss (perhaps "former boss" would be more correct) of the 14K triad in Macau. He's a larger- than-life character named Wan Kuok- koi, who became infamous as "Broken Tooth Koi."

Wan, 57, could be out of jail in November - certainly before year's end - and is planning to bite back into Macau casino junkets, which could be a nice big earner if he gets it right.

Getting it right, though, takes some doing as "junkets" involve more than just fixing transport, hotel bookings and quiet places in a casino for a high roller.

Supplying a big spender with choice prostitutes is a money spinner, but collecting debts on behalf of a casino can be the best-paying side of the business.

Collectors earn hefty commissions by persuading losers to hand over what's owed, which can be hard work for them and go hard on reluctant payers.

This, then, will be Wan's next career move after plenty of time in prison to think on his prospects. It was 13 years and 10 months ago, or a month before Macau's handover on December 20, 1999, after 464 years under Portugal - that Wan was corralled behind bars along with eight top lieutenants after being convicted of organized crime activities.

The charges covered associating with criminals, loan-sharking and illegal gambling. There wa
s much worse against Wan and his cohorts in crimefighters' notebooks, but prosecutors couldn't have made other potential charges stick.

Today, the combination of memories of what's he's claimed to have been capable of doing and his impending release are creating waves of worry.

Whispers are that Broken Tooth will be out to exact revenge on people when he walks free from a cell in a 10-unit, high-security facility on Coloane Island.

Fueling ideas about Wan settling old scores are recollections of torrents of abuse and threats he heaped on people after his arrest and court after conviction.

There have also been stories from warders about him ranting about revenge early on in his term. That was followed by brooding as the years went on.

Giving rise to fears of bad times to come was a shocking assault recently on one of Wan's old gang allies who became a focus for his hatred.

Others see it differently, that the angry man who was facing a long stretch in prison should by now be calmer and ready to accept a piece of the gambling action without fighting over it.

After all, the Macau casino scene that will greet Wan when he steps out of the prison gate is quite unlike the one he left. This thinking is along the lines that people don't fight now like they did when the Portuguese held nominal sway in Macau with a sloppy system of payoffs and cuts of casino takings.

The fighting today is supposedly conducted in a hard but civilized way by lawyers and accountants in the pay of internationally-minded moguls.

And the money! Well, there's plenty to go around for the guys with an inside track in the industry. Macau's two dozen gaming establishments - many in super-swank and lavishly themed hotels that have sprung up since Macau opened the sector to the world in 2004 - had a combined revenue of US$33.5 billion (HK$261.3 billion) last year, and that was 42 percent down on 2010 because less lucrative times bit.

Yet it was enough for Macau's gambling earnings to continue outstripping those of Las Vegas many times over.

The 2011 figure compared with 18 billion patacas (HK$17.4 billion) that "King of Gambling" Stanley Ho Hung- sun's Sociedade de Jogos de Macau then-monopoly gambling syndicate grossed in 1997.

The returns from crime were spotted by Wan when he was growing up in a Macau slum - a development process accelerated when he left school as a kid without reaching Primary 3. An apprenticeship of sorts in a dim sum restaurant was followed by lessons on the street as a tout for movie tickets when he was 16.

His nickname also came in his formative years, breaking a front tooth when driving a car without a licence and crashing. Years later, when his looks became important as he gravitated to flash cars, jewelry and fast women, he had the tooth capped. But the nickname stuck, and he didn't seem to mind.

It was at the beginning of the 1970s that he joined the 14K, Macau's largest and most notorious triad and started his days of the "Seven Little Kids" - himself and other triad young bucks.


A move into loan-sharking gave him higher 14K rank, and spells in jail in the 1970s and 1980s didn't change his outlook or hold him back.

It was in the late 1980s that Broken Tooth's rise in the 14K went faster because he came to the attention of Ng Wai, better known as "Street Market Wai." Eight years older, Ng had been involved with various casinos and was well set in the junket side of things.

It was a fateful bonding for Wan. For Ng was apparently impressed enough with the younger man to ask him to "eliminate" his boss, Mo Ding-ping. Whatever that entailed is unclear, but Mo fled Macau.

Broken Tooth had clearly impressed more people than just Ng, for he was soon top of the heap of the 14K's fighting wing and showing the proverbial iron fist during dealings that touched most casino and loan-sharking operations in Macau.

As is the way of the lawless world, however, Wan was challenged as top warlord in Macau by "Soi Fong" Lai. His nickname came from the triad he bossed, the Soi Fong, or Water Room, triad. While it didn't have the numbers of the 14K, it was a rival in ferocity.

The two went head to head in their war in the countdown to the end of Portuguese rule that was marked by gunfights, car bombings and blood in the streets. Lai felt the strain and moved on.

Wan, with a string of victories, is said to have become arrogant and turned against his titular boss, Ng Wai, as he eyed richer pickings for himself.

That Ng lived dangerously was clear when gunmen, one toting an AK47 assault rifle, riddled the facade of Ng's New Century Hotel on Taipa Island on the eve of its opening in 1996. Rumor was that Broken Tooth had a hand in it.

But Portuguese authorities, getting their crime-fighting act together just as they were leaving, brought in no- nonsense crimefighter Antonio Marques Baptista. Things came apart for Broken Tooth in 1998 just as he was enjoyed a finest moment. Nine hours after his car was bombed, Baptista led a police squad into the Lisboa Hotel, where Wan and fellow gangsters were watching for the umpteenth time a new movie based on the rise of Broken Tooth, who backed the production with money and muscle.

Casino starred Simon Yam Tat-wah as a character called "Giant," modelled on Wan and a glorification of him and his violent, high-rolling life.

A famous anecdote of the making of the movie was Wan shutting off the Macau-Taipa Bridge to all traffic for a couple of some hours so a scene could be shot on its span. Authorities had rejected an application from the director for closure of the bridge, so Wan sent his own men to shut it off at both ends. And he got away with it.

Macau has been at peace since Wan's incarceration, and that's the way that Ng Wai, now the chairman and major shareholder of casino operator Amax Holdings, listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, would like it to stay.

He now counts Broken Tooth, Soi Fong Lai and Mo Ding-ping among his friends, Ng has just told Standard sister publication Eastweek magazine.

"We don't have hatred any longer," he says, adding that they have all reconciled and are striving to make money together and in harmony.

This is quite a turnaround for Ng, Wan and other baddies who were bitter foes. Wan told Time magazine in 1998 that he would wage "a beautiful war" against Ng and "wipe him out."

Saying the mood is totally different today, a source claims: "Ng has shown his friendliness, saying that he can talk everything over with Wan."

What's not's being said, though, is that 65-year-old Ng is barely back on his feet after a taking a horrific but clinically precise beating while enjoying a late-night dinner with a woman friend at the New Century Hotel, which benefits greatly from hosting Ng's big earner, the Greek Mythology Casino.

Six men used hammers and clubs to pound Ng on his arms and legs. He ended up in bad shape in hospital, with injuries including a broken leg. The woman, in her thirties and said to be Ng's secretary, got off relatively lightly.

Confirming that all was far from well at the New Century, a dozen "tatooed men" made a show of arriving at the hotel on July 2. It seemed they did nothing more than be seen and heard, but the hotel suspended services temporarily "for the safety of tourists."

While Wan could just be seen to be among the usual suspects in arranging the beating of Ng, lines of continuing police inquiry include a check on a dispute about ownership of the hotel.

In presenting the argument that triad-connected people have reached the conclusion that violent crime doesn't pay as well as some of the other stuff in the new Macau, the same source who talks about peace-loving Ng claims the message has been passed to Broken Tooth that fighting is a no-no when it comes to casinos.

Just in case he hasn't taken the message to heart, the source adds, the Judiciary Police will keep a close watch on Wan for at least three years.

That, of course, could account for the claim that Wan is ready to settle for being a wheel if not the engine in junkets.

Whatever he chooses, it's known that Wan will have to do something to fill the family rice bowls. Among others in his life, he's got at least six kids from three wives who he might want to help, and all his holdings were supposed to have been confiscated when he was convicted.

Yet he's still said to have "a few flats and shops to rent out," and he can apparently count on a brother to help. Wan Kuok-hung was one of the eight co- defendants who went to jail along with Broken Tooth, but he was released in 2004. He's done well supplying uniforms and outfits to casinos.

Wan, though, believes he can "regain lost territory" through his own efforts. One idea is go back into the movie business to produce a sequel to Casino.

But he really likes the gaming business, and to that end he has contacted lieutenants including fellow jailbirds like Ho Chai, 51.

Ho Chai was rated Wan's top man but is said to have "had issues" with Wan when they were jailed. So Soi Fong Lai apparently recruited Ho Chai when he was released in 2009.

But there's also a claim that Ho Chai is ready to go along with Wan when he is released. In fact, Ho Chai is reckoned to have been following Wan's jailhouse instructions when he linked with various wealthy mainlanders, who now have gambling and hotel interests in Macau.

And Ho Chai is also said to be planning to open another casino and usher Broken Tooth into a top spot there and at three other establishments.

Another source says that Broken Tooth "at first planned to retaliate. Now he's accepted the reality that the Macau gaming industry has changed. He will try to meet with old rivals soon after he's release to forge a reconciliation."

Soi Fong Lai, meanwhile, is said to be the richest of all Wan's previous rivals, with billions of dollars in assets.

He's said to be involved in casinos and the business of loans but also in property, restaurants, travel agents and pawn shops. There is also a big investment in mainland coal mines.

While he could apparently wield much clout through his money, people close to Lai say he's not looking for a renewal of hostilities with Wan and would be happy to reconcile with his old adversary. So he's ready to talk with Wan once he's given positive word.

If all this sounds just too good to be true, then possibly it is. In fact, Soi Fong Lai is said to have covered his back by helping Mo Ding-ping to return to Macau. Mo, who fled years ago amid the Ng-Wan machinations, was supposedly wanted by police for murder. But that problem has gone away.

But that's a get-out bet, the source adds. Rather than giving Broken Tooth trouble, "some triad leaders are already prepared to give casinos shares to Wan as gifts when he's released. They want to let him know that they do not want to be involved in disputes."

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