Notorious triad boss Wan Kuok-koi will soon be released from prison into the bright lights of a new Macau, reports Jack Regan
Whether a measure of his enduring influence on the underworld or a reaction born out of noteriety, the jitters in official Macau circles over the release from prison next year of “Broken Tooth’’ Wan Kuok-koi are instructive.
The 14K triad boss, who at the height of his power in 1998 graced TIME Magazine and was tipped—audaciously—by the publication as being “set to become one of the world’s top crime bosses” has spent the last 13 years in a specially-built jail in Coloane.
While he has been away, Macau’s casino landscape has changed beyond recognition. The monopoly has gone and Las Vegas has come to town. Indeed, when the now 56-year-old gangster comes blinking out into the sunlight on 31st March next year, he might need a map to find some of his old stomping grounds.
On the other hand, he might not.
Last month, security officials expressed concerns that Mr Wan may be planning to re-establish his influence in the VIP casino business on his release—a move they worry could upset the very full apple cart of the city’s gaming industry and years of careful work to clean up the image of the city which now stands proud as the world’s biggest gaming destination.
As a result, and despite official denials that any special measures will be put in place, insiders say casino regulators will step up the scrutiny of applications for VIP junket licences to head off any such attempt by Mr Wan. Junkets are the businesses which bring high-rolling gamblers to casinos and generate the bulk of Macau’s gaming income.
The question is, how successful will they be?
VIP revenue makes up around 70% of the city’s casino take, and members of Mr Wan’s family plus possibly members of his old crew who have already been released from jail still exert control of some VIP operations. Police with a deep and long-standing knowledge of the licensing system for the junkets say it is far from perfect.
One former police officer with close ties to the casino industry says: “If you look down the list of licensed junket operators in Macau, sure, you will not find one known triad among them. But I can assure you, none of the big junket operators in Macau could operate unless they were connected to the triads.
“We are talking the traditional triad operators in Macau plus the Sun Yee On and Wo Hop To from Hong Kong and others. There’s just too much money washing about for them not to be involved. It’s a proxy system, so it’s no surprise that there is quite a degree of concern about the release of Wan Kuok-koi.’’
Others take a more measured view, pointing out that the junket licensing system is not the only weapon available in the fight to ensure business is kept clean.
An analyst with long experience of Macau gaming says: “The junket licensing process is not intended to do more than screen out people with serious criminal backgrounds, and people who may transgress in a serious fashion once they have been licensed.
“The junkets are not concessionaires; their relationship with the concessionaires is contractual. That is, no contract, no business with a concessionaire.
“Like any contract, it is a matter for the parties to be satisfied that they are willing to assume mutual obligations. The concessionaire should have a secure hold on its concession, and the junket operator should conduct itself in a manner which does not compromise the concessionaire.’’
He adds that a number of Macau’s large junkets—for example AERL, Neptune and Dore—have associated companies which are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
“This has given them access to capital, and the ability to make money in a manner not previously available to them. I expect that they will evolve into good corporate citizens; there is a lot at stake if they don’t,’’ the analyst adds.
Meanwhile, Mr Wan’s lawyer Pedro Redinha is adamant that his client has no intention of returning to the life he led before he was jailed in 1998. Earlier this month, Mr Redinha told the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong that the only thing Mr Wan will have on his mind when he is freed is to prove his innocence.
“He has told me once he’s released from prison he wants to come to my office to re-examine his case and the grounds for his imprisonment,” Redinha told the paper. “I’m absolutely sure he will contact me on his release. He still feels it was an unfair ruling and that police corruption was involved.”
Time, of course, will tell. But if past history is anything to go by, it would be no surprise if Mr Wan is attracted to the limelight.
It has been a long time since Portuguese colonial judiciary police director Antonio Marques Baptista watched his car explode in flames as he went jogging with his dog on Macau’s Guia Hill on May 1, 1998.
Hours after the car bomb went off, Mr Wan, then the leader of a faction of Macau’s 14K triad society, was behind bars. He was never charged in connection with the bombing, but it was the final straw for Macau’s then Portuguese authorities.
In the weeks prior to the attack, six murders were linked to triads—including a Marine Police officer, a gambling inspector and the chauffeur of the enclave’s most senior crime fighter.
Mr Wan was eventually jailed for a string of gangland crimes. The litany of charges against him included a plot to import a vast arsenal of weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, hand grenades and automatic weapons from Cambodia. In the end, his boasts about being the head of a 14K triad group and related racketeering saw him sent down for 15 years, reduced to 13 years and 10 months on appeal.
Of course, there was more to Mr Wan’s downfall than a simple police investigation and highly-publicised trial. Internecine underworld warfare—most notably with a character who now operates quite legitimately in the glitzy new world of Macau gaming—also played its part in taking down the brash and boastful Mr Wan.
There is no doubt he was a larger-than-life character, but he could also be less than smart. In Mr Wan’s old Heavy Club disco, an effigy of a uniformed Macau police officer used to hang over the middle of the dance floor.
There is no doubt he had a significant and committed following within his faction of the 14K. This muscle was obvious after his imprisonment, which sparked a furious response as his gang went on the rampage.
A wave of fire-bombings ensued. One particularly spectacular attack damaged almost 100 vehicles. Shop fronts were gutted in 24 separate arson attacks. Senior government prosecutor Lourenço Nogueiro and his pregnant wife were gunned down in a motorcycle drive-by shooting. Both survived.
Godfather of South China
At the height of his power in the mid-1990s, Mr Wan raked in tens of millions of patacas from his loan sharking and illegal gambling operations, as Stanley Ho Hung-sun’s franchise system for running VIP rooms spun out of control.
Mr Wan saw himself as the Godfather of South China and such was his overdeveloped sense of self belief that at one stage he thought he could unify the 14K factions and become “boss of bosses’’.
Perhaps he was just a talented spin doctor, nothing more than a common or garden gangster suffering from megalomania and delusions of grandeur.
Much of his approach to gangsterism can be put down to his limited schooling, a common problem among a whole generation of Macau youngsters, which also was a factor in enabling him to command such an army of foot-soldiers.
He also had a strange nickname, but he’d earned it.
Mr Wan cut his teeth—and lost several—in vicious street fights as a young, aspiring gangster. One veteran crime reporter recalled Mr Wan being rushed to hospital as a teenager, “blood dripping from half a dozen stabs”.
In 1998 he produced a 14 million patacas (US$1.7 million at current exchange rates) autobiographical film called ‘Casino’, a tacky tale of triad mayhem. Hong Kong star Simon Yam Tat-wah—the brother of top Hong Kong police officer Peter Yam Tat-wing—starred as Mr Wan, and the film’s premiere took place in Hong Kong just five days after his arrest.
“He is a good boss and I respect him as a friend. Films often exaggerate things,” Simon Yam said at the film’s premiere. “I spent time with him when we were filming and he is like a kid. Everyone in Macau respects him.”
Indeed, during his trial Mr Wan claimed to be a bona fide promoter (he organized several Canto-pop concerts); real estate investor; gaming chip trader and high-stakes gambler. Yes, he knew about the 14K, but he was not a member, never mind a leader. No-one bought it.
After the sentencing at the Court of First Instance, he flew into a rage and jumped on to a bench, screaming at officials: “You’ve taken dirty money … This is the worst verdict of the century.”
Asked to calm down by police and court officials, Mr Wan glared hard at the officers, put his fingers menacingly like a gun to his own temple and screamed an obscenity. Whether that rage has subsided may be a deciding factor in how he decides to live his life on his release next year.
Mr Wan will find a vastly different environment to the one he operated in almost a decade and a half ago, but one with all the temptations he knew and a lot, lot more. It’s up to Macau how he is handled.