Saturday April 24, 2004
Triad tale a heart-pounder
By K.G.E. (CHUCK) KONKEL
Paper Fan starts innocuously enough, in a Vancouver graveyard. Row 2- C, Plot 582 in the Garden of Reflection at Forest Lawn Cemetery; it is the ostensible final resting place for the ashes of Steven Wong, born in Hong Kong, a man who lived a criminally eventful life in the Byzantine underworld of Vancouver's Chinatown and who died in 1992, at the age of 28, in a moped accident on a rural trail in the Philippines.
Or did he?
With this remarkable work, award-winning investigative journalist Terry Gould takes the reader on a madcap, pulse-quickening race across the far reaches of Asia in search of the ghost of Steven Wong, a senior Vancouver triad official and roguish gangster, who by his every word and action is as much the parody of a Kung Fu movie crime boss as its real-life model. For like Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, New York's Genovese family kingpin who faked insanity for nearly 30 years to evade FBI charges of racketeering, Steven Wong Lik Man, once the youngest Paper Fan (boss) in the 14K triad, and confidant of major Asian crime figures, may have faked his death for that most obvious of reasons, dollars - one million of them, to be exact, payable from a life insurance policy that has yet to be claimed.
Therein lies the opening gambit for this thoroughly enjoyable tale of murder, mystery and mayhem. Truth be told, there are actually three tales here; each one is worthy of careful consideration, and each one dovetails delicately into the next - like Chinese paper fans.
The first element is a complex character study of an organized crime figure as seen by Terry Gould, a Brooklyn-born, wise-guy journalist who dogged Wong's sinister career for 11 years. Steven Wong, a cynical, overweight punk with jaundiced visions of glory, seemed to move with the big boys of Asian crime, shadow-boxing through the dark, swirling social circles with Hong Kong's Lau Wing Kui, San Francisco's Vincent Jew and Toronto's Danny Mo.
And then those circles suddenly shifted, and Wong found himself in the cross-hairs of the criminal justice system for a major heroin deal gone sour. Faced with the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence, Wong did what all hoods secretly wish they could do: He apparently arranged his permanent "demise" on an obscure outback trail on the isolated Philippine island of Negros, 310 miles south of Manila in the Visayan Sea.
The second layer of Paper Fan is a true-life mystery, with its final chapter yet to be written. This is not a simple tale of good guy-bad guy. It is a deeply textured pursuit surging across continents and involving police officials, politicians, diplomats, thieves and more con men than a Kowloon gambling den. Like a Damon Runyon with 24/7 attitude, Gould takes you on a magic-carpet ride through the fascinating and provocative Asia of the 21st century. And he does so with great gusto.
Searching for Wong, Gould travels to the City of the Living Dead, a 54-hectare Chinese cemetery outside Manila, made up of hundreds of multistorey mausoleums, replete with showers, bars, dining rooms with silver service and offices with Internet access - all for the dead to use when they became bored with the tedium of the underworld.
The final element of this troika is a comprehensive vision of China after the Hong Kong takeover, and its effects on criminality on the Asian continent. Until recently, all learned texts about Chinese criminal societies found their genesis in a plain red book, written in 1960 by Royal Hong Kong Police Inspector W.P. Morgan. Triad Societies in Hong Kong has served for decades as the tome by which all such evil was measured and understood. With the termination of British rule over Hong Kong, its hypotheses suddenly seemed quite atrophied.
Paper Fan is perhaps the first work that critically analyzes and unravels the Chinese criminal dragon as it is now poised to strike in Asia and elsewhere - a newborn serpent whose lasting legacy could be widespread corruption that trumps the rule of law, and does so handsomely for its masters.
I approached Paper Fan with the attitude of the cynical cognoscenti: "Been there, done that." But by the time I had finished it, I had to acknowledge that this work is among the most provocative and well written texts on Asian organized crime - its complex history, antecedents and contemporary context - that I have read in years.
By the end of the book, I was also convinced that Paper Fan had feature movie etched all over it in big bold letters. This is a colorful piece of pop literature, and it is also that cliché of clichés, a compelling page-turner. If ever a book has captured the gaudy tones of modern Asia, this is it. Politics, history, culture, suspense and copious doses of good humor - Paper Fan has it all. It is a sophisticated education communicated as sheer, unadulterated entertainment. It is also a hustler's view of Asia, saucy, articulate and endearing. It packs more information into its 482 wonderfully textured pages than there are noodles in Aberdeen's floating restaurant.
Still, the piece is much more than the sum of its very tantalizing parts. Ever the journalist, Gould is not afraid to pose provocative questions. How is it, he asks, that in Canada, heroin trafficking can be virtually a victimless crime? Why, after an accused trafficker has been on the run for 10 or more years, does the Canadian Department of Justice even ponder whether it is worth the time and expense to keep the charges alive? In this perverse game of catch-me-if-you-can, the fugitive trafficker apparently wins and justice admits defeat.
On Dec. 4, 2003, criminal charges against Steve Wong for drug trafficking were stayed. Dead or alive, he is once more a free man.
Steven Wong: If you're out there, surrender. Because if the cops can't get you, I suspect that Terry Gould will.
K.G.E. (Chuck) Konkel is a police officer and an organized crime expert. He has written two novels, Glorious East Wind, set in Hong Kong, and Evil Never Sleeps. He is currently at work on his third novel.