In 1996, Lai Tong Sang was one of Macau's most notorious triad leaders and a hunted man as he fought a brutal turf war with the 14K gang.
Now the Canadian government wants to expel the onetime head of the Wo On Lok triad and his family, 17 years after an immigration blunder allowed him to flee to Vancouver and bring his gang war to the city with him.
The opening of an immigration hearing in Vancouver on Tuesday saw a top anti-gang officer describe how wiretaps confirmed Lai's identity as the triad leader as rival gangsters discussed a plan to murder him. The plot, between members of "Broken Tooth" Wan Kuok-koi's 14K gang, culminated in a drive-by shooting at Lai's Canadian home in July, 1997. Lai was not hurt.
Lai, who has not been photographed in public for 15 years, did not attend Tuesday's hearing, having been granted permission to attend by teleconference from an undisclosed address in Macau. He spoke only to confirm his identity and that he could hear the proceedings. It is not known why Lai is in Macau.
His caution is perhaps understandable. His arch-enemy, Wan Kuok-koi, was released from prison less than three months ago, and the Wo On Lok is in the midst of another spate of bloodletting as gangsters battle over its leadership.
Superintendent Patrick Fogarty told the hearing officers in Vancouver stumbled on the plot to murder Lai in late 1996 from wiretaps involving an unrelated car-smuggling ring that involved 14K members. On the wiretaps, a 14K leader in Hong Kong was heard asking a Vancouver gangster whether his boss, Simon Chow, would take a HK$1 million contract to track down and murder Lai, who took permanent residency in Canada with his family in October that year.
"In my world, 'a contract' means 'to kill'. If it's a contract to break somebody's legs, they will qualify it," Fogarty said.
He said Chow was given a partial phone number that eventually allowed him to track Lai to his luxury home in the Fraserview suburb. "It was clearly established from the perspective of these individuals it was clear to them that Tong Sang Lai was the head of the Shui Fong [Wo On Lok triad]," Fogarty said. "Nobody knows the underworld like the underworld."
He said he had no doubt about the identity of the target or the intent. "In my whole career I never had a more clear-cut call that indicated what they wanted to do."
As a result of the plot against him, new wiretaps were authorised on Lai's phone. Fogarty said Lai was heard receiving briefings from gang underlings on the ongoing triad war in Macau, which further established his role in the Wo On Lok. When police tried to warn Lai about the threat to his life, he was unco-operative and lied about his whereabouts.
"A normal person would react with fear, some reaction other than 'I don't need to talk to you'," Fogarty said. "The first reaction of a gangster is exactly that of Mr Lai."
The house was sprayed with bullets, but Chow was never pursued after he was sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated murder and other crimes.
Immigration authorities say Lai, 59, must be expelled for failing to disclose in his permanent residency application his membership of an organised crime society, although they are not seeking to prove any specific criminal activity.
Expulsion of his wife and three adult children - a son and two daughters - is being sought on the grounds that they won permanent residency through misrepresentation. It is not clear why the case has taken so long to reach a hearing. Canadian authorities were alerted to the alleged deception around the time of the shooting.
Lai's lawyer, Peter Chapman, said Fogarty could not speak Cantonese, had never visited Macau, and had not discussed Lai's case with Hong Kong or Macau officers. He also suggested that reports of the 1996 triad war in Macau and Lai's widely reported role in it had been exaggerated.
"Something can start in Macau with a corrupt police force and spread, almost like a computer virus," he said.
Fogarty scoffed at the proposition. "With 35 or 40 bodies, and shootings in the street - something was going on in Macau."
The hearing ends today.