The hunted

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

IN A SNAPSHOT of him standing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1992, he looks like any fresh-faced computer programmer or junior lawyer. With his large round glasses, flyaway hair and open-neck shirt, even at 28 he could pass as a young student posing for a keepsake picture in front of an American landmark.

But Steven Wong is a ruthless Hong Kong-born member of the 14K triad, a manipulative gang leader, an accused drug smuggler. He is also 'dead', having 'died' the year the photo was taken, in a traffic accident in the Philippines, somewhat conveniently just weeks before his trial in Vancouver for trafficking heroin and after taking out a million-dollar insurance policy on his life - money which was never claimed.

His urn may be buried in a Vancouver cemetery, but today the mobster is believed to be as alive as the source of all this information: the Brooklyn-born, Vancouver-based investigative journalist Terry Gould. For 10 years from 1993, Gould pursued Wong around the Pacific rim, jumping from Hong Kong to Macau, the Philippines to Cambodia - his obsession to catch up with the gangster stemming from a loathing based on witnessing his antics at enticing young schoolboys into his gang in Vancouver years before. But it also came from a kind of affection, and even some sort of connection.

Gould's grandfather had been a Jewish mobster in New York who had killed himself - or perhaps been bumped off - in 1953, and Gould himself had grown up surrounded by gangsters in Brooklyn and had spent time in Manhattan's Chinatown where a young Wong first witnessed the trappings of gangsterism as a young immigrant fresh from Hong Kong.

Gould's account of his 10-year quest and expose of Wong will be published next month across the US and UK in his book Paper Fan (Thunder's Mouth Press). Speaking from his home in Vancouver in a rumbling drawl that belies his relentless nature, Gould, 55, recalls the impression the mobster made on him when they met several times two years before Wong disappeared. 'As a personality, he had this irrepressible sociability - that was part of his charm,' he says. 'I mean, there was a reason he was able to maintain his army around him. It wasn't just terror. He had an affable nature - great sociability.'

Sure, Gould stresses, Wong could turn in a second and put a bullet in your head, if nettled. 'But if you weren't aware that he was possibly manipulating you, you could feel that underneath there was a sincerely likeable guy,' he says. 'So I mean if you could separate the criminality from the personality you could almost like ... I mean I did like him, you know? He was an affable fellow.'

He also had a difficult upbringing. According to Gould's account, when Wong was just four in 1968, his parents moved to Vancouver and immediately sent him away to New York's Chinatown where he stayed with his brother-in-law, who ran a bean-sprout factory. For the next seven years, the young Steven mingled with the gangs and tongs who haunted the area in Lower Manhattan. According to Gould, the gangsters made a deep impression on him.

In 1975, the 11-year-old's parents brought him back to Vancouver. Soon, he had joined the 14K-affiliated Red Eagles gang, and by the time he was 21, he was a full member of the 14K and later formed his own gang, the murderous Gum Wah (Golden Chinese).

Gould, meanwhile, was a taxi driver in New York, working to put himself through Brooklyn College, where he earned a degree in English. 'I used to drive my cab through Chinatown every shift in those days,' Gould writes, 'and for all I know, I could have seen the little Stevie Wong in the seedy-looking, dangerous neighbourhood'.

After moving to rural British Colombia in the 1970s, where Gould, his wife and daughter lived off the land and got by on commissions for his short story writing, Gould eventually decided to become a teacher and moved to Vancouver in 1987, taking up a teacher-training post at a school called Britannia. Walking into the school for the first time for an introduction, he encountered a police officer standing by a stairway, 'the butt of his big revolver prominent as a baseball bat', Gould recalls. Gould asked if there was any trouble. It transpired that 'outsiders' had been causing problems.

The 'outsiders' were led by Steven Wong, a former Britannia pupil. Gould recalls how Wong would manipulate the school's pupils into a life of crime. He would single out a particular student and assign a couple of his boys to beat him up on and off for a week or two. 'And then he would pull up in his Beemer and wave his arm as if he was stopping [the fight] and invite the kid in. And he would take him down to the poolroom, and ply him with drugs and girls, until the kids saw him as the saviour,' Gould writes.

Gould says they were very vulnerable students. 'He had an army of 50 kids - of 50 - that he had roped in like that and ruined their lives,' the journalist says. 'And he got away with all that. And because I was starting out as a teacher, I was witness to all that impunity and to the fall-out from it.'

In his spare time, Gould began to write articles about organised crime. By 1988, he was writing full-time when he was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to work on a documentary about Vancouver gangland culture. In February 1990, Gould went to Wong's swanky house to ask for an interview. Wong agreed because he apparently saw this as an opportunity to badmouth a rival gang, the Lotus. Gould visited Wong several times that month, learning much about his mentality.

Wong admitted he sometimes thought about going back to school, but said he lacked the qualifications to pursue further education. He also said he respected the police more than any gang but added that they went about things in the wrong way, failing to fathom the Chinese mentality. 'Orientals are brought up differently, with more respect,' Wong said. 'It's all face. That's why there are battles.'

In 1992, after jumping bail when a Canadian judge was persuaded to return his passport, Wong conveniently 'died' just before his trial for drug trafficking. Police voiced their suspicions to Gould, who agreed to help prove the apparent fatal car crash in the Philippines was a fraud. 'I'll go over there, I'll get the proof, and I'll find him for you,'' he told them. 'Then I'll tell you where he is, you get the warrant, and arrest him. All I want in exchange is to be sitting behind him on the plane when he comes back in chains.'

So began his wild goose chase that evolved into an obsession, blurring the boundaries between detective work and investigative journalism. Deducing from underworld sources and the police that Wong would head for Macau, Gould believes he actually spotted his quarry stepping on to the Macau jetfoil. 'What should I do,' he thought. 'If I chase after him down the ramp, they couldn't hold him at customs on my say-so.' And so his quarry escaped, and Gould went on to bounce vainly between Macau, the Philippines and Cambodia, mixing with life's seedy underbelly.

Despite a six-month spell of police protection in Vancouver after Wong became frantic about TV exposure when the documentary was shown, Gould says he feels 'almost embarrassed' about discussing the danger he faced. Just look at what is happening to journalists in Iraq and the Philippines, he says.

Gould has won 38 awards and honours in journalism since changing his mind about teaching and going into investigative reporting for publications such as the Vancouver Sun. During his hunt, he says, he chewed 'massive' quantities of nicotine gum to pep up his drive, which was relentless. 'I guess I spend a lot of time on everything I do,' he says. 'If I'm working on something and it requires travelling, I travel - I do it.'

He never bought into the idea that Wong was dead, the circumstances surrounding his death being all too suspicious. Following his own apparent sighting of Wong in Hong Kong, several sources confirmed to him that the gangster was alive, and provided information that would spur Gould on his pursuit over the next decade. One associate who had officially turned into an anti-triad campaigner, Mary 'Rosebud' Ong, even signed an affidavit saying: 'The last I recall seeing Steven Wong was sometime in 1997, in Manila.'

Interpol also took the line that Wong was alive, and until recently, had a red alert warrant out for his arrest.

But Gould says he feels no hostility towards his quarry, and portrays Wong as a fellow depressive who, like himself, courts risk for the buzz. In Gould's expose, Wong giggles a lot and can seem almost sweet. In one episode, Wong's former girlfriend Laura portrays him as gallant. 'See, when I wouldn't go out with him at first, he sent me chocolate and flowers,' she is quoted as saying. 'And when he went away to Asia, he wrote me romantic letters every day.'

Assuming Wong is still alive, he has so far escaped the net of justice, and following a ruling by the Canadian Justice Department in December last year, will continue to do so. Gould explains bitterly that the department stayed the charges against Wong, in accordance with a Canadian policy that now considers heroin trafficking a 'victimless crime'. After an accused smuggler has been on the run for 10 years, charges are often dropped, he says, based on the fact that the government feels it's not worth the time and expense to keep the charges active. 'The criminal wins and the justice system admits defeat,' Gould writes.

As a result, Wong is now free to return to Canada. Gould doubts he would come after him, however, saying all triads are 'very, very racist'. It would be almost impossible for Wong to lose face among his cohorts of criminals by reacting to the book, Gould believes.

Still working as a 'paper fan' (triad administrator), Wong is apparently active in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and South Korea. Gould always expected him to escape the authorities - this was only 'congruent' with various judiciary 'fiascos' in relation to his case, he snipes. He complains of 'uniform fecklessness' that can lead to 'nefariousness', and portrays the Canadian legal system as a joke.

And if, as is suspected, Wong is still among us, he must be laughing.