THE moment he saw her, he knew she was the mother of the hour-old baby lying dead on the lobby roof 11 floors below. She vehemently denied it, but her face said it all. The girl had given birth alone. Her only witnesses had been the toys that sat on her bedroom dresser in her family's 400-square-foot housing estate flat. Her parents - who work 12-hour days - had not even known she was pregnant. Their only concern was thattheir daughter was top of her class every term. So, after school finished, the girl was required to return home, complete her homework and then do extra study until bedtime. As a result she was top of her class. She knew a lot of facts, but she knew nothing about life. One night a classmate, also 14, had studied with her. One thing had led to another. The baby's life is over, and if it were not for Detective Senior Inspector Tony Lam, 33, hers would be too. Hong Kong law is black and white, but Senior Inspector Lam and his Criminal Investigation Department (CID) colleagues who police the housing estates of Shamshuipo see only shade after shade of grey. 'If she had been a bad girl, it would never have happened like this,' he said. 'If she had been like most housing estate girls her age and hung around video arcades and with older kids, she would have known about sex, contraception and abortion. But her parents had never told her and there was no one else.' The law demands she be prosecuted, but Senior Inspector Lam takes a different view. 'What would it achieve? A criminal record? More trauma for the girl? Shame for the parents? The total breakdown of their relationship with her? She is bright and, with counselling, could put this behind her and still make something of her life.' So he did all the paperwork, and then wrote a letter to the Department of Public Prosecution recommending the case be dropped. As Senior Inspector Lam tells you this story you realise there is something odd about him. It is not only that he clearly loves his work, or that he feels passionately that police should strive for positive results. Nor is it that he wears hip clothes - designer jeans, waistcoat, Armani eyewear, a Rolex - instead of a uniform. It is this: he and most of his CID colleagues are among the few people you have met in Hong Kong who are not in it for the money. Ten years ago he graduated as an accountant and when he bumps into old colleagues they inevitably point out they are earning four or five times more than him, but he is never fazed. 'They don't understand how much I enjoy this work,' he says. 'They don't understand what it means to work with people.' Another thing they don't understand is the intellectual kick that comes with solving a difficult crime. 'Accountants deal only with the facts they are given and work within a given framework, police have to find their own facts and make of them what they can.' For example, in a recent case two men dressed in overalls attacked and killed a man in a fast food shop. 'I couldn't find a motive. I went through all possibilities in the order of priority: women, gambling, triads, drugs. We interviewed everyone he knew. Went through all his paperwork - there was nothing. All I had was the fact his killers wore overalls.' The case almost drove him insane. 'I would sit at home going through every detail trying to work out what I had missed.' It turned out the man had been killed because he had pushed into the queue. Inspector Lam got his men by interviewing every building site worker in the area. There were 5,000. His record for solving murders remains 100 per cent. The CID officers are as far from the cardboard cut-out cops of shopping malls and cinemas as it is possible to get. Their only brief is to solve the crime they are assigned to, pursuing whatever line of inquiry it takes. They do not wear uniforms or identification. They have the power to pull people in for questioning on the flimsiest of reasons ('Sorry sir, we are looking for a burglar with dark hair and I'm afraid you fit the description'). This is a tactic which can make them unpopular, but there is nothing like it for jogging the memory of a reluctant witness. 'Especially if he is a bookmaker and it's race day.' They carry their guns at all times. 'The revolver is our symbol of power,' says Senior Inspector Lam. 'In other countries, police command respect because of tradition. In Hong Kong, there is no such tradition, so we have guns.' CID police are fanatical about where they carry their gun. They can argue about it for hours. Senior Inspector Lam prefers a holster hidden under his waistcoat at his back. Others go for a shin holster. 'They like it because they can walk into a restaurant or mahjong school, put their foot on a chair or table and, very dramatically, produce their gun. It is a greater gesture of power. Without power, there is no respect.' He relates this as he drives to a Tsim Sha Tsui karaoke nightclub for a party held in honour of a colleague who is leaving. It is the only club in Kowloon the CID is allowed to patronise because it is the only one which is not triad-run and makes a policy of employing only girls over 18. Senior Inspector Lam's superiors are manic about ensuring no officer socialises with triads. They even organise gambling nights for junior officers to stop them getting into debt with loan sharks. Otherwise it is like any other karaoke club; girls can be bought out for $600 and, if they like you, for another $1,200 they will sleep with you. These leaving parties used to be rare and wild. Heavy drinking games would inevitably be followed by shouting, glass breaking and some aggression. But things are not what they used to be. In recent months, so many colleagues have either left or announced they are leaving, that the karaoke nights have become commonplace and tame. Tonight one of the team is leaving after more than a decade in the force to become a cook in the north of England. Asked why he is leaving, he struggles with the language of his newcountry and finally says: 'One, Nine, Nine, Seven.' Cooking lessons are all the rage among CID officers. 'It is our insurance against 1997,' explains Senior Inspector Lam. 'All CID love the freedom their job gives them, without that freedom the job wouldn't be the same so a lot of people in the department have made alternative plans.' Against this background of anxiety it is becoming clear there are two ways to police Hong Kong. You can get involved or you can coast, and coasting has never been so easy or tempting. Never before has Hong Kong been awash with so much cash. Never before has Hong Kong - or perhaps any society - so absolutely measured men by the money they earn. And never before have criminals made it so easy for police to take a slice of the huge funds coursing through the worlds of vice, gambling and drugs. Triads understand a corrupt policeman cannot simply turn the other way as he did maybe 20 years ago. They know his superiors expect results, so they provide them. 'They will arrange arrests for you,' explains Senior Inspector Lam. 'They will provide you with the address of, say, a gambling den or a brothel and a time for you to raid it. It will be full of people, you can arrest them all, but they will be actors - drug addicts, unemployed, street people. The policeman gets a gold star for bringing in so manypeople and the triads can carry on as before.' Bribes are no longer passed over in cash bundles, instead triads use a number of less traceable methods. A winning betting slip might be handed over, debts can be paid off, credit arranged in a number of karaoke bars or a mistress paid. The money has neverbeen so good. Big syndicates have been known to offer bribes not simply to one policeman, but for the four or five-man team. Triads are as organised as the police. An afternoon with Senior Inspector Lam is testimony to that. The CID is searching for a particular girl working in a karaoke bar in Mongkok. By the time the senior inspector and his four-man, plain-clothes team park their car and walk 20 metres to the Wai Wah Commercial Building in Portland Street, their visit is as private as the Governor's walkabouts. First, a thin moustached man, who spends his day waiting on the street corner, talks into a mobile phone. Then, another triad street watcher makes a call from a telephone at a fish-ball stand halfway up the street. As Senior Inspector Lam enters the Wai Wah Commercial Building - of which the first five floors are devoted to a massage parlour, escort service, love hotel, karaoke bar and mahjong school - he is recorded by hidden cameras at the entrance hall, in the stairway and in the lift. By the time he steps inside the fourth floor karaoke bar, the music has stopped, the lights have gone up, the banks of televisions have blipped to neutral blue and all the under age prostitutes have fled down a hidden exit behind the stage. The lights reveal the bar for what it is - a 2,000-square-foot shoebox of squalor. Customers sit alone in karaoke booths the size of a car's backseat wearing expressions of 'what me, officer?' innocence. The only suggestion that these booths are places for cheap sex rather than genuine karaoke are the rolls of toilet paper which dangle from a string above the couches. 'This place is too cheap to waste money on boxes of tissues,' says Senior Inspector Lam. 'Good afternoon, inspector, how are you doing today,' says a smug body-builder in a shiny double-breasted suit. He is the smartest person there. He stands out like a Hollywood celebrity in a junk shop. Part manager, part henchman, it is his job to protect the establishment, find girls, find customers and deal with the books. 'Triads learned if they just squeezed a club for protection money, it went out of business - so everyone loses,' explains Senior Inspector Lam. 'Now they install their own managers, promise a certain number of customers, find girls, help run the place and take a larger cut.' And this is only the 14K triad. Compared with the Sun Yee On, down the road in Tsim Sha Tsui, the 14K are ancient, low-tech bumblers. Sun Yee On has patrol cars, it offers members pension schemes, insurance schemes and medical benefits. It has more than 20full-time solicitors on its books. It even has public relations officers. Its stake in the film business means it has the power to make and withdraw very large investments in China. It means the Sun Yee On's relationship with many important mainland Chinese is very good indeed (when China's Public Security Minister, Tao Siju said 'some triads are good patriots' it was generally understood he was referring to the Sun Yee On). Senior Inspector Lam, on the other hand, must use his own car to patrol if he wants to go unrecognised by the street watchers. Undercover police cars might as well have a siren on the top, because they are all Mitsubishi Galants. For deep cover, Senior Inspector Lam uses a taxi, but he must pay the bill himself as police travel expenses will only stretch to buses (even the MTR is deemed an extravagance). Policemen and women may have good cause to wonder who has the better relationship with China - those good patriots the triads, or those lackeys of imperialist law and order, the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.