Hong Kong's 'king of thieves'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am

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News that a prison officer smuggled two letters out of Stanley Prison for one of Hong Kong's most notorious criminals made headlines last week and forced property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung to explain his connections to the infamous Yip Kai-foon.

Who is Yip Kai-foon and what did he do?

Perhaps best remembered as the AK-47 guy, Yip and his gang robbed jewellery stores in the 1980s - making more than $20 million - using assault rifles. Allegedly trained in military combat on the mainland, Yip was famous for spraying bullets from his AK-47 above crowded streets to keep the police at bay. First captured in 1985, Yip escaped from Queen Mary Hospital in 1989 and became Hong Kong's most-wanted man, with a $1 million reward. In the next 11 years he robbed seven jewellery shops, killed a policeman, and kidnapped and killed a Shenzhen businessman. On May 13, 1996, a rookie policeman shot him three times - paralysing him for life - after spotting him in Western. Yip is serving a 36-year sentence.

Was he the first of his kind?

No, Yip is Hong Kong's third 'king of thieves'. Before him, 'Sand Pear' Cheung Sai-hung and 'Hunan Tiger' Chan Fu-kui had made buying diamonds a life-threatening activity. A founding member of the Big Circle gang, Cheung recruited ex-PLA officers to rob jewellery stores in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. He was convicted of three robberies and manslaughter - he killed the owner of a jade shop - and is now a free man after serving 15 years in jail. But when it comes to vices, the 'Hunan Tiger' stands above the rest. In 1985, Chan robbed a watch store, a jewellery shop and an armoured vehicle, shot seven policemen, took part in the gang rape of two women and attempted to kidnap a tycoon. The 24-year-old was captured the same year and served a 20-year sentence.

If Yip Kai-foon is neither the most violent nor the most recent thief, why is he so famous?

Yip really should thank his partner 'Big Spender' Cheung Tze-keung. Using Cheung's brains and Yip's brawn, a gang kidnapped some of Hong Kong's richest men. Cheung Kong (Holdings) deputy chairman Victor Li Tzar-kuoi and Sun Hung Kai Properties chairman Walter Kwok Ping-sheung were allegedly released after their families paid $800 million and $600 million, respectively. Cheung, the most successful Hong Kong gangster ever, is known for his Nietzsche collection and owning a dozen sports cars. He spent three years in jail for his role in a $167 million robbery at Kai Tak airport in 1991, but was acquitted after an appeal in 1995. Three years later, police found 818kg of explosives in Cheung's Sheung Shui hideout. Rumour has it he was going to kidnap Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun. After the raid, Cheung fled to the mainland, where he was captured and executed in December 1998.