The Laundrymen by Jeffrey Robinson Simon & Schuster $305 HONG Kong has a laissez-faire attitude to money and that's a good thing, right? You can move any amount of any currency in and out of the territory anyway you like - even if it is in the form of a suitcase stuffed with cash. This commendable policy makes it easy to do business here and does no harm to anybody, right? Wrong. The downside of an easy-going, lightly regulated banking system is that the location in question becomes a magnet for dirty money. The horrific truth is that we have become the wallet of the drug-pushers of the world - handy, efficient and eager to please. One of the most interesting evidences of this was the growth of the Bank of Credit and Commerce in Hong Kong. BCCI was a bank started in the early 70s by Agha Hasan Abedi, an Indian-born businessman with Arab connections. Remember how BCCI opened a large number of branches in Hong Kong in the 80s? Abedi claimed that his bank was finding special niches that other banks neglected. He was right. But for the man on the Mongkok MTR, this was assumed to refer to the fact that his savings would attract slightly better returns there. In hindsight, Abedi's words were true in the sense that you could launder huge amounts of money there. The Hong Kong chain, as well as handling the savings of many innocent individuals handled a major part of the financing for the Golden Triangle crowd, according to Jeffrey Robinson. This is not to say that individuals from the Hong Kong branches of the bank were themselves corrupt. Indications from the post-closure auditing operation suggest that the bank basically kept its records straight. After all, you count dirty dollars in the same way you count clean dollars. It was at a higher, international level that tainted money was flying around between BCCI's various operations. With astounding cheek, one group of cash deposits were receipted at BCCI Miami as if they had come from BCCI Bahamas - and this was done when there was no such thing as BCCI Bahamas. The conundrum over the cleanliness or otherwise of BCCI Hong Kong reflects a major problem in the fight against money launderers. It is not illegal in any way to move money from a Swiss bank to a Miami deposit-taking house to a Singapore foreign exchange fund to a bank in Hong Kong. It is stupid and pointless - because you lose a little money with each transfer - but it is not illegal. Therefore society has to convict people of money laundering in tandem with other crimes - usually related to the drug trade, but sometimes involving money stolen from banks or bullion trucks. The name Hong Kong pops up depressingly often in The Laundrymen, a jazzy (by business book standards) account of the money-washing trade around the world. Robinson, who wrote The Risk Takers, a series of profiles of tycoons, retells a number of recent scandals in his new book. As well as the BCCI story, there is the Brink's-Mat robbery, the ''God's banker'' scandal involving the Pope's bank and dozens of other stories, some told in detail, others merely anecdotes. Robinson starts off each chapter in a style somewhere between tabloid newspapers and pulp detective fiction, before getting into the number-crunching. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. You know what I mean. ''March 1986. ''They knew they could trust him. ''He was an Argentinian living in Uruguay, a precious metals dealer who did business with the jewellery trade in Los Angeles, respectable enough on the surface, in his early 40s, with a good reputation and all the proper contacts. And greedy. ''He was the perfect partner. ''So the Colombians approached Raul Vivas with a straightforward deal. ''He said, cut me in. ''And they did.'' It's easy reading, which is why the book is selling so well overseas, and not just to men in dark suits. There may be another reason why Hong Kong is a centre for money-laundering. The Chinese ''apparently invented it with their term fei chi'ien - flying money'', writes Robinson. ''Money deposited at a Hong Kong gold shop is exchanged for a small card . . . like a laundry ticket or a torn playing card - which has been secretly coded. When the chit is presented to a money changer in San Francisco's Chinatown, the bearer is given his cash.'' Fortunately, as the law enforcement agencies wise up to the tricks, cleaning the cash is becoming harder. Robinson tells of one US$29 million stash in Ecuador which had to be fed into the banking system as 40,000 separate transactions.