How A Triad Dragon Head Escaped to Vancouver


Province deputy editor Fabian Dawson recaps how an Asian crime godfather landed in Vancouver and details his connections, as Immigration Canada moves to deport the gangster and his family after 17 years.

Immigration Canada’s attempt to remove a Macau crime godfather, who has been living in Richmond for the past 17 years with his family, will once again shed a spotlight on a dark period for the government agency when corruption and incompetence allowed many Asian criminals to enter Canada.

Their organizations, which have taken root in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada, have been linked to local murders, underground banks in Hong Kong, triad wars in the gambling mecca of Macau, extortion of schoolchildren in Vancouver, illegal weapons trade, credit-card fraud and even arms shipments.

Immigration Canada has confirmed that Tong Sang Lai, a.k.a. Lai Tong San, his wife Sap Mui Vong, whose last known address was on Bowcock Drive in Richmond, and their three children are scheduled for an admissibility hearing over three days, beginning Feb. 26, in Vancouver.

Government lawyers will argue the known gangster and his family lied about their criminal connections in order to gain entry into Canada — a fact well documented by The Province since their arrival on Oct. 20, 1996.

Immigration Canada won’t say why the case has taken so long or what, if any, new evidence has been brought forward to determine now that Tong and his family cannot stay in Canada.

But sources said that in addition to a reprise of his escape to Canada, the hearing will likely be told of their family life in B.C. that will range from suspected visits back to Macau to link up with junket operations run by known criminals and acts of local philanthropy, including donations to the B.C. Children’s Hospital.

The Province exposed Tong’s presence in Vancouver in July 1997, reporting that an international investigation had been launched to determine how a notorious Asian gangster ended up living in Vancouver as a landed immigrant.

At that time, the gangster who also went by the name Shui Fong Lai, alias Dragon Head Lai, had escaped a crackdown on warring triads in Macau and had moved into a $750,000 home on Fraserview Drive in east Vancouver with his wife and children.

Our investigation showed that Tong, who was 42 at that time, slipped into Vancouver via Los Angeles using an elaborate plan that was devised as early as 1994.

He was then the leader of the 3,000-strong Wo On Lok, also known as the Shui Fong (Water Rats) triad, which had been linked to the operations of Macau gambling czar Stanley Ho. Ho has been feted and wooed and given medals by the likes of former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Brian Mulroney, and several premiers of British Columbia.

Tong had been an active gang member since he was a teen and started out as “street muscle,’’ soon graduating to money laundering and racketeering. In the mid-’90s, the powerful Shui Fong’s thugs were embroiled in a bloody battle with the 14K triad, which is based in Hong Kong, for control of Macau’s lucrative gambling and loan-sharking business.

When police went looking for him after Macau police and the Chinese government brokered a “ceasefire’’ between the gangs, he had disappeared.

Tong had apparently been meticulously plotting an escape to Canada for three years.

He initially applied for Canadian landed immigrant status under the immigrant investor program through the Canadian high commission in Hong Kong in 1994.

In June of the same year, he purchased his home on Fraserview Drive in southeast Vancouver.

As the war in Macau heated up, Tong’s lawyer withdrew the immigration application in Hong Kong, where Canadian officials had identified him as a gang leader.

Tong then took his family to Los Angeles and applied again through the Canadian consulate.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the average time for an application to be processed by the Los Angeles consular office between January and July 1996 was nine months.

Tong’s application was handled in four months from start to finish, and it seems no one in the Los Angeles office made the necessary checks to reveal that he had a criminal background or that his application was nixed earlier in Hong Kong.

A government investigation concluded that Tong had slipped through the cracks because of “human error made by conscientious employees working in busy office,” which had let the word out it was “open for business’’ and became an “overflow’’ post for Asian applications.

What it did not say was that corruption was rife at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles at that time, with staff stealing $177,000 from the visa office and chronic security lapses.

After Tong’s arrival in Vancouver, his rivals in Hong Kong hooked up with another established Asian organized crime boss in B.C. and ordered a hit on him. Tong’s luxury house in east Vancouver was sprayed with bullets in the summer of 1997 and he was reportedly the target of another failed assassination attempt on South West Marine Drive.

The attacks were linked to Tong’s main rival, the Macau mobster known as Broken Tooth — despite his full set of gleaming teeth. Broken Tooth, or Wan Kuok-koi, according to intelligence officials in Canada and the United States, has access to an army of thousands internationally.

He has been monitored trying to set up an arms factory in Cambodia and shopping for missiles, rockets and tanks.

In B.C., one of Broken Tooth’s allies was Simon Kwok Chow, who is serving time in Canada for a range of charges from murder to extortion.

Chow, a father of two, lived in Canada for 16 years, until his arrest in the late ’90s by Vancouver police. He was listed as the sole principal of Boss Investments Co. Ltd., the owner of Embassy Billiards in Coquitlam. His address was the location of Club Dynasty, 248 E. 2nd Ave. in Vancouver.

The two locations and a defunct business called Catwalk Billiards in Richmond were linked to a complex extortion network targeting up to 200 Asian high-school kids. Police say they were forced, through threats or assaults, to pay $60 each to join pool halls.

The pool halls were fronts for the 14K gang. Police investigating organized crime in the Lower Mainland said Simon Chow was a “heroin broker’’ and senior member of the 14K.

Nicknamed 426 or Red Pole Fighter, Chow controlled a large cell of Chinese secret-society members in Canada.

He was in line to take over the international operations of the triad, say some intelligence reports.

Another of the gangsters linked to this group was a Vancouver area loan shark known as Kwok Chung Tam.

When police raided his home in Burnaby, they found a couple of semi-automatic handguns, ammunition, a silencer, a half-pound of raw opium and almost $80,000 in cash — along with a photo of Kwok seated on a couch with then-premier Glen Clark.

The picture was taken in April 1996 when Kwok Tam, as he was known, was introduced to the premier at his constituency office. The premier’s office denied Clark knew the gangster and said he was one of hundreds of people pictured with the premier.

In March of 2000, Immigration Canada conducted an internal investigation into problems at its missions which allowed unqualified applicants and those with criminal backgrounds to enter Canada.

An RCMP memo on the inquiry had officers describing this report as having taken a “carpet-sweeping approach.”

One RCMP officer, referring to the Tong Sang Lai file out of Los Angeles, wrote: “Shocked beyond belief and utterly disturbed by the report, are the kindest words I can express on my views of the outcome of this so called [Immigration Canada’s] Administrative Investigation.”