Broken Tooth And The Story of Organized Crime Across Hong Kong

This story touches on a topic somewhat tangential to Italian-American organized crime, but, hey, man does not live on bread alone. (In other words, expand your horizons, whydontcha?)... We will post the next part of the Gravano Testimony Series shortly....

Things are not going too well in Hong Kong these days. The former British colony, long admired as a bustling free-market city-state, is facing the wrath of China. Agitations against the imposition of Chinese law have triggered fierce protests and police crackdowns.

Broken Tooth Koi
 Broken Tooth Koi


But it was not just the police who were beating up students and democratic protestors in the city. Mobs of masked men in t-shirts were seen rampaging with relative impunity. They were identified as members of the infamous 14K triad – a major organized crime group based in Hong Kong.

Why would a criminal group involved in everything from drug trafficking to prostitution and smuggling support China, a country known for executing criminals who precisely those things? The answer is quite fascinating, and not without a fair dose of irony.

The historic links between triads and China

Triads were criminal groups that had their roots in ancient Chinese secret societies. They came to the fore as mafia-style organizations during the 18th century, as China was opening to the western Colonial powers.

But after the Communist Revolution, Mao Zedong started a crackdown on these criminal groups, forcing them to leave mainland China. They found a haven in colonial outposts like Hong Kong and Macau.

Then a strange thing happened – as the West imposed sanctions on China, the Triads sensed an opportunity. When the West imposed sanctions on China after the revolution, it was desperately in need of supplies, including weapons.

Since Hong Kong was British, the triads to import/buy essentials there and smuggle them into mainland China. Over the decades, as the Chinese economy grew, the triads expanded their businesses to include gambling in Macau, money laundering, and other financial crimes in Hong Kong.

How the triads prosper under a resurgent China

 After the transition of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1999, Triads started becoming more and more pro-Beijing. Flush with cash from their criminal activities, they had gradually expanded into legitimate businesses and front companies. They have also benefited greatly from China’s growing stature on the global scene.

The Belt and Road initiative is the perfect example of this – the ambitious plan involves connecting China with the rest of Asia, Europe, and Africa using land and shipping routes. China has pumped billions of dollars building roads into neighbors like Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos.

Those countries are home to the infamous Golden Triangle – a lawless zone where much opium, heroin, and methamphetamine is produced. The triads have invested heavily in these regions and now use the increased traffic to move drugs.

In this situation, angering the Chinese authorities would make life incredibly difficult for the triads. Siding with mainland China also has another advantage for the Triads – protection from US and Western sanctions. Though they are based in China, Hong Kong, and Macau, they have a global presence.

"By the 1990s, he was the top crime lord in Macau, earning a reported $6 million per month. But the high life soon caught up with Broken Tooth Koi..."

The US recently pressed sanctions on Carrie Lam, the pro-China leader of Hong Kong. The move has soured ties between the two countries. As long as those sanctions are in place, the Chinese authorities are not expected to do much about recent US sanctions on another individual in Hong Kong – Wan Kuok Koi, popularly known as Broken Tooth Koi.

The colorful story of Broken Tooth Koi

Wan Kuok Koi is one of those gangsters whose life reads like a movie script. He famously funded a movie on his life – going so far as to block traffic on a major bridge in Macau for two hours so that shooting could take place.

The 65-year old rose through the ranks of the 14K triad in Macau. By the 1990s, he was the top criminal lord in Macau, earning a reported $6 million per month. But the high life soon caught up with Broken Tooth Koi – weeks after his outrageous bridge stunt, he was arrested and sent to prison for 13 years, with all assets seized.

After his release in 2012, Broken Tooth quickly ensconced himself into another highly lucrative enterprise – junkets. The informal system ferries high-value gamblers from mainland China to casinos in Macau. The junkets also serve as an easy way to launder money gotten through illegal means. He is also known to operate a number of online casinos masquerading as licensed entities.

Apart from gambling, Wan Kuok also rapidly expanded his operations into countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, allegedly using the Belt and Road initiative as cover. He is even part of the Communist Party of China's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which gives him a lot of leverage in these countries.

The US sanctions highlighted several organizations founded or controlled by Wan Kuok - World Hongmen History and Culture Association, Palau China Hung-Mun Cultural Association, and the Dongmei Group, which all have bases in Hong Kong and strong ties with the triads.

Through these fronts, the triads build links with powerful figures in countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. The Hongmen association is particularly interesting – it is another name of the Ancient Chinese secret society called Tiandihui - from which the triads originated.

Like the Freemasons, there are international branches of the Hongmen in countries with significant Chinese diaspora. There is even a political party in China based on this group – the China Zhi Gong Party.

 Networks like these give criminal organizations like the triads a lot of power in Hong Kong, as well as other parts of Asia. As long as that remains the case, the sanctions against individuals like Broken Tooth Koi will only have a limited impact.