King Duck’s Last Reward

When Chen Chi-li returned to Taiwan for the last time, a motorcade of three black limousines and five coaches carried him to a memorial hall lined with 2,000 white orchids and Buddhist priests chanting sutras. The Taipei police mobilized 1,000 officers for the event. On November 4, thousands of mourners, including Chen’s associates from Japan, Hong Kong and Macau, will assemble for a memorial service.

Such a send off might be fit for a national celebrity, a religious figure or film star, but Chen was none of these. “King Duck”, as the 64-year old was known, headed the Bamboo Union Gang, the largest criminal syndicate in Taiwan, which had 100,000 members worldwide at the height of its power and branches in the United States, Latin America, Southeast Asia and South Korea.

A fugitive who left Taiwan in 1996 and settled in Cambodia, Chen died of pancreatic cancer in St Theresa’s hospital in Hong Kong on October 4. His return in the middle of an intense campaign for next March’s presidential election is a dramatic and unsavory reminder of how deeply China’s fabled gangsters were entwined with the Kuomintang party that ruled China and then Taiwan and how the party used criminal gangs to intimidate and kill opponents, giving them a measure of immunity in return.

According to many biographies of Chiang Kai-shek, the very founding of the Kuomintang in Shanghai was closely entangled with organized crime, although the Bamboo Union Gang was born in Taiwan. Chiang used the infamous Green Gang, and its godfather “Big Eared” Du, to stage a murderous purge of Communist Party members in Shanghai in 1927 when Chiang’s alliance of convenience with the Left fell apart.

For his service, Du was appointed by Chiang to head the Board of Opium Suppression Bureau in Shanghai – which did nothing to suppress opium – further cementing the Green Gang’s privileged status with the British and French, who ran their respective concessions and used the gang to police the Chinese brothels, opium dens and gambling parlours. When Chiang and the defeated nationalist movement decamped for Taiwan in 1949, the gangland connections moved with him across the strait.

It is a measure of the maturing of Taiwan’s politics that the party’s gangland connections have diminished. Public opinion has forced the KMT to sell or divest itself of many of its companies and other assets, many of which were linked to organized crime. One result of the transition to democratic politics has been a reduction of these links and greater transparency.

The live coverage of Chen’s return and next month’s service, which the media are calling “the gang funeral of the century,” has sparked intense anger. President Chen Shui-bian said the media should not mislead people into believing that the deceased gangster was a hero. The president’s wife was left in a wheelchair after a car ran over her three times in November 1985, an attack often blamed on gangs hired by the Kuomintang.

The debate today over Chen Chi-li is whether he was a “patriot.” His opponents call him a murderer and a criminal. The crime for which he became most infamous was the murder, on October 15, 1984, of Henry Liu, also known by the pen name Jiang Nan, an author who had written a biography critical of President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek. Chen’s supporters say he was acting on behalf of the government and the KMT in killing Liu in his home in a suburb of Los Angeles.

It was to have profound consequences. Chen and two others sought for the killing returned to Taiwan safely but the FBI found a tape which Chen, fearing he might be betrayed and killed by the Kuomintang, had left with a fellow gang member named Yellow Bird in Houston, Texas. The tape led FBI agents to discover that Taiwanese intelligence agents had ordered the murder of a US citizen on American soil.

Washington put such pressure on the Taiwanese government that it was forced to arrest Chen and his two accomplices and the three senior officers in military intelligence who had planned it. In 1990 the government paid US$1.45 million in compensation to Liu’s widow.

Some suspect Chiang Hsiao-wu, the son of Chiang Ching-kuo, of involvement in the plot. Whatever the truth, Chiang Ching-kuo decided that none of his children would succeed him in office and ended martial law in July 1987. The botched killing and the opprobrium it brought on his country and his party played a part in his decision and helped the new opposition Democratic Progressive Party to gain legitimacy and ultimately come to power.

Chen was born on May 11, 1943 in Jiangsu province and went to Taiwan at the age of six, when his father, a KMT civil servant, fled the mainland. At school, he received a baptism of fire as one of only three mainland children in a class full of Taiwanese. They were subject to constant bullying as revenge for the massacre of Taiwanese carried out by the Kuomintang army in 1947, he recalled later.

In his teens, Chen became a member of a branch of the Bamboo Union Gang and rose in the hierarchy as he took over territory from other gangs. In April 1968, at a meeting on a mountain overlooking Taipei, he was formally installed as the gang’s leader and given the nickname King Duck. In 1972, he was sentenced to four-years in prison for involvement in the murder of a renegade gangster. When he came out, he resumed his post and forged good relations with the police, who used the mob to control other gangs in exchange for more freedom for its activities. In 1983, in a true burst of hubris, he set up a weekly magazine to report on the activities of Taiwan’s gangs.

So it was that he agreed to kill Liu. As leader, he could have ordered an underling to carry out the operation but chose to do it in person. “I felt that this was a duty of a patriotic citizen,” he told an interviewer 20 years later. “I did not think about whom I was doing it for.” He refused the US$20,000 reward offered to him.

Chen served less than six years of the life sentence he received for the crime, was released in January 1991 and returned to the Bamboo Union Gang. In 1996, hearing that the police were coming for him, he escaped to Cambodia, where he went into property and other businesses and made friends with the country’s national leaders. He bought a luxury mansion in Phnom Penh and did charity work for the city’s poor. He entertained visiting Taiwanese and said how much he wanted to return home.

But he was unable to agree on the terms of this return. He demanded that he be properly welcomed at the airport and not arrested, but the authorities refused.

In 2000, he displayed his mansion’s weapons on Taiwan television, provoking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen into ordering a raid by 100 police and soldiers. They found 12 AK-47s and M-16 automatics, hand pistols and 2,000 bullets. A court in Phnom Penh sentenced him to three years in jail for illegal possession of firearms.

After his release, he was less active, spending his time on calligraphy and swimming. “In this world, there are no truly good and no truly evil people,” he was quoted as telling a visiting friend. “Whether a man does good or evil depends on the change of time, place and people. There are no fixed criteria.”