The sleaze behind the sleaze of Hong Kong’s sex photos

Don’t expect Hong Kong’s overheated media to give a full account of the so-called Internet sex photos scandal, despite the fact that local newspapers have been repairing their balance sheets with it for weeks and giving the public a liberal daily lacing of all the titillation fit to print.

The real scandal is not the perfectly normal, if somewhat energetic, sexual activities of singer Edison Chen and his various singer/actress girlfriends. There could even be more to come, but who in Hong Kong truly believes that “innocent looking” girls in their early 20s in the entertainment business (or anywhere outside a convent) are virgins? If they were it would be a man-bites-dog story.

The real scandal likely cannot be told because it lies buried in the obscure but crucial relationships between Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, organized crime, the government and police. This was the very police force that started arresting a few Internet users who had passed on the sexy pix to their friends despite the fact that the photos had not been ruled obscene. Subsequently the relevant Hong Kong panel ruled the pictures indecent rather than obscene.

Anyway, by then the photos had been on-passed to Web sites around the world – not just Chinese language ones ‑ and kicked off a stunning brouhaha. Major Chinese newspapers increased their press runs by 30 percent to handle street sales from the story. It is likely that at least a million people in Hong Kong alone have seen some of the raunchier ones in full anatomical detail. Millions more have seen the printed version, genitalia obscured, which have been published in feverish local magazines and newspapers.

In an Internet world rife with pornography and nudity, the Hong Kong officials’ decision to raid the computer shop that repaired (and apparently looted) Chen’s laptop was unusual. Nine people were arrested, with Hong Kong’s Commissioner of Police, Tang King-shing, warning sternly that mere possession of the photos would violate the territory’s Colonial-era obscenity law. One man was detained for days without bail but was eventually released.

The police and the government in general may have rushed to make this an important issue because one of the indirect victims was Albert Yeung, head of the Emperor Entertainment Group, whose family hails from the tough Chiu Chow region of southern China. The female Cantopop stars’ sex exploits exposed by Edison Chen’s photos were all members of Yeung’s stable of entertainers. One of them, Vincy Yeung, was his niece, a daughter of his brother.

According to official reports, the photos became public because they were downloaded by a computer technician who had been given Chen’s pink Apple laptop computer to repair. The technician then gradually released them to the Internet. However, though this story may hold water in some respects, it looks unlikely to be the whole truth. It certainly does not fully explain why the photos surfaced when they did, or why new photos continue to make their appearance. This suggests that someone other than the technician has control of the smut cache, which according to some reports is said to run to hundred of stills and video clips and to involve 10 or so girls.

Yeung himself is a well-known business figure long said – and of course denied – to have or have had connections to the Sun Yee On triad, a criminal organization of long repute with activities in Hong Kong, China and beyond. He has had several brushes with the law. In 1981 he was jailed for attempting to pervert the course of justice and in 1995 was cleared of criminal intimidation and false imprisonment after all five prosecution witnesses suffered sudden memory lapses when called to testify.

Triad activity has long been known to be rife in the film and entertainment business in Hong Kong and the Cantopop industry is among its most profitable aspects. Although Yeung has many other business interests, ranging from a casino in Pyongyang to hotels and jewelry stores in Hong Kong, he is best known for his role in the entertainment industry and even into his 60s is noted in the gossip columns for his attraction to budding female performers.

The media frenzy over the sex photos may even help others in the industry, particularly the magazines and newspapers which have seen their circulations soar. However the careers of Emperor’s leading starlets are likely to suffer dramatically, unless they shift to the porn industry. Unlike in the west, where filmed Internet sex has caused barely a hiccup in the careers of Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and others, in Hong Kong this kind of thing is not taken lightly. Edison Chen himself, who has appeared in 25 Hong Kong movies since 2000 including the immensely popular Infernal Affairs trio, is said to be prudently staying in North America because relatives of the singer’s many actress-girlfriends may have powerful relatives who wish to do him harm when he returns.

It also just happens that the photo frenzy coincided with the stock market listing of another part of Yeung’s empire, New Media Group Holdings which publishes five weekly titles. Despite the generally depressed market, New Media was 48 times oversubscribed and doubled in price when trading began.

Yeung’s lesser known rival in the media business is the China Star group run by Charles Heung Wah-keung, also of Chiu Chow origin. Heung is a son of the reputed founder of Sun Yee On and was himself identified as an office bearer of the triad in a report on organized crime to the US Senate.

Internet blogs such as are full of all kinds of theories relating to the photos, with suggestions of extortion and other criminal activities more serious than pornography, theft of data or invasion of privacy. They draw heavily on the background and past records of various players.

Also noteworthy could be Albert Yeung’s strong links to Chinese Communist Party figures who have the ear of the Hong Kong government which, for whatever reasons, prefers to ignore his brushes with the law and regard him as a useful and patriotic businessman.

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