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
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.
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
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
The debate today over Chen Chi-li is
whether he was a “patriot.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.”