In his new book, a Vancouver author chronicles his quest to find Steven Wong
THE BIG GANGSTER IN TOWN’
In his new book, a Vancouver author chronicles his quest to find Steven Wong
FOR 14 YEARS, Vancouver journalist Terry Gould has been tracking Steven Wong, leader of the city’s ruthless Gum Wah gang and a fully initiated member of the 14K Triad, one of the largest Chinese mafia groups in the world. In the early 1990s, shortly before the elusive gangster was set to stand trial for heroin trafficking, he fled to Asia and, in 1992, faked his own death. Determined to see Wong prosecuted, Gould pursued him across the Pacific, managing to prove that he was not only alive but also engaged in a variety of criminal activities under the protection of corrupt officials in Cambodia, Macau and the Philippines. Still, the gangster continued to slip through the cracks. In December 2003, with no new solid evidence to justify further investigation, the Canadian Justice Department stayed its charges against Wong, leaving the Hong Kong-born criminal, who moved to Vancouver when he was 11, free to return to Canada someday and pick up where he left off. Gould, 54, talked to Maclean’s Associate Editor Lianne George about his new book, Paper Fan: The Hunt for Triad Gangster Steven Wong, which chronicles his quest.
What compelled you to delve into the rather hazardous world of organized crime? A lot of it comes from my own background. I was raised in a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that had a lot of crime and different factions of gangs. My grandfather [known as Nathan “The Castilian” Gould] came to New York in 1910 from Odessa, the capital of Jewish organized crime in those days. He entered the world of the Jewish mob in New York, which was then operating under the famous Arnold Rothstein. He’s the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. I grew up in an area where organized crime was so pervasive, in order to get anything done, you got used to paying people off. Everybody got tipped. I mean, unless you gave the postman something at Christmas, you never knew.
How did you manage to avoid getting sucked into that life yourself? I didn’t see making my way in that world. When I was 21, my wife and I left New York for British Columbia. I was probably one of the only guys who crossed the border then who wasn’t running away from the draft. I was running away from corruption in New York.
When did you first become aware of Steven Wong and gang life in Vancouver? In 1987,1 took my teacher training in a school called Britannia, which at the time was the epicentre of Asian gang activity and recruitment. Steven was the big gangster in town. He walked down Chinatown like he was the emperor of the north. Steven would send out a couple of his boys to the schoolyards and target these little kids—very upset and damaged kids in their early teens who’d been shaken out of war-torn countries like Cambodia or Vietnam, or parts of China. His boys would beat them up and torment them for a couple of weeks. Then he’d pull up in his Mercedes and wave his arm, and the tormenting would stop. He’d invite the kids into his car, take them to his gang headquarters and after a week or two of giving them drugs, girls and free pool, they saw themselves as being saved. Then these guys would help fight his battles for him—pick up extortion cheques, do minor drug deliveries. That’s how they’d get started.
Wong became what you call your “life’s obsession.” Why this guy? It evolved as I came to understand how emblematic he was of how organized crime works. Right out in the open, he managed a bodyguard service for heroin dealers. He ran his own heroin import-export operations. He’d killed people-put a bullet in the head of one guy and beat the brains out of another. But he got off on everything. The wiretap would never make it into evidence, and the judge would throw out the charge or something. I studied his life and I studied his successes and I was able to see how that world works around and through him.
You proposed a story on him to CBC-TV. How did you convince him to talk to you? He knew I was a CBC guy, but he thought he could use me as propaganda against his rival gang, the Lotus. Also, we got along because I knew the parameters of his world. I started hanging around with Steven for a month, and I actually liked the guy. There’s a very vulnerable side to him. I say it in the book—if you find out somebody’s vulnerabilities and you comfort him for them, he’s yours. He had a hard upbringing. He worked in a bean sprout sweatshop from the age of 4 to 11, and the only people he found to emulate were the gang members who’d come to pick up extortion cheques. They always had cars and good-looking girls, and he thought to himself, “That’s what I want.” It was explicable what he was doing, but not forgivable.
After he finally got busted by the RCMP, how did he manage to slip away? The two-part CBC special we did on Steven aired in March of1990. Three weeks later, the RCMP launched Project Bugs to find the source of the heroin being distributed on the Downtown Eastside. They quickly discovered Steven was the mastermind behind it. They made the bust in December 1990. After the preliminary hearing, it became apparent to Steven that he was going down. So first he took out over $1 million in life insurance. Then he got a judge to give him back his passport under blatantly false pretenses. He goes over to the Philippines and, next thing you know, he’s died in the mountains. All the official documents were signed, sealed and delivered. Of course, the whole thing is a proven fraud. He had the co-operation of corrupt officials all over the island.
Your international pursuit of this man has been very dogged and very public. You were even put under police protection at one point Aren’t you concerned for your safety? This is a very exciting pursuit, but it’s a meaningful pursuit. It’s a sport in a way, but I’m not an extreme sportsman. I’ve always tried to set myself up with fallback positions, to let people know where I am. To say I’m not frightened wouldn’t be true. But I’ve taken steps that allow me to keep the street monitored on a daily basis.
To this day, Wong continues to elude the authorities. Now Canada has stayed its charges against him. Why is it so important to you that people don’t forget about this case? There’s an international reputation now among bad guys that Canada’s the place to go. Steven Wong is famous in the underworld. People point to him and say, “I could cut a $l-billion heroin deal and get away with it.” We’re known internationally as being very lax in terms of our prosecution and sentencing of criminals and terrorists. There’s a gang called Dai Huen Jai, or Big Circle Boys, that’s growing and festering around the world—and we know they’re using Toronto as a home base for their ecstasy trade. We need longer prison sentences, and our bail conditions are way too lenient. If fugitives aren’t pursued aggressively, it sends a message to others that fleeing or failing to comply with the law is somehow acceptable. We’ve got to realize that people don’t always play nice.
With your book finished, has your pursuit of Steven Wong finally come to an end? You know, the next interview we do, it’s going to be you and me and him sitting beside me. He’s got impunity now. He’s coming back to Canada. He’ll be back. Iffl
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