He was wealthy. He had unlimited resources. But this is where the similarities with his victims end. Notorious gangster ‘Big Spender’ Cheung Tze-keung made money by kidnapping wealthy tycoons. And he was good at doing it, successful at least twice in Hong Kong.
Big Spender kidnappings
Released in 1994 after his conviction for a HK$167 million security van robbery was overturned, Cheung Tsz-keung, nicknamed Big Spender, went on to commit several high-profile kidnappings. In 1996, he abducted Li Ka-shing’s elder son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi and reportedly got away with HK$1.38 billion in ransom. The following year, he kidnapped Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, former chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, who was released after a HK$600 million ransom was rsupposedly paid. Cheung was arrested in Guangdong province and summarily executed in 1998.
In light of the sentencing of two blackmailers to 10 years in jail yesterday for charges linked to the 1990s kidnapping of tycoon Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, it is worth again revisiting Cheung’s exploits.
Kwok Ping-kan, 61, (no relation to Walter Kwok) and Chan Wai-hang, 58, were sentenced for attempting to blackmail the tycoon’s family from September to December in 2009.
But Kwok, the former chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, was not the first to be kidnapped – it was tycoon Li Ka-shing’s son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, deputy chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings).
Cheung spent HK$3.4 million planning the two high-profile abductions in 1996 and 1997, earning the criminal gang HK$1.6 billion, of which ‘Big Spender’ pocketed the tidy sum of HK$662 million for himself. The rest of the cash was divided amongst his gang members.
On May 23, 1996, Cheung and his accomplices, armed with two AK-47s, seven pistols and four bulletproof vests, abducted Li as he returned from his central office to his home in Deep Water Bay Road.
Li was tied up and his mouth sealed with heavy-duty duct tape. He was handcuffed, blindfolded with bandages and had his legs bound with steel chains. He was released after the family paid a HK$1 billion ransom. He was said to have been kept for one night by the gang.
In a statement of offences from the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, Cheung spent about HK$1.4 million masterminding the kidnap of Li and took HK$362 million of the ransom, with the gang members splitting the rest of the dollars.
On September 29, 1997, Kwok was kidnapped on his journey to his Beach Road home in Repulse Bay after leaving the SHKP office in Wan Chai.
But Kwok refused to call his family and ask them to prepare a ransom. Cheung ordered that the tycoon be stripped down to his underwear and shoved into a small wooden box with air holes. Kwok was losing the battle.
He was released six days later, after a ransom of HK$600 million was paid, the Guangzhou court heard in June 2000 when Wu Man, a member of Cheung’s gang, pleaded guilty.
Having spent HK$2 million planning the kidnapping, Cheung kept half of the HK$600 million ransom received on October 3, 1997, after repeated phone and face-to-face negotiations with the family, according to a Guangzhou court statement.
Although the kidnappings were never publicised in the media at the time because the families did not disclose the incidents to police, ‘Big Spender’ earned a place in the 2000 edition of Guinness World Records, for demanding the highest of ransoms.
In 1998, the criminal kingpin was captured in Guangdong along with 17 gang members for a string of crimes including murder, kidnapping, robbery and smuggling explosives.
Cheung and the others admitted the offences, which they committed in an eight-year period, Xinhua reported in July 1998. The gang was said to be connected with the smuggling of 800kg of explosives from the mainland to Hong Kong.
That year a mainland newspaper reported that Cheung told investigators he shared his philosophy of life with his kidnap victims.
‘My creed is that I cannot allow myself to be poor. I don’t have the time and patience to make a living by doing normal jobs. I can’t work as hard as other people. Life is very short and fragile,’ he was quoted as saying in the paper.
‘I’m already more than 40. If I want to get rich I must take some unconventional steps. Money is the most important thing in the world, without which you cannot do anything. But it’s only me who can kidnap tycoons. No one else can do such big things.’
His reign of terror ended in December 1998 when ‘Big Spender’ and four accomplices were executed by a mainland firing squad in Panyu , Guangdong.
Before he branched out into kidnappings, Cheung had been jailed for his role in Hong Kong’s biggest cash robbery in which HK$167 million was stolen from a Guardforce van outside Kai Tak airport in Kowloon City in 1991. He spent three years in jail, before his acquittal after an appeal in 1995.
The father of two sons earned the nickname ‘Big Spender’ during his incarceration. His wife said he was very generous to his friends.
The gang was also linked to raids on jewellery shops in Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po in June 1991 and March 1992 netting HK$7 million.
In January and November 1995, the gang committed murders and robberies in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the mainland newspaper report said.
On December 5, 1998, Cheung was 43 when he was executed in Guangdong along with Hong Kong gang members Chin Hon-sau, 42, and Chan Chi-ho, 36, and mainland members Ma Shangzhong, 33, and Liang Hui, 32.