In a country where organized crime is often associated with famous yet savage groups like the Triads or those with a long history such as the Green Gang, it can be refreshing to see a man carve out his own criminal niche—particularly when they do it as boldly as Cheung Tze Keung, also known as Big Spender.
Cheung Tze-Keung was born April 7, 1955 in Guangdong province, but moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was four. The eventual master criminal was introduced to a life of crime early, his father operated an illegal gambling business and often had Cheung help out with running numbers. Cheung only continued his criminal tendencies as he got older. He spent his youth involved in gangs and fighting on the streets before his first criminal conviction at the age of 16.
As an adult, Cheung worked as a professional gambler as well as a criminal with a focus on robbery, however his heist targets continued to increase in size. In 1990, he reportedly stole HK$30 million worth of rolex watches and began to work with other famed criminals including the famous gangster Yip Kai-foon. He began to build a gang of his own out of hired crooks, and specialized in armed robberies and smuggling explosives, supported by huge stockpiles of weapons. It was his gambling habit that gave the Cheung the nickname Big Spender, not only did he frequently travel to casinos in Macau to gamble but he also was known to gamble with enormous amounts of money. One time he reportedly won 2 million dollars in the Philippines in a single night, while another time he lost the equivalent of 16 million USD in a single game. In addition he had a fondness for luxury living, purchasing expensive properties, lavish banquets, and multiple sports cars including an ostentatious yellow Lamborghini. However, it wasn’t Cheung’s over-the-top spending that first thrust him into the media spotlight, instead it was his theft of an armored truck at Kai Tak airport, the haul, worth over 20 million USD, was the most successful cash robbery in Hong Kong’s history at that point.
Arrested and convicted for the armored truck robbery in 1995, Cheung was sentenced to 18 years behind bars, however Big Spender only served 18 months in prison before the conviction was overturned because of a technicality. Regardless of his early release, Cheung had become angry, due to both his treatment in prison as well as the turncoats who had put him there, and decided to get even in a very cinematic fashion. It was his gang that was suspected when a prison guardhouse was demolished by a bulldozer and Hong Kong’s secretary of security’s house was firebombed soon after Cheung’s release.
Unlike the triads who often avoided messing with the Hong Kong government and the upper scions of Hong Kong society, Cheung saw them as the perfect marks and deliberately targeted them. In what are considered some of the most sucessful kidnappings of all time, he orchestrated the kidnapping of Victor Li, son of Hong Kong shipping billionaire Li Ka-shing, in 1996 and the kidnapping of real estate magnate Walter Kwok in 1997. Both kidnappings were completely successful with neither reported to the police (in fact both victims and their families still refuse to acknowledge the crimes) and the ransoms paid by both families cemented Cheung’s position in the legion of infamous gangsters, he collected 125 million USD and 80 million USD respectively, for the safe return of the individuals. Big Spender’s gang also differed from the regular Triads due to his utilization of the PRC/Hong Kong border, using the slow communication between the different police systems to his advantage. Cheung had bases in both Guangdong and Hong Kong, this allowed him to often rob jewelry stores in Hong Kong before retreating across the border into China.
The downfall of Big Spender and his gang was the result of cooperation between the Hong Kong and Chinese police forces, gang members cooperating with the authorities, and pressure from some of Hong Kong’s leading tycoons who were obviously concerned about their own safety in regards to Cheung. Cheung fled back to China in 1998 after a failed kidnapping attempt of Hong Kong’s chief secretary Anson Chan as revenge for the imprisonment of fellow gangster Yip Kai-foon. It was in August of that year that the Chinese authorities were able to finally track Cheung down and arrest him on counts of kidnapping and possession of 800kg of explosives. In a move somewhat surprising to the international community, Hong Kong did not ask China to extradite Big Spender instead allowing him to be tried in Guangzhou. Cheung confessed the first day of the trial and was summarily convicted, he was promptly executed by a firing squad on December 16, 1998.
After Cheung’s arrest in 1998, the Chinese National Police did their best to break up Big Spender’s gang, arresting 32 people thought to be involved and confiscating 5 million USD, 11 luxury cars, and a stockpile of weapons and explosives all controlled by Cheung. Since his death there have been reportedly several gangster style movies inspired by Big Spender and his exploits ensuring that his criminals misdeeds live on in infamy even if his criminal organization does not.
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Cover image from baike.so.com