Saturday November 25, 2006By Phil Taylor
They once were brothers, united not by blood but by the self-serving bonds that knit criminal networks. They were opportunistic, doing business in the way of mafiosi everywhere. Both were enforcers, adept in using fear and violence.
As New Zealand's Chinese population grew, some bad came with the good. Wan Yee Chow and Tam Yam Ah arrived in New Zealand during the 1980s and settled in the Otaki area, where they had family connections involved in market gardening. They represent the underbelly of the dragon.
Tam grew up in Guangzhou, China, and arrived in New Zealand as a teenager. In 1991, when he was 22, he was in court for the first time charged with two others of "demanding with menaces" - $500 from a market gardening family. Within four years of his arrival in 1988, Chow was in prison on a five-year lag.
Because they prey on their own community, their lives of crime and casual violence exist beyond the public's perception unless some dramatic act pushes it into the headlines.
Such an act exploded on July 7 last year, about 4am, in the rear carpark of a karaoke bar on the upper end of Auckland's Symonds St. Whether it was rough justice, retribution or just a job done for money, it was summary.
Chow, peering through the eyelets of a black balaclava that encased his wild and wispy hair, was not there for a discussion with his erstwhile colleague.
He said nothing when Tam asked - in Cantonese - his last question, "Who are you?" A single .45 calibre bullet ripped through Tam's tan fleece jacket [the one Tam is pictured wearing], his red sport shirt and into his chest. Chow was probably back in his accomplice's car in nearby St Benedicts St by the time Tam died. The murder and the ensuing trial lifted the veil on organised crime in the Chinese communities of Auckland and Wellington.
The writers of The Sopranos know their subject. The show follows a New Jersey Mafia family but organised crime differs little between place and ethnicity. "Human nature doesn't vary between cultures, does it?" notes Mark Benefield, a sage detective on the police investigation team.
Anything goes, says the detective senior sergeant, as long as there's money at the end of it, "fraud, illegal gambling, drug dealing, standovers."
The Top Karaoke Bar - part-owned by Tam and the scene of his murder - was previously a brothel. In the court case, paua smuggling loomed large.
Both Tam, who was 37, and Chow, 54, whom a jury found guilty a week ago of murder, were "enforcers". Tam was a member of the New Zealand offshoot of the Hong Kong triad 14 K. Police believe Chow had connections to more than one criminal network.
In her evidence, Tam's girlfriend described the pair as "brothers". Tam, despite being younger, had seniority by dint of his standing. When Tam opened his restaurant, Flower City, on Anzac Ave near the stone court building where details of his life and death were heard, Chow flew from Wellington and worked washing dishes. That was May last year. Two months later Tam was dead.
The name 14 K stands for 14 Kowloon, a district in Hong Kong. Triad is the European name given to structured organised crime gangs in China and Hong Kong which rank members and have a godfather-type character at the top, operating in a similar way to the Mafia.
The Asian Crime Unit in Auckland does not call them triads because of their loose structure here and because the original triads began several hundred years ago as underground political groups. Now, they deal in drugs, prostitution, gambling, kidnapping, protection rackets - anything that makes money.
Tam had money. After his release from his latest stint in jail - three years for a meat-cleaver attack on patrons at a karaoke bar where he was the bouncer - he was building an empire of his own - the restaurant, a share in the Top Karaoke Bar, a $600,000 house.
There were also the accoutrements: the silver BMW, the trophy girlfriend who witnessed his murder from the passenger seat of the BMW.
Dressed in a pink jacket with fluffy white trim and tight jeans, she was doll-like, perched on the edge of the seat in the witness box, as the lawyers' questions and her answers were translated, to and fro, English and Cantonese.
Tam had paid $30,000 of the $120,000 house deposit in cash, had handed over a wad of notes amounting to $20,000 as part-payment for the restaurant. He'd paid $300,000 for the karaoke bar and she said she saw large amounts of cash at their flat above the karaoke bar. Yes, Tam was also a money lender, she said.
A Wellington businessman told police he had "loaned" Tam $20,000 interest free. He was happy to do so. The court suppressed the identity of 21 people who gave evidence at the murder trial. "This was a case where people zipped their lips," said Benefield.
George Koria, a detective sergeant who heads the Asian Crime Unit in Auckland, believes the pecking order changed while Tam was last in jail. "His group were old school and had somewhat been overtaken by new faces who hadn't had dealings with Tam. I just don't think he had the respect with some of these new up-and-comers."
It is perhaps surprising Tam was shot, rather than killed with a meat cleaver, the weapon he favoured and which is popular among Chinese gangs. Overseas, it is useful for chopping off fingers, so helpful in keeping up the level of intimidation necessary in extortion.
Tam used it in the karaoke bar incident, where one of his victims required 27 stitches to close a wound down the left of his face.
"He was seen by the concierge of the City Life apartments running down Durham Lane holding a chopper above his head, chasing this guy sort of Hong Kong-style like some sort of bad movie," lawyer Graeme Newell, who defended Tam, last year told the Herald. "He'd used it on a couple of guys inside ... they were singing Taiwanese when he wanted people to be singing Mandarin."
He used it, too, on his former wife, Jai Fong Zhou, whom he married in 1990. Tam carried telling scars from the time she used the meat cleaver on him, provoked by repeated beatings and rapes. She landed nine or 10 blows, then took an overdose of the sleeping pills she'd used to stupefy Tam.
She was acquitted of a charge of attempted murder in a case that was a sensation in the early 1990s as it was the first time the defence of battered women's syndrome had succeeded in a New Zealand court. Their marriage produced a child, now aged 15.
It is unclear from the news report whether Tam used a meat cleaver in a 1997 incident in Wellington that gained him a three-year jail sentence after two people were cut with "a sharp object" in a restaurant dispute. Tam returned the next night, smashed the restaurant window then drove his car into a person who came out of the restaurant to investigate. The judge who sentenced him on charges of injuring with intent and dangerous driving causing injury, noted Tam was already serving a prison sentence for attacking a security guard.
Tam gained residency in 1989 but his application for citizenship was declined - presumably because of his offending - in 1995. Chow, however, somehow gained a New Zealand passport in his own name in 2003, despite an extensive criminal record.
In the dock this month in his daily uniform of white sandshoes, grey trackpants, and green T-shirt, his bedraggled hair flowing from a knot on top of his head, his thinness accentuated by his height (1.81m), he looked as if he could hardly blow out a candle. But his record shows he was capable of lighting one.
Convictions include committing a dangerous act with fire with intent to injure, assault with intent, wounding with intent, and demanding with menaces. Chow's longest prison sentence was five years and six months.
His feral appearance is deceiving. Chow doesn't smoke or drink alcohol, is particular about his diet, and is fit. He uses his body weight to provide resistance for exercises such as handstands and single-leg squats.
Most knew him by the Chinese name "Golo", which translates as "tall man". Police said many people they interviewed added the Cantonese word for crazy.
When police arrested him for the murder of Tam, Chow had been jailed again, this time for paua smuggling and the paua black market was a backdrop to the murder trial.
A Pakeha man, who provided key evidence against Chow in exchange for immunity against prosecution, was involved with Chow in the illicit trade of paua, or "chocolate" as the witness called it.
This man's cellphone linked the pair to the murder, betrayed their movements between Tam's restaurant and karaoke bar as they stalked him, and placed them in the vicinity when Tam was shot.
The witness said he and Chow made regular trips to Auckland supplying black market paua to Chinese restaurants. His harassment of a debtor, a Chinese man named Mark, brought him into contact with Tam.
"A Black Power member came to my house and told me if I didn't leave Mark alone he'd be back to see me," the witness testified. "He told me Mark had paid Tam $10,000 to 'trouble me, cause me trouble'."
The witness claimed to have sorted this out with Tam and denied knowing of a plan to murder him, although he acknowledged having the murder weapon before the hit, wiping it down and helping to dispose of it.
Crucially, Tam's girlfriend who was the only witness to the murder, said the killer was tall and reminded her of "Golo", whereas Chow's associate is pudgy and of medium height.
The police and Crown acknowledge that relying on testimony of a person such as Chow's associate is unpalatable but say without his evidence it was unlikely they would have had a case.
Black market gold
The legal national paua catch is 1057 tonnes but the Ministry of Fisheries estimates another 965 tonnes is traded on the black market, shipped overseas or sold domestically.
Dave Turner, the ministry's investigation services manager, describes the illegal trade as a "significant, serious problem". Domestic demand has increased with the proportion of the east and southeast Asian population.
"People talk about the trade in drugs, methamphetamine being really bad. Well, so is paua simply because the criminal gangs dealing in paua are also dealing in drugs.
"Paua is merely another commodity to make a profit on. It may be paua this week that they can make $20,000 or $30,000 on, and it might be methamphetamine the next week. All they are worried about is making dollars."
Turner is hopeful that the $11.6 million - including $2.9 million in the coming year for a "special tactics team" for covert operations - announced in September by the Government will go a long way to identifying the extent of the trade and combating it. "But it's going to take time and it's going to require patience," he says.
For all the talk of connections to the illicit paua trade in the Tam case, whether and how it was connected to his murder will probably never be known. "There is no evidence of motive, per se," says police investigator Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Benefield.
"There was a falling out between Chow and Tam at some stage. It could be personal. If it was, we don't know because Chow won't tell. It could be business. If it was, we don't know because people who use hitmen don't talk."
More by Phil Taylor