By ZHANG JENNY
HONG KONG – Two young men, with gleaming eyes, paced the crowded, noisy club like two tigers searching for prey. They slowed down while passing through a group of high-school boys. One of the men nodded to a boy, whipped out a small plastic bag, slipped it into his hand and walked away.
Chris Cheng, wearing a bluetooth headset, cast sidelong glances at the unfolding scene as he played dice two tables away. When the boys disappeared into a private room, Cheng touched his headset, stood up and barged into the room.
“Oops! I walked into the wrong room! Sorry, guys!”
He stepped out, and left the club with a sly smile. Cheng’s camera hidden in the bluetooth headset had captured a 5-second scene of them snorting white powder before they hastily swept it along with several rolled-up Hong Kong Dollar notes off the table. The powder they were snorting was Ketamine.
Cheng is not an undercover policeman. “I’d like call what I do acting in real life,” Cheng said and chuckled while rubbing his bloodshot eyes. He looked sallow in a grey sports suit. After came back from the club, he went to Shanghai for business trip and only went back Hong Kong at midnight. He did not get much sleep before came to his office in Tsuen Wan the next morning.
He later handed video clips of the boy receiving and snorting Ketamine to the boy’s mother who hired Cheng to confirm her suspicions about her 17-year-old son taking drugs.
Helping parents spy on their children accounts for only a small portion of Cheng’s total cases, he spends most of his time tracking down mistresses for desperate wives. Customers pay around HK$50,000 to HK$70,000 for a seven-day-long affair case and also provide photos, addresses and car plate number of the person they wanted to be investigated. In the drug case, the mother paid Cheng’s company around HK$50,000.
Cheng, 34, is one of the seven detectives in his company, Wan King On Investigations. There are about 10 private companies listed online in Hong Kong, and according to Cheng, 90 percent of them only have two or three employees. For the past eight years, Cheng lived his detective life acting as a drunken man, tailing people, taking sneaky snapshots like a paparazzi and working as an undercover in different companies.
Unlike mainland China where private investigations is explicitly banned since 1993 as the government believes police’s duty have covered investigations, the industry in Hong Kong is under total absence of supervision. No statistics, regulations or any kinds of standards are available to guide the private investigation industry.
Cheng took out a tiny DV set, used for shooting and storing digital video, from a hand-kerchief sized messenger bag, plugged it into a television set next to his table, turned on the TV, pointed at a young woman in blue coat and said, “Can you believe this 20-year-old woman with innocent smile is actually a mistress of a 60-year-old Hong Kong man?”
Cheng’s recent trip to Shanghai was to record a man’s alleged mistress. The man’s wife hired him.
In the 30-minute-long video clip, he zoomed in and out a lot of the woman’s ghost like face with too much makeup and street numbers of her apartment, the theater she went with another woman, the park she walked her dog and the restaurant she dined with a little boy.
Cheng bosomed the tiny DV and followed the woman for four days in Shanghai. He clamped the DV at waist with his right elbow and used left hand to cover the front when he passed by the woman to film her.
“What surprised me most was that the little boy looked exactly like my client’s husband, and he’s about 4 or 5 years old already,” Cheng said. His long slim fingers nimbly pressed a remote’s buttons to edit the clip and then recorded it on a disk.
“I think my client gonna use it as a divorce evidence,” He said.
Hong Kong people hire private detectives to collect evidence of their spouses in affairs in order to divorce them in court. But the evidence should be obtained legally, said Yan Xianming, a divorce lawyer at Hong Kong Guzhang Wenju Law Firm.
Legal evidence is video or photography taken in a public place. Sneaking into someone’s home, opening their mail or tapping their phone calls can land a detective in trouble, Yan said. In a recent case, a 19-year-old private detective stood trial for opening and taking photos of three people’s private letters, according to Sing Tao Daily. A second trial will be held at Kowloon City Magistrates’ Court on April 8.
In fact, Hong Kong’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data just create a new offense in 2012 to regulate the disclosure of personal data obtained without consent from the data user, which stipulates anyone obtaining personal data without the data user’s consent to gain money will face a sentence of up to five years and a maximum fine of HK$ 1 million.
But in practice, lawyers will submit all the evidence to court and the judges will use the illegally obtained evidence as long as the evidence is valuable and does not harm society, according to Yan.
Chen wanted to be an actor. He even studied film. But after a few failed jobs, he found himself in the private detective business. “I tried sales and white collar jobs like other ordinary Hongkongers, but nothing can compare with what I am doing now. Nothing is as exciting and challenging as being a private detective,” he said, his exhausted face coming alive.
Cheng’s friends always depict him as sneaking along the street, rolling cunning eyes and taking photos of shadowy figure with long lenses camera, but actually the key of being a private detective in real life is try to look as normal as possible.
“I wear dark color clothes and walk casually in the street with no giant professional shooting equipment when I tail people,” Cheng said. “I’d never been caught by my targets or other people in my career.”
Cheng said if he hide himself in the corner or walk suspiciously, passersby would definitely report him to police.
In most tailing cases, Cheng follows the target with three or four other colleagues equipped with walkie talkies, and then they scatter in different directions of a junction or a shopping mall that has many exits.
Sometimes they would form two pairs pretending as couples while following a female target among the desolate village houses.
“Pretending couple can lower female targets’ vigilance,” Cheng said.
In some extreme cases, Cheng and his colleagues have to show their acting skills to bond with the alleged mistress finding out when and where she is about to meet the man.
“And we also have some secret cameras that installed in necklaces, glasses or headphones to assist us,” Cheng said and opened the glass window of a cabinet next to the TV set.
The 50-centimeter-wide, 100-centimeter-tall glass cabinet is divided into four layers containing high-tech gadgets, such as small cameras that hid inside a chewing gum box and machines to detect hidden cameras.
Of course, a good stalker requires special skills. Before tailing a target, Cheng would stare at the photo of the target for several minutes imagining the possible appearance changes of the target, such as wearing glasses, makeup, or having different hairstyle.
Then when he found the target, he would check all the possible crossroads and keep a 300-meter-distance with his target. Meantime, he always had a cell phone in hands, so he could pretend typing or answering calls whenever the target turned back.
He taught himself all of this after many failures as no professional trainings was arranged in the private detective industry.
Philic Man Hin-lam, director of the Global Investigation and Security Consultancy that only recruits female as private detectives, pointed out the same problem.
Before she established her own private investigation company, she worked for a company whose boss cheated money out of his clients and kicked her out in the street without any instructions.
“No licenses are required when people register a private detective company in Hong Kong, and of course no working ethics or trainings were conducted,” Man said.
Besides lacking of proper training to detectives, private investigation companies in Hong Kong set up their different rules and even make up their histories to entice customers. Some companies charge hourly, some charge daily. The fee can be as high as HK$ 1,500 per hour.
A private investigation company owner lied that the company had 30 years of history and hired former police officers as its detectives, but instead the company established only in 2008 and has no ex-policemen. Two owners of the company later were charged with faking products introduction at Kwun Tong Court last year, and currently are released on bail, according to Oriental Daily.
The majority private investigation companies state they have established for over two or three decades on their web page. Wan King On Investigations said online that the company founded “many years” ago. When asking the exact establishing date, Cheng said he did not know.
“My boss said I cannot tell you about it, and he never told me,” Cheng said. He could only say he has worked in this company for almost eight years.
In Hong Kong, almost every local based company extended or plans to extend their business to mainland China. This is also true to private investigation companies.
Besides working in Hong Kong, Cheng also travels to mainland four or five times a month, and each time stays for three to five days. His work is simple: tailing and recording the alleged mistresses of Hong Kong business men.
“I’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen, and Shanghai tops my most visited cities list,” Cheng said.
However, private detectives also face risks when they work in mainland China. Since mainland government has banned private investigation, any identified private detective working in mainland is under risks. The mainland government has arrested over 2,500 private detectives including some unclear number of Hong Kong private detectives as of early last year, according to Oriental Daily.
The newspaper quoted an unidentified source from Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong based organization targeting on China’s human rights issue and founded by one of the leaders from the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989, saying private detectives disclosed lots of mainland officials’ mistresses which frightened the government officials who then ordered the crackdown.
Danny Tsang Chi-fai, 53, a veteran Hong Kong police officer who entered the private investigation industry in 1997, is one of the private detectives that are jailed in the mainland. He was arrested when he was assisting Irish police trapping a gangster, and was sentenced to 10 years in 2010 for dealing counterfeit cigarettes which he denied, according to the Financial Times.
Cheng has heard some of the cases, but he is confident that he is still far away from such trouble as his job only involves tracking down mistresses of Hong Kong business people.
His fluent mandarin helped him easily blending in mainland residents, and he only carries a tiny digital video set during his work to reduce public attention.
“Whenever a police stops me asking my personal information, I just say I come here for sightseeing, and it always works,” Cheng said.
But Cheng has his own worries when following targets in the mainland. His concern is about the air pollution. The pollution that engulfed more and more mainland cities for the past several years has increased the difficulties of following the right targets.
Cheng is going to visit Beijing next week, and all his preparation is praying for a sunny and clear day.
The pollution not only reduces the visibility, but also forces more people wearing big anti-pollution masks.
“How am I gonna recognize my target in a mask?” Cheng said.
Behind Cheng’s every trip to mainland, there is a desperate Hong Kong wife struggling to believe in and maintain long-distance relationship but always get slapped in the face by reality.
“About 80 or 90 percent of the Hong Kong business men sent to mainland has mistresses there,” Cheng said.
His job gives him unsecure feelings of long-distance love. He neither wants himself nor his future wife to be the desperate spouse, thus he simply won’t try long-distance relationship with anyone.
Cheng had three relationships, and the most recent one was some seven or eight years ago when he just stepped into private investigation industry. The relationship last less than a year before he offered a breakup.
He believes love is simple. “It’s no point to stay together when there’s no love between us,” he said.
His “no long-distance relationship” theory also came from his parents. When Cheng’s father decided to work in Hong Kong after married his mother in Beijing some 30 years ago, Cheng’s mother moved to Hong Kong with his father. After his parents settled down, Cheng came to Hong Kong when he was three years old. Cheng still lives with his parents and witnesses their happy marriage for decades.
The day when Cheng told his parents he decided to be a private detective, his father only asked him one question, “Is it like paparazzi?”
“Sort of, paparazzi follow celebrity, but I follow ordinary people who have no idea I am following them,” Cheng explained to his father.
“My parents never judged me on my job. They believe I can do anything I want as long as it’s legal and can support my life,” Cheng said and he is proud of his parents.
He is looking forward to a happy relationship, and plans to find someone and marry her in two years.
Edited by WANG BRANDON