THE forty-year crime career of Chen Chi-li, 'spiritual leader' of Taiwan's Bamboo
Union gang, was interrupted on July 9 by a police raid on Chen's sprawling Toul Kork
Chen Chi-li the 'spritual leader' of the Taiwanese Bamboo Union Gang following
his arrest in Phnom Penh , July 9, on weapons charges
The 58 year-old Chen, known in gang circles by his nickname "Dry Duck",
now faces charges of illegal use and possession of firearms as well as membership
in an illegal armed group after police discovered an arms cache of twenty assault
rifles and handguns, an M-79 grenade launcher and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Police
also discovered two Cambodian passports, one of them diplomatic, and a Singaporean
passport bearing Chen's photo.
Two other Taiwanese nationals face similar charges while a fourth suspect was released
for lack of evidence.
If convicted on all charges Chen could be sentenced to a maximum prison term of fifteen
However, a Taiwanese organized crime expert cautions that Chen's Cambodian legal
difficulties will prove to be no more than a minor inconvenience for the wealthy,
well-connected Taiwanese gang leader.
"Chen may do a few weeks or a few months in prison, but he'll get out sooner
rather than later," Yang Ching Hai, a retired twenty-year veteran of Taiwan's
Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau and an expert on Taiwanese gangland politics
told the Post. "There are too many people with too much money who are obligated
to get him out of prison."
Yang attributes the loyalty and financial resources at Chen's disposal to a four
decade career in which he rose from the lowest ranks of Taiwan's largest criminal
syndicate to become its longest serving leader.
The son of a mainland Chinese judge who joined the 1949 exodus to Taiwan of more
than 1.5 million of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-sheks' Kuomintang (KMT) forces following
their defeat at the hands of communist forces , Chen joined the Bamboo Union in the
Hong Kong-based triad expert Leung Yat-chan told the Post that within twenty years,
both Chen and the Bamboo Union were approaching the pinnacle of their success.
"By the 1970s, the Bamboo Union had expanded from its twelve branches within
Taiwan to all over the world, with chapters in Macau, Hong Kong, the US and Europe,"
Leung said. "Chen Chi-li's official designation within the organization was
"Lao Ya", which can be translated as "the smallest", but within
the Bamboo Union actually meant the biggest and most important."
A Taiwanese Bamboo Union member in Cambodia who spoke strictly on the condition of
anonymity confirmed Leung's description of Chen's prominence in the crime syndicate.
"The bravest, the coolest one, the one who would fight the hardest and kill
the most for the organization, he was "Lao Ya"," the gang member said
of Chen's role in the organization.
By 1984 Chen's reputation for effortlessly punctuating ruthlessness and loyalty to
the KMT with sharp business acumen was cemented by his role in the notorious 1984
assassination of Taiwanese dissident journalist Henry Liu in Daly City, California.
The order for the murder was later traced to highest levels of Taiwan's defense intelligence
apparatus, allegedly in retaliation for Liu's publication of a highly critical biography
of Taiwan's then-President Chiang Chien-kuo.
"Bamboo [Union] boss Dry Duck was told to arrange the killing," Sterling
Seagrave writes in his Lords of the Rim. "In return, his gang would be allowed
to take over all KMT heroin deliveries to America."
According to Seagrave, Chen was so pleased by the deal that he financed the killing
out of his own pocket, "refusing reimbursement or per diem".
After serving a six year prison term for his role in the killing, Chen resumed the
helm of the Bamboo Union's criminal network, diversifying the syndicate's business
interests into the fixing of Taiwanese professional baseball games and funneling
illegal gang profits into the island's construction boom.
A change in the Taiwanese government's traditional blind-eye policy to organized
crime combined with a protracted gang conflict with the rival Taiwanese Four Seas
Gang, which culminated in the murder of Chen's son in an elevator in a Taipei KTV
parlor , prompted Chen to go into exile in 1996.
Chen is believed to have arrived in Cambodia via China in early 1997.
"Cambodia has been a favorite place for Taiwanese gangsters, particularly Bamboo
Union members, since the early nineties," Yang said.
Under Chen's guidance, Bamboo Union members won the gratitude of the Taiwanese business
community in Cambodia by facilitating armed escorts of frightened Taiwanese investors
to Pochentong airport during the July 1997 fighting.
"The Bamboo Union provided armed guards to take people to the airport during
the fighting," a Taiwanese resident of Phnom Penh told the Post. "The official
Taiwanese representatives were actually advising people trying to get out of the
country to contact Chen and his people for assistance."
After the closing of Taiwan's official representative office in the aftermath of
the July 1997 fighting, Chen and the Bamboo Union became the defacto leaders and
protectors of the Taiwanese expatriate community in Cambodia right up until the time
of his arrest.
"Whenever new Taiwanese investors came to Cambodia to set up a business, a visit
to Chen's villa was obligatory," a Taiwanese source said. "Investors would
introduce themselves and offer Chen a hom bow (gift of money) as a gesture of their
Chen cemented relations with the post-July 1997 government of Hun Sen by acquiring
both an honorary royal Okhna status - usually acquired through contributions in excess
of $100,000 - as well as an official advisor's position to Senate President Chea
A member of Chea Sim's staff said on condition of anonymity that the advisor position
had been granted to Chen "several months after the Senate began operations"
(in April 1999) and was withdrawn for unknown reasons in March.
Former members of a Taiwanese NGO have told the Post that prior to the start-up of
their operations in late 1998 they were assured by NGO management in Taipei that
Chen and his followers "could be counted on to evacuate us if the security situation
deteriorated as it did in 1997".
According to the Bamboo Union member who spoke to the Post, Chen funded his operations
in Cambodia by investing in numerous businesses, including a Bamboo Union owned and
operated garment factory.
Yang cites less salubrious Bamboo Union investments in Cambodia.
"They [the Bamboo Union] are known to operate numerous brothels and there have
been reports that they are involved in the production of amphetamines, but exactly
where we don't know," he said.
Yang scoffs at Prime Minister Hun Sen's declaration of the government's intent to
"destroy" Taiwanese organized crime elements in the Kingdom.
"It's not over yet," Yang said of Bamboo Union gang activity in Cambodia.
"These people don't give up easily."