Mention underworld triads and Japan’s Yakuza or Italian Mafia comes to mind. But there was an era when the Singapore gangsters ruled Europe with a vast drug empire that struck fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Kampung Kid turned Murderer
In his early days, Roland Tan Tong Meng (陈通明) was already an infamous gangster at his Hainanese kampung at Upper Serangoon. In October 1969, Roland Tan and another gangster Kay Check Wee chased after their target Lam Cheng Siew in a car. At Bras Basah Road, the victim, said to be of the rival gang Pek Kim Leng (White Golden Dragon), was caught and fatally stabbed multiple times in his head and arm.
After the committed crime, Roland Tan and the gangsters involved in the plotting “ran road” (escape) to Holland via Malaysia with the help of See Tong gang. Some who did not manage to escape were arrested and thrown into the prison without trial.
Rise of an Empire
Amsterdam was then the world’s center of heroin distribution, and was largely controlled by Hong Kong’s 14k gang. A penniless but ambitious Roland and his “brothers”, most of them tough Hainanese seamen, plotted to seize control of the Holland’s underworld. Aided by a well-connected person known only as Johnny, the dozen fugitives from Singapore founded Ah Kong 阿公党 under the flag of See Tong. The name was said to be the short form of Kongsi or company.
Although outnumbered and armed with only knives, Ah Kong managed to gain a notorious reputation after its fearless and ruthless gang members clashed with other bigger rivaling groups at the Chinatown of Holland, killing several prominent gang leaders. By 1976, Ah Kong successfully drove Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand gangs out of Holland, and became the major player in Amsterdam’s vast drug empire.
Operating Like a Company
Roland Tan began to run Ah Kong like a company, smuggling multi-million dollars worth of pure-grade heroin every year to many parts of the world, such as Madrid, Sydney, Taipei and Phnom Penh. The gang expanded rapidly and soon extended its influence into legitimate businesses, such as casinos, restaurants, nightclubs and even a movie company.
The gang leaders wore Armani and Hugo Boss suits, with revolvers hidden underneath, much like the scenes from those old Hong Kong movies. Other lower-ranked members did patrolling on the streets of Chinatown, taking protection money from the shop owners or looking out for rivals in their territories. New members, mostly fugitives from Singapore in the seventies, were sent to drug laboratories to process the raw material into heroin.
Dragon Head Called it a Day
A hardcore gambler as well, Roland Tan, nicknamed the Dragon Head or Mr Big, would embezzle the company funds to feed his expenses, and this led to the breakup of his brotherhood with Johnny. Johnny left for Bangkok to set up his own drug business, but in 1977, he was arrested in Sweden after escaping from a shootout in Thailand, and was subsequently sentenced to ten years’ prison. There were rumours that Roland was the one who bao toh (betrayed) him.
The year 1978 was the turning point for Ah Kong gang. An international anti-drug operation cracked down Ah Kong’s business, seizing huge amount of heroin and arresting many key leaders and members of the gang in Singapore, Malaysia and Europe.
Roland Tan somehow escaped and decided to “retire”, moving to Copenhagen. Changing his name several times and lying low profile, Roland Tan successfully became a Danish resident. An effort to extradite him from Denmark failed due to legal issues.
It was rumoured that the former dragon head “maintained” his Singaporean roots despite living in Europe for decades. He would talk to his men in Hokkien and missed Singaporean food so much that he had the likes of char kway tiao, laksa and yong tau foo airmailed to him.
In 2009, a 61-year-old bald-headed Roland Tan was shot by his Vietnamese bodyguard Nguyen Phi Hung at his Restaurant Bali, but he managed to survive the assassination. He is still on the wanted list of the Singapore police. Meanwhile, Ah Kong changed leadership several times from the eighties to 2000s, but it never managed to regain its previous “glories”. In 2010, the last official head of Ah Kong, a man known as Henry, died of poverty and illness.
Note: This article has no intention, by any means, to glorify gangsterism and drug abuse.
Published: 24 November 2011