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
Thanks.. Typo error corrected
R.I.P uncle Roland
I just wanted to congratulate you on your fascinating blog. I’ve enjoyed many of your posts, this one included. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for the story. It is new to me. We are almost living in a dark age despite the government says we are an open society. Recalled that few years back when I was in a China hotel watching cable TV. I noticed that both China and Singapore shared the same cable TV program except that 2 films on Singapore program had been replaced by animated or cartoon films. I watched the 2 films in the China hotel. I found that the 2 films were talking about drug crime. I remembered one film was about a HK girl went to Japan to find her boyfriend who was addicted in drug and forced into drug trade. When she arrived in Japan, she was betrayed by her boyfriend and unknowingly dosed with drug and got addicted. She was then forced into prostitution and drug trade… but finally with the help of her sex client she managed to escape and return to HK. This is a very explosive and touching film though I cannot remember its title. The point is why the Singapore disallowed such films be shown to Singaporeans? How immature is our MIWs and those in the film censorship board?
Back to this gangsters story. It would be nice to write a story book on this that is really globalised development by the red dot. It is even better to make an international movie on this story. This will help sell the small rock in south china sea to the world so that the Ang Moh will know where is this rock.
Unfortunately, there is really lack of talents in all these aspects. The Sinkie knows only make cheap and local film like ‘money not enough’. The past writers have been eliminated. How can a cultural desert survive in a globalized world? Who know?
Totally agree with you. I met n socialised wth some of the Ah Gong men in Europe. Actually they r very helpful if u r fr spore or Malaysia. Can b a real gentlemen
There really must be many stories like this, of people good and bad, and there surely must be enough writers, dramatists, filmakers in Singapore to have a go at some of them. Is the media so sanitized that only feel good stuff is allowed to air and real life stories are buried?
Very intriguing. I came to read this via the iRememberSG Facebook post. Thanks for this. Hmm, didn’t Roland Tan’s story serve as the backdrop for a late 70s/ early 80s SBC police drama? Or maybe I’m mistaken.
Hmm… Think that one was “The Seletar Robbery” in 1982?
Think you may be right. What I remember is this scene of a CID officer jumping off the parapet (to catch the crook) at Changi Airport. At that time only T1 🙂 Hey, thanks for the link. And thanks again for this post.
Wow! What an interesting post!
I knew Singapore gangsters were big in Holland during the 70s; but I didn’t know Ah Kong managed to muscle out the Taiwanese and HK triads!?
I guess it’s good that modern Singapore is “less exciting”. Boring is good!
I enjoyed your blog tremendously. Reading your blog placed a smile to my face on a dreary cold winter morning. Have posted the link to your blog to the Singaporean International group and the Singapore Netherlands group. Keep up the good work! =)
Wow thanks for the insight in Roland Tans life.
He has just been operated for a shoot-out in Copenhagen 2009 at his restaurant “Bali” in Copenhagen. His restaurant serves as host for arabian gangs and danish bikergroups with ties in USA (Hells Angels etc.). So I think the “Dragonhead” or “Mr. Big” is still active in his underground business. The police have not found any evidence of Roland Tan’s activity in the criminal underworld because everybody from the asian community are lying in there statement.
He is apparently still feared and respected in the asian community.
just like scarface’s tony montana..thehehe
I was in Amsterdam back in 2000 and met some weathered Asian dude on the street. After talking to him for a few minutes, he asked me “where are you from?”.
I replied, “Singapore.”
What he said next shocked me, he asked me “kia te lok?” (where do you stay?)
I was taken aback and he went on to tell me that he was from Singapore too and used to stay at Toa Payoh. We chatted about Singapore for a few more minutes before I went on my own way thinking how strange to meet a random person in Amsterdam that hailed from Singapore. I thought, “Probably here for the legalised weed” and didn’t think much about it.
Until I read this article.
Thank you for sharing.
I guess Roland Tan is unrelated to an existing condo (Tan Tong Meng Tower, 370 Thomson Road S(298128), completed est. 1977. The chinese character for ‘Tong’ is different. The buildings seem to be infamous in its own right for alleged supernatural encounters.
wow…… my dad just confirmed your story… he knows them from before and story is very true.. well done on your research. I have many other stories from him too…hmm… maybe should put it into a film… but the cost of a 1970s setting will be Expensive.
Would u be so kind and contact me pls? I am doing research on this topic. Thanks.
Have you completed your research?
Interesting.my dad is from there and used to run things with his friend before they came to london then roland tan took over
A guy named Char Bor Hai.. Who is he?
He is the guy who you claim to know….
Heard of this name too. I think he is of the same group with roland. Maybe someone who knows can share the story…
Please stop posting this story , they are all very low profile peoples and reach the age of retirement . Thanks
Once Singapore’s most wanted, gangster Roland Tan dies after 51 years on the run
The Straits Times
10 May 2020
In the middle of a dinner party in Copenhagen last month, the host, a man of slight build with a bald pate, keeled over and died.
He was no ordinary man. Nicknamed Mr Big in Denmark for his ties to organised crime and drug smuggling, Roland Tan Tong Meng was one of Singapore’s most notorious fugitives, long wanted for a murder in October 1969.
The cause of death was a heart attack, and the news was carried in the local Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, as was the funeral two weeks later, with the headline “Mr Big is dead”.
The funeral of the 72-year-old former gangland boss at a chapel was streamed live on Facebook to a closed group of Singaporeans, including family friends and gang members.
Messages of condolences were left on a Facebook post announcing his death. They called him “Uncle Roland”, and “Ah Gor” (brother). Slide shows were created.
In one of the Facebook posts, a Singaporean thanked Tan for taking care of his family “when we were young and were in dire straits”. When contacted, the man, an administrator of the closed group, declined to comment.
Retired Singapore detective Lionel de Souza said of Tan: “Gang members, who called themselves his blood brothers, looked up to him.
“When they got into trouble or owed loan sharks money, they would look for him and he would give them money to pay their debts.”
Mr de Souza, 77, was one of three Singapore police officers who had planned to travel to Copenhagen to extradite Tan in 1973.
But that task was aborted at the 11th hour, owing to a lack of evidence to proceed with a murder charge, he recalled.
At that time, Tan was Singapore’s most wanted murder suspect. He topped the list of suspects on the run, with police offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
Also known as the “Hylam Kia” (Hainanese boy) who came from a kampung in Serangoon, Tan was wanted for the murder of a man called Lam Cheng Siew.
At around 12.30am on Oct 24, 1969, Mr Lam, then 31, was travelling with four friends when their car was ambushed by a group of armed thugs in two cars near the junction of Bras Basah and North Bridge Road.
The attack left Mr Lam dead in a nearby drain, with stab wounds to his head and left arm. A bearing scraper was found near him.
Tan fled to Malaysia, then to Amsterdam, with the help of the See Tong gang, a criminal outfit.
Mr de Souza, who spent about 10 years with the Special Investigation Section (Homicide) and was involved in the investigation of secret society activities, recalled that he had – before the murder case – once arrested Tan for his involvement in such nefarious activities in the 1960s.
Back then, Tan collected protection money from a territory that included Bras Basah Road, Purvis Street and Middle Road, said Mr de Souza.
His brutality was legendary. Even the local thugs feared him, said Mr de Souza, who continued to keep his ear to the ground for news of his quarry after the failed extradition attempt.
The fugitive went on to build a drug empire in Amsterdam, and moved subsequently to Copenhagen, where he married a Danish woman and also got Danish citizenship. It is not known if they have any children.
There, he set up a restaurant named Bali, which became a favourite haunt of gangsters.
In 2009, Tan was shot in his shoulder by his Vietnamese bodyguard just before the start of his birthday party in his restaurant.
A Singaporean who had travelled to Copenhagen for Tan’s birthday celebration was also shot.
It is not clear why the attack happened, but reports said there was a quarrel between Tan and his bodyguard before the shooting.
Singapore police told the media at the time that they had sent “a request to the Danish Police Force seeking more information”.
When asked for an update on the 2009 request last week, police had not replied by press time.
Tan eventually shut down his restaurant and moved to Cambodia. Last year, he returned to Denmark and had been living in Havneholmen, off Kalvebod Brygge in Copenhagen Harbour, when he died on April 4, reported Ekstra Bladet.
It said Tan was known as the “Chinese King” for his connections to the underworld.
His godson Robin Ungermann, 36, told Danish media that Tan had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of a dinner party at his home. An ambulance was immediately called but it was too late.
The Copenhagen Police Department confirmed the death of Tan with The Sunday Times. The police press consultant said the death “has not been subject to any police investigation” and declined to give further comment.
Ekstra Bladet reported that about 100 people attended Tan’s funeral at a chapel in Frederiksberg, Denmark, on April 24. Many of them were members of bikers’ groups Hells Angels and Bandidos. Among them were former convicts. Police were also present at the funeral, where a fight reportedly broke out among several guests.
When he was told of Tan’s death, Mr de Souza was silent for a moment before saying: “I heard he had some heart problems. He drank a lot… Our lives were at risk back then. He was a wanted man.”
“I heard he had some heart problems. He drank a lot… Our lives were at risk back then. He was a wanted man.”
older gangster are real gangster unlike nowadays so call gangster.. full of shit
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