Hong Kong’s most successful private investigator
The lives of private investigators in movies are either glamorously exciting, or else mired in the seedy underbelly of the big city. These private dicks are equipped with all sorts of high-tech gadgetry and can disguise themselves with the help of a trilby and a fake wig.
“Are you joking? If I need an old lady during an investigation, why not just hire an old lady?” says veteran PI Cheung Tai-wai, laughing off the idea of Hollywood’s portrayals. Indeed, he reveals to Time Out the foremost quality to becoming a successful PI – being ordinary.
The two major tasks of a private investigator, according to Cheung, are to follow people and to collect visual, audio and video evidence with hidden gadgets. “You can’t be too ugly or look like a gangster,” Cheung says, “or you will look suspicious to the people you follow. But you can’t be tall and handsome either – it’ll attract too much attention. An ideal follower is one who can easily blend into different environments.”
Having been a detective for 30 years, the 56-yearold is apparently the most famous PI in Hong Kong, with appearances on many TV and radio programmes. He certainly knows how to investigate. “You need to dress according to the occasion and remain at a proper distance. Do you know what happens when your target keeps looking back?” We haven no idea. “Don’t panic,” says Cheung, “it’s not that your target has noticed you, but that he probably wants to hail a taxi. In such occasions you need to dash into a cab before your target tries to get into it. That’s why I always prefer young employees – they can run fast.”
For a ‘following’ only, his detective agency charges $1,000 per hour in Hong Kong, but the minimum charge is $5,000. If his team needs to follow people in the Mainland (notably Guangdong province), he will ask for $1,200 per hour. “The prices will be judged case by case.”
His people do work undercover from time to time, though not very often. According to Cheung, his agency generally takes 80 cases a month. Half of these cases involve extramarital affairs, while the rest include corporate frauds, missing people or lost pets. “When dealing with cheating husbands or wives, ‘following’ is usually enough. Undercover work is needed when investigating corporate frauds. It can be dangerous, so it requires you to be clever.”
By ‘clever’ he means one should know the inside rules of how to make people happy. “To make people in the Mainland happy you need two things: cigarettes and alcohol. Actually people across the world are the same. A couple of drinks down them and they’ll tell you anything. That’s why nightclubs are always the best venues to discuss business.”
He informs Time Out that the sweet spots are two highly popular nightclubs (we won’t name them). “Nowadays all factories have been moved up north to the Mainland, and so have the businesses. The nightlife in the Mainland today is exactly like that of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s.”
But a high media exposure has, in a way, affected Cheung’s detective work. He tells Time Out that once his team was investigating a restaurant worker who was encouraging the customers to go to a competing restaurant. “My team had been visiting the restaurant for days. All cameras and listening devices were set in place. And then I showed up and chatted with my team briefly. The manager of the restaurant recognised my face and told the staff about my visit; the worker then noticed my team and became extremely cautious. I blew the whole investigation.”
Today Cheung tends to be the man behind the scene and doesn’t easily join the frontline investigation, unless there is a staff shortage. Besides having an ‘ordinary look’, Cheung gives Time Out other special tips on becoming a hotshot PI. “Your English and Putonghua need to be acceptable,” he says. “You need to have a driving licence and you can’t have any bad addictions.”
He especially refrains from hiring gamblers. “Once a former paparazzi came to me looking for a job, but as soon as I heard that he liked gambling I turned him down. Once a gambler, always a gambler.” Interview: Shirley Zhao