27 October 2016
The 2015 Hong Kong movie Helios features an espionage plot inspired by some historical events in the city. Photo: Media Asia Film
The 2015 Hong Kong movie Helios features an espionage plot inspired by some historical events in the city. Photo: Media Asia Film

What a movie tells us about HK as an espionage capital

Helios (赤道), a 2015 Hong Kong crime thriller, was truly one of a kind on the local film scene, with a plot full of twists that ended in a cliffhanger.

The movie featured an international ensemble cast from China, Taiwan, Macau and South Korea, including Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Nick Cheung Ka-fai, Ji Jin-hee and Choi Si-won.

The audience was astonished by the whirlpools of intrigue that spanned the United States, the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.

Though fictitious and with a few slightly exaggerated developments, the movie gives a truthful account of Hong Kong’s unique stature in international relations, in the field of espionage in particular.

In Helios, the first person in Hong Kong who spotted the eponymous terrorist was a Sikh, who met a police detective in the 115-year-old Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Wan Chai, where I often take my postgraduate students for field research.

It’s hard to say if today’s Sikhs in Hong Kong, many of whom were born in the city, maintain their own intelligence-sharing network, but historically, they have contributed greatly to the city’s public security.

Out of the deep distrust of locals and sailors from Mumbai as a result of their rampant graft-taking, the colonial authorities started drawing recruits from northern India, the home of the Sikhs, to boost the ranks of the local police force, starting in the mid-19th century.

The first several hundred of them arrived in Hong Kong in 1867, and at one time a third of the city’s police officers were Sikhs.

Their descendants stay on in Hong Kong, and today the city has no fewer than 10,000 Sikhs, many of whom work as security guards or run their own businesses.

One thing to note is that Sikhs in northwestern India, particularly the Punjab, have long sought independence, and there used to be radical separatist groups, whose members assassinated Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister of India, in 1984.

Though the Punjab independence movement has been mostly peaceful in recent years, it may still have some hidden links with extremist organizations in the Middle East.

In the film, well-known local film critic Paul Fonoroff plays an undercover US agent, who, posing as a journalist, works with the Hong Kong police in the hunt for Helios.

In the colonial era, especially during the Cold War, such cooperation was commonplace, yet understandably, it has become taboo to Beijing after the handover.

There may be opposing interpretations about whether counterterrorism falls into the category of diplomacy and thus lies in Beijing’s jurisdiction, but one thing for sure is that the central authorities would not take kindly to the idea of the Hong Kong police engaging foreign agents.

Agents from the United States are not the only ones active in Hong Kong, of course.

Even as early as World War II, Hong Kong had become one of the world’s three espionage capitals, together with Lisbon and Casablanca.

Now, the city is still at the forefront of the underground rivalry.

The main thread of the movie is Helios’ theft of a portable nuclear explosive device developed by South Korea.

The plan was for the weapon to change hands in Hong Kong.

The Korean Consul General and even President Park Geun-hye appear briefly in the movie.

For a long time, Hong Kong has been a hotly contested foothold by the two feuding governments on the Korean Peninsula.

Declassified files show Pyongyang started to station agents in the city when visits by actors and senior officials from Seoul became frequent.

Veteran South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee was abducted in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay in 1978, escorted to the North and made a propagandist, under the orders of the late Kim Jong-il.

And, in 2012, a close ally of then South Korean president Lee Myung-bak who was involved in a sex scandal and faced a police investigation back home, was found hanging in the closet of a serviced apartment in Hung Hom.

Helios’ choice of Hong Kong to sell the nuclear weapon he stole actually makes real sense, as the city, which does not levy any customs tariffs on goods passing through the jurisdiction, is a key entrepôt for global arms sales, both legal and underground.

The New York Times once revealed that Beijing sells, through Hong Kong, arms worth US$500 million to Pyongyang every year.

China-made light arms also land in the hands of their buyers in Middle East via the city.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Treasury Department planned to sanction a Hong Kong-registered firm, Anhui Land Group Co. Ltd., along with a dozen individuals and corporate entities in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, for its alleged role in arms sales and fundraising for Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Beijing has remained pragmatic post-handover when it comes to the many undercover agents and spies that pry for secrets in Hong Kong.

But the laissez-faire policy doesn’t mean Beijing doesn’t want a web of its own in the city.

Activists, politicians, lawmakers and business tycoons are among Beijing’s eyes and ears in Hong Kong.

Beijing remained silent throughout the Edward Snowden saga in 2014, though it must have been aware of a fugitive former US agent coming to Hong Kong in the first place.

Snowden was allowed to enter Hong Kong and leave of his own accord, and the city’s government remained passive despite Washington’s repeated pressure to apprehend him.

This article appeared in the June issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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In Helios, agents from the Hong Kong police force, China and South Korea collaborate to stop a stolen portable nuclear weapon from changing hands in the city. Photo: Media Asia Film

The Edward Snowden saga was a reminder that Hong Kong is a key hub for global espionage. Photo: AFP

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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