VIBE Recommended Book
'A Small Band of Men'
by Les Bird
Originating from Staffordshire in the UK, Les Bird joined the Hong Kong Marine Police in 1976.
For more than 10 years he patrolled the waters to the south of Hong Kong, intercepting vessels that had crossed the South China Sea and the Vietnamese 'boat-people' on board - all of whom were hoping to start a new life.
Throughout his maritime career Les carried a camera in his kitbag and, when circumstances permitted, he photographed the vessels and the people caught up in this exodus in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Les was with the Marine Police until 1997. As well as his work involving the influx of Vietnamese, he also headed Marine’s fast pursuit unit, intercepting smugglers in speedboats or daai feis, in the early 1990s attempting to take stolen cars and electronic goods, among other items, across to the mainland. His recently published memoir covers those 21 years in the lead-up to the handover. ‘A Small Band Of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police’, now a best seller in Hong Kong and on Amazon, is available for sale at VIBE.
Les is also a founding member and chairman of Asia's Rhinos Rugby Football Club.
He is married with two daughters.
(An excerpt from ‘A Small Band Of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police’ by Les Bird)
Since the days of the Opium Wars, Hong Kong has been on the trading route between East Asia and the rest of the world. Its strategic location made Hong Kong a financial and economic gateway to China. It also made it the ideal platform for illegal trading and smuggling between the colony and China.
By the late 1970s, China had started to open its doors to foreign investment. By the mid-1980s and early 1990s, its economy was developing rapidly to the extent that there was a surge in the number of wealthy Chinese with money to flaunt. The desire for high-end luxury goods, from cars to clothes and jewellery, especially from Europe and America, continued to grow. At the top of the must-have list of the new elite in China were cars and also electronics, such as video recorders and TVs. High taxes and duties in China meant these products were still in short supply.
The volume of goods crossing the border by illegal means at that time was growing significantly by the month. To meet an increased demand, the gangs upped their game by manufacturing bigger, faster speedboats. Speedboats in which they could pack much more cargo, and stay ahead of the new high-speed pursuit vessels of the Marine Police. They were sixty-foot-long, grey moulded fibreglass speedboats fitted with as many as five powerful 250 or 300 horsepower engines, which gave them top speeds of up to eighty knots (ninety mph), and they soon picked up the nickname daai fei, literally 'big flyer'. The open cargo compartment of the daai fei was big enough to accommodate a luxury car or four hundred VCRs. Because the daai feis were purpose-built for illegal activity, they also came with defence and escape capabilities. To protect the crew from gunfire, the coxswain’s position was surrounded by metal plating, and the bow section was reinforced with an armoured tip which could be used to ram anything or anyone that got in its way. One senior Marine Police officer at the time described the daai fei as ‘a death machine, a military tank with the acceleration of a Ferrari.’
Another feature of these syndicate’s activities was the luxury car ‘steal to order’ business. Anyone in China with the ready cash could place an order for a specific make, model, even colour, of vehicle. The Hong Kong-based members of the syndicate would then simply go out into the streets and steal one. The operation was slick and professional. After stealing the ordered vehicle, it would be driven immediately to a prearranged loading point, a secluded jetty in the rural areas of the New Territories, where a mobile crane and crew were waiting with a specially-designed sling to winch the car into the waiting daai fei alongside a pier. The road-to-boat transfer took no more than sixty seconds to complete. The daai fei with the stolen car on board would then accelerate off into the night on its way to mainland China. The profit on this few hours work was, of course, one hundred percent of the selling price of the car in China. In 1990 alone, 660 luxury vehicles, mostly Mercedes Benz, were reported stolen and never recovered. It was suspected that all 660 ended up in China. The syndicates that operated their fleets of daai feis preferred the cover of darkness, for obvious reasons.
By the end of 1990, smuggling by daai fei was a multi-million-dollar operation. The mainland-based gangs that ran this racket were a desperate lot, and would use whatever means they could to avoid arrest. Their avoidance tactics at sea were both desperate and very dangerous indeed - it was the job of the Marine Police’s Special Boat Unit to stop it. These are photographs taken by Les Bird at that time.
A SBU (Special Boat Unit) fast pursuit craft
A daai fei with stolen vehicle at speed across Mirs Bay towards the mainland coast. Taken from a RAF helicopter.
The unit prepares for a patrol.
A converted five-engine SBU daai fei. Note the standing positions of the crew
have been constructed for greater protection for those onboard.
A daai fei manned by SBU personnel. We used seized daai feis ourselves for decoy and intercept purposes.
A sinking daai fei (after a high speed chase and collision).
Daai feis often burst into flames and burned out. Their four/five outboard engines
were fuelled from jerry cans at the stern via plastic tubes to the engines (daai feis
did not have fitted fuel tanks). Fuel would swill around the deck of the craft as they
bounced around, making them time bombs should there be a spark or a flame.
With a seized daai fei that had run aground during a chase the night before. I am
pointing at the armour-plated bow, which daai fei crews used for ramming anything that got in their way.
Photographs courtesy of Les Bird