For Kim Wong, the Chinese casino owner in the Philippines entangled in one of the world’s largest bank heists, there are two golden rules for dealing with wealthy punters: always demand to see their money, but never ask where it came from.
That seems to be what happened when he took millions of dollars from two Chinese high-rollers in February. He told a Senate hearing earlier this week the two men were responsible for transferring $81 million stolen from the Bangladesh central bank’s U.S. account into the Philippines.
“In casinos we always say, ‘Show your money first before you talk,'” Wong told Reuters on Friday in his first interview with an international news organization.
As for the source of that money? “You don’t ask. It’s disrespectful.”
The 54-year-old denied any involvement in the heist. But he described one of the two high-rolling gamblers as a long-time friend from Macau who in a single week in 2014 ran up a debt of $10 million at a Manila casino. Wong acted as guarantor until it was paid off.
The other high roller was from Beijing, said Wong, adding that he barely knew him.
Neither high roller is being sought by Philippine police because no complaint has yet been filed against them. It was not known if they were still in the Philippines.
Wong gave a rare peek into a world where Chinese high rollers rack up multi-million-dollar debts at Manila casinos and life-changing sums of money change hands as casually as sticks of gum.
Since appearing at the Senate hearing, his cash-drenched profession has dominated headlines in a country where around a quarter of its 100 million people live on two dollars a day.
At Solaire, Manila’s flashiest casino, the minimum bet in the VIP rooms is $5,000, or as much as a Filipino teacher earns in a year.
Wong’s lawyers arrived at the Philippine central bank on Thursday to surrender a suitcase packed with $4.63 million in cash.
This fulfilled Wong’s earlier vow to pay back what was left of $5 million in stolen money he had received via Philrem, a foreign exchange broker.
Another 1 billion pesos ($21 million) of the stolen funds ended up in a Philippine bank account of Eastern Hawaii, a company run by Wong, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).
Of that money, said Wong, 550 million pesos was used to buy gambling chips for clients. The rest he has promised to pay back.
“Give me 15 days to a month. I will pay,” he said.
The rest of the $81 million went to Solaire casino and another junket operator, according to the AMLC complaint. In the Philippines, casinos are outside the purview of the anti-money laundering laws.
Dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt and showing no signs of wealth, Wong sat in the backroom of a Chinese restaurant in Manila and spoke of his own improbable rise. A stocky bodyguard stood nearby.
Speaking mostly in slang-laden Filipino, Wong described how he was an immigrant from Hong Kong who arrived in the Philippines as a boy. He later got rich and befriended many of the country’s powerful politicians – including two one-time presidential contenders.
Wong said his mother brought him to Manila when he was 11. He still holds Chinese citizenship and said his real name is Kam Sin Wong.
He lived in Manila with his father, who worked at a tobacco company owned by a wealthy grand uncle. Wong worked there too after dropping out of college and at a construction firm in the U.S. protectorate of Guam that his uncle also owned.
Wong later ran a T-shirt factory and a handful of restaurants in Manila, which allowed him to start developing a wide circle of sometimes influential friends.
He first entered the gambling industry as a junket operator at a casino resort at Clark, the former U.S. airbase north of Manila.
With partners, he raised one billion pesos to build what is now known as Eastern Hawaii Leisure Company in the sleepy town of Cagayan in the northern Philippines.
He said Eastern Hawaii is now one of Cagayan’s biggest employers, with more than 1,000 local staff, plus 300 Chinese to take telephone bets from punters on the mainland, where gambling is banned.
“VERY, VERY RESOURCEFUL”
Wong also forged connections with powerful politicians, starting with Alfredo Lim, an ethnic Chinese Filipino and former Manila mayor who later ran for president.
Lito Atienza, who succeeded Lim as mayor, recalled Wong as a hardworking and “very, very resourceful” volunteer during election campaigns.
“He is industrious, always ready to serve. That is his character,” Atienza told Reuters.
Wong is still close to another powerful politician and one-time presidential hopeful. Panfilo Lacson, a former senator and national police chief, calls Wong “a friend of mine”
Tuesday was not the first time Wong had been accused of dirty dealings before the Senate.
At another hearing in 2001, which probed links between senior police officers and drug traffickers, a key witness identified Wong as a boss in one of the triads, the Chinese organized crime syndicates.
Wong denied belonging to a triad, telling Reuters he had been confused with another man of the same name.
“Not Mr. Wong. Mr. Wrong!” he joked.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)