In Canada, revenge, murder and a Chinese immigrant dream gone wrong

Millionaire Yuan Gang (left) was murdered by his cousin Zhao Li, the father of YouTube celebrity Florence Zhao (right). In 2015, Yuan reportedly said he wanted to marry Florence, leading to a violent confrontation with the elder Zhao.
Millionaire Yuan Gang (left) was murdered by his cousin Zhao Li, the father of YouTube celebrity Florence Zhao (right). In 2015, Yuan reportedly said he wanted to marry Florence, leading to a violent confrontation with the elder Zhao.PHOTO: NYTIMES, HBICTV
The Vancouver mansion in British Columbia, Canada, where wealthy Chinese immigrant Yuan Gang was found murdered in 2015.
The Vancouver mansion in British Columbia, Canada, where wealthy Chinese immigrant Yuan Gang was found murdered in 2015.PHOTO: NYTIMES

VANCOUVER (NYTIMES) - After he had chopped up the body into 108 pieces and taken a long nap, Zhao Li cooked himself some noodles for breakfast.

He never ate them.

Instead, Zhao, a soft-spoken Chinese immigrant, found himself surrounded by a SWAT team that had been surveilling the imposing US$8 million (S$10.9 million) hillside mansion owned by the victim, Zhao's cousin by marriage.

The police had been discreetly watching Zhao through the large floor-to-ceiling windows as he calmly washed blood from a hunting knife, according to investigators.

These were some of the details that emerged during lurid testimony offered recently in Zhao's trial for murder at the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

The case has riveted Vancouver - and attracted headlines in Canada and China - by exposing a wrenching human drama of family ties gone rancid, revenge and violence. But it also pulls together many strands of the recent changes that have come to Vancouver.

The city, known for its stunning nature and outdoorsy cannabis-fuelled culture, has been transformed by an influx of wealthy second-generation Chinese, many of whom have invested heavily in property and view a Canadian passport as a gateway to a glittering and better life.


Yuan Gang in an undated photo. PHOTO: NYTIMES 

The victim, Yuan Gang, was a millionaire who gamed the Canadian immigration system - a practice the authorities have been trying to stamp out, including in a recent fraud case involving hundreds of wealthy Chinese immigrants who used fake documents to obtain Canadian citizenship or permanent residency while living in China.

The accused killer, Zhao, was his poorer aspirational cousin, who had come to Canada with his family, hoping for a better life.

Also figuring in the story is Zhao's 26-year-old daughter, who found fame as a glamorous YouTube celebrity and emblem of moneyed Chinese newcomers living a bling bling lifestyle in Canada.

"It is a tale about greed, materialism and the corruptibility of money," said Chris Johnson, a veteran Vancouver criminal lawyer who represented the victim's family.

"Everyone wants to know why Zhao Li did what he did," added Richard Li, a writer for Xing Tao, a popular local Chinese-language newspaper in Vancouver.

The victim, Yuan, who died a few weeks before his 42nd birthday, was born in Heilongjiang, a north-eastern province in China. He drew on family wealth to invest in coal production, and quickly expanded the business.

In 2015, he was implicated in a corruption case in China, accused in a court judgment of bribing a senior communist official. But by then he had moved to Canada, having married a Canadian-Chinese woman in September 2005 who sponsored him to come to Vancouver.

He divorced her in 2007, two months after gaining permanent residency. A Vancouver court later characterised the marriage as immigration fraud.

Yuan spent about C$35 million on property and land investments in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. And he accumulated the glittering trophies beloved of the growing class of "fuerdai", a Mandarin expression that refers to wealthy second-generation Chinese.

He acquired the US$8 million mansion at 963 King George's Way in British Properties, the most exclusive mountainside enclave in Vancouver, paying for a large part of it in cash. He installed a stuffed black panther posing on a rock in the grand entrance.

He also used cash to buy a stately 10-bedroom Tudor revival home with exquisite gardens valued at about US$17 million in Shaughnessy, an old moneyed neighbourhood considered Vancouver's most desirable address.


Yuan Gang also owned this 10-bedroom Tudor revival home with gardens, in Shaughnessy, an old moneyed neighborhood considered Vancouver’s most desirable address. PHOTO: NYTIMES 

Yuan purchased a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce worth more than US$250,000. He also acquired a US$2 million private island, Pym Island, near Victoria Island, and an Azimut yacht, both of which he put in his mother's name.

To avoid taxes on the sale of a second home, Yuan did not want to have all of his assets in his name, his family associates said in interviews.

 
 

In 2010, he invited his poorer cousin Li Xiaomei; her husband, Zhao; and their teenage daughter, Florence, to come live with him. Zhao worked in his businesses and Li helped with bookkeeping and cooking.

A meek man barely over five feet tall, Zhao's life was ripped apart at age nine when his father was branded a counterrevolutionary in China and sent to a labour camp. He was mercilessly bullied at school. "I felt that life was hopeless," he testified during his murder trial.

But his fortunes changed after he got married and started a successful printing company.

In 2007, the family moved to Montreal, with the typical ambitions of economic migrants to Canada. When their cousin invited them to Vancouver, offering instant upward mobility, they did not hesitate. They moved into the King George's Way mansion.

It was not long before things began to sour, according to people who know the family.

Yuan's businesses in China began faltering, and he resented supporting the Zhao family. And Zhao began bullying employees in Yuan's businesses in Canada, former employees said.

Zhao's daughter, Florence, though, found a new kind of prosperity in Canada as "Flo-Z", an aspiring fashion designer. At 26, she starred in a popular reality show on YouTube, Ultra Rich Asian Girls, which gained a cult following in Vancouver and in parts of Asia.


Florence Zhao, the daughter of Zhao Li, on the YouTube reality show Ultra Rich Asian Girls. PHOTO: HBICTV

The show, a tribute to the lifestyle of ultrawealthy Chinese living in Vancouver, featured four young women, including Florence Zhao and a Taiwanese shop-a-holic CocoParis, who variously sip expensive Pomorol wine from straws, go on shopping sprees in Venice and discuss the relative virtues of having a rich ugly boyfriend or a handsome poor one.

"We are not limiting ourselves to other people's standards and we look amazing while doing it," Florence Zhao brags on the show.

In one episode, Florence, who did not respond to requests for an interview, was filmed exercising next to an outdoor pool at the mansion where Yuan was later killed.

Friends said she told them that Yuan, whom she called "uncle", was a creepy womaniser and that she was afraid to be alone with him. Kevin Li, a producer of the show, said she told him she studiously avoided her uncle, saying he had "bad vibes".

On a sunny Saturday in May 2015, Yuan and Zhao had their final disagreement, when Yuan told his cousin he wanted to marry Florence.

Her father was irate. "You are worse than a beast, worse than a pig or a dog," he told his cousin, according to Zhao's testimony at his murder trial.

Zhao said Yuan became furious and hit him with a hammer. Zhao then shot him twice, according to court testimony. He then set about chopping up the body.

"I heard someone talking to me about a bear and how to cut up a bear," he testified.

His lawyer argued that Zhao, incensed by his cousin's proposal that he marry Florence, had been provoked, and thus was guilty of manslaughter, which carries no minimum sentence, rather than murder, for which he could face life in prison.

But Johnson, the victim's family lawyer, said Zhao was angry because his cousin was in the process of selling his Saskatchewan farm holdings and had cut him out of the deal.

As evidence, he pointed out that two days after the killing, Zhao's wife Li Xiaomei, who helped manage Yuan's accounts, transferred US$2 million into her own bank account. She has been charged with theft and is awaiting trial.

A verdict in the murder trial is expected in the coming months.

After the publicity generated by the killing, seven women from China came forward claiming that their children deserved part of the victim's roughly US$21 million Canadian estate.

After a high-profile civil case, during which it emerged that Yuan had as many as 100 girlfriends, a Canadian judge ruled that his estate should be divided among five children who proved to be DNA matches for him.

At the mansion where he was killed, a real estate agent, seeking to downplay the house's bloody history, covered the original 963 address with a sticker that says 961. On a recent day it was pouring rain and the mailbox was bursting with unopened utility bills addressed to Zhao Li.

The house has since been sold to an Iranian family.

"No Chinese people want to live here because they know what happened," Johnson explained. "They think it can bring bad luck."