Revenge, murder and immigrant dream gone wrong in Canada

The Vancouver mansion where Mr Yuan Gang was found murdered. The original house number "963" has been covered with a sticker bearing the number "961" to downplay the property's bloody history. According to court testimony, Zhao Li shot Mr Yuan twice,
The Vancouver mansion where Mr Yuan Gang was found murdered. The original house number "963" has been covered with a sticker bearing the number "961" to downplay the property's bloody history. According to court testimony, Zhao Li shot Mr Yuan twice, then chopped up the body. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Millionaire Yuan (left) was allegedly killed by his cousin Zhao, the father of YouTube celebrity Florence Zhao (right). The men reportedly had an argument when Mr Yuan told Zhao he wanted to marry Florence.
Millionaire Yuan (left) was allegedly killed by his cousin Zhao, the father of YouTube celebrity Florence Zhao (right). The men reportedly had an argument when Mr Yuan told Zhao he wanted to marry Florence.

VANCOUVER • After he had allegedly chopped up the body into 108 pieces and taken a long nap, Zhao Li cooked 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 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.

The victim, Mr Yuan Gang, was a millionaire who gamed the Canadian immigration system.

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

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

Mr 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 and accused in a court judgment of bribing a senior communist official. But by then, he had moved to Canada, having, in September 2005, married a Canadian Chinese woman who sponsored him to come to Vancouver.

A Vancouver court later characterised the marriage as immigration fraud.

Mr Yuan spent about C$35 million (S$35.7 million) on property and land investments in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. And he accumulated the glittering tro-phies beloved of the growing class of "fuerdai", a Mandarin expres-sion 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 also used cash to buy a stately 10-bedroom Tudor revival home with exquisite gardens valued at about US$17 million in Shaughnessy, considered Vancouver's most desirable address.

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.

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

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

On a sunny Saturday on May 2, 2015, Mr Yuan and Zhao had their final disagreement, when the former told his cousin that 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 Mr Yuan, according to Zhao's testimony at his murder trial.

Zhao said Mr 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.

His lawyer argued that Zhao, incensed by his cousin's proposal to marry Florence, had been provoked, and thus was guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder, for which he could face life in prison.

But Mr 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.

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

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2019, with the headline 'Revenge, murder and immigrant dream gone wrong in Canada'. Print Edition | Subscribe