Everybody should be familiar with Cheung Po Tsai by now — you know, the Robin Hood-esque figure who has a cave named after him on Cheung Chau Island? As the story goes, Cheung Po the Kid was running the show in the 19th century, amassing an incredible fortune. Apparently, he used his cash to build Tin Hau temples all along Hong Kong’s coastline and stored the rest in the cave.
The Tanka pirate was originally born in Xinhui, China, but was kidnapped by legendary pirate Ching I and eventually adopted after years of earning his stripes with the crew. Things worked out for Cheung in the end: His new parents handed him the pirate businesses after his father’s death, and it was big business indeed. By that time, the family essentially controlled most of Guangdong’s coastline with their storied fleet of 600 ships.
But Cheung Po the Kid isn’t the only famous pirate in these here shores. Not all that long ago, there were dozens of pirates, from Cheung’s sidekick Cai Qian to the unforgiving American pirate Eli Boggs who roamed the waters in the mid 1800s.
Over in Macau, there was a pirate who was considered one of the century’s most powerful, according to the book “I Sailed With Pirates,” by Aleko Lilius, which was published in 1931. As Macau was a primary port in the region from as early as the 1500s, the sea was ripe for the picking and many government ships needed protection. Known as the “Pirate Queen of Macau,” Lai Choi San operated a modest lineup of a dozen ships, which she inherited from her father.
Lai was said to have control over the fishing trade and was able to sail with impunity thanks to chummy relationships with bigwigs downtown. She cruised around the islands and tormented seafarers by wiping ships clean or collecting fees from fishermen in exchange for her protection — and if they didn’t pay, who could be sure of their safe passage?