HONG KONG — Bells clanged and a siren split the morning air as the Sea Glory, a 70-foot-long customs agency launch, suddenly spotted its quarry amid the scores of scows and sampans, hydrofoils and Hovercraft, tramp steamers and cruise liners.
The launch roared to starboard in a shower of spray. In moments, six customs agents packing pistols and flashlights had boarded a huge wooden-hulled Chinese trading boat. For 20 minutes, they pried up floorboards, peered into the bilge, checked papers and grilled crew members.
Finally, launch commander Charles Chan let the ship and its scowling crew go. "It's empty this time," he said. "Maybe it was just a decoy."
It was another frustrating patrol in what has become a deadly game of hide-and-seek in one of the world's busiest harbors. Officials say Hong Kong's archipelago of 235 rocks and islands, with 350 miles of mostly deserted coastline, is a modern smuggler's haven.
"It's a hell of a place to police," sighed Barrie Deegan, regional commander of Hong Kong's 3,000-member marine police force. "We can't make a dent in the problem."
Smuggling here is as old as the China trade. Today, the booty ranges from Sony TVs and Mercedes-Benzes to frozen chicken wings and Marlboros. The buyers are mostly newly rich citizens in southern China. And with tens of millions of dollars in profits at stake, the smugglers are increasingly sophisticated.
Each night, for example, police spot 20 to 30 custom-built "cigarette" boats roaring across Hong Kong's northeast waters at up to 70 knots. Painted gun-metal gray, most have three or four gleaming 300-horsepower engines attached, armor plating to protect the cockpit and steel-reinforced bows for ramming. Police catch only a fleeting glimpse of them because most of their boats can make just 25 knots.
"All we can do is wave goodby as they pass," said Chan. "There's no way we can catch them unless they have engine trouble."
And even then, fate sometimes intervenes. "A couple of times we pursued them until their engines got too hot and burst into flames," said Ronald Au, chief of investigations for the customs and excise department. "So we got the guys, but the evidence all sank."
So far, eight smugglers have died this year from collisions with each other, or when their heavily loaded boats overturned at high speeds. A marine constable was killed in June when his inflatable boat was rammed. Four other officers were injured in a similar collision in August. Both times, the smugglers escaped.
As befits this high-tech town, Hong Kong's black-marketeers increasingly use mobile phones, radios tuned to police frequencies, decoys and lookouts, police say.
Sometimes a dozen or so sail in V formation, splitting up in different directions when police boats approach. Most are empty "dummy ships" that lead police on a bogus chase before allowing themselves to be stopped.
Still, police have had successes. In the last three months, thanks to stiffer laws and increased patrols, they seized 5,650 TVs, 1,513 video recorders and 150,000 cartons of cigarettes from smugglers--nearly 10 times the amount confiscated in the previous six months. A total of 264 people were arrested.
They also seized at least 38 guns being smuggled into Hong Kong from China. Most were Chinese-made 7.62-millimeter automatic pistols, better known as T-54s, standard issue handguns of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
All told, prosecutors have filed 174 cases since June. That compares to only 52 cases filed three years ago and 134 cases all last year.
Cars are especially hot. Police say that up to 20% of cars stolen in Hong Kong are smuggled to China, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, often on consignment. Last year, 4,401 cars were stolen.
One, a new Mercedes-Benz 300SE, was found in May at a Clearwater Bay landing popular with smugglers. Though partially submerged by the tide, the car was dry because it was inside a huge black rubber bag. A rope was tied to the front.
Police eventually announced that they had solved what headline writers quickly dubbed the "Benz-in-a-bag" caper. Smugglers, they said, planned to inflate the bag, tow the car out to sea, then load it on a lighter.
Corruption and politics inevitably play a role. In a "sting" that went awry last May, for example, Hong Kong marine police captured five armed Chinese soldiers waiting offshore to take possession of five Mercedes-Benzes.
But Chinese patrol boats quickly surrounded the arresting officers, and Chinese soldiers arrested two Hong Kong undercover agents and five seamen. They also confiscated the cars. The men were eventually returned. The cars were not.
Officials say the recent rash of smuggling grew with China's open-door economic reform policies of the late 1970s. At first, most of the contraband came out, especially antiques, silver coins and herbs. Clothes were sent in.
In recent years, however, as a moneyed class has grown in China, so has the demand for Western luxury goods. Since Beijing tightened import quotas and tariffs last year--including a 100% duty on televisions and 150% duty on VCRs--smugglers found a boom market.
"People are getting richer every day, and they demand these luxury goods," said Au. "The only question is price."