The strange story of Lai Tek 1

With thanks to Dr. Leon Comber...

Sometime in 1935, a stocky, dark skinned man with a narrow face and a thin slit of a mouth entered a shabby Chinese grocery store in Hong Kong owned by one Wu Si Li. In the course of a violent and colourful career, the stranger would make use of at least thirty eight different aliases.  He would become notorious as Lai Tek.[1] His real name was probably Pham Van Dac. He was as protean and treacherous as his many identities. That day in 1935, Lai Tek was travelling as an agent of the Comintern. Wu Si Li’s store was a front used by the CCP and the Malayan Communists. Lai Tek was provided with funds and purchased a boat ticket to Singapore. As soon as he arrived, he made his way to the kongsi house of the Singapore Vegetable Growers’ Association, which was another MCP front address where he met someone calling himself Chen Liang. Lai Tek informed his contact that he was a ‘senior Comintern liaison officer from Hong Kong’. He had been sent to Singapore as a trouble shooter to ginger up the battered MCP. He had impressive credentials. He had studied communist theory in France and Russia, and had been a member of the CCP Shanghai Town Committee. He was of Chinese-Vietnamese origin and also claimed to have connections with Ho Chi Minh. There was no one in Singapore who could disprove Lai Tek’s account – and his international connections gave him immediate prestige. He rose quickly. Although the MCP was an illegal organisation, its members provoked a number of strikes and walk outs. In March, 1937, Lai Tek took a prominent role when the MCP backed striking miners at the Batu Arang coal mine in Selangor. The miners set up a ‘Soviet’ – the first ever in Malaya. The strike and the ‘Soviet’ swiftly collapsed. But Lai Tek had made his mark. At the 6th Central Extended Conference of the Central he was elected Secretary-General of the Party.  His appointment was a spectacular coup – not for world communism, but for the British Special Branch. For Lai Tek was a double agent. After the Japanese conquest of Malaya, he would sell his political soul once again - to the notorious Kempeitai. Lai Tek would do untold damage to the communist cause in Malaya.

[1] The most detailed recent account of the career of Lai Tek is Leon Comber’s 2010 ‘Traitor of all Traitors’—Secret Agent Extraordinaire: Lai Teck, Secretary-General, Communist Party of Malaya (1939–1947), published in JMBRAS, VOL. 83, Part 2 (2010), pp. 1–25. ‘The Masked Comrades: a Study of the Communist United Front in Malaya, 1945-48’ (1979) and ‘Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-1946’ both by Cheah Boon Kheng discuss the case of Lai Tek in detail. Not a single Special Branch file appears to have survived.