On a rain-drenched Monday morning three years ago, half a dozen people gathered at a ramen-noodle fast food outlet inside the gigantic Terminal 1 building of the Hong Kong International Airport.
They were there to smuggle three Chinese migrants to Canada.
The plot would involve an intricate staging with six people simultaneously checking in for flights to Vancouver and Fujian province in China. Details about the plan have only recently emerged in court cases which ended this spring, opening a window into how undocumented Chinese migrants are using Hong Kong as a staging point to illegally enter Canada, the United States, Europe or Australia.
The situation became famous in 2010, when a Chinese man managed to board an Air Canada flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver wearing a silicone mask that made him look like an elderly Caucasian passenger.
But the masked man was far from being unique.
In the last four years, 117 Chinese travellers claimed refugee status after landing at Vancouver International Airport, while another 228 Chinese travellers did the same at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Furthermore, the Canada Border Service Agency says that during that same period, another 1,452 Chinese citizens were denied entry at various border points and voluntarily returned to their original destinations.
Hong Kong officials acknowledge that the territory's status as a transport hub makes it an attractive springboard for human smugglers.
"Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world with extensive air connection to about 160 destinations," a spokesman for the territory's Immigration Department told the Globe and Mail in an e-mail.
"For obvious reasons, human smugglers would take advantage of the transport convenience of international air hubs."
Tribunal decisions here show that the Chinese migrants say they pay between $27,000 and $46,000 to smuggling kingpins, known as snakeheads, to get them to Canada.
They board Canada-bound flights, posing as travellers from South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia or Japan, countries less likely to raise the suspicions of immigration officials or airline staff checking their papers.
Typically, they come from Fujian province in southern China and often claimed to be persecuted because they are members of a Christian church. For some, Canada is just another staging point to their ultimate goal, entering the United States.
The plot revealed in Hong Kong court this spring shows the complexity of one such smuggling operation.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
The mastermind: Chan Ka-bo – Described in court as a kingpin who had previously attempted to smuggle Chinese mainlanders to Canada. Also goes by the name Adidas.
The boarding-pass swapper: Mak Miu – A 35-year-old former employee in a transportation company. Married and a father of two girls. He would be paid $4,000 HKD (About $515) for his role.
The escort: Christopher Leung Ho-yan – A 45-year-old casual worker in the same company, who earned approximately $7,000 each month. He remitted a portion of that back to the Mainland to support his wife and nine-year-old son. He would be paid $15,000 HKD (about $1,900).
Mr. Miu was drawn into the plot shortly after the Chinese New Year in March, 2009, when he and Mr. Leung met for supper at a restaurant in Shenzhen, the booming industrial city across the border from Hong Kong.
Mr. Leung was already involved that month in a plot with Chan Ka-bo, whom they called Ah Bo, to smuggle a Chinese migrant to Canada on Cathay Pacific's daily flight to Vancouver.
Mr. Miu was jobless and needed money. Mr. Leung said he could introduced him to Ah Bo.
Unlike Chinese citizens, Mr. Miu and Mr. Leung have Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports and don't need a visa to enter Canada.
Mr. Leung explained that the fraud required someone like Mr. Miu to check into an international flight to Canada. At the same time, a would-be migrant would get into the airport's restricted departure area by checking into a local flight to China.
However, Mr. Miu's wouldn't go to Vancouver. His boarding pass would be handed to the Chinese migrant, who would use it along with a forged HKSAR passport in Mr. Miu's name to get onto the Canada-bound flight.
Mr. Leung would also check in to the flight and, unlike Mr. Miu, would travel to Canada.
On arrival in Vancouver, the Chinese migrant would surrender to Canadian authorities and claim refugee status.
Meanwhile, Mr. Leung would collect Mr. Miu's luggage, destroy the airline tags, enter Canada and stay a few days before returning to Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong court didn't hear why Mr. Leung had to pick up the luggage. But in other smuggling cases heard in Canadian courts, Chinese migrants have said that upon landing in Canada they turned over their false papers to the smugglers and had no luggage on them, making it harder for authorities to document how they arrived.
A 2010 Federal Court ruling, for example, described one Fujianese refugee claimant this way: "Upon his arrival, he had no passport, no boarding passes and no luggage tags to document the airlines on which he had been a passenger."
Back in Hong Kong, Mr. Miu decided to join the conspiracy. In April, 2009, he gave his name, passport number, date of birth and other particulars to Ah Bo so the kingpin could book an air ticket departing May 25, 2009.
The morning of May 25, Mr. Miu, Mr. Leung and two other men met with Ah Bo at the Sheung Shui bus terminus, in the northern part of Hong Kong's New Territories.
Ah Bo explained what they were expected to do at the airport. The five men then headed for Chep Lak Kok, the reclaimed island where the airport is located. At Terminal 1, they entered the arrival hall, on Level 5.
Just at the entrance, at the Ajisen Ramen noodle shop, the five men were joined by a woman and a man.
Ah Bo handed Cathay Pacific airline tickets to Mr. Miu and two others, who were going to be boarding-pass facilitators.
He told them to memorize the travel details so they could answer if questioned by airline staff. He also gave each of them a piece of luggage to check.
Mr. Miu and the other two men went up two floors to the Cathay Pacific check-in area, making sure they lined up at separate counters.
Separately, at least two other conspirators – Mr. Leung and the woman, Ivy – also checked-in for the flight.
Meanwhile, at the departure counter of Dragonair, three Chinese citizens showed up.
Using their real passports, they checked in for short-haul flights to Xiamen and Fuzhou, cities in Fujian province.
It was about 1:30 p.m. Cathay Flight CX838 was to depart Hong Kong to Vancouver at 4.35 p.m.
Meeting back at the noodle shop, Ah Bo collected the three boarding passes from Mr. Miu and the other facilitators and left with Mr. Leung and Ivy.
Mr. Leung and Ivy went through the security controls and into the restricted zone.
Inside the waiting area, Mr. Leung entered a toilet where he left a magazine containing a forged passport and one of the Vancouver-bound Cathay boarding passes.
One of the Chinese migrants then picked up the package so he could use the documents to get aboard Flight CX838.
At 4:15 p.m., as they queued at the boarding gate, the three Chinese migrants caught the attention of immigration officers, who often conduct spot checks throughout the airport.
Hong Kong officials won't say how they noticed the trio, but one challenge for smugglers has been to make sure that the migrants, who often have never travelled outside of China, look like international travellers.
Chan Ka-bo later told the others that the three Chinese had been caught because they "stood in the wrong position at the boarding gate."
The officers found on the migrants their original IDs and entrance and exit permits from the People's Republic of China, along with their Dragonair tickets and boarding passes.
The three also carried Cathay boarding passes and forged Hong Kong passports, including one in Mr. Miu's name.
Officers arrested the trio, who joined the more than 480 people intercepted at the airport that year on suspicions of having fraudulent passports or visas.
Mr. Leung boarded the flight without the migrants. He was arrested in Vancouver and deported to Hong Kong two days later.
The three Chinese mainlanders were each sentenced to 10 months of prison.
Mr. Miu was sentenced to 16 months and another check-in facilitator involved that day received a 19-month sentence.
After being sent back from Vancouver, Mr. Leung got a 23-month sentence.
"This is a serious matter. It has international dimensions in that it reflects badly upon Hong Kong as we are seen as a conduit for illegal immigrants," District Judge Garry Tallentire said in sentencing Mr. Leung.
A spokesman for Hong Kong's Immigration Department said the mastermind, Chan Ka-bo, was initially arrested. However, no court proceedings has been undertaken against him and officials are closed-mouthed about his whereabouts.
In an e-mail to the Globe and Mail, a prosecutor said that Mr. Chan remains "at large" while the Immigration spokesman said he cannot provide more details because "investigation on the concerned mastermind is still continuing."