Blondie Wong And The Hong Kong Blondes
hacking, human rights, and hype
In the summer of 1998 I published an interview on the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) website about someone named Blondie Wong. His group — whom we dubbed the Hong Kong Blondes — worked to extract democracy activists out of China. The interview caused a sensation and became a piece of hacker history. This is the story of how that happened — and not entirely in the way it was supposed to.
The mythology of the Blondes grew to such an extent they appeared to have superpowers; this was partly my fault. I transcribed the interview in such a way as to make them as famous as possible as quickly as possible. That had been the strategy and it succeeded beyond all imagination. But this adventure wasn’t without its downsides. I came under a lot of pressure as did some other members of the cDc. And then there were the calls of fraud. The cDc, not unlike Anonymous, had been known as pranksters before we took up hacktivism. We were, after all, the same group who had claimed to have given Ronald Reagan Alzheimer’s. At this point enough time has passed to reveal a little more of the backstory of the interview.
I first met Blondie at an after hours bar in Toronto in December 1995. It was around three in the morning. I had arrived after a full night at a reggae club. Blondie had come looking for someone who never showed up. We ended up sharing a table. I noticed him before he sat down. Blondie was conspicuous for his appearance. At first I thought he was Eurasian. Tall, almond eyes, high cheekbones. Blondie reminded me of a Japanese-American friend who had worked as a runway model. He was impeccably dressed. Blondie was accompanied by a greasy looking Chinese man who didn’t sit. When I asked if he wanted to join us Blondie said it was fine. He was looking for a friend. I noticed Blondie’s companion stood a few feet behind us and kept scanning the room. When I turned to look at him I smiled and nodded. I got a blank stare back. Blondie was more friendly. We chatted about the evening, the band — which was horrible — and Toronto life. I detected a slight accent and asked him where he was from. He said China.
Earlier, when we had introduced ourselves, I tried to pronounce his name but couldn’t get it out. He told me to call him Blondie. I had known a number of Chinese students in Toronto, mostly from Taiwan, who used Anglo names; these were easier for English speakers to pronounce than their given Chinese names. When I asked Blondie why he’d picked that name he said because he liked the 80s band of the same name, and because everyone else was using Johnny or James.
Our conversation changed when I asked him about Tiananmen Square. Had he been in or out of the country when it happened? Blondie became sombre as if someone had asked him about a death in the family. He had not been in China. Blondie asked me about my impressions. Like many I had been riveted to CNN and followed those days with hope, ending in horror. Fuelled by booze, I volunteered that things would have been different if the students had had access to the internet back then. Organisation would have been easier and they could even have taken the game to the government. I got a sideways look. Blondie did eventually pick it up and ask how things would have played out if there were a rematch in the present day. It was a fun conversation because that night Tiananmen Square turned out very differently in our imagination. Then the silent Chinese man interrupted us. It was time to go. Blondie rose and shook my hand. He had enjoyed our chat and said he’d be back in Toronto in a few weeks. I told him to give me a call if he got bored. I didn’t really expect Blondie to get in touch, but he did.
We arranged to meet at a pool hall on Queen West. Blondie arrived on time with the same man plus another in tow. They broke off; one headed to the front and the other sat close by with a newspaper. When I asked Blondie if they’d be joining us he said no, they’d only come along for the ride. I noticed a few things about the game; Blondie had really strong concentration and he was immune to trash talk. Eventually I gave up and we chatted about this and that. After the game Tiananmen Square came up again. For us in ‘the West’, it seemed like a party and many were cheering from the sidelines. Then the whip came down. It’s difficult to express the feelings of June 4th. Shock. Revulsion. Fury. As awful as any event like this is, there’s a special feeling of grief for slaughtered youth. Hundreds were massacred that night and what could have been possible wasn’t just postponed, it was pulverised.
Blondie asked why I thought so many organisers were arrested afterwards. It seemed obvious that the state would want to punish the leadership but I wasn’t quite sure about the answer to the question. Informants maybe? No. The answer was that there was too much information floating around. The students had given so many interviews that the intelligence agencies just cross-referenced them and connected the dots. Without being aware of the consequences many organisers provided the information for their friends’ arrests.
We speculated about the way forward. I had been immersed in online culture for about ten years and thought there might be something there, especially in terms of more secure communications. Blondie asked a lot of questions and offered some ideas of his own. The conversation rambled in other directions: philosophy, religion, literature. After about two hours we realised we’d been talking for a long time and Blondie left quickly. He was late for a meeting but said he would contact me sometime. I eventually heard from Blondie and we met at a restaurant in Chinatown. I arrived to find him sitting alone. The two Chinese men who had sat glumly in the pool hall were sipping tea nearby. After some small talk I felt I needed to ask him about the guys he was with; they didn’t look like friends. Blondie gave me a long searching stare then said he would tell me something in confidence.
For the past two years he’d been working with friends who located people ‘at risk’ in China and got them out of the country. ‘At risk’ referred to activists of one kind or another. They were transported out of China by a triad (organised crime syndicate) that specialised in human trafficking. The men accompanying him were members of that triad. Blondie was afraid that his name had become known to the Chinese authorities and that he was being hunted, hence the security detail. It took me a few moments to absorb what Blondie was saying but my first reaction was to say that we were in North America and there was no way the Chinese government would try anything here. Years later I realised how wrong I was. In 2006 a Chinese system administrator with whom I had worked was rolled up in a carpet in his Atlanta home and savagely beaten by Chinese agents.
Things were beginning to sink in. Activists good. Chinese gangsters bad. It wasn’t impossible to live in Toronto at that time and not hear about Asian gang feuds. Chinese and Vietnamese gangs would occasionally overheat and leave a trail of dead bodies, usually over drugs. I felt a creeping unease. A voice in my head was telling me to get up and leave but I couldn’t move. We just sat quietly for a while then left the restaurant.
I settled into work, which for me was picking up whatever jobs I could plus volunteering at Web Networks, an ISP and social justice consultancy in Toronto. I finished my assignments quickly then headed to a SPARC Workstation which I learned badly. Amongst other things I spent time on every hacker Website and IRC channel I could find. And when I finally met Blondie again I had some news of my own. I told him that I had been invited to join the Cult of the Dead Cow. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was about to take a sip of tea, then put it down at gawked at me.
I explained that the cDc was a t-file (publishing) group that was influential in the computer underground. Blondie couldn’t get past the name, which he thought was childish. Ditto for the Legion of Doom, Masters of Deception, and Chaos Computer Club. I remember being very excited and proud in that moment as I described how powerful the hacker elites were. All I got was a look that said, you’ve got to be kidding me. I told Blondie not to be fooled by the funny names. Several cDc members were doing security research for a living and the same was true for a lot of people in our orbit. I was convinced hackers could help Blondie with his work. He was not.
I kept after Blondie talking about the benefits of having access to hacker networks. At a time when the Chinese internet was largely comprised of Western technology many of these scruffy hackers worked for those same companies or did third-party vulnerability research. Eventually he gave in and said he’d have some of his people look into it. Later on as he we left our meeting place he looked into a shop window and mumbled something. I asked him to repeat it and he said, “I need more blonde.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained: Hong Kong blonde; it’s slang for gold. I’d never heard that term before and something went off in my head. It sounded like a really cool name for a band: the Hong Kong Blondes. I had no idea how prescient that thought was. After Blondie’s group became famous a remix duo formed out of Melbourne, Australia working with the likes of Madonna. Their handle? The Hong Kong Blondes.
At the time Blondie didn’t have a name for his crew. He always referred to them as his ‘people’ or ‘the team’. The first time I told Blondie he should call his group the Hong Kong Blondes he burst out laughing. I eventually wore him down and over time he started referring to them as the Blondes. At the time I was listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and one day it hit me. Blondie Wong and the Hong Kong Blondes. More eye-rolling from Blondie but he eventually got it. Putting a rock and roll, edgy kind of vibe on his work might have an advantage.
A while later I heard back from Blondie about a possible connection. A couple of his technical guys looked into hacker websites and started sitting on #cDc on IRC. From there they hopped to every hacker channel they could find, sucked up everything and reported back to the Blondes’ technical lead. Without knowing it pretty much every hacker group in the computer underground was sharing information with Blondie’s group.
The next time we met Blondie was worried. One of his people lead had been picked up for questioning. It turned out to be nothing but Blondie began to worry that someone on his team might get arrested. It’s not like anyone was famous and would at least have international press attention on their side. An arrest would be made, an unknown person would go to jail, or worse; and nobody would know about it. This invisibility of violence became a huge issue. One of the cDc guys used to say that if you said anything with a straight face at least half the people would believe you. It made me think it might be possible to use the cDc’s influence to make the Blondes famous. If it worked, maybe a little notoriety would be better than none.
In the summer of 1997 I went to 2600’s Beyond Hope hacker conference in New York. The cDc had a panel and I was given ten minutes to speak. Blondie gave me permission to talk about the Blondes but only in a vague and suggestive way. We wanted to float a trial balloon and see if there was any interest in Chinese hackers.
I announced that the Cult of the Dead Cow and the Hong Kong Blondes had formed a strategic alliance. Other than thinking I had spoken badly the only thing I remember about that panel was The Nightstalker, a longstanding member of the cDc who passed away a few years ago. The Nightstalker had always been an inspiration for me. As a young man he’d gone to Vietnam as a CIA contractor and by the time he returned he was a radical antiwar activist. The Nightstalker had also been a member of the Technology Assistance Party (TAP), the earliest American group of hackers to blend technology and political action. As it turned out the talk about the Blondes generated a ripple of interest that I fanned into the computer underground. I reported back to Blondie and he was pleased. He became more enamoured of the hacking community and never joked about it again.
Over the year I stayed in contact with Blondie but only saw him one more time in Toronto, and that time he dropped a bomb. In the fall of 1998 the Blondes were going to move seven activists out of China as their swan song, then disappear themselves. When I asked Blondie why he was disbanding his group he said it was too large a gamble to continue. You have to know when to leave the table, he said, because if you don’t the house will take everything you own; and Blondie wanted some kind of insurance policy as he went out of the door. We needed to come up with an idea that would make the Blondes compelling enough to get the press interested in case things went south. Some crazy way of making seven Chinese nobodies famous without landing anyone in the jackpot.
We bounced around some ideas but none of them seemed right. Then I suggested that we could do an interview similar to those in Playboy and Interview magazines. The idea stuck. At the time the cDc was known for publishing t-files, many of which were outrageous and often attracted mainstream press attention. I was almost positive that a t-file about the Blondes would be picked up by the press. After all, the cDc’s motto was, “Global Domination Through Media Saturation.” I’m pretty sure that Anonymous picked up on the same concept. So we got to work on an interview and figured out how to shape it. We needed to have a David and Goliath angle, something sexy and provocative, and something that didn’t tell the complete truth.
We reasoned that if the interview were picked up by the mainstream press then Chinese intelligence would read it. So using hacker handles rather than real names was obviously a win-win: it protected peoples’ identities and made them sound rock-n-roll cool. Then we also obscured some other things that would throw the Chinese off the scent: names of locations that were used, and my favourite, Blondie’s education and profession. We decided to make him an astrophysicist after I asked him what the worst job in the world would be. What could be better than a super-geek leading a group of Chinese hackers? There was only one absolute whopper we told. That was the one about the Blondes manipulating a communications satellite, and it was actually Blondie’s idea. He had read similar claims on the cDc Web site and loved the idea of taunting the Chinese government.
From start to finish it took about two weeks to finesse the interview. The strategy was to post the interview and hope that it got picked up by the press a few months before the Blondes moved their final batch out of mainland China. A reporter I had met the year before was fascinated by the interview and wrote a story for Wired online. And the next thing you know it seemed like everyone was writing about the Hong Kong Blondes. I was besieged by interview requests for Blondie. He thought if he didn’t comment it would create even more interest, and he was right. Their fame just kept increasing. A reporter from the New York Times contacted me and wanted to interview Blondie. When he refused to speak with her I was gobsmacked. He maintained that silence was the best publicity. He did, however, communicate with the author Naomi Klein who was working on a manuscript for a book. When I asked him why he said he liked the way she thought.
Our media strategy had been to post the interview a few months before the final extraction and hope that it got a bit of churn in the press. If anything went wrong with the final exit then hopefully a bit of notoriety might save someone. Six months after the interview was published I was to publicly dissolve the relationship between the Blondes and the cDc. The interview was a one time deal and with the Blondes folding up shop there was no reason to maintain the ruse. But things didn’t work according to plan. It wasn’t that our media plan wasn’t successful. It was too successful.
The Blondes’ story unfolded at the same time the cDc had released the first iteration of BackOrifice, a network administration tool, effectively the first remote access trojan (RAT), which exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s operating system. Suddenly the cDc was being characterised as the Internet’s most dangerous hacker group. It didn’t help that we heaped ridicule on Microsoft’s security model. The press picked that up, and, one imagines, some of the three letter agencies developed an interest in the Internet’s own bad boys too. Then there were rumblings in the cDc. We had always loved press exposure and actively courted it. Geraldo Rivera once held up one of our t-files on national television and declared that we were a bunch of sickos. But the news of Chinese hackers being associated with the new improved cDc appeared to be attracting intelligence agency attention. It was too much for some. One of our best security guys made a hasty exit. At the time he was doing a certain amount of, err, network joyriding, and didn’t need the FBI looking at his after-school activities.
Increasingly I was being put under pressure to kill our relationship with the Blondes. I kept stalling because Blondie wanted this done early in 1999. None of this was actually known to the cDc which always bothered me. However, we couldn’t take the chance that someone would talk about the strategy or disinformation campaign. It would have blown everything. I managed to calm things down, but then I became a target. Two of my email accounts were hacked and I think my telephone was being tapped. Several times when I picked it up to make a call I heard odd clicking sounds. My paranoia was mounting to the extent where I thought I was being followed. At the same time one of the cDc guys told me in no uncertain terms that I was to shut down the cDc/Blondes alliance. That’s all I needed.
So I drafted a press release that said our relationship was over and that the Blondes were still carrying on their work. It was about a month before we had originally planned but I didn’t care. The daily stress of trying to figure out who was surveilling me had taken its toll. It also didn’t help that my grandmother had passed away a few weeks before. I tried to contact Blondie to let him know why I did what I’d done but heard nothing back. I was assuming that everything had gone well with the last extraction. If something had happened the press was lined up and ready to tell the story. But still no Blondie. The only thing that I could come up with is that I had angered him by breaking the relationship earlier than planned. And who knows, maybe Blondie was feeling a little too much attention himself. I had persuaded his technical lead to distribute BackOrifice in China via the sneaker-net. And I know for a fact that the next year when BackOrifice 2000 came out, entire networks in mainland China were being infected and taken offline.
About a week after I issued the press release I wrote another t-file called Chinese Checkers. It was me at my most florid. Reading it now convinces me that I was grieving, drunk, and inaccurate. I also managed to overstate my role with the Blondes. Especially cringeworthy is the claim that I helped shape the Blondes. I sound like the local inebriate trying to impress a stranger. But if my sense of self-importance was misplaced, my sentiments and support of everything the Blondes were trying to achieve was pure. To this day I still haven’t heard from Blondie and I’m a very easy person to find. Not knowing what had happened was a distraction, then I just let it go. Work kept me busy and I was starting to lay the groundwork for Hacktivismo, a subset of the cDc that would work on circumvention technologies.
The experience caused me to do a lot of soul searching. When I’m being honest with myself I think I just should have gotten up from that table and walked away. I’m all for human rights in China but the guys tagging along with Blondie creeped me out. But I didn’t walk away. I thought it was sexy and exciting and dangerous. Now it just seems like a bad decision. After all of these years I sometimes think about Blondie and why he disappeared. Part of me believes he chucked the whole thing and became a monk, which was entirely possible despite his polished exterior. I continue to believe that his mission was successful and existed in the way that was described to me. And I have continued over the years to assist the emerging networks — those places some call the global South. Whatever the legacy of the Blondes may be, one hopes it has caused some to act for the better, especially in China.