He was born in a port city in China’s Guangdong province, the son of a fisherman. At the age of 15, when Cheung Po Tsai went to catch fish with his father, he was kidnapped by a pirate named Zheng Yi and his wife, Zheng Shi. According to some accounts, the three of them formed a polyamorous relationship.
When Zheng Yi died, Zheng Shi assumed leadership of the Red Flag Fleet, which her husband had commanded. Because of the low social status of women at the time, she used Cheung Po Tsai’s support to consolidate her power. Eventually they married, and Cheung Po Tsai inherited the fleet.
At the height of his piracy career, Cheung Po Tsai commanded a fleet of 50,000 men and over 600 vessels, the most powerful force in the South China Sea. They used the outlying islands as their base, and it is said that Cheung Po Tsai stored his loot in a cave on Cheung Chau Island, which is now named Cheung Po Tsai Cave.
The Red Flag Fleet primarily plundered government ships and foreign cargo vessels, and merchant ships traveling through Cheung Po Tsai’s territorial waters were forced to pay a tax. However, Cheung Po Tsai held a fondness for commoners thanks to his peasant roots, and often gave food and money to the poor. He was thus viewed as a hero by local peasants.
The Red Flag Fleet had multiple run-ins with Qing imperial naval forces over the years, resulting in fierce battles. The biggest confrontation took place in 1810, on the coastal waters near Lantau Island and Chek Lap Kok. The Qing forces allied themselves with the Portuguese navy in Macau, attacking 300 of Cheung Po Tsai’s ships. Under heavy artillery fire, the Red Flag Fleet fell apart and many fled the scene.
Following the battle at Chek Lap Kok, the number of men in Cheung Po Tsai’s fleet declined sharply. At the same time, the governor of Guangdong, Du Bailing, used an offer of amnesty to tear down the non-aggression pact between existing pirate gangs. As such, the Red Flag Fleet also suffered attacks from other pirate fleets.
That year, Cheung Po Tsai surrendered to the government, accepting an offer of amnesty following a period of negotiations. He became an officer in the Qing imperial navy, and, following his capture of the wanted pirate Qu Shi Er, he was promoted. In 1819, he was appointed to the position of a deputy general in Fujian province, where he served the government until his death in 1822.