Chinese triad. The term Triad designates several branches of underground societies and mafia organizations in southern China, in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and in the various Chinatowns scattered throughout North America and Europe.
History of the triad syndicate
Table of Contents
A legend describes the mythological origins of the triad. In a Fujian temple, a group of monks intervenes to help the emperor to defeat the barbarian invaders. But the emperor’s advisers, envious of the prestige obtained, cast shadows on the monks. If they were able to defeat the invaders without losing a single man, they could do the same with the regent dynasty. The chosen bodies are sent to the temple.
With a stratagem, the emperor’s men get the monks drunk during the celebrations for the recent victory. In the night, taking advantage of the state of torpor in which they fell, the assassins set fire to the temple and exterminate all the monks. Only five of them manage to escape. When they reach a river to rest, they see an incense burner floating on the water. On it is written: “depose the Qing, restore the Ming“.
To the monks that fortuitous circumstance appears as a clear celestial mandate to re-establish the Chinese Ming dynasty. In the late seventeenth century the Hung clan was born. Soon it turns from an anti-Manchurian and patriotic organization into a real criminal organization.
The Hung Clan
In Hong Kong, the Hung clan is an illegal organization because of its ties to the Triad. In Taiwan, on the other hand, it is not only legal but also politically influential. This is not surprising since the same Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, was a prominent figure within this organization.
In China, on the other hand, even a party refers to this clan (the Zhi Gong party) that participates in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Even in communities overseas, this clan has many members: its main purpose is to cement Chinese communities abroad and often participate in charitable works. This clan retains some traditions, rituals, and concepts such as the belief in Guan Gong, a Chinese mythological character which we will discuss later, the brotherhood, the secret handshake, and the use of triangles.
With the fall in 1911 of the Manchurian dynasty, the Hung clan suddenly finds itself without its true enemy and without its sole raison d’etre. Unable to return to a normal lifestyle, many of the members of the Hung clan, reorganized into what will later become the Triad. Having lost public support and donations after the end of the Qing Empire, members of the new cult begin to devote themselves to extortion of money in all ways. The name Triad has been assigned by the English in reference to the symbol of triangular shape that circumscribes the Hung character and symbolizes the harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Man.
A brief history of the Triad
As can be seen from the history of the Green Gang, the most important triad operating in Shanghai between 1910 and 1940, these organizations found their recruits among the poorer and the dispossessed, like boatmen, transporters, workers, and street vendors.
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The triad finds ground in colonial China, in Hong Kong, and in Shanghai in particular. With the advent of the communist regime in 1949, the triad in the motherland was severely hit; The new center for the activity of criminal organizations thus becomes Hong Kong. In 1931 in the British colony there were eight groups that had divided the territory according to geographical and ethnic criteria. These eight groups were: the Wo, the Rung, the Chuen, the Shing, the Tung, the Yee On, the Luen, and the Fuk Yee Hing. After the uprising in Hong Kong in 1956, the local government tried to put an end to the rampant activities of the mafia.
Between the 60s and the 70s, the problems with the triads became more serious. In fact, an anomalous relationship was created between law enforcement agencies and local maladies. Increasingly, to solve certain types of crimes, the police resorted to the favors of the various neighborhood gentlemen. The exchange of favors was naturally reciprocal, and Hong Kong lived in this unstable equilibrium, at least until 1974, when the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was established. As the situation changed, the Mafia itself had to change its business, and turn its gaze to new underground illicit activities.
With the development of the triads, in the ’80s and’ 90s, we are witnessing a new phenomenon: the monopolization of certain sectors of crime by specific gangs. For example, the Sun Yee On clan completely controlled the film industry.
The criminal activities preferred by these groups are drug trafficking (Hong Kong is the keystone for all heroin and methamphetamine trafficking from the South East Asian drug triangle for America), money laundering, the trafficking of illegal immigrants, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, counterfeiting of products protected by intellectual property, such as the sale of DVDs, VCDs, music CDs, video games and computer software but are also active in legal activities such as the management of markets, film companies, financial companies.
Many of the great Chinese criminals are industrious businessmen. “To be a good businessman, you must always have different options”. Flexibility, the ability to reinvent themselves are at the base of the success of the triads. One of the methods favored by triads to maintain loyalty to one’s own clan or to intimidate adversaries or traitors is the mutilation of a limb. At present only at least 57 companies are operating in Hong Kong alone. Although some clans have only about fifty members, other organizations have up to 30,000 members. The biggest are the 14K Triad, Sun Yee On and Wo Shing Wo.
Some of the main Triads
The Green Gang, 14K, and Shui Fong
In the mid-1990s, 14K (where K stands for carats) was considered the largest of the Triads. It was formed after the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War. In 1997 began a war between 14K, then under the control of Wan Kuok-koi (called Broken Tooth Koi) and the Shui Fong (the water room, whose exotic name derives from the origins of the gang that dates back more simply to a union of employees of the company operating in the water sector Wo On Lok).
The following year, a killer believed to be linked to the 14K killed the Portuguese prison police officer, injuring another officer, in a cafe in Macao. In 1999 a Portuguese court sentenced the forty-year-old Broken Tooth Koi boss to 15 years in prison for several crimes. The 14K was suspected of shootings, bomb attacks, and several executions.
Seven others received minor penalties. After the crackdown on justice by Macao, the criminal activities of the 14k have found new living space in the United States and Canada. After the massive publicity of the Broken Tooth Koi case, the 14k opted for a lower profile. Lately, it would seem that the main center for their activities is Los Angeles. Usury and money laundering are 14k’s favorite business.
Sun Yee On: the Triad and the Hong Kong cinema
Sun Yee On is by far the most powerful organization in Hong Kong. It has a branched structure and has at least 30000 members (more than the entire Hong Kong police force). It is not of Han origin, but Hakka and its members or their ancestors come from Chaozhou (Guangdong); it is believed that its founder was a major of the Kuomintang named Heung. After the death of the major occurred in the first half of the century, the leadership of the organization passed to his tenth son, Charles Heung Wah-Keung (December 16, 1948) who together with his brother Heung Wah-Sing, invested heavily in the industry of Hong Kong entertainment.
In his youth, Charles Heung was also a Taiwan kung-fu film actor. In 1984, together with his brother Jimmy, he founded a film production company called Win’s Group (Win Entertainment) and is one of the largest groups in the industry. This company is very strong in Hong Kong, so much so that virtually all local stars, apart from Jackie Chan, have made at least one film for them. In an interview, Charles said he wanted to give this name to his company because “every film is a battle”. Occasionally he does not disdain to interpret cameos in his films. For example, in 1992, in the gangster movie “Arrest the Restless” he played the role of an incorruptible policeman …
In America and Canada, Charles Heung was listed as the leader of the triad Sun Yee On. For his part, the almost 60-year-old Heung denied being a triad leader even if he admitted that his family has a mafia background. Many of Hong Kong’s film companies are in the hands of criminal clans, and often force actors or actresses to participate in their films. The Heung company paradoxically represents a safe haven for some of these actors, so much so that Jet Li, the famous Hong Kong martial arts movie star, after the assassination of his manager in ’92, has only filmed for the Win.
At the beginning of the 90s, the producer Chan Chi-ming was suspected of having practiced violence on a film cast to push him to work in his productions. Director Gordon Chan describes the story: “Although until then everyone hated the Heung since Chan Chi-ming and other triads entered the film market, suddenly everyone wants to work and seek help from the Heung.” In 1992, Chan was arrested in Shenzhen for arms trafficking (a charge that leads to the death penalty). He was eventually blamed for having illegitimate sex with a street prostitute. Imprisoned for a year and then released, it is thought that his arrest was orchestrated by Charles Heung, although he has always denied any involvement stating that he is not so powerful. Actually, the numbers are on Charles’s side.
Charles Heung is co-owner of the Top Ten club in Beijing. The other owner is Tao Sijiu, head of the Public Security Bureau, the Chinese police chief. On the occasion of the opening of this place, Tao Sijiu gave a press conference in Hong Kong in which, after having expounded against the actions against revolutionizing students in Tiananmen Square, he added that the Triads are patriotic organizations and the prosperity of Hong Kong is linked to their destinies. In August 1993, Charles and Jimmy opened a multi-million film studio in Shenzhen. The local partner was a Chinese company called Donglong Group whose property is unknown. The opening party for the new club took place in the presence of other prestigious guests such as the Governor of Guangdong Ye Xuanping. The next year the governor’s eldest brother, Ye Xinlong, moved to Hong Kong to open an investment company with Charles. The Heung in Hong Kong, and probably not only there are untouchable.
It is thought that this clan has more than 55,000 affiliates in the world, with many strong sub-organizations in North America.
Wo Shing Wo
This group has over 20,000 members and is also based in Hong Kong. Its members, as for the 14K, come mostly from Guangdong. The Wo Hop To, a branch of this group, has its base of operations in San Francisco. Among the main activities of this clan, we find both legal and illegal gambling.
The Luens are based in Hong Kong, count over 8000 members, and are divided into four sub-groups.
- Four Seas Gang
- King Yee Triad
- Hung Mun Triad
- Wo Lee Kwan Triad
- Wo Shing Yee Triad
- United Bamboo Gang
- Yee Kwan Triad
Rites of the Triad
If the mythological origins of the triads seem to be tailor-made to give an air of nobility to these organizations, it is true that the rites and traditions that regulate the career stages of an affiliate are rather ancient and date back to the first days of activity of the Hung clan.
Many of these activities present some particularities in common with our masonries, such as the concept of brotherhood, the secret handshakes, the use of triangles and other symbols.
The origins of these rituals are to be found in the beliefs and peasant religions of southern China. For example, during the initiation ceremony of new members, they are required to take an oath with blood in front of an altar. After the incenses have been burned, a rooster is beheaded and the new affiliate must drink the blood. But these ceremonials are becoming rarer nowadays.
A reference figure in classical Chinese mythology is that of Guan Gong that exemplifies the Confucian qualities that a humble man must embody:
- Obedience to the rites
Of these, the Triad, loyalty, and honesty are held in high esteem. Even today Guan Gong is almost a patron saint of the triads. Paradoxically, it is also for local police.
Structure of the Triads
Unlike some international criminal organizations that are structured in a military manner and that completely control the political destiny of some nations, the triads operate on a much smaller scale, although they can count on very strong economic resources and are also able to exert pressure at the local government level.
There is no godfather in Hong Kong able to control all the different clans in a pyramidal structure, although the mysterious figure of the elusive Shian’Lia Xian is often portrayed as the mind behind the various groups. On the contrary, the triads of the former English colony include several completely independent, although the rites, their organizations, and the background they refer to are similar. There is no single design that regulates all activities. Even in the same organizations, there are different intentions and strategies.
The first degree of command (“Red Pole”) exercises its power over a group of 15 members and on a delimited area. A territory usually consists of a single street, a building, a market, a park. However, it often happens that overlap occurs in the same gangs generating infighting.
The triads use a numerical code to identify the degree and position within a gang. For example “426” means “the fighter”. The members with this number are the real soldiers of the gangs. 49 indicates general members who have not been assigned any particular task. The 489 indicates the mountain teacher, the 438 the vice-master of the mountain, the 415 the fan of white paper, and 432 the straw sandal. A code that came into common use is 25 indicating a spy. In Hong Kong’s common parlance, 25 is the one who betrayed a person’s trust.
Ceremonials to enter the triads over the years have been simplified: to access the first rank now it is sufficient to take an oral oath and participate in a simple ceremony such as that of hanging the Blue Lantern. The authority of the leaders has come over the years less, and usually, a member tends to put his personal interests before those of the gang. Generally, an affiliate carefully weighs the benefits he can receive from a Dai Lo (Big Brother). If you do not feel satisfied with this relationship, you can approach another Dai Lo and request his protection.
“Making All the Right Movies” by Fredric Dannen
“The Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads Creating an Identity” by Barend J. ter Haar
“Chinese Criminal Enterprises – Asian Criminal Enterprise Program Overview: A Study of Current FBI Asian Criminal Enterprise Investigations in the United States” by Ning-Ning Mahlmann
Topic: What is a triad?, triad syndicate, Chinese triad symbol,14k triad
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.