Triad (underground society)
Triad is a term used to describe many branches of Chinese criminal organizations based in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Macau, Taiwan, China, and also in countries with significant Chinese populations, such as Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Main article: Heaven and Earth Society
In the 1760s, the Heaven and Earth Society (???), a fraternal organization was founded, and as the society’s influence spread throughout China, it branched into several smaller groups with different names, one of which was the Three Harmonies Society (???). These societies adopted the triangle as their emblem, usually accompanied by decorative images of swords or portraits of Guan Yu. The term “triad” was first coined by British authorities in colonial Hong Kong, as a reference to the triads’ use of triangular imagery. While never proven, it is “highly probable” that triad organizations either took after or were originally part of the revolutionary movement called the White Lotus Society,and quite possibly, The Boxers.
Migration to Hong Kong
When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 in mainland China, law enforcement became stricter and tough governmental crackdown on criminal organizations forced the triads to migrate to Hong Kong, then a British colony. It was estimated that in the 1950s, there were about 300,000 triad members in Hong Kong. Academics at the University of Hong Kong say that most triad societies were established between 1914 and 1939, and that there were once more than 300 in the territory. Since then the number of such groups has consolidated to around 50, of which 14 are still regularly in the eye of police. By 1951, there were nine main triads operating in Hong Kong and they had divided the land according to their ethnic groups and geographical locations, with each triad in charge of a region. The nine triads were Wo Hop To, Wo Shing Wo, Rung, Tung, Chuen, Shing, Sun Yee On, 14K and Luen. Each of them had its own headquarters, its sub-societies and public fronts. After the 1956 riots, the Hong Kong government introduced stricter law enforcement and triads became less active.
Scope of activities
Triads currently engage in a variety of crimes from extortion and money laundering to trafficking and prostitution. They also are involved in smuggling and counterfeiting goods such as music, video, and software as well as more tangible goods such as clothes, watches, and money.
Triads have been engaging in counterfeiting since the 1880s. Between the 1960s and 1970s, triads were involved in counterfeiting Chinese currency, often of the Hong Kong 50-cent piece. In the same decade, the gangs were also involved in copying books, usually expensive ones, and selling them in the black market. With the advent of new technology and the improvement of the average person’s standard of living, triads have progressed to producing counterfeit goods such as watches, film VCDs / DVDs and designer apparel such as clothing and handbags. Since the 1970s, triad turf control was weakened and some triads shifted their revenue streams to underground as well as legitimate businesses.
Triad organizational structure
Triads use numeric codes to distinguish between ranks and positions within the gang; the numbers are inspired by Chinese numerology based on the I Ching. “489″ refers to the “Mountain” or “Dragon” Master (or ‘Dragon Head’), while 438 is used for the “Deputy Mountain Master”, the Mountain Master’s proxy, “Incense Master”, who oversees inductions into the Triad, and “Vanguard”, who assists the Incense Master. “426″ refers to a “military commander”, also known as a “Red Pole”, overseeing defensive and offensive operations, while “49″ denotes the position of “soldier” or rank-and-file member. The “White Paper Fan” (415) provides financial and business advice, and the “Straw Sandal” (432) functions as a liaison between different units. “25″ refers to an undercover law enforcement agent or spy from another triad, and has become popularly used in Hong Kong as a slang for “informant”. “Blue Lanterns” are uninitiated members, equivalent to Mafia associates and, as such, do not have a number designation.
Overseas activitiesTriads are also active in other regions with significant overseas Chinese populations, apart from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Triads are known to be operating in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Argentina. They are often involved in helping immigrants enter countries illegally. Shanty & Mishra (2007) estimate that annual profits from narcotics is $200 billion; revenues from human trafficking into Europe and the United States are believed to amount to $3.5 billion per year.
Tongs are similar to triads except that they originated among early immigrant Chinatown communities independently, rather than as extensions of modern triads. The word literally means “social club,” and Tongs are not specifically underground organizations. The first Tongs formed in the second half of the 19th century among the more marginalized members of early immigrant Chinese American communities for mutual support and protection from nativists. These Tongs modeled themselves on triads, but they were established without clear political motives, yet they become involved in criminal activities such as extortion, illegal gambling, human trafficking, murder and prostitution. In recent years, some Tongs have reformed to eliminate their criminal elements and have become civic-minded organizations.