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Crime Gangs Known as Triads Are a Fact of Life in Hong Kong

July 19, 1987|DAVID W. JONES | United Press International

HONG KONG — With their roots in 17th-Century China and their branches reaching into every walk of life, the Hong Kong crime gangs called triad societies are casting shadows that extend farther and farther from the British colony.

Founded as a patriotic society pledged to drive the Manchu conquerors out of China in the 1600s, the triads once played a key role in the rise to power of Chinese Presidents Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

Today, the triads control and oversee an organized crime network that specializes in drug trafficking, extortion, loan sharking, gambling and prostitution and have activities in virtually every Chinese community around the globe.

With communist China scheduled to take control of Hong Kong when the British lease expires in 1997, there are fears--expressed chiefly by the United States, Canada and Australia--that the gangs will transplant their operations abroad.

Seen as a Menace

Hong Kong police say there is no evidence that is happening, but concede that Chinese gangsters have traveled abroad, carrying their arcane traditions and practices with them, since the first great wave of migration from China to San Francisco and Australia in 1840.

"Triads are a menace in two main ways," said a recent government report.

"As far as the general public is concerned, it is the gang activity, the threatening behavior, the assaults, the intimidation and the blackmail that are most worrying. But triads are also deeply involved in organized crime: drugs, gambling, vice and protection rackets."

Police refuse even to guess how many members belong to the 50 to 60 separate triad societies now active among Hong Kong's 5.5 million people, but as recently as 1960 it was estimated that one in every six residents belonged to one.

More Than 100,000 Members

"The total is certainly in excess of 100,000, ranging from youth gangs of 12 or 13 members to full-fledged organized crime groups," said Detective Chief Superintendent Brian Merritt, who directs a 460-man task force fighting organized crime. "It's far too many for our liking."

One triad alone, the Sun Yee On, is estimated to have more than 30,000 members.

The roots of the societies are tangled in Chinese history. They began to take recognizable shape as a resistance movement to the Ch'ing Dynasty, the Manchu conquerors who overthrew the Chinese Ming in 1644 and held power until this century.

Members of the society's 2nd Lodge, active in south China, appeared in Hong Kong soon after the barren island was first settled by British opium traders, and turned quickly to organizing criminal activity among the coolies and carriers.

Laws Have Been Ineffective

The first anti-triad ordinance was passed in 1845, just three years after the founding. It was ineffective in halting the triad activities, as have been all efforts since.

Attempts to penetrate the triads, which take the name from their three-sided sacred symbol representing heaven, Earth and man, have been frustrated by the groups' arcane rituals and a code of secrecy that would make the Mafia blush.

"I shall never betray my sworn brothers," says one of the 36 oaths that every new member must take. "If, through a misunderstanding, I have caused the arrest of one of my brothers I must release him immediately. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts."

The initiation ceremony, once a three-day affair, has been reduced to little more than half an hour, according to Merritt, but much of the ceremony has been preserved and triad officers still use such colorful titles as "Red Pole" (fighter), "White Paper Fan" (adviser), and "Grass Sandal" (messenger).

Inevitable Glamour

The rich traditions invite comparisons to the Masonic society in the West and lend an inevitable glamour to the triads, which is galling to their enemies such as Hong Kong's principle assistant secretary for security, Michael Stone.

"It may seem romantic but that really is not true," Stone said. "They are just a bunch of thugs like the Mafia. They use these rituals to bind themselves together and to instill fear in the local people."

So strong is the fear the triads are able to command that Hong Kong has made it a crime merely to claim membership in a society.

"When an individual says he is part of the 14-K (a major triad), people have the idea that he may be able to call upon a large powerful organization, so young, puny thugs can extort money in this way," Stone explained.

Organized Monopolies

Besides the usual organized crime activities--drug-running, extortion and prostitution--the triads have organized monopolies enabling them to extract "squeeze" money from street vendors, truck drivers and a host of other tradesmen.

When a cross-harbor tunnel was built linking Hong Kong Island to the mainland, there were several weeks of gang fights as the triads battled to see who would control drivers running buses through the tunnel, Merritt said.

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