MOST SECRET SOCIETIES DERIVED FROM A NEED EITHER TO promulgate or defend their religious beliefs. As a means of avoiding the internecine battles that often occur between different faiths, it became necessary to conceal the group's true principles. But this appears to be primarily a Western phenomenon, rooted perhaps in the splintering of a single religious foundation into multiple interpretations, whose adherents consider any dissension an expression of heresy. The most obvious example has been the Christian Reformation, especially the fragmentation of Protestant sects into a multitude of interpretations. As we saw with the Assassins, Islam has suffered its own splintering into hostile factions resulting in deep suspicion and violent confrontations. Nothing breeds concerns about secrecy (and a need for it among persecuted minorities) like suspicion.

For the most part, Eastern societies have avoided the bitterness generated by conflicting sects, perhaps as a result of the pervasiveness of Buddhism and the generally accepted premise that, among most Eastern cultures, religion is considered primarily a personal matter. If no dominant religious organization threatens to infiltrate one's life, religion fails to become a locus of unease about personal security. Chinese triads reflect this distinction between Eastern and Western cultures where secret societies are concerned. Their roots lie almost entirely in ancient nationalist and cultural differences; only in recent years have they deviated into raw criminal activity.

The assessment of triads by Westerners is done through a racist lens. While violence is not unknown among triads, it occurs less often than it does in comparable organizations such as the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is also restricted almost exclusively to Chinese communities; Westerners who fall victim to triad activities represent collateral damage and not prime targets. In other respects, triads fulfill many classic secret society characteristics; they are as closed and ritualistic as any, and more active than most.

Westerners also mistakenly interchange the labels “triad” and “tong” or “Asian gangs” generally. Tongs (the word “tong” means “meeting hall”) were created in the nineteenth century as social organizations for Chinese immigrants brought to the U.S. and Canada as laborers. The life of these laborers, and their treatment at the hands of Westerners through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is more than a smudge on history. It is a disgrace. In Canada, 17,000 Chinese men were brought to Canada as laborers, building the roughest stretches of the transcontinental railroad. All were paid barely half the wages earned by white laborers, and more than 700 coolies (from kuli, meaning bitter strength) died in the process. In the U.S., Chinese played the role of cheap labor following the ban on slavery, and many of the old wooden slave ships altered their course between bringing Africans across the Atlantic to bringing Chinese across the Pacific.

Once in North America, they were pressed into service performing work that European-descended men avoided. Much of this was categorized as “women's work,” including cooking and laundering, and for generations North American Chinese identified with these two activities almost exclusively. For practical and perhaps racist reasons—most whites feared the idea of the Chinese population expanding and settling among them—only male Chinese were permitted entry into North America, and intermarriage with the white race was as prohibited and dangerous as similar activities were for Afro-American males. In desperation, the Chinese turned to tongs.

Widespread throughout southern China, where families in many villages shared a common ancestry, tongs proved a vital source of assistance and comfort to unmarried male immigrants who felt isolated, both socially and culturally. Providing services and advice that was unavailable or unreliable from other sources, the tongs acted as a source of financial assistance, legal counsel and social services while protecting the Chinese men from exploitation.

The exploiters were originally white bosses, but as the number of Chinese immigrants grew over the years, tongs helped protect individual Chinese citizens from sources familiar in their homeland. These included members of powerful and prestigious families like the Lees, Tams and the Toishanese, Chinese from the area near Canton (now Guangzhou) who owed allegiance to each other through blood or tradition. In place of blood and tradition as a bond, tong members pledged an oath of secrecy and loyalty, adding mystical rituals, private code words, and secret signs as a means of recognizing and communicating with each other.

For a time in the nineteenth century, the tongs proved effective in lending comfort and security to a seriously exploited race. By 1900, however, criminal elements from within Chinese society had taken charge of the larger, more effective tongs, using them as a means of controlling gambling, prostitution, drugs, tax collection and other illegal activities. The tongs grew larger, more powerful and more ruthless in protecting and expanding their territories, launching “tong wars” involving dozens of members clashing in the streets of Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. Armed with swords and axes, the tong gangs would hack and slash at each other until the streets ran with blood and unfortunate victims lay writhing on the pavement.

In reality, these confrontations were less frequent and violent than portrayed by the sensationalist newspapers of the time. Late Victorian and Edwardian readers shuddered in delight at the racist descriptions of Chinese engaged in riots that were likely no more bloodthirsty than mob battles in mining communities and docklands throughout the U.S. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the tong battles was the description of a tong member waving a meat cleaver over his head, his weapon and determination leading to the designation of “hatchet man,” more common today in corporate boardrooms than they ever were in Chinatown streets.

Tongs continue to operate in North America, their power and influence severely diluted by the arrival of later immigrants and later generations, to whom the original premise and function of the groups is neither heeded nor needed. Triads, however, are another matter.

China has a long tradition of secret societies linked to the culture's veneration of emperors who, like popes of the Catholic Church, once were assumed infallible. Tradition dictated that Chinese emperors possess special qualities including absolute virtue, honesty and benevolence. In many respects, early Chinese emperors were regarded by their subjects in the same manner that Christians regard Christ, as the Son of Heaven on earth.

Unlike the Christian attitude towards Christ, however, the Chinese acknowledged that the Son of Heaven remained a mortal, and if he were to lose the attributes that qualified him as Emperor, he would “forfeit the mandate of Heaven,” and the people had a duty to rise up and depose him.

This occurred in ad 9 when Emperor Han Ai was deposed by Wang Mang after Han attempted to name his male lover as his successor. When Wang succeeded in occupying the imperial throne, a group of citizens banded together to restore the Han dynasty. Identifying themselves in battle by applying red makeup to their eyes and calling themselves the Red Eyebrows, they assassinated Wang and installed a new member of the Han family on the throne. Then, in a development that has proved all too familiar, instead of disbanding, the Red Eyebrows turned their battle skills against ordinary citizens, becoming bandits who roamed and terrorized the country.


Flag of the Ch'ing dynasty. Attempts to overthrow its leaders inspired early triad groups.

Five hundred years later, a new group appeared. Calling themselves the White Lotus Society, persecuted and pious Buddhists overthrew the Mongol Yuan dynasty and installed one of their own, a monk named Chu Yuan-Chang, on the imperial throne. Assuming the name Hung Wu, he became the first Ming emperor of China, “Ming” derived from two revered Buddhist figures, Big and Little Ming Wang, who had been sent from heaven to restore peace to the world. Many historians consider the White Lotus Society the first of the true triads, although the actual term was not applied to these groups for another thousand years.

The first appearance of an actual triad society occurred in 1644 when Manchu invaders overthrew the Ming emperor and launched the Ch'ing dynasty. A group of 133 Buddhist monks, united by a blood oath to restore the Ming dynasty, fought a guerrilla war against the Manchu for many years, but their resistance proved futile. In 1674, all but five of the fighters were captured and brutally murdered, and the monastery that served as their headquarters was destroyed.


The term triad is derived from the three-sided symbol used by the Hung Mun. The sides signify Heaven, Earth and Man.

The remaining monks, united in hatred of the invaders, vowed revenge. Forming a secret group dedicated to annihilating the Manchu, they chose a triangle as their emblem, with the three sides representing Heaven, Earth and Man, the essential elements of the Chinese universe. The choice of a triangle carried other implications as well. Chinese culture pays special attention to the significance of numbers, and the numeral 3 is assumed to hold special powers, especially among the criminal element. Extortion rates, for example, are often calculated by three. While the surviving five monks, known today as the Five Ancestors, called their organization the Hung Mun, or Heaven and Earth Society, its more familiar title (in the West) was based on the three-sided symbol. Thus the term triad, used almost exclusively by Westerners. Resident Chinese usually refer to the organizations as hei she hui, literally translated as “black (or secret, sinister or wicked) society.”

While the Hung Mun failed to depose the Ch'ing dynasty, it remained active for many years, joining forces with White Lotus members to harass the emperor's forces and provoke citizen uprisings against injustices. Reflecting Buddhist principles, its members were instructed to respect the rights and concerns of the peasants, a tactic employed with enormous success almost 300 years later by Mao-led communists, and inspiring an aphorism that “the armies protect the emperor, but the secret societies protect the people.”

Triads wielded power and influence, although they were unsuccessful at their primary goal of overthrowing the Ch'ing emperors, who continued to alienate the people with repressive measures. The organization's members were seen in a positive light until 1842 and the arrival of British rule in Hong Kong. Although the triads remained focused on political and cultural goals, Britain was uncomfortable with their presence and declared the societies “incompatible with the maintenance of good order,” claiming they increased “the facilities for the commission of crime and the escape of offenders.” Following the pattern of nineteenth-century imperialist powers in China, British authorities declared not only was it a crime to belong to a triad, it was also a crime to even pretendto be a member. The punishment: up to three years in prison. If the triads had no overt criminal intent at this stage, this heavy-handed edict undoubtedly drove them towards it.

In 1848, the Hung Mun allied itself with a new secret society from the Canton area, the Society of God Worshippers. Together, they launched the Taiping Rebellion, laying siege to Canton and launching revolts in Shanghai and other cities. To this point, triad rituals still emphasized positive social qualities; Taiping is translated as “universal peace and social harmony,” and as China became oppressed by Britain, the United States and France, the triads represented the country's only organized resistance to foreign exploitation and abuse.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 marks the transformation of the triads into groups devoted exclusively to criminal activities. The rebellion, so-named because it was led by the secret Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, attempted to drive foreigners from the country through murder and intimidation directed towards enclaves and missions in Peking (now Beijing) and Shanghai. When besieged diplomats and trade representatives in these cities appealed to their home governments for aid, an eight-nation expeditionary force was dispatched.

Over 2000 military personnel from Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France, the United States, Japan, Italy and Austria, all under the command of British Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, arrived in June 1900. Strong opposition from the Boxers and the Imperial Chinese forces caused Seymour to retreat and call for reinforcements, and in August an additional 20,000 men arrived. After seizing control of Tianjin, the foreign armies battled their way to Peking, reaching the capital on August 14.


Boxers, rebels like this one seeking to drive foreigners out of China, drove the triads towards full-scale criminal operations.

The size of the forces occupying China grew over the next several months, completing their occupation of Peking and spreading into the countryside in pursuit of the rebellious Boxers. In February 1901, Chinese authorities agreed to abolish the Boxer Society, and later that year they signed a peace protocol with the allied nations, officially ending the Boxer Rebellion. The country had suffered a demoralizing blow to its prestige and power, made even more humiliating when the foreign nations were permitted to consolidate their interests and continue their exploitive activities. The ripple effects of this event spread through the balance of the twentieth century.

From that point forward, it was clear to the triads that they would have little impact on determining China's national interests. The Boxers, as secretive in their manner as any of the triads, had not only failed to protect the nation, they had been crushed, and foreign enemies of China were now stationed throughout the country, heavily armed and resolved to quash any internal revolt.

At this point, the societies turned inward. If they could not win against foreign abuse, they would win by exploiting their own people, growing in strength and disassociating themselves from any non-Chinese influence or threat, although they retained interest in, and influence on, political issues for some time. Their most significant move was to provide support for Dr. Sun Yat-sen's overthrow of the Manchu Ch'ing dynasty, replacing the emperor with a republican system of government. Sun may have actively recruited the triads to ensure his revolution's success, an obvious move if he had been, as many observers suggest, an enforcer in the triad Green Gang/Three Harmonies Society (San Ho-Hui) during his youth.

There is little doubt that Sun's successor as leader of Sun's Kuomintang party, Chiang Kai-shek, was a triad member. When the Chinese republic began to collapse from in-fighting and the pressures of Mao's communists, Chiang recruited triad support, but nothing could save Chiang's corrupt group. Mao's victory in 1949 drove Chiang and his followers to Formosa (now Taiwan), and triad leaders who chose to remain in mainland China were hunted down and executed. A few escaped to Portuguese-controlled Macau or to Hong Kong where the British government, weakened by the recent war with Japan and more tolerant than a century earlier, continued to declare the triads illegal but failed to enforce the laws with the same draconian fervor.

For the last half of the twentieth century, Hong Kong represented the hub of triad activity, serving as the nerve center for many of their global enterprises. Among the largest and most notorious organizations was 14k, named for the address (number 14 Po Wah Road in Canton) and the initial of its founder, Kuomintang Lieutenant-General Kot Siu-wong, who founded the triad in the 1940s. By the 1980s, membership in 14k was estimated at more than 25,000 in Hong Kong alone, and the 14k group was singled out as a prime participant in heroin trafficking, with branches in the Netherlands, Britain, Canada and the U.S. Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators claim 14k and other triads maintain a presence in every Chinese community of substance across North America, engaging in almost any criminal activity that promises a profit, from extortion and loan sharking to credit card fraud and video piracy.

The more the triads moved away from cultural and political objectives towards criminal activities, the more they refined their secret rituals, adding new complex ceremonies. The core of the initiation procedure remained rooted in historical aspects of the groups, including elaborate ceremonies that require up to eight hours to complete. Among the rites initiates perform is “the passing of the mountain of swords,” in which they walk slowly beneath threatening swords held just above their heads.

New triad members are taught secret handshakes and subtle signals, long a distinctive feature of the society. The way chopsticks are held or set down, and the number of fingers used to grasp a goblet while drinking, communicates important signals among triad members. Certain phrases are used to signify information not to be shared with others. According to the rcmp, who infiltrated and assessed the triads more effectively than any other Western police force, “bite clouds” meant “smoke opium,” and “black dog” was code for a gun. (The past tense is used because, after an extended list of code words was published in a 1987 issue of the RCMP Gazette and later in several other journals, it is unlikely that the triads retain the same definitions today.)

Initiation into the more potent triads may include the ceremonial decapitation of a live chicken. Blood from the still-writhing bird is poured into a bowl and mixed with the blood of the initiate, followed by a goodly measure of wine, and the concoction is shared by everyone in attendance. After the blood-and-wine mixture has been consumed, the bowl is broken to signify the fate of any members who might break faith with the triad.

The new triad member must pledge that his allegiance to the group will surpass the loyalty he owes to his family and loved ones, a pledge involving thirty-six oaths extending back to the seventeenth-century origins of the triads. The oaths are specific, demanding and inflexible. In the first oath, the initiate vows that he “must treat parents and relatives of sworn brothers” as his own kin, and “I shall suffer death by five thunderbolts if I do not keep this oath.” In oath number four, he swears: “I shall always acknowledge my Hung brothers when they identify themselves. If I ignore them, I will be killed by a multitude of swords.” With many of the oaths, the new member acknowledges that he must “be loyal or be killed.”

Oath number 36, a reflection of the original triad objective, is common to all Hung societies: “After entering the Hung gates, I shall be loyal and faithful, and shall endeavor to overthrow Ch'ing and restore Ming…. Our common aim is to avenge our Five Ancestors.” This pledge is at least 100 years out of date, yet it continues to be delivered as part of the organization's tradition, adding an element of mysticism to the act, always a desired component for secret societies.

Titles granted to triad members extend the mysticism by connecting it with numerology. All triad members are identified two ways: by a job description that explains, in a tangential manner, their responsibilities within the organization; and by a number.

The leader of the society is the Dragon Head (Shan Chou or Chu Chi) and is referred to as 489. These three digits add up to 21; the Chinese-language characters for 21 are very similar to the characters representing Hung. In addition, 21 is also 3 (the three elements making up the triad symbol—Heaven, Earth and Man) multiplied by 7, a number revered as much in Chinese culture as in Western society. In this manner, 489 manages to sum up the life cycle of the society.

The organization's financial adviser, filling a role similar to the consigliore in Cosa Nostra circles, is called the White Paper Fan (Bak Tse Sin or Pak Tse Sin) and identified as 415. Enforcers, trained in kung fu, are called Red Poles (Hung Kwan) with the numeral designation 426. Other operatives include the Straw Sandal (Cho Hai), number 426, who handle communications; and the Fu Shan Chu, number 438, a deputy of sorts to the Dragon Head. The number 438 is also attached to the Incense Master (Heung Chu), in charge of rituals. The lowest rank in the triad, a soldier or Sey Kow Jai, is assigned number 49.

While it is tempting to draw comparisons between the triads and the Italian Cosa Nostra, the differences between the two are substantial. The Cosa Nostra may be Italian at its core, but in the past it has strategically partnered with other ethnic groups, particularly Jewish and Irish criminals. Triads, in contrast, remain defiantly Chinese in membership and culture; unlike Italian-based criminals, who make no distinction among the individuals and organizations they may target, triads select only Chinese as their prime source of income. While some collusion between triads and both the Cosa Nostra and Japanese Yakuza has occurred, triads have retained the most independence and secrecy of the three secret criminal elements.

Another key difference between triads and the Mafia concerns structure and discipline. As anyone exposed to The Godfather movies or an episode of The Sopranos can attest, the Italian organized gangs are as rigidly structured and tightly controlled as any corporation (or were, as we shall see in the next chapter). Mafia members must receive approval from the authority level directly above before engaging in any money-making activity, and agree to forfeit a portion of the profits to the same authority. Neglecting or defying this rule can lead to severe punishment.

Triads are not nearly as rigid, and the concept of passing approval down the line to workers and passing profits back up the line to bosses is totally absent. Here's how one member of Hong Kong's notorious 14k triad described his arrangement to an Australian parliamentary crime investigator during an interrogation procedure:

I was not required to pay any percentage of profits to the 14k leadership. Triads do not work that way. Triad members do favors for each other, provide introductions and assistance to each other, engage in criminal schemes with each other, but triads generally do not have the kind of strictly disciplined organizational structure that other groups like the Italian Mafia have. For example, a triad member would not necessarily be required to get permission from the dragonhead of his triad to engage in a particular criminal job…. On the other hand, on… traditional Chinese holidays, such as Chinese New Year, triad members traditionally give gifts to their “big brothers” or “uncles” who often are officers in the triads.

An argument can be made that triads practice greater finesse than Mafia members, whose penchant for brutality is legendary. Triad enforcers may be just as direct, but they often couch their threats in subtle warnings before taking murderous actions. One Hong Kong businessman who chose to defy triad threats was sent the severed head of a dog, perhaps by enforcers impressed with the celebrated scene, incorporating the severed head of a horse, from The Godfather. Only when he failed to heed this threat was he stabbed to death several days later.

Their restricted association makes the triads doubly difficult for Western law enforcement groups to penetrate. Chinese communities in North America are among the most insular of all ethnic groups, with justifiable suspicion of outsiders probing into their culture. As a result, reaching triad leaders involves penetrating two layers of defense: the general cultural barrier erected by all Chinese against foreigners, and the secrecy veil drawn over the triads themselves.

Another complication for law enforcement officers has been the ability of the triads to compromise local police forces, especially in Hong Kong. For many years prior to the handover of Hong Kong to the mainland government in 1997, the Royal Hong Kong Police lacked any form of criminal intelligence system, and appeared to play down the size and impact of triads in the colony. Only a detailed study in 1983 revealed the true extent of the secret groups. The report also disclosed an enormous level of corruption in the rhkp, including long-term collusion between senior police officials and triad leaders with regard to drug trafficking. Many rhkp officers grew enormously wealthy through their triad connections and, according to rcmp sources, more than a few emigrated from the colony to Britain and Canada in advance of the communist takeover in 1997, bringing their riches with them and settling down as respectable affluent businessmen.

The arrival of mainland rule in July 1997 also sent triad members abroad to avoid the inevitable crackdown, but many observers familiar with the level of corruption under the communist regime expect that the triads have since achieved their old levels of influence. One difference is critical, however. Under British rule, the few triad leaders who were caught and convicted faced prison terms. If the Beijing government applies the same policy in Hong Kong as it applies on the mainland, senior triad members can expect to be punished with a bullet in the back of the head.

The Hong Kong triads may now be Beijing's responsibility, but their influence extends literally around the world, although with varying impact. In Britain, the National Criminal Intelligence Service conducted a study of triad activities in that country under the unimaginative code name Project Chopstick. While the 1996 ncis report noted that four triad societies were operating in Britain, it concluded that none was controlled from Hong Kong, and thus the groups were not part of an international criminal conspiracy. Victims of the triads, the study reported, were usually small businesses operated by Chinese immigrants who often avoided reporting crime to British authorities. Nor, the study claimed, did triads play a significant role in the country's drug trafficking, contrary to situations in Australia, Canada and the U.S.

In 1988, an Australian government study estimated that 85 to 95 percent of all heroin entering that country was controlled by Chinese triads. Ten years later, however, a U.S. investigation indicated that triad dominance had been reduced by competition from Southeast Asian countries and their organizations, primarily Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines.

During the 1970s and 1980s, most high-quality heroin entering North America originated in Turkey and was shipped to Marseilles for processing before being routed to the U.S. (the famed French Connection), with distribution controlled by the Mafia. The emigration of triad leaders from Hong Kong in the 1990s enabled the Chinese to assume control of the networks. By-passing Marseilles, which had once handled the bulk of the material, the triads established routes either through Amsterdam or directly to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver before importing the drug to its ultimate market, the U.S. Most investigators identify the 14k triad as the primary source of the drug.

In the end, however, the triads’ methods may be their undoing. In the North American drug market, their dominance has been challenged by violent new Vietnamese gangs who dismiss tradition and mystique in favor of raw physical intimidation. The Vietnamese have long been considered more ruthless and aggressive than other Asian groups, a tradition that began with their first infiltration of North America during the 1980s. As one former rcmp drug squad officer explained: “The leaders of the early gangs came out of the aftermath of the Vietnam war. These guys were already hardened. They might have been army-trained or street criminals, but when (North Vietnam) took over, first they settled in refugee camps, then they had to fight and survive long enough to get to Canada or the U.S. without a penny to their names. They had already seen death and violence on a grand scale and they figured they were lucky to live through that experience, so they really had little to lose.”

In many cities, triads actually withdrew from some criminal activities rather than clash with the more violent Vietnamese, preferring to focus on Chinese businesses and individuals exclusively and leave the rest of the market to the newcomers.

The future of the Chinese triad secret societies remains cloudy. Some speculate that the rising economic power and continuing high levels of corruption in China will produce a corresponding increase in triad activity there, in spite of that country's policy of conducting swift executions of high-level criminals. Others suggest that triads have flourished, to some degree, as a result of China's historical subservience to foreign powers, and with its growing economic clout and international influence, the triads may return to their historical emphasis on cultural concerns.

Whichever way the triads evolve, they will retain the secrecy and structure built over 2000 years since the Red Eyebrows banded together to overthrow a domineering emperor. Of all the secret societies active in the world, the triads remain engaged in a cultural and linguistic environment that few Westerners can begin to fathom.

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