18th century – present
China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Russia
Chinese, Chinese-American, Chinese Canadian, Chinese-Vietnamese and expats, Chinese Filipino, Chinese Malaysian, Chinese Singaporean, Chinese Thai, Chinese Indonesian, Chinese Australian, Chinese British
Extortion, assault, racketeering, contract killing & murder, human trafficking, prostitution, pornography, illegal gambling, loan sharking, counterfeiting, Copyright infringement, kidnapping, jewelry and gems heists, Hong Kong Movies, Hong Kong Music, drug trafficking, people smuggling, police corruption, political corruption, human trafficking, money laundering, arms trafficking, health care fraud, online fraud
China, notably Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, other worldwide Chinatowns
A triad is one of many branches of Chinese transnational organized crime syndicates based in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and also in countries with significant Chinese populations, such as the United States, Canada, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
- 18th century
- 19th century
- 20th century
- Criminal activities
- Drug trafficking
- Health care fraud
- Structure and composition
- 36 Oaths
- Triads based in Hong Kong
- Triads based elsewhere
- International activities
- Law enforcement means
- Legislative measures
- Notable members
The starting point for understanding Chinese triads is to make a clear distinction between Hong Kong triad and mainland Chinese criminal organizations. In ancient China, Triad is one of three major secret societies in mainland China. It also created branches in Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities overseas. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, all secret societies were completely destroyed in mainland China through a series of campaigns organized by Chairman Mao. Although post-Mao China has witnessed the resurgence of organized crime groups, they are not triad societies; the proper term for these criminal organizations is 'mainland Chinese criminal organizations', which consist of two major types of organization: dark forces (loosely organized groups) and black societies (more mature criminal organizations). Two features that distinguish a black society from a dark force are (1) the ability of achieving illegal control over local markets, and (2) the obtainment of police protection. In short, Hong Kong triad refers to traditional criminal organizations operating in or originating from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and southeast Asian countries (areas), while organized crime groups in mainland China are better called 'mainland Chinese criminal groups'.
Chu's Triads as business (2001) presents a thorough examination of the rise of Hong Kong triad and the role of triad societies in legal, illegal and international markets. Wang's The Chinese Mafia (2017) studies the origin of Chinese secret societies in ancient China, explores the rise of organized crime in post-Mao China, and investigates the ways in which local gangs offer quasi law enforcement and private protection to local governments, corporations and individuals. The Chinese mafia also explores how local gangs form mutually benefical networks with police officers and how the formation of the political-criminal nexus enables local gangs to control illegal markets and sell protection to legitimate entities.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'triad' is a translation of the Chinese term 'San Ho Hui', or Triple Union Society, referring to the union of Heaven, Earth, and Man.
Another theory assumes that the term "Triad" was coined by British authorities in colonial Hong Kong, as a reference to the triads' use of triangular imagery. While never proven, it has been speculated that triad organizations either took after, or were originally part of revolutionary movements such as the White Lotus Society, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Heaven and Earth Society.
Despite the generic use of the term "Triads" being associated with all Chinese criminal organizations, this is a mistake. Triad groups are geographically, ethnically, culturally and structurally unique. "Triads" refers to traditional organized crime groups originating from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Criminal organizations operating in or originating from mainland China are named as 'mainland Chinese criminal groups' or 'black societies'. Moreover, after years of harsh repression, only some parts of Triad groups are involved with illegal activities, using their connections to make profit instead of dirty money. Also, Triads in Hong Kong are getting less involved with regular crime and becoming more associated with White Collar crimes, and traditional initiation ceremonies rarely take place anymore to avoid authorities' attention.
Triad, Chinese based criminal organization, secret association or club, was a branch from one of the Chinese formal secret societies called Hong Society. For some reasons, the Hung society was separated to many smaller divisions and one of them called Triads and Ching Gang were also regressed to a criminal organization. Following the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Chinese secret societies in mainland China were completely suppressed through campaigns ordered by Mao Zedong. So most Chinese Secret Societies, including Triads and some of the remaining parts of Ching Gang, relocated to British controlled Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and other overseas countries, especially the US. They competed with Tongs and other Chinese Secret Societies born out of China. Gradually, Chinese Secret Societies were rebels without a cause or a income they turned to drugs and extortion to fill their coffers.
In the 1760s, the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會), 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 Three Harmonies Society (三合會). These societies adopted the triangle as their emblem, usually accompanied by decorative images of swords or portraits of Guan Yu. Their aim was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty.
In Hong Kong as a colony of the Crown, there was a strong intolerance for secret societies. While being unaware of their previous issues the British considered Triads a criminal threat. Triads were charged and imprisoned in Hong Kong which was under British law at that time.
During the 1800s, many such societies were seen as legitimate ways of helping immigrants from China settle into a new country. Secret societies were officially banned by the British government in Singapore during the 1890s and slowly reduced in number by successive colonial governors and leaders over time. Tracing the origins of Singapore gangs, the opium trade, prostitution and brothels were also banned. Immigrants were encouraged to seek help from a local kongsi instead of turning to secret societies, which also contributed to their decline. After World War II, these societies saw a resurgence as gangsters took advantage of the uncertainty and growing anti-British sentiment. Certain Chinese communities, such as some "new villages" of Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore became notorious for gang violence.
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. 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 their own headquarters, sub-societies and public fronts. After the 1956 riots, the Hong Kong government introduced stricter law enforcement and the triads became less active.
Triads currently engage in a variety of crimes from fraud, 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.
Since the 19th century, when the first opium bans started to rise, Chinese criminal gangs have been involved in worldwide illegal drug trade. During the 60s and 70s many triads converted from opium into heroin, which was produced from opium plants in the Golden Triangle and made into heroin in China, and then trafficked to North America and Europe. Nowadays the most important triads active in the international heroin trade are the 14K and the Tai Huen Chai. Recently, the triads have started to smuggle chemicals from Chinese factories to North America, for the production of methamphetamine, and to Europe for the production of ecstasy.
Triads have been engaging in counterfeiting since the 1880s. Between the 1960s and 1970s, triads were involved in counterfeiting 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.
Health care fraud
In 2012 in Japan, four triad members were found conducting operations regarding health care fraud and arrested.
Structure and composition
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", a "432" indicates "Grass Slipper" rank and 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 "snitch", i.e. informant. "Blue Lanterns" are uninitiated members, equivalent to Mafia associates and, as such, do not have a number designation.
Similar to the Italian Mafia or the Japanese yakuza, Triad members tend to be subject to initiation ceremonies. A typical ceremony takes place at an altar dedicated to Guan Yu, with incense and an animal sacrifice, usually a chicken, pig or goat. After drinking a mixture of wine and blood of the animal or the candidate, the member will pass beneath an arch of swords while reciting the triad's oaths. The paper on which the oaths are written will be burnt on the altar to confirm the member's obligation to perform his duties to the gods. Three fingers on the left hand will be raised as a binding gesture.
The Triad initiate is required to adhere to "the 36 oaths."
After having entered the Hung gates I must treat the parents and relatives of my sworn brothers as my own kin. I shall suffer death by five thunderbolts if I do not keep this oath.
I shall assist my sworn brothers to bury their parents and brothers by offering financial or physical assistance. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I pretend to have no knowledge of their troubles.
When Hung brothers visit my house, I shall provide them with board and lodging. I shall be killed by myriads of knives if I treat them as strangers.
I will always acknowledge my Hung brothers when they identify themselves. If I ignore them I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I shall not disclose the secrets of the Hung family, not even to my parents, brothers, or wife. I shall never disclose the secrets for money. I will be killed by myriads of swords if I do so.
I shall never betray my sworn brothers. 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.
I will offer financial assistance to sworn brothers who are in trouble in order that they may pay their passage fee, etc. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
I must never cause harm or bring trouble to my sworn brothers or Incense Master. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I must never commit any indecent assaults on the wives, sisters, or daughters, of my sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I break this oath.
I shall never embezzle cash or property from my sworn brothers. If I break this oath I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I will take good care of the wives or children of sworn brothers entrusted to my keeping. If I do not I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
If I have supplied false particulars about myself for the purpose of joining the Hung family I shall be killed by five thunderbolts.
If I should change my mind and deny my membership of the Hung family I will be killed by myriads of swords.
If I rob a sworn brother or assist an outsider to do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
If I should take advantage of a sworn brother or force unfair business deals upon him I will be killed by myriads of swords.
If I knowingly convert my sworn brother's cash or property to my own use I shall be killed by five thunderbolts.
If I have wrongly taken a sworn brother's cash or property during a robbery I must return them to him. If I do not I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
If I am arrested after committing an offence I must accept my punishment and not try to place blame on my sworn brothers. If I do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
If any of my sworn brothers are killed, or arrested, or have departed to some other place, I will assist their wives and children who may be in need. If I pretend to have no knowledge of their difficulties I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
When any of my sworn brothers have been assaulted or blamed by others, I must come forward and help him if he is in the right or advise him to desist if he is wrong. If he has been repeatedly insulted by others I shall inform our other brothers and arrange to help him physically or financially. If I do not keep this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
If it comes to my knowledge that the Government is seeking any of my sworn brothers who has come from other provinces or from overseas, I shall immediately inform him in order that he may make his escape. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
I must not conspire with outsiders to cheat my sworn brothers at gambling. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I shall not cause discord amongst my sworn brothers by spreading false reports about any of them. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I shall not appoint myself as Incense Master without authority. After entering the Hung gates for three years the loyal and faithful ones may be promoted by the Incense Master with the support of his sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I make any unauthorized promotions myself.
If my natural brothers are involved in a dispute or lawsuit with my sworn brothers I must not help either party against the other but must attempt to have the matter settled amicably. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
After entering the Hung gates I must forget any previous grudges I may have borne against my sworn brothers. If I do not do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
I must not trespass upon the territory occupied by my sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I pretend to have no knowledge of my brothers' rights in such matters.
I must not covet or seek to share any property or cash obtained by my sworn brothers. If I have such ideas I will be killed.
I must not disclose any address where my sworn brothers keep their wealth nor must I conspire to make wrong use of such knowledge. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I must not give support to outsiders if so doing is against the interests of any of my sworn brothers. If I do not keep this oath I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I must not take advantage of the Hung brotherhood in order to oppress or take violent or unreasonable advantage of others. I must be content and honest. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I behave indecently towards small children of my sworn brothers' families.
If any of my sworn brothers has committed a big offence I must not inform upon them to the Government for the purposes of obtaining a reward. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I break this oath.
I must not take to myself the wives and concubines of my sworn brothers nor commit adultery with them. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
I must never reveal Hung secrets or signs when speaking to outsiders. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
After entering the Hung gates I shall be loyal and faithful and shall endeavour to overthrow Ch'ing and restore Ming by co-ordinating my efforts with those of my sworn brethren even though my brethren and I may not be in the same professions. Our common aim is to avenge our Five Ancestors.
Triads based in Hong Kong
These are the triad organizations with the most power, money and influence, also worldwide. There are almost fifty triads based in Hong Kong. The following are the most powerful:
Triads based elsewhere
Because of immigration many criminal organizations were founded in Taiwan, Republic of China as well as Chinese communities internationally:
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, drug trafficking, human trafficking, murder and prostitution. In recent years, some tongs have reformed to eliminate their criminal elements and have become civic-minded organizations.
Triad activities were also present in Chinese communities around Southeast Asia. When Malaysia and Singapore, which have the region's largest population of ethnic Chinese, first became Crown Colonies, secret societies and triads were much more common and controlled the local communities similar to the way the Sicilian Mafia did through extortion of "protection money" and illegal money lending. Many conducted blood rituals such as drinking one another's blood as a sign of brotherhood, while others engaged in running opium dens and brothels.
Remnants of these former gangs and societies still exist. Due to the efforts of the government in both countries to reduce crime, such societies have largely faded away from the public eye, especially in Singapore.
Triads were also common in Vietnamese cities with large Chinese (in particular Cantonese and Teochew) communities. Especially during Vietnam's French colonial period, many businesses and wealthy residents in Saigon (especially in the Chinatown district) and Haiphong were under the tutelage and control of various protection racket gangs. Failure to provide such payments often result in various reprisals from the triad, ranging from assault, kidnapping for ransom, destruction of property, robbery and even murder of the client or a family member.
However, with the arrival of Vietnamese independence in 1945 (in the North) and 1955 (in the South), organized crime activity, including protection rackets, was drastically reduced as both the Northern and Southern governments purged criminal activity in their halves of the country. President Ngô Đình Diệm in the South ordered the military to eliminate, disarm, and imprison organized crime groups in the Saigon-Gia Định-Biên Hòa- Vũng Tàu region and in cities like Mỹ Tho and Cần Thơ in the Mekong Delta. Diem also banned brothels, massage parlours, casinos and gambling houses, opium dens, bars, drug houses and nightclubs (which are all establishments triads frequented). In the North under Ho Chi Minh, law enforcement was even stricter with stringent control and monitoring in the activities of its citizens. The Northern communist government purged and imprisoned organized criminals, including triads, in the Haiphong and Hanoi areas, along with shutting down businesses which it viewed as "capitalist", "Western" or "decadent" while collectivizing and nationalizing all other private businesses and properties.
Triads are also active in other regions with significant overseas Chinese populations: Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong Triads and countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Peru 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.
Law enforcement means
The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) is a division within the Hong Kong Police Force that is responsible for triad countermeasures. The OCTB and Criminal Intelligence Bureau work together with the Narcotics Bureau and Commercial Crime Bureau to process data and information collected by their operation units to counter triad leaders. Other departments involved in countering triad activities include Customs and Excise Department, Immigration Department and ICAC. They cooperate with the police to impede triads' expansions and other organized gangs. Police actions regularly target organised crime, including raids on entertaining establishments under control of triads, and the placing of operatives deep undercover – this was the central theme to the Infernal Affairs trilogy.
The Guns and Gangs Unit of the Toronto Police Service is a specialized command detective unit that is responsible for handling triads. Formerly the Asian Gang Unit of the Metro Toronto Police was responsible for dealing with triad related matters, but a larger unit was created to deal with the broader array of ethnic gangs in the city.
At the national (and in some cases provincial) level, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Organized Crime Branch is responsible for investigating all gang related activities including triads. The Canada Border Services Agency Organized Crime units works with the RCMP to detain and remove non-Canadian triad members.
Asian organized gangs are found in many cities, primarily in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.
The Organized Crime and Law Enforcement Act was created to deal with organized crime and gives a tool for police forces in Canada to handle organized criminal activities. This Act enhances the general role of the Criminal Code (with amendments to deal with organized crime) in dealing with triad criminal activities. Asian organized crime groups were ranked the fourth most organized crime problems in Canada next to Outlaw motorcycle clubs, Aboriginal crime groups, and Indo Canadian crime groups.
As of 2011, it was estimated that criminal gangs associated with triads controlled 90% of the heroin trade in Vancouver. Due to its geographic as well as demographic characteristics, Vancouver is the point of entry into North America for much of the heroin produced in Southeast Asia, much of the trade being controlled by international organized crime groups associated with the triads. From 2006 to 2014 both Asians (Southeast Asians/East Asians) and South Asians constituted for 21% of gang deaths in British Columbia only behind Caucasians who represented 46.3% of gang deaths.
Primary laws in addressing the triad problem are the Societies Ordinance and the Organized & Serious Crimes Ordinance. The former was enacted in 1949 to outlaw triads in Hong Kong. It stipulates that any person convicted of professing or claiming to be an office bearer or managing or assisting in the management of a triad can be fined up to HK$1 million and a prison term of up to 15 years.
Since the 1970s, the power of triads has further diminished due to the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. The agency targeted brazen corruption within police ranks linked with triads. Being a member of a triad is already an offence punishable by fines ranging from HK$100,000 to HK$250,000 and three to seven years imprisonment under an ordinance enacted in Hong Kong in 1994, and aims to provide the police with special investigative powers, to provide heavier penalties for organized crime activities and to authorize the courts to confiscate the proceeds of such crimes.