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Feature Articles


February 2007
The Phenomenon Of The Chinese Triads

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"Seoul’s Seocho police busted seven individuals, including a Malaysian triad member, for using fake and stolen credit cards to purchase expensive watches and women’s handbags. Members of a triad branch in Malaysia, they traveled back and forth between Korea and Malaysia buying W60 million (US$59,700) worth of brand-name watches, handbags and cosmetics. The group stole passports and credit cards in Malaysia, and copied and used them to make purchases in Korea. The group then resold the goods in Malaysia to fund the organization’s activities there." (Daily News in English about Korea)

     The phrase Chinese triads encompasses a number of secret Chinese criminal organizations with origins in China. Triad societies occur anywhere there is a Chinese community. Historically, this has been the case for 3000 years. Unlike their flashier Russian counterparts, triads prefer to do their work more quietly, sometimes using highly placed members in financial institutions and even government.

     Initiation rites of a blood oath by gangs of criminals or pirates were characteristic of secret societies, including the Sicilian mafia and the Neapolitan camorra; the Chinese triads are no exception. The rites would take place at an altar with incense smoke and the sacrifice to the gods of a domestic animal, such as a chicken or a goat. After drinking a potion composed of wine and the blood of the animal or of the candidate, he would pass beneath an arch of swords while reciting the following oath: "If a member of this society finds himself in difficulty, all will rush to his aid. If I, as a future member of this association, break this oath, the swords will descend and kill me." The oath-inscribed paper would be burned in the incense, on the altar, to confirm the candidate’s duties to the gods. Signifying the name of the association, three fingers of the left hand would be raised to the heavens as a secret and binding gesture. (The dictionary definition of the word triad is "a group of three, especially of three closely related or associated persons or things.)

     The initiation symbolizes the death and rebirth of the person. He thereby becomes a new man (a real man), entering a new life (into which the few are qualified), with a set of new loyalties, convinced that he has joined an elite group, one with a code of honor that sanctions (and perhaps even glorifies) deviant, law-challenging behavior.

     Entering this privileged brotherhood removed the members from the world of common criminality because not all of the triads engaged solely in illegality. During the Ch’ing dynasty, for example, such fraternities were feared because they might foment insurrection. But they were mainly founded for purposes of mutual assistance and protection against a perceived dangerous world. Triads developed strategies to pursue their own interests and when necessary could be predatory towards the society at large.

     Singapore has two classes of Chinese criminals. The traditional groups have a strict code of comportment and are not marginalized from the society. These businessmen engage in prostitution, gambling, protection/extortion and money laundering. In general, violence is uncommon. Some have day jobs as cabdrivers or construction workers.

     The secret societies in Malaysia are well-integrated into the prosperous Chinese community. They are united through blood relationships and a variety of commercial and political interests, including controlling votes and corruption of officials. Yet they remain criminal in intent, demonstrating a facile ability to control sectors of the local economy, and are primary in protection rackets. Moreover, they have infiltrated the labor unions and influence the opium trade. The majority of arrests for thefts are of members of organized crime.

     A triad specialty is gaming, which is said to be a particular Chinese vice. The Malayans control the many gambling dens in Singapore, and find many opportunities for profit in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong. (Police estimate there are as many as 50 triad bands in Hong Kong.) Criminality of the overseas Chinese in this part of the globe goes back many generations; seeking out and uprooting criminality have given never-ending frustration to the police, who themselves will look the other way and are susceptible to payoffs.

     The triads are skilled in international trafficking and are in league with other criminal groups in this very lucrative enterprise. (Triad-linked mobs handle an estimated $200 billion in transnational heroin trafficking.) The gangs most involved in narcotics are the Chiu Chan and the Sun Yee On, the largest of the triads. Ingenious methods have been employed to transport heroin to the United States. One in particular merits mentioning. The drug is dissolved in water that is then frozen and used in shipments of Thailand shrimp. Once offloaded and delivered, the ice is melted, the water evaporated and the drug recovered. The narcotic is then sold to their American counterparts and put on the street. In 2001, 80 percent of the heroin and opium coming from Southeast Asia was produced in Burma. The Chinese play a significant role in this traffic as well as the recycling of the dirty drug money.

THE LIFE OF A TRIAD IN NEW YORK CITY. "I am a Chinese American and grew up in Chinatown. In 1974, when I was 16 years old, I was approached by members of a Chinese street gang known as the Ghost Shadows. At that time the gang did not have control of Chinatown and was recruiting members to help them win control. I refused to join and as a consequence was badly beaten and had several teeth knocked out. I eventually decided that it was easier and cheaper to join Ghost Shadows. I was also initiated into the On Leong tong. Twelve of us took part in a ceremony in the On Leong tong on Mott Street. The ceremony involved burning incense and making oaths in Chinese. I did not understand many of the oaths, because at that time I didn’t speak Chinese very well. I do know that the oaths included an oath of silence and a promise to protect fellow members. All Ghost Shadows are regular members of On Leong. Other members included workers and businessmen in Chinatown. Most members did not get involved in crime. The leaders of the On Leong are important in the community and are all involved in illegal gambling. While on watch we were responsible for protecting the On Leong gambling houses and watching for rival gangs. The older Ghost Shadows robbed and extorted businesses in Ghost Shadow territory. I was paid $35 a week and got free meals in the territory restaurants…." (Source: U.S. Government Report on the Chinese Triads)

     There is a tendency in the field of organized crime studies to compare the triads with the traditional Sicilian mafia. Their backgrounds have similarities. Both were created in an effort to protect their homelands from the depredations of foreign authority and dominance. With emigration from their respective nations, they transplanted their traditions and value systems to fertile foreign soil. In both groups, members had to pass through solemn initiation ceremonies that stressed the necessity of omerta', unqualified obedience and secrecy. In New York, this commonality between them could result in a certain "understanding" of the other, and possible collusion, between the Italian-American and Triad crime families.

     But one should not simplify because obvious differences should not be overlooked. The Italians are well-assimilated into the American mainstream and as a result have a broader influence and less visibility. The Chinese, by contrast, are much more provincial; they remain tied to their own ethnicity and remain at the stage where their exploitations, with some exceptions, often do not go beyond the confines of their own community. The triad conspiracy is a tough nut to crack by the authorities, and not as much attention has been paid to them, as compared to the Cosa Nostra. With time and assimilation, the American triads could become more expansive.


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