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For other meanings of Triad, see Triad (disambiguation)

Triad is a collective term that describes many branches of an underground society and organizations based in Hong Kong (and also in Macao, and Chinatowns in Europe and North America).

In the 17th century, the triads were underground political organizations designed to overthrow Manchu rule and revert to the rule of the Hans (See Origin of triads below). But these groups later evolved into criminal organizations and are engaged in all forms of organized crime. Such activities include drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal gambling, prostitution, car theft and other forms of racketeering. A major source of Triad's income today is from counterfeiting products of intellectual property such as computer software, music CDs and movie VCDs/DVDs.

The name "triad" was coined by the British authorities in Hong Kong, referring to the triangular shape of the Chinese character for "secret society". The character's shape symbolizes unity among Heaven, Earth, and Man. The nature of this character indicates that there is a semi-religious undertone in this society.

There are about 50 triad groups that are active in modern Hong Kong; many of them are no more than small, local street gangs. The larger groups, including the Sun Yee On, Wo Shing Wo and 14K, are syndicates of sophisticated criminals, mirror images of such similar western empires of crime as the mafia.


Origin of triads

In the late 1670s, a society called the Hung clan (洪門) was formed to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty to power. The Hung clan used the triangle as their symbol; this symbol continues to be an enduring mark of triad membership.

Early Development of Triads

Over several centuries, what is known as the Triads today developed from a patriotic society to a criminal organization. Following the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty of China in 1911, the Hung clan (洪門) suddenly found themselves lost without purpose. Worse still, they somehow managed to miss out on the opportunity to participate in the actual uprising, and many of them were left angry and depressed. Unable to revert to normal civilian lives after spending years living under grave danger and extreme violence, many ex-rebels reunited to form a cult which later came to be known as the Triad. Having lost the usual donations and support from the public after the collapse of the Qing empire, members of the newly formed cult resorted to money extortion from the unwilling public through all possible and even illegal means.

When the Communist Party of China took power in 1949, Mainland China was put under strict law enforcement and organized crime diminished. This is why the Triad migrated south to the British colony of Hong Kong for the continuation of their business. By 1931, there were eight main Triad groups and they had divided Hong Kong up into geographic areas and ethnic groups that each group was responsible for controlling. The eight main ones at that time were the Wo, the Rung, the Tung, the Chuen, the Shing, the Fuk Yee Hing, the Yee On, and the Luen. Each had its own headquarters, its own sub-societies, and its own public covers. After the Riot in Hong Kong in 1956, the government actively enforced the laws that restricted and diminished the Triad activities in Hong Kong.

More Recent Developments of Triads

The problems of the triads in Hong Kong were more serious in the 1960s and 1970s. In the past, rumour had it that the police controlled the triads and the triads took charge of the social order. If there was a kidnap in a certain neighborhood, the police would get the regional gang leader to resolve it. On the other hand, the police would associate with the regional gang leader in seizing the control of places where they would be in command of the businesses. Hence, there was spatial stability of social powers. Then, in 1974, the circumstances totally changed as the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was established. As the police were no longer corrupt, the triads had diminishing areas to control and the boundaries of triad power also blurred out. With less benefit from usual businesses, they had to focus on underground dealings.

As the triads developed, certain ones began to monopolize some of the businesses in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, the Sun Yee On had almost entire control over the movie sector. However, their activity fields have decreased greatly as the triads have to struggle against the collaborative anti-triad operations among the Mainland, Macau and Hong Kong. Besides, easy profits no longer exist, so some gang leaders are not keen on becoming the leader.

As for connections to foreign triads, their activities have been imported into North American Chinatowns as well, especially in San Francisco, New York City, Woodland, Sacramento, Cupertino, Arcadia, Davis, Las Vegas, Saratoga ,Auckland ,Rowland Heights, New Orleans, Monterey Park and Vancouver, though London, Manchester and Amsterdam are also believed to be centers of Triad activity. They are often largely responsible for smuggling illegal immigrants from Asia into the USA and Canada. Triads also have associations with local Asian American (Chinese and Vietnamese) teenage street gangs such as the Jackson Street Gang, which operate in areas with large Asian American populations.

Also, it is interesting to note that after the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed over by the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China in 1997, a top official of the PRC central law enforcement agency publicly acknowledged his acceptance of the Triad, stating that many of its members were patriotic to the motherland.

Nowadays, there are approximately 57 triad societies in Hong Kong, including between 15 and 20 triads actively involved in local crimes. Although some triads have only 50 members, larger triads have over 30,000 memberships. Even the triad leaders themselves are unsure of the exact number of their members. The most sophisticated triads in Hong Kong nowadays are believed to be The 14K Triad, Sun Yee On, and Wo Shing Wo.

Triad Groups

The 14K Triad

The 14K Triad was reportedly the largest triad gang worldwide in the mid-1990s. It was formed after the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War, with the Nationalists fleeing the Communist Chinese.

In 1997 there were a number of gang related attacks that left 14 people dead. The 14K triad under Wan Kuok-koi (nicknamed 崩牙駒 Lit. Broken Tooth Koi ) was being challenged by the smaller Shui Fong(水房 Lit. Water Room, originated from a workers' union of the legacy Hong Kong Soft drink company, Wo On Lok 和安樂) triad.

The next year a gunman believed to be connected to the local 14K triad killed a Portuguese prison officer and wounded another at a sidewalk caf in Macau.

In 1999, a Portuguese court convicted 45-year old mob boss Broken Tooth Koi on various criminal charges and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. His 14K gang was suspected of drive-by shootings, car bombings and attempted assassinations. Seven of his associates received lesser sentences.

Since the crackdown in Macau, the 14K triad resurfaced in North American cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. In response to the massive publicity generated by Broken Tooth Koi, 14K dramatically lowered its public profile. Recent articles indicate that the Los Angeles chapter is getting stronger, with new leadership from a half-Cantonese, half-White Dragon Head -- the first regional leader of 14K with mixed ethnicity. Meanwhile, loan sharking and money laundering continue to be the primary sources of revenue for 14K in North America.

See also: Macau Security Force

The Sun Yee On

The Sun Yee On (新義安) (also known as The Yee On Commercial and Industrial Guild) is, by far, the largest and most powerful of the Triads. Based in Hong Kong, it has several offshoots, with the most prolific branch having 25,000 members. Of Chiu Chao and Hakka origin, the organization is believed to be founded by a Guomindang major by the family name of Heung. After the major's death in the early part of the 20th century, the organization was supposedly inherited by his tenth son, Charles Heung Wah-Keung (向華強), who, along with his brother Heung Wah-Sing (向華勝), invests heavily in Hong Kong's entertainment industry.

As a whole, it is believed to be in control of over 56,000 members worldwide, with sub-organizations located in New York City, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Sun Yee On is the principal center for the triads, with anywhere from 47,000 to 60,000 members carrying out activities worldwide.

The Wo Shing Wo

The Wo Group (和勝和 or 勝和 for simplicity), with over 20,000 members, is also based in Hong Kong. Its membership is composed mainly of Cantonese-speakers, much like the 14K. The Wo Hop To (和合圖), a major division of the Wo group, has a major operations base in San Francisco. Illegal gambling is a suspected major source of cash for the Wo Hop To's operations. The Wo Hop To is also active in many of the 'legal' card clubs in Emeryville, San Bruno and San Jose (CA)." (US Hearings 119) The Hong Kong-based Luen Group boasts 8,000 members with 4 subgroups.

Related link: [1] (

Triad Culture


Triad societies have traditions and exotic rituals dating back to the early days of the Hung clan in the 18th century. To the bemusement of many Western scholars, many of its traditions and rituals are remarkably similar to that of the Freemasonry, such as the concept of brotherhood, "secret handshakes", and the use of triangles as symbols. Moreover, many of those rituals were based on superstitions and were related to peasant religion in Southern China. For instance, in formal inauguration ceremonies new members were required to take a blood oath in front of an altar. After incenses were burnt, the head of a rooster would be chopped off, and each new member would taste its blood. Such ceremonies are getting rarer in recent days as people's tastes change.

It is interesting that every triad society worships the famous hero Guan Gong from the Han Dynasty who exemplifies the Chinese thinking of the five qualities of a humble man:

  • humanity (仁)
  • righteousness (義)
  • ritual obedience (禮)
  • wisdom (智)
  • loyalty (忠) and
  • trust (信).

Of these qualities, his loyalty and righteousness are especially admired. (See also Confucianism)

The triad society during the Qing period was organized to protest against the Qing government, they worshipped Lord Guan, probably adopting his loyalty to the former Han_Dynasty. Triads want their members to have the qualities of Lord Guan, most importantly, righteousness and to make contribution to the society especially when their people are under threat of a harsh dictatorship.

Nowadays, triad societies still very much follow this tradition to worship Lord Guan and consider him as their guide and guardian. More importantly, they still regard Lord Guan as a role model for their members.

Ironically, it is for the same reason that some police officers of the Hong Kong Police also worship Guan Gong, especially when a tough operation is to be carried out. Hence, jokes exist that say that Guan Gong will be caught in the middle when the police and the triads encounter each other.

Triad Organizational Structure

Hong Kong Triads are not as powerful as some people might expect. Unlike some of the biggest international drug dealers who have their own military troops and can take charge of their local governments, Hong Kong triads are, comparatively speaking, operating on a much smaller scale, even though they might pursue and maintain significant resources such as their own stockpiles of ammunition.

There is never a fatherly figure in the Hong Kong triads to control all other members in illegal activities via a pyramid-like structure of authority. The real power behind the Triad society, in fact, is said to rest with its illusive and highest-ranking female leader, Shian'Lia Xian. On the contrary, Hong Kong triads generally comprise of several independent groups. Although they form and organize themselves with similar ceremonies and hierarchical systems, they do not function under an absolute and strict dominion-and-compliance plan. For example, the “Ging Yee” is a subsidiary branch of the “Sun Yee On”, but members of the Ging Yee do not take orders from the ‘supremacy’.

The actual power of triads lies at the ground level of the hierarchy. Usually, a triad ‘official’ (called the “Red Pole”) leads a group of 15 active members, and is in charge of a ‘territorial site’ by way of aggression. A territory usually consists of only a street, a building, a wholesale market, a football field, or a park. Because the gangs are poorly structured, various gangs, though branched from the same triad, may have dissimilar hierarchy in different districts. As a result, a leader with apparent hegemony may not be able to command other leaders; and leaders may sometimes wage war against one another for more benefits.

Triads also use numeric codes to differentiate the ranks and positions inside a gang. For example, '426' would mean 'the fighter' (打仔). Members with this position are usually the ones that fight for their gangs. Another code '49' (四九仔) would be the code for general members with no specific positions assigned. '489' is the code for 'the mountain master' , '438' for the 'deputy mountain master', '415' for 'the white paper fan', and '432' for 'the straw sandal'. One code that has been commonly used even by normal public nowadays would be '25' (二五仔) which refers to someone who is the undercover/spy of the gang. 25 has also become a common slang in Hong Kong while referring to a person who is a traitor or betrays someone else.

As the Hong Kong economy progresses, triads barely provide ‘satisfying’ social and pecuniary conditions to foster absolute loyalty among their members. One consequence is that the current triad structure has become more flexible: the customary eight-ranking system has changed into one that consists of four ranks (refer to the diagram below). Also, the sophisticated ceremonial rituals for new members have simplified: the most commonly practiced is “hanging the Blue Lantern” (i.e. following the leader), which is an oral agreement with little formality. The degree of autocracy within the organization has fallen; members have higher tendency to prioritize their personal interests. Should a member discover that there is little advantage in remaining in the group, he might transfer himself to another one which is more socially robust and potent: the traditional principles of triad moral beliefs have been disregarded under such personal benefits first stance.

Triad Organizational Structure

Gang Fighting

When triads have a show of force (known as “晒馬” <sai ma> in Chinese), they are only trying to negotiate with one another, they do not actually want to fight, so they do not usually bring along weapons. The success of the negotiations depends on the number of people on their teams as well as the structural integrity of their teams.

In terms of figures, a show of force with over one hundred people might seem a big thing, but often most of the people do not really belong to the gangs – they are either paid to make an appearance or show up simply to help out.

In 1990, one of the gangs attempted to monopolize the queues for purchase of new apartments and had a show of force with 700 people. The police arrested 119 people, but later found that most of them were hawkers or drug addicts who were employed from various districts and did not know one another – the gang leader had all of them wearing a right-handed white glove for recognition, so they were later called The White-glove Gang.

One reason that triads try to avoid fighting is the possible incurrence of high costs. Generally speaking, ammunition is expensive and the basic cost of hiring a person for a showing of force is HK$100, which could increase up to HK$500 for large and significant events. In addition, there may be other accessory expenses, including meals, transportation, medical, condolence, legal charges and etc.

Organized crime

Nowadays, triads have become more business-like organizations. The interactions and integrations of power among triad gangs from the Mainland, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong are not to escape unwavering counter-operations from local authorities, but are, in fact, driven by agreeable benefits. At the present, the largest market is in the Mainland; and they are business-oriented – they head for wherever big money is accessible. Some Hong Kong triads also make lawful investments in the Mainland and their intentions are really to earn a living, but of course, some are just exploiting the legitimacy of these businesses for other illegal means.

Dealing with Triad Problems in Schools

School violence is not a new issue. One event (date is unknown) which stirred much public concern was the video clip showing a student being beaten up by 11 fellow classmates. In March 2004, a student in Tin Shui Wai stabbed a 17-year-old with a pair of scissors. While not all school violence is directly Triad related, it is believed the gang formation directly contributes to an increase in violence.

Triad members often hang around at places where students go after school, such as football pitches, game centres and shopping centres in attempt of recruiting them. Once the students become triad members these juvenile gangs become more confident as they believe that they have 'backup', i.e. protective support from other members of the triad society.

Schools cannot monitor students' after-school activities since there is no way that they can shut off contact between the triad members and their students outside the school compound. Although regular talks are held in schools to warn students against triad membership and police has sent undercover officers into schools to curb triad activities, these actions are not effective enough to prevent the formation of juvenile gangs.

How Triad problems are tackled in Hong Kong

Even though there have been reports that 27,000-strong Hong Kong Police have difficulty in dealing with 100,000-strong gang members, the counter-view says the Hong Kong police force is a highly-structured and well trained team, compared to the hardly organized gangs with many members only being temporary associates.

Tackling the problems of triads is one of the greatest challenges to Hong Kong's law enforcement teams. The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) plays a major role in resolving this issue, and they are supported by each and every district for their work.

The social harms done by the triads are not unknown. Even though most gangs and triads act independently (of one another), their attempt to pretend that they are “the invisible yet invincible” has made the police’s work much harder by forcing their victims into silence. In order to encourage the public to report the criminal activities of triads, the Security Bureau has established the Witness Protection Unit in 1995 to augment witness security; also, the Witness Protection Ordinance came into operation on 9 November 2000 to provide a legal basis for the Witness Protection Programme.

However, Hong Kong police are striving with determination to strike against this social threat. The OCTB and Criminal Intelligence Bureau are working closely, hand in hand, with the Narcotics Bureau and Commercial Crime Bureau to process data and information collected by their operation units, in order to fight the triad heads. Other departments such as the Customs and Excise Department, Immigration Department and ICAC have also joined forces with the local police to impede expansion of triads and other organized gangs.

Ironically the law has given “protection” to the criminals. Due to inadequate authority to investigate the criminal leaders’ sources of wealth and the lack of laws to impose heavier punishments such as confiscation of illegal benefits and extended imprisonments, the efforts of police have been hampered. Therefore, to resolve this issue, the local law system is also frequently revised to endow the police with sufficient authority to fight against triads. An example is that the police authority proposed the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance which has been fully in force since 1995.

According to the Security Bureau, there is no current evidence to indicate any worsening of the triad problem in Hong Kong. For ten years (1993-2002) proportion of crimes with triad involvement remained fairly steady at about 3.8%; and the figure for the first nine months in 2003 was 2.7%. Nonetheless, the bureau has added more than 240 anti-triad specialist posts since 1995 / 96 to strengthen the anti-triad power of the police force.

There is also a comprehensive publicity programme to uncover the evil of triads. For instance, the Junior Police Call is an organization with complete networks to propagandize the anti-triad message. At the same time, the Crime Prevention Bureau is keeping contact with local businesses and encouraging them to report triad activities.

Furthermore, the Hong Kong Police cooperate with overseas anti-triad teams, especially where the Chinese population density is high, to monitor and tackle all aspects of social harms caused by these (internationally)-organized gangs.

Indeed, law enforcement is one of the most effective ways to combat the Triads in Hong Kong, including the Societies Ordinance and the Organized & Serious Crimes Ordinance.

Regarding the Societies Ordinance enacted in 1949, all triad societies are regarded as unlawful societies in Hong Kong. According to the Ordinance, any person convicted of professing or claiming to be an official bearer or managing or assisting in the management of a triad society is subjected to a maximum fine of HK$1 million and to imprisonment for 15 years. Membership of a triad society is itself an offence and sentencing may include fines from HK$100,000 to HK$250,000 and imprisonment for 3 to 7 years.

The Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance was enacted in Hong Kong in 1994. The Ordinance aims to provide the Police with special investigative powers, to provide heavier sentences for organized crime activities, and to provide the Courts with the power to confiscate the proceeds of organized crime.

Sadly, however, police members are often leading men of quite a number of cases that arouse citizens' awareness. These policemen, often being senior officers ranking as high as Senior Superintendent (SSP), are believed to have close relationship with seniorities of the triads. They provide notifications prior to snap checks (of the triads' businesses) in return for their own interests, primarily money.

Portrayal of Triad Societies in Popular Culture

The posters below are of local films about triad society. The films depicted are Infernal Affairs, and the Young and Dangerous film series.

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Young and Dangerous movie poster
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Young and Dangerous movie poster
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Young and Dangerous movie poster
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Infernal affairs poster
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Infernal affairs poster

Gangster movies are generally well favoured among Hong Kong audiences, especially in the young male crowd. From the character 'Mark Gor' (played by Chow Yun-Fat in A Better Tomorrow (1986)) to 'Chan Ho Nam' (played by Ekin Cheng in the Young and Dangerous series (1990s)), the main characters in these movies are always male and highly masculine, and between them flow a sense of brotherhood and loyalty and perhaps even love that almost always surpasses their dalliances with their obligatory girlfriends. In addition, no matter how many illegal activities are depicted in the films, somehow the main characters always retain their sense of honour and chivalry. Due to all these elements, the lives of these characters seem impossibly glamorous to the ordinary lives of the audience members, which may explain the popularity of these types of movies.

These movies are especially popular among teenagers. As in most cultures, the adverse affects of these movies on teenagers, in particular encouraging them to join or form a gang, concerns some people.

Triads have also been portrayed in the Grand Theft Auto video game series, as well as the movie Rush Hour, which portrayed the triads inaccurately.

See Also

External links

de:Triade zh:三合會


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