Triads and Tongs

Triads and Tongs

Over the centuries, the secret society known as the Triad evolved from a patriotic resistance movement to become a powerful criminal organization that controls much of the world’s heroin traffic.

As with many secret societies, the exact origins of the Triads have been clouded by the mists of legend—and myth and legend are very important to the members of this internationally linked secret society. According to some researchers, in 1647 a community of Buddhist monks from Fukien Province in China had become masters in the art of war. When a foreign prince invaded China, the second Manchu emperor, Kiang Hsi, sent 138 of these fighting monks (Siu Lam) to throw out the invading forces. After three months of bitter fighting, the monks routed the enemy and returned to their monastery laden with gifts and honors from the grateful emperor.

The monks were content to resume their lives of contemplation, but some of Kiang Hsi’s ministers were jealous of them and persuaded him that the monks were deceptively planning a rebellion. Fearful of their martial-arts skills, the emperor decided to attack without warning and sent a strong force of the Imperial Guard, armed with gunpowder, to destroy the monastery. The flames ignited by the blasts of the powder soared up to heaven, where they were seen by the Immortals—who, perceiving the injustice being dealt the monks, came down to Earth and pushed aside one of the monastery’s huge walls, enabling eighteen monks to escape. Most of them were so badly burned that they soon died, but five survivors escaped from the imperial troops by miraculous means. In Triad lore, those monks are known as the Five Ancestors.

After many ordeals the five came to a city in Fukien Province where they founded a secret society, the Hung Mun, whose aim was to overthrow the Manchu dynasty (also known as the Ching or Qing dynasty) that had betrayed their loyalty and to restore the previous Ming dynasty. The symbol of the Hung Mun society consisted of three red dots, which formed part of the Chinese character for the Ming emperor Hung Wu. Literally, Hung Mun means “men of Hung.” Spiritually, the three dots symbolize the unity among heaven, earth, and man. The term Triad did not come into being until circa 1931 when it was coined by the British authorities in Hong Kong, who named the criminal organization for the triangular three-dot character for Hung Wu.

Although the revolt against the Ching emperor failed, the survivors scattered throughout China and established five provincial grand lodges, each led by one of the five monks. The Hung Mun society continued to grow, developing secret codes to confound the emperor’s spies. This secrecy and the Hung Mun’s martial-arts training enabled the society to become protectors of the common people. Eventually, the society became more criminal than political, and they adopted the motto Ta fu—chih p’in (Hit the rich—help the poor).

Initiation into the Triad is said to be based on a blood ceremony. First, an “incense master” invokes the ancient five heroes and offers libations of tea and wine. The candidate for initiation is challenged at the entrance to the lodge by guards carrying razor-edged swords. He is allowed to enter only after answering a series of ritual questions as he crawls under the crossed swords. Once inside the lodge, the initiate participates in a lengthy reenactment of the traditional ordeals of the Five Ancestors, swears thirty-six oaths, and learns his first secret signs. Then a rooster is beheaded as a warning to the initiate that he will suffer the same fate if he betrays the Triad. Finally, the initiate drinks a mixture of blood, wine, cinnabar, and ashes. In times past, the blood was drawn from the initiate and other members of the lodge. Today it is generally that of the slaughtered rooster.

The blood oaths that were so favored by the Triads originated with the Yellow Turbans, one of the earliest and most mystical societies in China. Founded in the middle of the second century in northeast China, the Yellow Turbans revered Chang Cheuh, a great healer and magician, as a savior of the nation against the despotic Han dynasty. Chang’s society soon numbered so many thousands that he needed thirty-six generals to lead the rebellion which conquered the entire north of China within less than a month. Three of his disciples have been credited with taking the first blood oath when each of them slit open a vein, filled a vessel with blood, and drank the mixture of their vital fluid while vowing eternal brotherhood. This basic blood oath ceremony, with many variations, became an integral part of Triad ritual.

In the summer of 1900 an aggressive secret society known as I Ho Chuan (Fists of Righteous Harmony) drove more than three thousand people—mainly European missionaries, their families, and Chinese Christian converts—into the legation district of Peking. “Boxer” was the Western name for this society, derived from its symbol of a clenched fist and its members’ proficiency in martial arts. The Boxers had been given almost a free hand by the Manchu government to free the nation from the foreign imperialists whom they accused of exploiting the Chinese people. The White Lotus Triad, as well as the Big Swords and the Red Fists, joined the rebellion against the Western powers.

The Boxers depended greatly on supernatural elements to aid them in achieving invulnerability. They employed rituals compounded of self-hypnotism, mass hysteria, and drugs. At the height of their ceremonies the initiates reached a state of frenzy wherein they would smash their clenched fists against unyielding surfaces until blood flowed from broken knuckles. At this point they were led into the Inner Temple to learn magical secrets and to receive the power of invulnerability against death at the hands of foreigners. The imparting of invulnerability was followed by a blood oath.

Initially the Boxers directed their violence mainly against small Christian missionary outposts, especially in Shantung Province. These attacks were encouraged by the Empress Dowager Tsu Hsi, who had become regent after forcing her nephew from the throne. On her orders imperial officers assisted the Boxers during the fifty-five-day siege against the foreign legations. However, even before the various nations whose citizens were under attack sent relief forces to capture the city and squelch the rebellion, many imperial soldiers had already deserted the Boxers and were fighting against them.

The Triads reached the United States with the Chinese workers who immigrated to the West Coast during the gold rush fever of the 1840s. Mercilessly exploited by the people who had hired them as common laborers, the immigrants welcomed the protection provided by the Triads that sprang up among their communities, hiding behind the fronts of innocent social clubs. One of the first Triads to establish itself in the United States was the so-called Five Companies, named after the five districts of China. Once entrenched, it began to exploit the same Chinese population it had previously sworn to protect.

The first Tong in America is believed to have originated in San Francisco in 1874. Essentially, the Tong (which originally meant “parlor” or “meeting house”) was a protective association created by Chinese merchants to defend themselves against brutal treatment by the white inhabitants of the city and exploitation of the Triads. Eventually the Tong became powerful enough to sell protection to the newer merchants and to establish illegal gambling halls. Success in extortion and gambling led to an extension of activities into opium distribution and prostitution.

Although in 1880 the Chinese population in New York City was only around eight hundred, the first Tong there was established in that year. By 1890 a rush of immigration had increased the total to thirteen thousand Chinese in the city, and the Tong was ready to exploit a population isolated by language, culture, and prejudice. In 1900, rival Tongs ignited a series of Tong wars that lasted intermittently until the 1930s. It was at that time that the larger American public became fully aware of the Tong warriors with their chain-mail shirts and hatchets.

A distinctive characteristic of Chinese organized crime in America is the relationship among the Tongs, the merchants’ associations, and the Asian street gangs. In New York City, for example, the street gang Fuk Ching is allied with the Fukien American Association, a merchants’ group. Such an association between Tong and gang provides a kind of legitimacy for the criminals and protection for the merchants. In addition, the merchants’ meetinghouse gives the gang a place to hang out.

The center of the Triad remains in Hong Kong. There are seven main branches, each with its own area of influence and working independently of the others—the Sun Yee On Triad, the Wo Group, the 14K Triad, the Luen Group, the Big Circle Gang, the United Bamboo Gang, and the Four Seas Gang. Perhaps the largest triad, the Sun Yee On may control as many as 56,000 members. Although its influence on the course of Chinese politics has been considerable, the Triad has never been unduly concerned about which government happens to be in political power. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of Republican China, used the Chung triad in his 1906 rebellion; the Nationalist government in 1927 was headed by Chiang Kai Shek, a member of the Shang Hai Green Gang; during the World War II Japanese occupation of China, some Triads helped police Hong Kong.