- Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity
"Triad" is an English term used since the nineteenth century as a generic label for Chinese "secret societies" and organized crime. In popular usage today, it refers to everything from teenage street gangs to powerful crime syndicates and is synonymous with the Cantonese term "black society." The specific reference, however, is to the sacred symbol of the Triad organization, a triangle—representing the unity of heaven, earth, and man—that encloses a cryptic reference to the Chinese character "hong" , which literally means "big," "vast," or "flood." Early Triad societies were characterized as belonging to the Hong Kong Association or League (Hong men), and "hong," in contrast to "Triad," is one of the most common Chinese terms used to designate "secret societies."
Since its founding in 1842, Hong Kong has been a center of Triad activity to the extent that even today simply claiming to be a member of a Triad society is a legal offense there.1 Much as law enforcement officials might wish to the contrary, Chinese Triads are a subject of both contemporary popular and academic interest and of renewed attention in the political, legal, social, and scholarly realms. In his recent article "Partners in Crime: China Bonds with Hong Kong's Underworld," Frederic Dannen has argued that a desire on the part of the Communist Party on the mainland to woo the allegiance of Hong Kong's Triads away from Taiwan and to effect a smooth handover in 1997 led to a series of covert business relationships between Chinese officials and Hong Kong's Triads that involved the operation of vice rackets in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and the smuggling of contraband in and out of China. The result, according to Dannen, has been the expansion of Hong Kong's four major Triad societies—the Sun Yee On, the 14 K, the Wo Shing Wo, and the Wo Hop To—into the major cities of China at an "impressive rate."2
At the same time, long-standing Triad networks that have controlled Chinese crime in such far-flung places as Australia and Amsterdam are being destabilized by new waves of more desperate, violent, and usually illegal immigrants who "don't know the rules" and who are forming rival gangs. In some cases these upstart organizations work hand in hand with the Triads already in place, and in other cases endeavor to supplant them. Before 1975, Triads and tongs held a firm grip on local Chinatown communities throughout the world, but since that year their self-regulating social power has waned significantly as Cantonese, long the mainstays of Chinese emigration and Triad membership, have gradually yielded to emigrants from Fujian. In still other circumstances, rival gangs with no affiliation [End Page 36] to the Hong League whatsoever borrow Triad argot and adopt portions of their initiation ceremonies as means of intimidating, frightening, or impressing their adversaries and victims. As a result, the relationships between gangs, organized crime, and Triads have become exceedingly complex. Sorting them out has become a time-consuming challenge for police and legal professionals alike.
Within the realm of popular culture, the Shaolin temple, reputed by Triad foundation accounts to have been the site of the first Triad association, is cashing in on its simultaneous reputation as the legendary origin of the Chinese martial arts to become a place of pilgrimage for both Chinese and Western practitioners as well as the setting for numerous potboiler novels and films. The reach of the Triads is even broader in the world of cinema, where, until recently, a number of the movie companies in Hong Kong were run by Triads, who allegedly coerced actors and actresses into making movies for them. Today the industry has narrowed down to two major studios: the Golden Harvest of Jackie Chen and the Win's Group of Charles Heung, who was identified in 1992 by the...