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Triad (underground society)

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Triad (simplified Chinese: ???; traditional Chinese: ???; pinyin: S?nhéhuì; literally "Triad Society") is a term used to describe many branches of Chinese criminal organizations based in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Macau, Taiwan, Mainland China, and also in countries with significant Chinese populations, such as Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.


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The earliest triads started as resistance/rebel forces who opposed Manchu rule in China during the Qing Dynasty, as the Manchu ethnic group were regarded as foreign invaders in the predominant Han Chinese society of China then. In the 1760s, the Heaven and Earth Society (???) was founded, with its objective to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and restore Han Chinese rule in China. As the society's influence spread throughout China, it branched into several smaller groups with different names, one of which was the Three Harmonies Society (???). These societies adopted the triangle as their emblem, usually accompanied by decorative images of swords or portraits of Guan Yu. The term "triad" was first coined by British authorities in colonial Hong Kong, as a reference to the triads' use of triangular imagery. While never proven, it is "highly probable" that triad organizations either took after or were originally part of the revolutionary movement called the White Lotus Society.

Migration to Hong Kong
When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 in the Mainland, law enforcement became stricter and tough governmental crackdown on criminal organizations forced the triads to migrate to Hong Kong, then a British colony.[citation needed] It was estimated that in the 1950s, there were about 300,000 triad members in Hong Kong. By 1951, 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 its own headquarters, its sub-societies and public covers. After the 1956 riots, the Hong Kong government introduced stricter law enforcement and triads became less active.

Recent developments
Triads have been engaging in counterfeiting since the 1880s. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the triads were involved in counterfeiting Chinese 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, the triads have progressed to producing counterfeit goods such as watches, film VCDs/DVDs and designer apparel such as clothing and handbags.

Triads currently engage in a variety of crimes from 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.

Triad organizational structure

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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, while 438 is used for the "deputy mountain master". "426" refers to a "military commander", also known as a "Red Pole", overseeing defensive and offensive operations, while "49" denotes a "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 "traitor".[citation needed]


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Similar to the Italian Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza, Triad members are 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.

Overseas activities

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Triads are also active in other regions with significant overseas Chinese populations, apart from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Triads are known to be operating in countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Germany and France. They are often involved in helping immigrants enter countries illegally.


Tongs are similar to triads except that they originated among early immigrant Chinatown communities independently, rather than as extensions of modern triads. 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, human trafficking, murder and prostitution. In recent years, some Tongs have reformed to eliminate their criminal elements and have become civic-minded organizations.[citation needed]

Triad countermeasures in Hong Kong

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Law enforcement means
The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB or O?) 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.

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, but a large unit was created to deal with various other 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 removed non-Canadian triad members.

Legal measures
Primary laws in Hong Kong 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. 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. The latter, was 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.

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 of Canada (with amendments to deal with organized crime) in dealing with triad criminal activities.

See also

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  • Chongqing gang trials
  • Broken Tooth Koi
  • Criminal tattoos
  • List of Chinese criminal organizations
  • List of criminal enterprises, gangs and syndicates
  • Organized crime
  • Russian Mafia
  • Secret societies in Singapore
  • Tiandihui
  • Tongs
  • Triads in the United Kingdom
  • Yakuza
  • Hong Kong action cinema
    • Gun fu
    • Heroic bloodshed
    • Rush Hour (film series)

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