“Hong Kong black societies [triads] are very powerful… Of course, not all black societies are dark. There are many good guys among them.” From a leader like Deng Xiaoping, an implicit endorsement of a criminal organization might seem odd. Yet, until recently, acceptance of triads, a multi-headed network of Chinese criminal gangs that dates back to the early 17th century, was crucial for political and economic success in Hong Kong. The structural foundation for modern triads lies in the secret societies of the Hung, created in resistance to the Manchurian invasion of mainland China in the mid 1600s. In modern societies, activity has shifted towards the criminal. This transition to criminality aligns easily with two traditions that, for the past two centuries, have defined and united triad gangs more than their 36 line oath or many-stepped initiation ritual ever could: adaptability and opportunism. Triad gangs have institutionalized themselves in China and, most notably, in Hong Kong, through a distinctly entrepreneurial brand of criminal business-savvy, capitalizing on economic and political opportunity to maintain influence.
Triads have long remained at the periphery of political power. When left unable to act as de facto governing bodies, triads have worked closely with those who can. Through the late 20th century and into the 21st, many triads carefully maintained links to the Chinese government. Sun Yee On, one of Hong Kong’s most notorious triad gangs, has offered protection to government officials on visits to Hong Kong, and is reputed to have contributed generously to the government’s disaster relief programs. In the early 90s, before China formally repossessed Hong Kong, Chinese government officials held negotiations with triad leaders, promising to turn a blind eye to criminality in exchange for peaceful acceptance of the new Chinese authority. Thanks to these talks, the transition was, at the very least, unmarred by triad violence. Although the gangs were active in the region under British rule, under the Chinese, they amassed even more influence, gaining footholds in virtually all tiers of the island’s governing bodies.
The decentralized structure of modern triad gangs has facilitated the organization’s entrepreneurial spirit. Although triad societies are controlled by individual bosses, most gang activity is driven by lower-ranking members. In modern triads, members have almost complete autonomy in the criminal ventures they pursue. They can experiment with new businesses and have little to no obligation to return any of their profits to their society. The activities of most triad groups are localized, centering around a certain territory or business. This allows gangs to focus specifically on the opportunities provided by their location and connections.
The breadth and versatility of triad business can be linked to this middle-centered structure. To further heighten profits, and to adapt to growing law enforcement efforts, many triad gangs have begun supplementing criminal entreprises with perfectly legal ones. While entertainment, especially, has become a hotbed for triad investment and activity, triads also have links to interior decorating businesses, valet services, and countless other industries. When opportunities aren’t readily available, triad gangs will create their own, launching extensive, often inventive, extortion campaigns. A bus driver may need to pay a fee to retain control of a profitable route, while a chicken seller might be forced to rent cages from a local gang.
This protean creativity has enabled triads to adapt to the agendas of whatever political, social, or economic interest guides them. Many of the most active modern triad gangs came into existence directly through the appropriation of the mythos and tradition of their predecessors for whatever end was most profitable at the time. The 14K triad began in 1947, as a secret society founded to augment Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Army. As the Nationalist movement declined, 14K splintered into smaller factions. Few of its original members had any familiarity with actual Triad traditions, but they, like their Nationalist founders, used the Triad’s mystique to further their agendas. This time, however, these agendas were criminal.
Triads have embedded themselves in the economic fabric of Hong Kong, seizing on new opportunities to create profit and influence, and fracturing into smaller groups in the process. Emblazoned at the center of one of the most popular triad symbols is a dragon, a symbol of power and strength. A more appropriate figure, perhaps, would be the hydra.