Triad refers to the many branches of Chinese transnational organized crime organizations based in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and also in countries with significant Chinese populations, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

The term “Triad” was probably 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.

Triads feature prominently in “Triad Wars” (a.k.a. “Fatal Move”), a martial arts actioner from 2008.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

So much for the movies.

Here’s what history has to tell us:


In the 1760s, the Heaven and Earth Society, a fraternal organization, was founded, and 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 the legendary Eastern Han Dynasty general Guan Yu. Their aim was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty.

During the 1800s, many such societies were seen as legitimate ways of helping new immigrants from China settle into a new country.

In British Hong Kong, there was a high-level intolerance for secret societies, which were considered a criminal threat.

Secret societies were officially banned by the British government in Singapore during the 1890s, and slowly stamped out by successive colonial governors and leaders over time. The opium trade, prostitution and brothels were also banned.

After World War II, these societies saw a resurgence as gangsters took advantage of uncertainty and growing anti-British sentiment.

Certain Chinese communities, such as some “new villages” of Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore became notorious for gang violence.

The 20th Century

When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 in mainland China, law enforcement became stricter, and tough governmental crackdowns on criminal organizations forced the triads to migrate to Hong Kong, then a British colony. It was estimated that in the 1950s, there were about 300,000 triad members in Hong Kong.

Academics at the University of Hong Kong say that most triad societies were established between 1914 and 1939, and that there were once more than 300 in the territory.

Since then, the number of such groups has consolidated to around 50, of which 14 are still regularly in the eye of the police.

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 their own headquarters, sub-societies and public fronts.

After the 1956 riots, the Hong Kong government introduced stricter law enforcement and the triads became less active.

Criminal Activities

Triads currently engage in a variety of crimes, ranging from extortion and money laundering to trafficking and prostitution. They are also involved in smuggling and counterfeiting digital goods such as music, video, and software, as well as more tangible goods like clothes, watches, and money.

Triads have been engaging in counterfeiting since the 1880s.

Between the 1960s and 1970s, triads were involved in counterfeiting Chinese currency, often of the Hong Kong 50-cent piece. In the same decade, the gangs were also engaged in copying books (usually expensive ones), and selling them on the black market.

With the advent of new technology and the improvement of the average person’s standard of living, triads have progressed to producing counterfeit goods such as watches, film VCDs / DVDs, and designer apparel like clothing and handbags.

Structure and Organization

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 (or “Dragon Head”), while “438” is used for the “Deputy Mountain Master”.

“432” indicates “Grass Slipper” rank, and the Mountain Master’s proxy, “Incense Master”, who oversees inductions into the Triad, and “Vanguard”, who assists the Incense Master.

“426” refers to a “military commander”, also known as a “Red Pole”, overseeing defensive and offensive operations, while “49” denotes the position of “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 slang for “informant”.

“Blue Lanterns” are uninitiated members (equivalent to Mafia associates), and do not have a number designation.

Initiation Rituals

As with 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 must 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.


The word tong means “hall” or “gathering place”.

In North America a tong is a type of organization found among Chinese people living in the United States and Canada. These organizations are described as secret societies or sworn brotherhoods, and are often tied to criminal activity.

In most American Chinatowns, if one can read Chinese, one can find clearly marked tong halls, many of which have had affiliations with Chinese crime gangs, especially in the 1990s.

Tongs follow the pattern of secret societies common to southern China, and many are connected to a secret society called the Tiandihui, which follows this pattern.

Tongs are similar to triads (which are also connected with the Tiandihui), 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. These Tongs modeled themselves on triads, but were established without clear political motives. They eventually became involved in criminal activities such as extortion, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, human trafficking, murder and prostitution.

Tongs in North America showed many similarities to Triads of Hong Kong and British-controlled southeast Asia. These included similar initiation ceremonies, and paying respect to the same deities.

Ko-lin Chin outlined that most tongs have a similar organization, and have a headquarters where one can find a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a treasurer, an auditor, and several elders and public relations administrators.

In recent years, some Tongs have reformed to eliminate their criminal elements and have become civic-minded organizations. Today their main aims are to care for their members and their respective communities.

Today tongs are, for the most part, members of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associations, which provide essential services for Chinatown communities such as immigrant counseling, Chinese schools, and English classes for adults.

International Activities

When Malaysia and Singapore (which have the region’s largest population of ethnic Chinese) first became Crown Colonies, secret societies and triads were common, and controlled the local communities through extortion of “protection money” and illegal money lending.

Triads are also active in other regions with significant overseas Chinese populations (apart from the Chinese mainland, Macau, Taiwan, and Hong Kong).

Triads are known to be operating in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Argentina.

They are often involved in “helping” immigrants enter countries illegally, through human trafficking.


The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) 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 the Customs and Excise Department, Immigration Department and ICAC.

Police actions typically include raids on entertaining establishments under the control of triads, and the placing of operatives deep undercover.

Primary laws in addressing the triad problem are the Societies Ordinance and the Organized & Serious Crimes Ordinance.

The Societies Ordinance 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.

In Canada, the Guns and Gangs Unit of the Toronto Police Service is a specialized command detective unit that is responsible for handling triads.

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 Unit works with the RCMP to detain and remove non-Canadian triad members.

But the Triad War continues.

This story, however, ends here.

Hope you’ll join me, for the next one.