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July 11th, 2006
China: Chinese Triads

Suspected gang members in Shenzhen in south China’s Guangdong province arrested by local police.

Credit: AP Photo

Chinese Triads: At Home and Abroad
Perhaps the most notorious crime gangs in Asia are those associated with the Chinese triads: Sun Yee On, Wo Shing Wo, 14-K.

“Triad” is an umbrella term referring to an array of criminal groups that have grown out of a tradition of resistance within China dating back hundreds of years to when, as legend has it, a group of Shaolin monks founded a secret society to overthrow the Ch’ing dynasty. This society was known by a number of names, including Tiandihui, which means Heaven and Earth Society, and Sanhehui, which means Three Harmonies Society (the origin of “triad”). When the Ch’ing dynasty was overthrown in 1911, the Tiandihui lost their political impetus as well as the financial backing of sympathetic revolutionists and turned to extortion and other illegal activities. Much of the triad activity on mainland China was shut down when the Communist Party assumed control of the country and imposed authoritarian rule. The triads then shifted their base to British-ruled Hong Kong.

Today, there are more than 57 triad groups in Hong Kong, some that are highly organized and others that are no more than local street gangs. Triads also exist in Taiwan, Macau, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and North America. They generally follow a strict hierarchical organization of low-level gang members and office-bearers — although it is thought that no central command structure unifies the different factions within a particular triad society. Most triads operate largely independent of one another. In fact, it is speculated that individual office-bearers have limited control over the criminal enterprises carried out by the lower-ranking members. Many senior leaders of well-established triads are semi-legitimate businessmen with foreign investments; they cooperate with overseas triads in drug trafficking, human smuggling, fraud, money laundering, and more.

In the United States, Chinese youth gangs are associated with and perhaps controlled by certain triads. The Jackson Street Boyz, for instance, is a Chinese-Vietnamese gang in San Francisco said to be associated with triads whose membership extends to local middle and high schools. Its members are involved in street-level crimes such as stealing cars and drug dealing as well as more sophisticated racketeering, credit card fraud, and gambling operations. The gang was founded by former members of Wah Ching and succeeded the Wo Hop To, a triad based in Hong Kong that dominated San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1980s and early ’90s. Unlike most Asian street gangs, the Jackson Street Boyz’ membership consists of both foreign-born and American-born gangsters.

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