Chinese secret societies illicit curiosity as much as they do fear, and although their heyday is almost certainly over, they have not gone away.
Cosa Nostra, the term for the Sicilian Mafia (think The Godfather) translates to the innocuous sounding ‘Our Thing’, which actually describes in two words what most secret societies are about – their own ‘thing’.
Cinema has in fact been responsible for most people’s idea of what a secret society is. The first international blockbuster movie to introduce the Japanese Yakuza to a wider audience was arguably 1989’s Black Rain starring Michael Douglas.
There are of course a thousand and one old-Shanghai and Hong Kong television shows and films in which Triads feature large, and violently so.
Hong Kong cinema classics in the Heroic Bloodshed genre, such as A Better Tomorrow, Hardboiled and The Killer, have had cult international followings for decades as well as being massive hits at home. The machismo and gunplay meld well with the common themes of honour, betrayal and sacrifice.
Fact or Fiction
Does the fictional world of the scriptwriter reflect any of the real-world facts about Asia’s secret underworld of crime and power manipulation?
If you were lucky enough to have a dimsum lunch with an ex-Hong Kong police officer a few weeks ago, then you would be left in no doubt that, yes, indeed, Triads exist and will go on existing. Telling all is something he does on a regular basis when giving expert evidence in court.
While the rest of us blithely go about our daily lives, a parallel world of humans exists in our midst that does not come from the pages of a fantasy novel.
Criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling, protection rackets, were undoubtedly the main focus of activity for some brotherhood societies that were in fact thinly disguised criminal gangs, and still are. This is called organised crime and it is not exclusive to the Chinese nor to Asia.
Origins of Chinese Secret Societies
According to The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, secret societies in China began as a form of social organisation. Popularly known as Triads or Hongmen, ‘one of the earliest such brotherhoods was the Tiandi Hui’, in English the Heaven and Earth Society.
Also known as (aka) Three Dots Society, Three Unities Society, and the Pure Water Society, the Heaven and Earth Society’s origins date back to the 18th century. Flashback to Fujian Province, Shaolin monks, perfidious imperial officials and so forth.
The brotherhood rapidly spread to Guangdong then overseas with Chinese migrants, complete with all of the paraphernalia and mystery of a secret society.
Initiation ceremonies, passwords, rituals, cryptic signs, oaths of loyalty and secrecy, of course, were all part of the mystique. Something akin to Freemason ceremonies, or so the rumours go.
Often what all this amounted to was preferential treatment in the job market, to put it in modern terms. As described in Mothership.sg, a new arrival fresh off the boat from China needed a support group to help him survive. Cue the weird swear-on-your-life ceremony.
Meanwhile half a dozen other not-quite-secret societies were doing the same thing. A quick search of an online newspaper archive for the 19th century and the reason why most of them were banned becomes clear: they fought each other.
Machetes, cleavers, clubs and any other skull-breaking implements that came to hand were used to protect whatever patch was thought to have been encroached by one side against the other.
The influence and violence that followed these secret societies was not limited to Asia either. In 19th- and 20th-century San Francisco these secret societies were known as tongs.
Tongs ran the prostitution, gambling, drugs and extortion rackets in San Francisco’s Chinatown and waged bloody war against each other for decades.
In fact, the first tong in America was the Chee Kong Tong, founded by a member of the Tiandi Hui upon his arrival in the States. You can take the man out of a society, but you cannot take the secret society out of the man.
Nowadays Triad is the catchall word for Chinese organised crime, a name originating from the Sanhe Hui or Three Harmonies Society.
Count Your Blessings
While there is no doubt that organised crime exists, most of us will never encounter this seedy reality below the seemingly normal surface of our everyday lives.
As entertaining as media portrayals of these societies may be, it is perhaps for the best if we do not find out first-hand what their real-life counterparts are like.
Just be thankful that we have men and women willing to deal with this underworld on our behalf. And if you get a chance, treat them to a dimsum lunch.