The enemy within
At the time the 'Ordinance for the Suppression of the Triad and other Secret Societies' was tabled on January 8, 1845 by the rulers of the then fledgling British colony, it was believed 75 per cent of the local population were triad members. The punishment for those caught was a branding under the left arm and deportation at the discretion of the judge.
Last week, more than 160 years later, 18 people from the lifestyle and fashion store G.O.D were arrested for selling a T-shirt and postcard series printed with the Chinese characters for '14k'. Among those held was store owner Douglas Young.
Mr Young said last week that while he could not comment on the ongoing investigation, G.O.D was his response to the cultural abuse he had received as a youngster in an English boarding school: 'So I am trying to right the injustice by telling the world how magnificent my cultural roots are.'
Mr Young may have pride in Hong Kong's heritage, but venturing into the signs and symbols of triad societies suggests he lacks understanding of the reasons police continue to enforce this law.
The 1960 history Triad Societies in Hong Kong says that 14k was initially formed by the nationalist troops as a last gasp attempt to stop the advancing communists. They were defeated, and many of the members sought refuge in Hong Kong, where they grew into one of the city's most significant criminal organisations.
Triads all retain at least symbolic links to a patriotic movement on the mainland dating back to the mid-18th century and they have remained outside the law. The traditional Triad Society motto, 'Overthrow the Ch'ing and Restore the Ming', refers to the original aim of restoring Han Chinese rule to China. Many of the initiation rituals, including incense, animal sacrifice and blood bonds, can be traced back hundreds of years.
There are 36 oaths which members traditionally must swear, and highly elaborate ceremonies to demand loyalty and urge death to those who betray the society. The ceremonies have undoubtedly been made simpler as police detection has increased, but police are adamant they have not completely passed into history. More than 10,000 current members have taken an oath of some description.
At the time of last week's G.O.D arrests, some cultural commentators were quick to ridicule the police action as white terror or as an infringement of human rights and creative freedom.
Former film producer and scriptwriter Jimmy Pang Chi-ming said: 'Something we have never taken seriously could in fact land us in jail.'
Singer turned sometime fashion designer Edison Chen Koon-hei also gave his five cents' worth, saying he owned a T-shirt which said 'F*** Bush': 'I think a T-shirt is a medium and I believe in freedom of expression.'
But allowing triad societies and their symbols of criminal intent to become part of everyday life is something we do at our peril, according to police officers and academics, who believe that while their power has diminished, they are never far from the surface.
In regards to the G.O.D case, officers from the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau would last week only say they had the 'unequivocal duty' to maintain law and order and to prevent and detect crime. But they also said there had been a similar case earlier this year with a man prosecuted for possession of triad writings which escaped press attention.
'Triad societies remain a persistent problem in Hong Kong,' one officer says. 'The threat may not be as obvious as before, but it is still there.'
The insidious and persistent nature of triads and their influence was highlighted by the sentencing on Friday of three men involved in a conspiracy to murder a rival in order to take over his illegal businesses. That the man was supposedly a senior member of the same society, the Sun Yee On, did not matter according to the main prosecution witness, a 19-year-old man who was party to the plot.
Chan Tsz-him, testifying before a jury in the Court of First Instance under an immunity deal, told how he had been drawn into a discussion 'about killing somebody' by his triad 'big brother', a man known as Kee Sai-ho who is being sought on the mainland in connection with the conspiracy.
The case highlighted how much influence the triads wield in both the New Territories and across the border, with Chan detailing how meetings took place in public - at one stage two guns were openly inspected at a Shenzhen disco - with seeming impunity.
Chan himself was recruited into the Leun Ying She triad society after his father died when he was 15. As his defence counsel John Dunn noted, the society and its system of 'elder brothers' offered him strong male role models to fill the gap left by his father's death. Indeed, Chan followed his 'elder brother' Kee into the Sun Yee On, for which he became a runner and messenger.
'He followed powerful and ruthless people in the northern New Territories and Tai Po areas,' Mr Dunn says. His supposed triad brothers had preyed on his trust and naivete, getting him to run errands, involve his friends - one of whom was tried and acquitted in relation to the plot - and to sign in his own name for various items, including a hotel room that the gang used on the eve of the failed attack. He had found himself abandoned and subject to threats as soon as the arrests began. After being verbally threatened by his cellmates while in Pik Uk Prison, he decided to seek protective custody.
His testimony led to 20-year jail sentences for two men, one a senior Sun Yee On figure.
'These people are ruthless,' Mr Dunn says of Chan's former brothers. 'They are prepared to murder. They are prepared to hire hitmen from mainland China. There can be no doubt that they will regard him as a traitor and [the] whole history of the triads, and the literature of the triads, is permeated with the fact that vengeance must be extracted on traitors.'
Indeed, Chan's girlfriend, who was also due to testify at the trial, failed to appear and has been out of contact since.
'On his release he will still be in jeopardy and he may well have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder,' Mr Dunn says.
Former police officer Steve Vickers, who now runs security company International Risk, headed a major investigation into a faction of the 14k - the symbols on the G.O.D T-shirt 14k Ngai - in the 1980s. Mr Vickers says you only have to look to the overt display of power by members of the Sun Yee On triads, who attacked New World Development properties over two days in July, to see the societies remained powerful. The Societies Ordinance's banning of the display of triad symbols, flags and colours is important because they are often used to spread fear within communities.
'This is genuinely intimidating to local people and facilitates the prestige and growth of triads and this really does need to be watched,' Mr Vickers says.
The triads often use local holiday festivals for the rank-and-file to collect financial tribute for the office bearers, he says.
Many dragon dance teams which turn out at festivals are drawn from gyms and other recruiting centres and use the ceremonial occasions to display triad symbols.
'This is why we have valid reasons for the Societies Ordinance and banning these types of things,' Mr Vickers says. 'The G.O.D raid was colourful and with things like the T-shirts, I can understand why people might have a laugh, but we firmly need to keep this stuff in its place, just like you would with Nazi war memorabilia.'
Mr Vickers says there should also be concern about the gentrification of triads and the potential this has for organised crime in Hong Kong. 'The top guys have become gentrified through money, through connections and through the size of their organisations and are unlikely to be arrested by themselves,' he says.
'Every head of a triad society should be under police monitoring because they are a menace to society. It is just because things are good right now that they are a little below the radar and the police handle things pretty well, but there are some pretty major figures around town who run major organisations and they are untouched.'
Chu Yiu-kong, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, whose research has brought him close contacts in the triad world, says the law is vital from a law and order perspective.
'If police don't take action, people will think that it is okay to display these signs. Then this will become a fashion and more people will try to do things like this. We need some kind of deterrence or some kind of message for the community members, otherwise normal people will do the same thing,' Dr Chu says.
However, he says triad power and influence is waning here and there is some scope for a review of the law. 'Although there has been several revisions, this ordinance was made 100 years ago by the colonial government,' he says. 'Maybe we could argue that there is some scope for the law to be amended now.'
Dr Chu says triads have lost influence because of the decline in illegal casinos and the movement of prostitution to non-triad areas such as internet websites. Only drugs remain a consistent money-making venture.
Also, he says, people are becoming wiser and would look to the police for protection instead of the triads.
Former assistant commissioner of police Peter Halliday says it is up to lawmakers to decide if the Societies Ordinance needs revision in the wake of the G.O.D arrests.
Mr Halliday says there is likely to be more behind the G.O.D story than have been released by the police so far.
'If I learned one thing as a copper, nothing is as it appears, and I'm quite certain that the police didn't rush off half-cocked, but the Societies Ordinance as it stands had been transgressed.'
Mr Halliday says he gave up trying to prosecute criminals for being triads because it is exceptionally hard to prove. 'You are far better concentrating on organised crime,' he says.