Secret societies have been a feature of Chinese life for centuries. Intermittently proscribed by law in the mainland, yet quietly tolerated and often shrewdly utilised by successive administrations (due to their wide-ranging political and economic influence), these groups have never been completely stamped out.

In Hong Kong, secret societies were recognised very early on as a serious social menace; the first ever Hong Kong Government Ordinance, enacted in 1845, was designed to suppress them.

Across Southeast Asia, by contrast, Chinese secret societies were regarded at various points as benevolent social institutions, as well as being a useful means of keeping immigrant populations under control in colonial and semi-colonial circumstances.

Gradually, though, the Hong Kong example came to be followed in British territories elsewhere, and in Malaya and Singapore secret groups were steadily proscribed throughout the latter quarter of the 19th century.

During that gradual clampdown, however, some supposedly benign off-shoots were allowed to survive. This was done, at least in part, to mollify Chinese community interests, keep powerful interest groups on side and minimise the potential for social unrest and anti-colonial sentiment.

As parent bodies were progressively outlawed, certain sub-strata remained exempt. Groups involved in "recreation, charity, religion and literature" - a broad enough set of categories to allow plenty of creative blurring of functions - stayed conveniently outside the reach of the law, as they still do.

Have you ever noticed the large numbers of kung fu and other martial arts "academies", lion-dance and kee-lung ("Chinese unicorn") "troupes", athletic and sporting "associations" and so on around town - often in obscure, somewhat unlikely areas? At certain times of the year they come alive - most conspicuously during Lunar New Year - but mostly these "clubhouses" are seldom frequented and do little to bring their activities to public attention.

Social marginalisation plays its part in the recruitment of the young into these groups. In societies with high numbers of disaffected youths deprived of opportunities - such as in Hong Kong during the massive post-war refugee influx - a fraternal association allowing them to work off excess energy and make friends, and offering practical support in times of crisis, would have been a real boon. It is much the same with first-generation migrants in the world's Chinatowns, from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur, Sydney to New York.

Unsurprisingly, some of these troupes have been financially supported down the decades by a few of Hong Kong's, shall we say, more shadowy business figures, while many have also had "patriotic" personal connections.

And why would they not? The amount of money required to subsidise a modest club room in a working-class district, pay for a few colourful costumes and subvent occasional celebratory banquets represents a trivial outlay to people at that level of wealth and brings great personal prestige.

Such investment could pay future dividends if it helped secure the unquestioning sup-port and loyalty of a few dozen fit, young men scattered about the city.

These braves might well be called upon for purposes above and beyond providing a lion-dance performance at a restaur-ant opening.