They wear their hair in centre partings and sometimes with bandanas around their foreheads. They claim it makes them look Chinese, even though most of them are as English as Robin Hood. In parts of London, gangs of youths have begun to emulate the worst aspect of Hong Kong society. They call themselves triads. They are not of course triads, not in any real sense. They are not in any real way connected to the real thing. But they like to think they are. Their existence over the past couple of years or so came to a head this week with the jailing of the schoolboy leader of a triad-style gang for hatcheting to death a 14-year-old on the street. Cowardly Nathan Brown, 16, wrung his hands as relatives of the dead boy, Carl Rickard, cheered the verdict at the Old Bailey. Brown hacked his victim with a machete outside his school gates. He died pleading: 'What did I do?' His head was sliced three times with the 17-inch blade because Brown, then 15, felt his gang, called the Golden Snakes and allegedly an offshoot of the 14K, had been slighted. Brown's sentence is open-ended. These are not ethnic Chinese children, although the belief rightly or wrongly in the gangs is that they were formed by members of Hong Kong triads some time ago. But even the gang members' lawyers try to pretend there is a link. Defence lawyers argued that Brown should not be identified because he feared the real triads would wreak revenge on him and his family. The gang members take part in triad-style rituals. In Brown's bedroom, police found a hand-written list of oaths that he had himself drawn up: 'Now I am a member of the Golden Snakes I must not tell my friends or family where my wounds or money came from or I will lose my little finger. 'I must do whatever my adder [gang leader] tells me or I will lose my index finger. 'I must never reveal secrets to anyone, especially the police, or me and my family will suffer. 'If you break the rules you will lose all your fingers. 'You must fight someone in front of your adder. If this is done successfully you take the oaths. Then you pay GBP10 for four months and will be a Golden Snake. 'You must carry an offensive weapon and walk past five police cars, and carry the weapon all night.' But talk to the police and they deny there is any real connection with the triads. If there is triad involvement in Britain it is in drugs and prostitution, usually among the ethnic Chinese population. The real gangs do not do anything as stupid as calling public attention to themselves in mindless school-gate brawls. Nonetheless, the attack was the fourth brutal incident in the capital in the past two years involving schoolboys claiming triad affiliation. Learco Chindamo, 15, who was convicted of murdering headmaster Philip Lawrence outside his school, claimed to be a triad member - as did the teenagers who stabbed and mugged John Mills, the husband of Dame Barbara Mills, the director of public prosecutions. A group of mixed-race youths - including some Filipinos - who carried out the multiple rape of an Austrian tourist who was then thrown into a canal, also boasted triad connections. Police believe the youths are imitators and followers rather than genuine triad members. But they breed such fear into the lives of those children they come into contact with that the children really do believe they are at danger from a secretive gang. Rickard's murder spread such an atmosphere of fear that many pupils who witnessed the attack as they left his school were terrified to give evidence. At a pre-trial hearing, Patricia Jaffe, the head teacher, told the judge: 'I have no hesitation in saying that the fears of these youngsters are genuine. In over 20 years in the teaching profession I have never seen the kind of fear that I had to sit through when they gave their statements. They were afraid to give the whole truth, and had to return to make further statements.' Brown fitted the police blueprint for a gang member. He was a loner from a broken home and he had no sense of identity until he joined a gang. Indeed, he was bullied until he himself took a step into violence. It gave him a sense of status and belonging, allegiance to a code and a belief that he had found true friends for the first time. One police source close to the investigation commented: 'They all wear the clothes of the triads - baggy trousers and bandanas. It is becoming a growing problem. Witnesses have told us there are thousands of members of these gangs around the country.' But was there ever real triad involvement? Generally, police doubt it - although they admit that youths calling themselves members of the 14K tried to recruit other boys into petty extortion gangs in the early 1990s. There are stories of them trying to force money out of restaurant owners in Soho, London's Chinatown, and being sent packing. Once police recognised the scale of the gang problem they began to crack down, forcing the kids away from their favourite central London haunts. The result was that, deprived of a hunting ground where there actually were some Chinese people, they took their alleged triad style back to the suburbs, the council estates and the streets of outer London and surrounding counties, where they carried on with their violent fantasies.