IT'S election time in Hong Kong - but the voters who assemble at a plush Chinese restaurant next month will not be there to celebrate a successful District Board campaign. In one of Hong Kong's more bizarre democratic rituals, ''respected'' elders will gather for a sumptuous meal, drink expensive brandy, and then elect a new district leader for the Wo On Lok triad. Great face and wealth ride on the outcome of the vote, so securing an election success is serious business, as one candidate discovered last week. The current district leader, or Chor Koon, a 39-year-old man surnamed Chiu, was seeking re-election until he was shot in the leg during an early morning karaoke session in Tsim Sha Tsui last Sunday. Now rumour has it that he is not standing, but that's not meant to be a joke - triad elections are no laughing matter. ''It's like normal politics except that it is a triad enterprise,'' said one triad investigator. ''A lot of canvassing goes on between the candidates and a lot of money is splashed out on dinners. ''This is to show who can put on the best menu, who they can invite and what they can provide for the members by way of employment. ''But the most important thing is money.'' According to the latest police intelligence on the Wo On Lok, if no agreement is reached at the meeting, the elders then retire to discuss the candidates. If, at a second gathering, no decision is reached, then the process - held under the guidance of the gang's treasurer, La Cha Hong or ''Dirty Hong'' - is likely to erupt into gang warfare as the different factions fight for power. There are two dominant groups in the Wo On Lok who have put forward candidates. One is headed by a senior elder known as San Sai Kam or ''Fairy Gold'', the former ''sponsor'' of the current Chor Koon, who is still nursing his wound at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The other candidate is under the control of Lo Se or ''Old Snake'', who has sponsored a young, rising star, known for violence. According to one Wo On Lok source, Chiu, known as Ko Lo Fat or ''Tall Man'', might have already been re-appointed even though he is known to have upset his sponsor. But last week Chiu refused to discuss the attack. The anti-triad officer said this type of election process had been adopted by all of the Wo groups, such as the Wo Hop To and Wo Shing Wo, and some of the 14K factions, but it did not exist with most societies. The Dragon Head of the Sun Yee On, which is by far the most powerful and influential gang in Hong Kong, is the son of the secret society's founder and is believed to have held that position for at least 20 years. He was appointed for life and runs the gang - at least the upper levels of it - with a fixed quorum of office bearers. The Wo On Lok also has a Dragon Head - which in traditional triad mythology uses the numerological designation 489 - but he takes a back seat in the day-to-day workings of the gang and allows the Chor Koon to control business. Once appointed as Chor Koon, his ''name will always be in front'' of the Wo On Lok, the expert said, explaining that he will take a role similar to that of a chairman and that all business will be conducted through him. But as the present incumbent found out last week, the job is not without its risks. Officers investigating the case say the motive for the attack could be related to the election, but Chiu is also known to have had a fight in a nightclub the evening before the shooting and was involved in a number of business disputes. Another theory raised last week was that the shooting was the result of a disagreement over a woman and that the attacker was aiming for his groin. But whatever the motive, it seems his followers fear the issue is not over - up to 10 of them have kept guard by his hospital bed every day since the shooting. The detective said one of the suspects was believed to be a Wo On Lok member who recently returned to Hong Kong after living in Vietnam for a number of years and who had a personal grudge against the Chor Koon. Chiu is known to have become ''arrogant'' during his tenure and could have upset the faction and other influential people that he was meant to be representing. Senior Superintendent John Thompson said an anti-crime operation aimed at stopping violence at karaoke bars that was planned before the shooting would be used to keep a lid on the brewing gang problem. ''There is no major triad problem at the moment, but there is an internal power struggle within a specific group, which we think will be resolved by the end of the month,'' he said. ''Their leader has been shot in what looks like an assassination attempt.'' Superintendent Thompson said the rival triad, who is believed to have been a Chor Koon, was looking to gain a foothold at the Cheung Sha Wan poultry market. ''He wanted to have control of that area and was not permitted to do so,'' he said. ''It looks like this was a battle for the leadership.'' The Wo On Lok, or Shui Fong, is relatively small in terms of numbers compared with the Sun Yee On, Wo Hop To and various 14K factions, but it is well organised and respected by the other gangs. Although it is not known how many of its 500 hard-core members are active, the Wo On Lok is known for violence. It is one of a number of offshoots of the Wo group and is believed to have been formed in the early 1960s in Kowloon West when its then leaders broke away from the main faction. It was made up mainly of drivers and labourers who worked at the On Lok soft drinks factory in Reclamation Street in Yau Ma Tei, from where the gang's name was taken. According to police, it is one of the ''top 15 gangs'' in Hong Kong and operates mainly in Cheung Sha Wan, Mongkok, Wong Tai Sin and Sham Shui Po. The Wo On Lok's main business ventures are fake CDs, gambling, prostitution, smuggling, protection and control of the Cheung Sha Wan fish, poultry and vegetable markets. After its creation, the society quickly spread overseas and has become one of the main gangs in the United Kingdom with bases in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast, where it is involved in the Chinese video market.