Sex, Violence and Triads: Dark Side of Hong Kong
They've ditched the tattoos and secret signs—the city’s crime syndicates are changing, but they're still going strong.
What’s the most attractive part of gangsters coming to recruit you on the basketball court?
They don’t ask you to study for your TSA exams.
In fact, triads like the Sun Yee On and Wo Shing Wo—at first—are ready to accept you just as you are. It can be pretty refreshing for an angry adolescent who just wants to find approval, and maybe make a little bit of quick cash.
On the city’s massive housing estates, such as in Tin Shui Wai and Tuen Mun, triad recruiters look for young boys who are emotionally stunted by years of bullying, poor grades or bad lives at home. They look for the drop outs, the hate-filled kids and the visibly disturbed because they’re easier to mold. IQ doesn’t matter: Those with low IQ become expendables.
And it’s not just boys, either. Young girls, most trying to grow up early, stick to triads by becoming their so-called “girlfriends.” As early as 11 years old, they drop out of school and are conditioned into treating sexual abuse as normal before getting a full-time boyfriend protector. They then often move into prostitution or compensated dating, or solicit other girls to do so, with their earnings going to their boyfriends.
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“When you build big housing estates, you build potentially big areas for recruitment for triads,” says Jeff Herbert, an ex-policeman who now runs a private investigation and security company called Centinel. Centinel, which works through China and Southeast Asia, is manned mainly by ex-Hong Kong police officers and carries out work requiring varied police skills, conducting investigations, inquiries and studies, as well as security reviews, audits and computer forensics.
“The triads start recruiting in these poorer areas and everybody forms gangs, because that’s the way to survive. Of course, there’s always at least one gang on the basketball pitch, and there’s always a gang that’s potentially a triad,” says Herbert.
“Twenty-five is a watershed moment for these recruits,” says Patrick Wong Chun-chin, a former senior superintendent of police, who also works at Centinel as its director. “If they still have no proper intervention by that time, they will develop anti-authority sentiment and move on to a criminal career.”
Triads: Then and Now
So, nowadays, what is a triad? They’re still around—but how present are they?
There’s no question that triads are diminishing in Hong Kong’s ever-modernizing society. While triad leaders could traditionally throw about 200 gangsters into the field at the drop of the hat, they now struggle to deploy about a dozen. A triad officer of "4-2-6" rank, a "Red Pole," or a senior "49" member can call out the order to deploy men.
The triads’ modern struggle to thrive mostly has to do with the city’s economy. With improvements in social welfare and education since the 60s, social mobility has been a clear and present threat to the triads’ ranks.
“That’s killed the triads’ numbers because if there’s a way to move up the proper way, people will normally choose the proper way,” says Wong.
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But that’s not to say triads have died out completely—in fact, they’ve evolved to adapt to today’s more affluent society.
For one, they’re more individualistic. While triads used to center around an executive committee and meetings over long meals, they’ve now adapted to a younger generation and members largely communicate through chat apps, without a central authority to organize them. Triad members no longer get visible tattoos to make their allegiances distinguishable. And strangely enough, they’re becoming less Chinese.
“There are emerging triad operations with Form 8 [asylum seekers], those in Hong Kong temporarily making asylum claims and seeking refugee status,” says Wong. “They can’t work, they’re out on the streets and they only get a small allowance, so they live together.”
Their situation isn’t a far cry from those Chinese recruits packed into public housing estates: Wong points out asylum seekers live segregated lives thanks to their mother tongues, and they’re underprivileged. There are now nearly 11,000 outstanding claims under Hong Kong’s Unified Screening Mechanism for asylum seekers: vulnerable targets for triad recruiters.
At Lei Yue Mun in the east of Kowloon, there’s a fish market. That doesn’t sound remarkable at first: But fish markets are where triads make their money. They overfish the world’s stock and then sell the product wholesale without paying tax or duties, collecting pure profit along the way.
The 14K Tak group is rumored to still have control at Lei Yue Mun—and, in fact, most seafood areas in Hong Kong are believed to retain some triad influence. One cannot necessarily point to a person or a business and say, “That is a triad,” says Herbert, and “neither can the government, which is why it’s so hard to take action. Money is made by controlling the industry, distribution and prices. Seafood enters China illegally through smuggling from Hong Kong, and the world’s seafood is being exterminated by greed.”
The Police Public Relations Bureau (PPRB) insists that it’s working to shut down any illegal activity. “Kwun Tong District [where the fish market is located] has been sparing no effort in proactively targeting and combating triad personalities and activities,” says a PPRB duty officer.
“The fight against triads remains as one of the Commissioner’s Operational Priorities in 2016, and the Force continues to mount intelligence-led and undercover operations against target triad personalities and activities, in particular those that exploit young persons and juveniles,” adds the duty officer.
The government has also cracked down on the process by only allowing access in the fish market to registered buyers, hoping to choke off the demand for illegal fish. How many triads still remain at these markets is hard to say—but they still exist in the supply chain, even at retail levels, according to Centinel.
A new report (PDF here) by wildlife trade watchdog Traffic and the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science finds that nearly 1,200 live humphead wrasses—commonly known as the Napoleon fish, or locally as so mei—were sold in Hong Kong between November 2014 and December 2015. But no official imports of the Napoleon fish were recorded last year, and that means most entered Hong Kong illegally.
Fish aren’t the triads’ only source of money. These crime syndicates also stay afloat from soliciting prostitution, drugs, illegal gambling, counterfeit goods, illicit cigarettes and loansharking.
Kwok Wing-hung, an alleged triad faction boss, was punched in the face during high tea at Tsim Sha Tsui’s upmarket Peninsula Hotel in December last year.
Centinel finds traditional gambling and loansharking are on the decline. Online gambling is becoming more popular than gambling dens were, and cheap loans and credit card availability are trumping cash from loan sharks.
Centinel also finds the cash flow for triads is especially strong from the illicit trade of counterfeit cigarettes—the government lost nearly $2.5 billion in revenue alone in 2015, without counting the cost of enforcement or legal process—and the crime carries a low prison sentence.
Some triads are funded by gold smuggling between Nepal and Hong Kong, and others by smuggling legal drugs such as Viagra, cheaply found in India but sold expensively in Hong Kong.
Today, the major surviving triads still present in Hong Kong are the Sun Yee On, the Wo Shing Wo, the Wo On Lok, the 14K—its branches are the Hau, Tak and Ngai—and the Wo Hop To.
Tuen Mun is a major zone of control for the Sun Yee On and their recruiting ground. The Wo Shing Wo and Wo On Lok—which are older triads that were traditionally based in the New Territories—are still strong in village areas where they dominate sea smuggling and building small houses.
The 14K group is spread throughout Hong Kong, and provides manpower for both the Wo Shing Wo and Sun Yee On. And the Wo Hop To are said to be powerful in the entertainment industry—particularly in Hong Kong and Hollywood.
Hong Kong triads are also active in both Macau and Shenzhen and have moved in numbers to America, Canada, the UK and Australia. Some of the older, local triads that are believed to have gone extinct may still exist overseas.
In Yau Ma Tei, where the wholesale fruit market was long run by a crime syndicate, there were 90 arrests made by the police last year for triad-related offences, says the PPRB.
Kwok Wing-hung, an alleged triad faction boss, was punched in the face during high tea at Tsim Sha Tsui’s upmarket Peninsula Hotel in December last year. He’s known as “Shanghai Boy,” although he’s not from Shanghai. His public relations representative called a press conference in Wan Chai to explain the incident—but Kwok never showed up, and the incident—strange as it was—faded from the public’s radar.
But that’s the nature of triad activity: It’s under the radar. Just like youngsters who join the triad ranks these days give up visible tattoos and identifiable hand signals, today’s triads are far more hidden. No one can definitively say at this point what happened with Shanghai Boy and the thrown press conference.
When it comes to Hong Kong’s political protests, triads may also be present—and, again, in disguise. During February’s bloody clash in Mong Kok, the so-called Fishball Revolution, triads may have been disguised as rioters. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the protest force was escalated by triads,” says Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
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Herbert says that triads likely had a role in the anti-Occupy movement as well—and claims what happened in Mong Kok is “triad oriented.” Throughout Occupy, barricades were dismantled and pro-democracy supporters were beat up. Herbert says that “during Occupy, when the triads came in, they were being funded—they weren’t there for any other reason than that they got paid for it, and it was money from various interest groups, not the pro-democrats.”
Like Law, Herbert says that February’s confrontation in Mong Kok was an opportunity for triads to take advantage of a problem—one that might have enabled looting.
“When there’s a potential for a problem, there will be this element of triads taking advantage of it. There’s also, no doubt, a group of people who are prepared to pay for this triad element to cause trouble,” says Herbert.