The criminal influence of the Triads was evident in Hong Kong long before the territory's establishment as a British Crown Colony in 1842. Before then, members on the lam from the law sought refuge in Kwangtung Province, parts of which were later incorporated into the new colony. They continued their clandestine activities under British rule.
The British introduced European customs, language and laws into Hong Kong. The Chinese drew together against this foreign authority, inadvertently strengthening the Triads who provided "kangaroo-court" justice and protection in a culturally acceptable form.
Not until 1956 did the Royal Hong Kong Police Force form its Anti-Triad Unit. Using modern law-enforcement techniques, the unit finally succeeded in clamping the lid on many Triad activities by the 1960's, but a surviving nucleus reorganized with equally contemporary facility. By 1970, recurrent gang fighting resurfaced, indicating that the Triads were very much alive. There were more than 30 Triad societies in Hong Kong at last count, some groups numbering less than 40 persons who knew one another on an individual basis and other groups including as many as 28,000 members. The three largest groups were the Wo Shing Wo, the 14K and the Chiu Chau.
Tim Simmons and his Intelligence confreres in San Francisco--well schooled by their in-house historian, John McKenna--knew that the 14K Triad had been broken up by the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1956. The name had then passed to a variety of loosely organized gangs of street punks.
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government had encouraged the foundation of this sinister force. It was established at 14-K Po Wah Road, Canton, in 1945--hence, its name, "14K"--for marshalling against the ineluctable onslaught of Mao Zedong's Red Front after the defeat of Japan. Mao himself had spoken of the Triads in 1926 as "the beneficial people's mutual-aid groups," although to what use the Chairman may have put the Triads never became known.
Conversely, Chiang's blatant connections with the Triads in the days of his control of the Mainland were well authenticated. He ordered a million of his followers indoctrinated in Triad principles between 1946 and 1949. These agents were to continue Triad policies in deeply covert connections with some of the Tongs in the United States and Europe after the Republic of China's migration to Taiwan. This would lead to the conclusion that many of these Tongs were, in effect, nothing less than foreign-based Triads.
Chiang had begun to exploit his Triad connections in Shanghai in 1927, where he built up enormous caches of gold from drug sales, gambling, loan sharking and prostitution. These illicit funds were later used by his Triad-oriented adherents to bargain with and buy off officials of other nations in a bid to maintain Taiwan's international recognition as the only legitimate seat of Chinese government. Not until the 1970's would the dynamic of history override the millions of Triad dollars spent in this cause, when U.S. President Richard M. Nixon's overtures to Red China began to pave the way toward universal diplomatic recognition of the Peking government.
Much of the illegal activity occurring in the Far East was attributed to control from Taiwan. Several officials fled from Hong Kong to Taiwan when the Royal Hong Kong Police caught on to the game after forming their Anti-Triad Unit in 1956. There was no extradition from the Republic of China, and most of the wanted subjects already had Taiwan Triad connections.
Nineteen fifty-six was also the year the unit finally broke up the infamous 14K. Following the Communists' liberation of the Mainland in 1949, the suddenly politically useless 14K had turned full-scale to crime. Losing ground in Hong Kong in 1956, it sought to compensate by moving its battle for control of criminal activity to the Chinese community in Britain. There, it was bloodily opposed by the Wo Shing Wo, another Triad society already established in the British Isles. The fragments remaining in the Crown Colony regrouped into lawless bands similar to San Francisco's youth gangs until they found themselves divided into 23 sub-groups numbering a total of 24,000--all identified by the name 14K.
The use of a number to designate a powerful Triad organization was not mere happenstance. The Taoist numerical principles of good and bad luck were operative factors in all Triad societies. Nine embodied connotations of luck, as did three and six. Four was unlucky. If four was used, a lucky number had to follow to offset bad luck. The principles were extended to initiation fees in the Triads themselves. Although a new member could actually pay as much as a thousand dollars for the privilege of joining, the figure recorded might be only $36.60--for luck.
For these reasons, sums demanded even now in Hong Kong extortion cases--such as HK$6600.39 (very lucky because it includes six, three and nine), HK$449.46 (unlucky four offset by lucky nine and six) or HK$9999.99 (for maximum luck)--often seem bizarre to the Western mind. Westerners should remember to pluck a four-leaf clover on Friday the 13th before chuckling at Taoism's attention to portentous numbers.
The command echelon of Triads was structured numerically not only for luck, but also to facilitate mutual recognition and to avoid detection.
The chief officer, also known as First Route Marshal or Shan Chu, "Mountain Owner," was designated Four-Eight-Nine (489). Four, eight and nine add up to 21. The character hung inside the symbolic triangle of the Triads consists of three parts: an upper right, a left, and a lower right. In old Chinese script, the writing of 21 forms the upper right of hung.
The Second Route Marshal or Fu Shan Chu, "Second Mountain Owner," became Four-Three-Eight (438). The same number could be assigned to the Heung Chu, the "Incense Master" in the initiation ceremony, or to persons honored with "Double Flower," a title denoting high command. Four was ignored in the four, three and eight combination because the calligraphic symbols for three and eight comprise the left and the lower right parts of hung. Thus, the numerical designations for the two highest-ranked officials of the Triad society rendered complete the central character within the holy triangle.
The counselor, or chief of staff, was assigned the numbers Four-One-Five (415). He was known also as Pak Chi Sin, "White Paper Fan." His duty was to advise on organization, administration and finance. The use of four, one and five symbolized four times 15, plus four --or 64, a multiple agreeing with eight times eight, representing eight groups of eight diagrams each, which memorialized a series of military tactics used successfully by an ancient general.
Four-Two-Six (426) took charge of the fighting section of the Triad. This was the Hung Kwan, the "Red Pole," who played the leading role in battles against rival societies. The numbers four, two and six represented four times 26, plus four, equal to 108 legendary heros who fought in a band against government oppression during the Sung Dynasty.
Number Four-Three-Two (432) was the liaison officer or Cho Hai, "Straw Sandal." He served as chief messenger in matters such as rallying manpower to fight. He also delivered demand notes for protection or extortion fees. Four, three and two stood for four times 32, or 128, the number of monks who practiced martial arts in the Siu Lam Monastery in the 1600's.
A legend told that Ch'ing forces burnt down the monastery in the 17th century, killing 110 of the monks. Thirteen died in flight from the flames. The remaining five, pursued by the Manchu army, escaped to various parts of China and formed the first five main lodges of the Triads. It was said that in their journey, these "Five Ancestors" crossed a river on a straw sandal which miraculously transformed itself into a boat.
The lowest of Triad ranks was Four-Nine (49), denoting a sort of foot soldier. This combination signified four times nine, or 36--the traditional number of oaths made by a recruit upon initiation.
Virtually none of the numerical principles were applied in the Triad system initiated by the Chinese youth gangs of San Francisco's and other cities' Chinatowns in North America and Europe. Their extortion demands followed none of the colorful examples given above, but were most often rounded off in hundreds--or thousands--of dollars.
Often hired by elders in the Tongs who kept the Triads' secrets to themselves, the youngsters were used as tools of convenience. They were seldom needed for, and hardly to be trusted with, sophisticated assignment as drug couriers. More commonly they served as look-see boys at the gambling houses, and developed their own enterprises in such business as firecracker sales and stolen auto parts. The boys generally showed little respect for the Tong elders, speaking of them as "bananas"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside.