Triad (organized crime)

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A triad (traditional Chinese: 三合會; simplified Chinese: 三合会; Jyutping: saam1 hap6 wui6‑2; Cantonese Yale: sāam hahp wúi; pinyin: sān hé huì ) is a Chinese transnational organized crime syndicate based in Greater China and has outposts in various countries with significant overseas Chinese populations.

The Hong Kong triad is distinct from mainland Chinese criminal organizations. In ancient China, the triad was one of three major secret societies. It established branches in Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities overseas. Known as "mainland Chinese criminal organizations", they are of two major types: dark forces (loosely-organized groups) and black societies (more-mature criminal organizations). Two features which distinguish a black society from a dark force are the ability to achieve illegal control over local markets, and receiving police protection. The Hong Kong triad refers to traditional criminal organizations operating in (or originating from) Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and south-east Asian countries and regions, while organized-crime groups in mainland China are known as "mainland Chinese criminal groups".


Traditional Chinese三合會
Simplified Chinese三合会
Literal meaningThree Harmonies Society

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "triad" is a translation of the Chinese term Sān Hé Huì 三合會 (or Triple Union Society), referring to the union of heaven, earth and humanity. Another theory posits that the word "triad" was coined by British officials in colonial Hong Kong as a reference to the triads' use of triangular imagery. It has been speculated that triad organizations took after, or were originally part of, revolutionary movements such as the White Lotus, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions and the Heaven and Earth Society.

The generic use of the word "triads" for all Chinese criminal organizations is imprecise; triad groups are geographically, ethnically, culturally and structurally unique. "Triads" are traditional organized-crime groups originating from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Criminal organizations operating in, or originating from, mainland China are "mainland Chinese criminal groups" or "black societies". After years of repression, only some elements of triad groups are involved with illegal activities. Triads in Hong Kong are less involved with "traditional" criminal activity and are becoming associated with white-collar crime; traditional initiation ceremonies rarely take place to avoid official attention.



Triad, a China-based criminal organization, secret association or club, was a branch of the secret Hung Society. The society was fragmented, and one group (known as the Triad and the Ching Gang) became a criminal organization. After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, secret societies in mainland China were suppressed in campaigns ordered by Mao Zedong. Most Chinese secret societies, including the triads and some of the remaining Ching Gang, relocated to the British colony of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and overseas countries (particularly the US) and competed with the Tong and other Chinese secret societies. Gradually, Chinese secret societies turned to drugs and extortion for income.

18th century

The Heaven and Earth Society (天地會, Tiandihui), a fraternal organization, was founded during the 1760s. As the society's influence spread throughout China, it branched into several smaller groups with different names; one was the Three Harmonies Society (三合會, Sānhéhuì). These societies adopted the triangle as their emblem, usually accompanied by decorative images of swords or portraits of Guan Yu (关羽, Guān Yǔ).

19th century

During the 19th century, many such societies were seen as legitimate ways of helping immigrants from China settle into their new place of residence. Secret societies were banned by the British colonial government in Singapore during the 1890s, and slowly reduced in number by successive colonial governors and leaders. Rackets which facilitated the economic power of Singapore triads, the opium trade and prostitution were also banned. Immigrants were encouraged to seek help from a local kongsi instead of turning to secret societies, which contributed to the societies' decline. During the incredibly bloody Taiping Rebellion, many either decided or were forced to aid the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom out of opposition to the interfering Qing Dynasty.

20th century

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Kowloon Walled City in British Hong Kong was controlled by local triads.

After the Second World War, the secret societies saw a resurgence as gangsters took advantage of the uncertainty to re-establish themselves. Some Chinese communities, such as "new villages" in Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore, became notorious for gang violence. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 in mainland China, law enforcement became stricter and a government crackdown on criminal organizations forced the triads to migrate to British Hong Kong. An estimated 300,000 triad members lived in Hong Kong during the 1950s. According to the University of Hong Kong, most triad societies were established between 1914 and 1939 and there were once more than 300 in the territory. The number of groups has consolidated to about 50, of which 14 are under police surveillance. There were nine main triads—Wo Hop To, Wo Shing Wo, Rung, Tung, Chuen, Shing, Sun Yee On, 14K and Luen—operating in Hong Kong. They divided land by ethnic group and geographic locations, with each triad in charge of a region. Each had their own headquarters, sub-societies and public image. After the 1956 riots, the Hong Kong government introduced stricter law enforcement and the triads became less active.

21st century

On 18 January 2018, Italian police arrested 33 people connected to a Chinese triad operating in Europe as part of its Operation China Truck (which began in 2011). The triad were active in Tuscany, Veneto, Rome and Milan in Italy, and in France, Spain and the German city of Neuss. The indictment accuses the Chinese triad of extortion, usury, illegal gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking. The group was said to have infiltrated the transport sector, using intimidation and violence against Chinese companies wishing to transport goods by road into Europe. Police seized several vehicles, businesses, properties and bank accounts.

According to the expert in terrorist organizations and mafia-type organized crime Antonio De Bonis, there is a close relationship between the Triads and the Camorra, and the port of Naples is the most important landing point of the trades managed by the Chinese in cooperation with the Camorra. Among the illegal activities in which the two criminal organizations work together are the human trafficking and illegal immigration aimed at the sexual and labor exploitation of Chinese immigrants into Italy, synthetic drug trafficking and the laundering of illicit money through the purchase of real estate. In 2017 investigators discovered an illicit industrial waste transportation scheme jointly run by the Camorra and Triads. The waste was transported from Italy to China, leaving from Prato in Italy and arriving in Hong Kong- a scheme which prior to its discovery had been netting millions of dollars' worth of revenue for both organizations.

Criminal activities

Triads engage in a variety of crimes, from fraud, extortion and money laundering to trafficking and prostitution, and are involved in smuggling and counterfeiting goods such as music, video, software, clothes, watches and money.

Drug trafficking

Since the first opium bans during the 19th century, Chinese criminal gangs have been involved in worldwide illegal drug trade. Many triads switched from opium to heroin, produced from opium plants in the Golden Triangle, refined into heroin in China and trafficked to North America and Europe, in the 1960s and 1970s. The most important triads active in the international heroin trade are the 14K and the Tai Huen Chai. Triads have begun smuggling chemicals from Chinese factories to North America (for the production of methamphetamine), and to Europe for the production of MDMA. Triads in the United States also traffic large quantities of ketamine.


Triads have been engaging in counterfeiting since the 1880s. During the 1960s and 1970s, they were involved in counterfeiting currency (often the Hong Kong 50-cent piece). The gangs were also involved in counterfeiting expensive books for sale on the black market. With the advent of new technology and the improvement of the average standard of living, triads produce counterfeit goods such as watches, film VCDs and DVDs and designer apparel such as clothing and handbags. Since the 1970s, triad turf control was weakened and some shifted their revenue streams to legitimate businesses.

Health care fraud

In 2012, four triad members were arrested for health care fraud in Japan.

Structure and composition

Balloon chart

Triads use numeric codes to distinguish ranks and positions within the gang; the numbers are inspired by Chinese numerology and based on the I Ching. The Mountain (or Dragon Master or Dragon Head) is 489, 438 is the Deputy Mountain Master, 432 indicates Straw Sandal rank; the Mountain Master's proxy, Incense Master (who oversees inductions into the triad), and Vanguard are 438 or 2238 (who assists the Incense Master). Law enforcement and intel have it that the Vanguard may actually hold the highest power or final word. A military commander (also known as a Red Pole), overseeing defensive and offensive operations, is 426; 49 denotes a soldier, or rank-and-file member. The White Paper Fan (415) provides financial and business advice, and the Straw Sandal (432) is a liaison between units. An undercover law-enforcement agent or spy from another triad is 25, also popular Hong Kong slang for an informant. Blue Lanterns are uninitiated members, equivalent to Mafia associates, and do not have a designating number. According to De Leon Petta Gomes da Costa, who interviewed triads and authorities in Hong Kong, most of the current structure is a vague, low hierarchy; the traditional ranks and positions no longer exist.

Rituals and codes of conduct

Similar to the Indian thuggees or the Japanese yakuza, triad members participate in initiation ceremonies. A typical ceremony takes place at an altar dedicated to Guan Yu (關羽, GuānYǔ), with incense and an animal sacrifice (usually a chicken, pig or goat). After drinking a mixture of wine and blood (from the animal or the candidate), the member passes beneath an arch of swords while reciting the triad's oaths. The paper on which the oaths are written will be burnt on the altar to confirm the member's obligation to perform his duties to the gods. Three fingers of the left hand are raised as a binding gesture. The triad initiate is required to adhere to 36 oaths.


Based in Hong Kong

The most powerful triads based in Hong Kong are:

Based elsewhere

Many triads emigrated to Taiwan and Chinese communities worldwide:


Similar to triads, Tongs originated independently in early immigrant Chinatown communities. The word means "social club", and tongs are not specifically underground organizations. The first tongs formed during the second half of the 19th century among marginalized members of early immigrant Chinese-American communities for mutual support and protection from nativists. Modeled on triads, they were established without clear political motives and became involved in criminal activities such as extortion, illegal gambling, drug and human trafficking, murder and prostitution.

Southeast Asia

Triads were also active in Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. When Malaysia and Singapore (with the region's largest population of ethnic Chinese) became crown colonies, secret societies and triads controlled local communities by extorting protection money and illegal money lending. Many conducted blood rituals, such as drinking one another's blood, as a sign of brotherhood; others ran opium dens and brothels.

Remnants of these former gangs and societies still exist. Due to government efforts in Malaysia and Singapore to reduce crime, the societies have largely faded from the public eye (particularly in Singapore).

Triads were also common in Vietnamese cities with large Chinese (especially Cantonese and Teochew) communities. During the French colonial period, many businesses and wealthy residents in Saigon (particularly in the Chinatown district) and Haiphong were controlled by protection-racket gangs.

With Vietnamese independence in 1945, organized crime activity was drastically reduced as Ho Chi Minh's governments purged criminal activity in the country. According to Ho, abolishing crime was a method of protecting Vietnam and its people. During the First Indochina War, Ho's police forces concentrated on protecting people in his zone from crime; the French cooperated with criminal organisations to fight the Viet Minh. In 1955, President Ngô Đình Diệm ordered the South Vietnamese military to disarm and imprison organized-crime groups in the Saigon-Gia Định-Biên Hòa-Vũng Tàu region and cities such as Mỹ Tho and Cần Thơ in the Mekong Delta. Diem banned brothels, massage parlours, casinos and gambling houses, opium dens, bars, drug houses and nightclubs, all establishments frequented by the triads. However, Diệm allowed criminal activity to finance his attempts to eliminate the Viet Minh in the south. Law enforcement was stricter in the north, with stringent control and monitoring of criminal activities. The government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam purged and imprisoned organized criminals, including triads, in the Haiphong and Hanoi areas. With pressure from Ho Chi Minh's police, Triad affiliates had to choose between elimination or legality. During the Vietnam War, the triads were eliminated in the north; in the south, Republic of Vietnam corruption protected their illegal activities and allowed them to control US aid. During the 1970s and 1980s, all illegal Sino-Vietnamese activities were eliminated by the Vietnamese police. Most triads were compelled to flee to Taiwan, Hong Kong or other countries in Southeast Asia.

International activities

Triads are also active in other regions with significant overseas-Chinese populations: Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Peru and Argentina. They are often involved in migrant smuggling. Shanty and Mishra (2007) estimate that the annual profit from narcotics is $200 billion, and annual revenues from human trafficking into Europe and the United States are believed to amount to $3.5 billion.

In Australia, the major importer of illicit drugs in recent decades has been 'The Company', according to police sources in the region. This is a conglomerate run by triad bosses which focuses particularly on methamphetamine and cocaine. It has laundered money through junkets for high-stakes gamblers who visit Crown Casinos in Australia and Macau.


Law enforcement

Hong Kong

The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) is the division of the Hong Kong Police Force responsible for triad countermeasures. The OCTB and the Criminal Intelligence Bureau work with the Narcotics and Commercial Crime Bureaus to process information to counter triad leaders. Other involved departments include the Customs and Excise Department, the Immigration Department and the Independent Commission Against Corruption. They cooperate with the police to impede the expansion of triads and other organized gangs. Police actions regularly target organised crime, including raids on triad-controlled entertainment establishments and undercover work. The journal Foreign Policy reported in its August 2019 edition, triad involvement in repressing the Hong Kong protests.


At the national (and, in some cases, provincial) level, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Organized Crime Branch is responsible for investigating gang-related activities (including triads). The Canada Border Services Agency Organized Crime Unit works with the RCMP to detain and remove non-Canadian triad members. Asian gangs are found in many cities, primarily Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

The Guns and Gangs Unit of the Toronto Police Service is responsible for handling triads in the city. The Asian Gang Unit of the Metro Toronto Police was formerly responsible for dealing with triad-related matters, but a larger unit was created to deal with the broad array of ethnic gangs.

The Organized Crime and Law Enforcement Act provides a tool for police forces in Canada to handle organized criminal activity. The act enhances the general role of the Criminal Code (with amendments to deal with organized crime) in dealing with criminal triad activities. Asian organized-crime groups were ranked the fourth-greatest organized-crime problem in Canada, behind outlaw motorcycle clubs, aboriginal crime groups and Indo-Canadian crime groups.

In 2011, it was estimated that criminal gangs associated with triads controlled 90 percent of the heroin trade in Vancouver, British Columbia. Due to its geographic and demographic characteristics, Vancouver is the point of entry into North America for much of the heroin produced in Southeast Asia (much of the trade controlled by international organized-crime groups associated with triads). From 2006 to 2014, Southeast, East and South Asians accounted for 21 percent of gang deaths in British Columbia (trailing only Caucasians, who made up 46.3 percent of gang deaths.


Primary laws addressing triads are the Societies Ordinance and the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance. The former, enacted in 1949 to outlaw triads in Hong Kong, stipulates that any person convicted of being (or claiming to be) an officeholder or managing (or assisting in the management) of a triad can be fined up to HK$1 million and imprisoned for up to 15 years.

The power of triads has also diminished due to the 1974 establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The commission targeted corruption in police departments linked with triads. Being a member of a triad is an offence punishable by fines ranging from HK$100,000 to HK$250,000 and three to seven years imprisonment under an ordinance enacted in Hong Kong in 1994, which aims to provide police with special investigative powers, provide heavier penalties for organized-crime activities and authorize the courts to confiscate the proceeds of such crimes.

Notable members