Patriotic Chinese Triads and Secret Societies: From the Imperial Dynasties, to Nationalism, and Communism

Martin Purbrick. Asian Affairs. Volume 50, Issue 3. 2019.

Triad and Secret Society Origins in China

Triad society is an English designation given by Europeans to Chinese secret societies during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). “Triad” is derived from references to the emblem of a branch of secret societies in southern China known variously as the Tin Tei Wui (天地會, Heaven and Earth Association), Sam Hop Wui (三合會, Three United Association), Sam Dim Wui (三點會, Three Dots Society), and Hung Mun (洪門, Hung Sect). To modern Cantonese speakers, triads are usually known simply as Hak Sh’e Wui (黑社會, Black Societies).

Secret societies have an ancient tradition in China. There is no single triad society entity or organisation structure but rather multiple detached and dispersed separate triad factions. The origins of triad societies are rooted both in legend and reality. In term of legend, they are connected with supporters of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and opposition to the Manchu Qing dynasty rulers from the 17th century. In reality, they are also connected to mutual aid societies tied to periodic rebellions by poverty-stricken peasants.

The legend of triad and secret societies’ opposition to the Qing Dynasty is a foundation myth, although recounted in various Qing dynasty documents. In short, the legend is that 128 monks of the Shaolin Monastery went to the assistance of the Qing emperor (either the Kangxi or Qianlong) to fight against an invasion by the Xi Lu barbarians (whose origins are not clear). The Shaolin monks defeated the invaders but declined any reward from the Emperor and returned to their Buddhist devotions. However, the monks were accused of plotting rebellion against the Emperor who ordered their monastery destroyed. Only five of the monks survived and devoted themselves to revenge against the Qing Emperor.

According to the legend, the five surviving monks became the founders of the triad society, established “lodges” which subsequently initiated thousands of recruits into the triad society with the aim of a mass uprising against the Qing dynasty.

The reality of secret societies’ involvement in opposition to the Qing dynasty was in the secretive nature of opposition to the authorities, not only for political motives but often for economic reasons. In 1796, a rebellion against tax collection was led by followers of the White Lotus (白蓮教), a Buddhist sect that originated in the Mongol era. The rebellion was suppressed by 1804, but did lasting damage to the Qing dynasty by showing that the Manchu forces could be defeated. The White Lotus rebellion drove the proliferation of the movement to “oppose the Qing and restore the Ming” (反淸復明). The rebellion was not referred to by the participants as the “White Lotus,” but the Qing authorities saw similarities to earlier Buddhist movements and used the term.

More recent study of the Qing dynasty archives suggests that the Tin Tei Wui was established as a brotherly fraternity and mutual aid society in Zhangzhou Prefecture, Fujian, around 1761, and not as a premediated effort to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming. The Tin Tei Wui was one of many secret societies that were formed during and after the Qing dynasty, with 199 recorded in Qing archives in the century following the end of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. Multiple uprisings involving the Tin Tei Hui are recorded in the Qing dynasty archives including those occurring in 1768 and 1769 in Zhangpu (漳浦) county in the south of Fujian Province, and were motivated by rebellion against the Qing authorities as well as robbing wealthy households.

The Tin Tei Wui adopted a secret ceremony with binding blood-oaths to induct new recruits as well as a code and hand signs for communications, all necessary as multi-surname brotherhoods were illegal during the Qing dynasty, and hence caution was needed for survival. From these local origins in Zhangzhou, the Tin Tei Wui spread across Fujian Province and also in to Taiwan, where one magistrate in 1863 commented that “In recent years it has become a custom for two or three young no-goods, looking for trouble and striving to stand out, … to burn incense and pour out libations, and call one another brother”, which does not seem very different from modern triad gang members in Hong Kong.

Triads, Secret Societies, and the Nationalists – Fairweather Friends

The Kuomintang had a prolonged history of cooperation with triad and secret societies. Dr. Sun Yat Sen founded the Revive China Society (興中會) in 1894 in Honolulu, and in 1899 in whilst in Hong Kong he gathered supporters from various triad societies to “oppose the Qing and restore the Ming” as part of the anti-Manchu revolution. Triad and secret society membership were useful for Dr. Sun and his supporters because of the obvious need for secrecy, which triad initiation rituals, hand signs, code words, and sworn brotherhood provided.

The association of triad societies and the Nationalists continued after the formation of the Kuomintang Party. This is best illustrated by the relationship during the Nationalist period of government (1912-1949) with the Green Gang, the most prominent and powerful secret society in Shanghai, and possibly throughout China, which became the most overt resource for physical violence for the Kuomintang. Such was the close relationship between the Green Gang and the Kuomintang that Chiang Kai Shek was believed to have joined the Green Gang in 1919 when he worked in Shanghai.

The most powerful leader in the Green Gang who became closely allied with the Kuomintang throughout their struggle with the Communists was Du Yuesheng, also known as “Big Eared Du”. Du Yusheng was one of the most senior leaders of the Green Gang and a major distributor of opium. In a profile report the Special Branch of the Shanghai Municipal Police stated that Du established the “Black Stuff Company”, “which received fees ranging $3,000 to $10,000 per month from every opium hong in the French Concession, in return for which permission was granted to sell opium openly and without interference. The Black Stuff Company in turn paid $180,000 to the French authorities.”

The report also stated that “His relations with the Kuomintang were first established in about 1924, when important members of the Party, which was considered to be a secret organ in Shanghai, requested him to afford protection.” Special Branch detailed the assistance Du and the Green Gang provided to Chiang Kai Shek in 1927 in the anti-communist campaign, providing 2,000 followers to assist the 26th Army to attack communist controlled unions in Shanghai further strengthening Du’s influences with the Nationalist Army. The influence of Du Yusheng on the most senior levels of the Nationalist government was apparent by 1935 when Du was asked by Dr. H. H. Kung, the Minister of Finance, to negotiate with the shareholders of the Bank of China and the Bank of Communications regarding placing both banks under the control of the government.

The invasion of China by Japan in 1937 strengthened the reliance of the Kuomintang on the Green Gang. By 1940, however, the prolonged Japanese military success resulted in a fracturing of membership into those supporting the Chungking-based Nationalist government and others who shifted allegiance to the Japanese. A Shanghai Municipal Police Special Branch intelligence source codenamed “MAINICHI” noted that 10 important members of the society were making efforts in Shanghai to advocate a “peace national salvation movement,” and planned to prevent anti-Japanese terrorist activities, provide relief to refugees, and remove persons engaged in anti-Japanese and anti-British activities from the foreign settlements of Chungking and Shanghai.

There were frequent coinciding mutual interests and cooperation between the two organisations, such as the 1927 anti-communist campaign which rid the Green Gang of competition for support amongst the working class who were recruited to communist trade unions, and prevented the Communists from taking over government from the Kuomintang. However, at its core the Green Gang was an organised crime syndicate that thrived from the profits of drug trafficking and prostitution.

Triads and War – Friend and Foe

The fractious nature of triads was demonstrated to the British in Hong Kong during the war with Japan. The Japanese army invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, reached Hong Kong Island by 18 December and engaged in fierce fighting for the island until the British surrender on 25 December. The battle for the Island had a severe impact on the local Chinese civilian population as the urban areas of the city were heavily shelled by the Japanese, and food failed to be effectively distributed.

The British authorities were concerned with fifth columnists during the battle as parts of the Chinese civilian population were disaffected because of the destruction. The Hong Kong Police took action against triad societies, who were believed to have split into three camps: one group was prepared to work for the Nationalists against the Japanese, another group decided to assist the Japanese, and a third group were waiting to see the outcome of the battle. Several months prior to the Japanese invasion, police intelligence suggested that some triad factions would support the Japanese leading to the arrest of over a hundred members of the Wo Shing Wo triad society who were holding a meeting to decide how best to support the Japanese.

The British authorities were assisted by Admiral Chan Chak, seconded by the Nationalist government to Hong Kong to coordinate Nationalist intelligence activities, including many northern Chinese triad members. The Hong Kong Police officer leading police intelligence activities was Superintendent “Our Frankie” Shaftain, the head of CID and a Special Branch section dealing with subversion. On 11 December, three days into the battle, Shaftain received a report that there was a plot by members of local secret societies, estimated to number around 60,000, to murder all Europeans on 13 December in order to accelerate the defeat of the British and save the Chinese population from a prolonged Japanese offensive.

Shaftain informed John Pennefather-Evans, Commissioner of Police, and after efforts to contact triad leaders were not successful assistance was sought from Admiral Chan Chak’s Nationalist intelligence group, including Colonel SK Yee. The Nationalists used Chang Ji Lin, a senior member of northern triads from Shanghai, and a meeting took place on 11 December with five representatives of triad societies in the office of the Commissioner of Police. The Hong Kong Police War Diary describes the meeting:

11.12.41, Entry 62, Police HQ, 2100

A meeting took place in the Commissioner of Police’s office attended by the Commissioner and Director of Criminal Investigation with five representatives of some 60,000 members of Triad Societies in order to gain the latter over to the side of law and order. Information had been received of a plot for the mass murder of Europeans originally fixed to take place at 0300 h on the 11th. The cooperation of the Triad Societies was won at the cost of substitution of “protection” racket on Chinese civilians in lieu of the Anti-Foreign movement.

Shaftain was also quoted regarding the use of triads in the Police War Diary:

After the evacuation from Kowloon the Chinese detectives deteriorated and became practically useless owing to the defeatist propaganda spread by fifth columnists, by “vested interests”, and at first by Triad Societies. (N. B. The cooperation of the Triad Societies was obtained on 11 December, see entry No. 62 of 11.12.41).

(2) Owing to the break down of Chinese Detective Staff and [sic] outside organisation had to be formed. Members of the Triad Society were able to buy over certain Wang Ching Wei personnel and valuable information was continually obtained which led to numerous raids and drastic action against subversive elements.

A gathering of 200 more junior triad leaders was held at the Cecil Hotel on 12 December, where the British offer of 20,000 Hong Kong dollars to the triads was rejected as insufficient (although according to a Police Inspector George Wright-Nooth the hotel silver went missing). The impasse was solved by Chang Ji Lin who offered to personally cover the shortfall in money after the war, leading Shaftain to comment after the war that “Our debt [to Chang] was discussed and settled.”

The inference from the War Diary is that triad cooperation was obtained in return for allowing a criminal protection racket on Chinese civilians, which would have been understandable in the circumstances of war but is something that could have had a more grave impact on long term Police relations with the Chinese community and the durability of triad gangs.

Phyllis Harrop, a British woman working at Police Headquarters and attached to the Nationalist intelligence, recounted that Colonel SK Lee and his group “were ordered to contact all leaders of the triad societies and to persuade them to come over to us on the idea that they are now fighting for their own country and not merely helping us. Propaganda has been put out by the Japanese to kill all Europeans as they are responsible for the war and once they are out of the way all fighting will stop.” This account of the incident from the perspective of someone in the Nationalist intelligence office suggests a proactive approach was adopted to secure triad support rather than a reactive offer to pay off intimidation. Both the British and the Nationalists were indebted to triad leaders and these debts could be called in after the end of the war against the Japanese.

After the defeat of the British forces in Hong Kong, the Japanese also made use of triad societies to maintain control. The Luen Lok Tong (聯樂堂) triad society grew to several hundred members and continued to operate “protection”, extortion, and prostitution businesses, whilst their leader Wong Wo was also employed by the Japanese as a detective in the Wanchai Gendarmerie. The Japanese had used triads, principally from the Wo group, to assist in maintaining order as well as reporting anti-Japanese activities, and organised them into a group known as the Hing Ah Kee Kwan (興亞機關, Asia Flourishing Society). The extensive triad assistance to the Japanese was encouraged by the Wang Ching Wei collaboration regime in China which established the Ng Chau H. Mun (五洲洪門, Five Continents Hung Family) to integrate various triad societies.

The British worked with other Chinese secret societies in the fight against the Japanese. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) operated behind Japanese lines and British officers cultivated the cooperation of the Chinese population, particularly in rural areas. FW (Mike) Kendall, a Canadian national recruited by British intelligence as a member of “Z Force” which was set up for independent action behind enemy lines, recounted how he had to undergo a “blood ceremony” with some pirate families to gain their acceptance and made use of the tradition of secret societies in rural communities.

After the Japanese were defeated the British continued to rely on triad gangs to ensure that reinstated British administration was not undermined. What the British called the “Gambling House Gang” had assisted the Japanese to control crime in return for operating casinos and offered their services to the British in return for being allowed to continue their business. The British instead used the services of another triad criminal group, the “Chungking Gang” (presumably named by the British), who were formed into an auxiliary police force recognised by arm bands when patrolling the streets and rewarded with wages as well as a promise that when full British control was resumed no action would be taken against them.

By September 1945, British administration were not able to prevent looting and banditry across Hong Kong, with the “Gambling House Gang” and around fifty other triad groups operating openly. Superintendent Shaftain returned to his post as Director of Criminal Investigation and was involved in negotiations with various triads who offered their services. The leaders of the “Chungking Gang” and the “Gambling House Gang” were each awarded a “special gratuity” of 5 million Hong Kong dollars in return for disbanding and surrendering their weapons, which not surprisingly seems was not carried out. The British relied upon the variety of triad groups to not challenge renewed colonial rule and maintain a status quo until the Police could be restored to an effective force. That the British had to resort to using the services of triad groups, including those who had collaborated with the Japanese, illustrates the extent of the colonial authorities’ desperation. More troubling is to what extent this allowed triad groups in Hong Kong to establish their post-war business and operations, what level of penetration they managed in the Hong Kong Police, how much the British may have turned a blind eye because of the urgent need to co-opt the Hong Kong Chinese population in order to maintain British rule, and if this contributed to the post-war long-term durability of triad societies. What seemed as a necessity at the time became the basis for triads’ institutionalisation into the fabric of Hong Kong society and business.

Nationalist Triads – The Anti Communist Army

Leading up to and following the victory of Communist forces in 1949, the Kuomintang established links with triad societies and created what later became known as the “14K”, as recognised by The British authorities in Hong Kong. An Intelligence Corps report stating that:

A large number of branch societies existed in South China and they were much used, not only by the criminal element but also by military leaders in their struggles for power. Their peak was reached in about 1945 when the societies became, to all intents and purposes, official organisations of the Nationalist Government. This official recognition came about largely through the efforts of General TAI LEE, the head of the Nationalist Intelligence Bureau. He hoped that the recruitment of as large a part of the population into an organisation dedicated to resist any “foreign” domination over China might help to bolster the spirits of the Nationalist supporters and also help to prevent Communist infiltration into the Army and Government. The man entrusted with the actual task of re-organising, integrating and expanding the various societies was Lt. General KOT SIU WONG who was himself a Triad member of long standing.

General Kot integrated triad societies in the Guangdong region under the name of the Hung Fat Shan branch of the Chung Yee Wui, administered through 36 sub-branches answerable to the headquarters at number 14, Po Wah Road, Canton. This resulted in the recruitment of thousands of Nationalist troops as well as civilians into the new society, with initiation ceremonies including an oath of allegiance to the Kuomintang sworn before a picture of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. The original name of the society was abbreviated to Sap Sei Ho (number 14) or Sap Sei Wui (14 association), which after a pitched battle with the Yuet Tong triad in Shek Kip Mei in 1955 became known as the “14K” with the addition of “K” seemingly to represent the 14 Karat of gold that was harder than the soft gold preferred in Hong Kong.

General Kot was deported in 1950 from Hong Kong to Taiwan, from where he continued to issue instructions to the 14 K groups which were reorganised amongst the former Nationalist soldiers at Rennie’s Mill, where the British authorities had resettled them. The first active group of the 14 K was the Shun faction, the purpose of which according to the British Army Intelligence Corps “was originally quite patriotic being designed to provide intelligence agents to work for the Nationalists in Hong Kong and the mainland and to provide a large force of Nationalist adherents ready to push back and re-occupy the mainland when the KMT launched its counter invasion.”

General Kot was director-general of the Anti-Communist National Salvation Army in Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan Provinces, and his recruitment of thousands of new members for the Hung Fat Shan branch of the Chung Yee Wui was part of the Nationalist efforts to create a guerrilla army ready to support the invasion of the mainland by their military forces from Taiwan. The Nationalist military used what seem to be questionable numbers when lobbying the US Government in 1953 for air, naval, and logistical support for the proposed plan for a counter-attack on the mainland, claiming that they were in contact with 650,000 anti-communist guerrillas, which US officials believed was more likely to be around 70,000. It is likely that the number of secret society members recruited by General Kot, now part of the 14 K, were counted by the Nationalist government as “guerrillas” as part of the efforts to convince the US government of the levels of support for the Nationalists in mainland China.

Nationalist operations involving these guerrillas continued into the 1960s and involved escorting secret agents into inland China, organising resistance, sending ammunition and supplies to mainland guerrillas, destroying Communist military installations along the coast, supporting the people in resistance to communism, collecting military information, and carrying out psychological warfare.

Hong Kong was a base for such operations after 1949 because the British administration was understood as a safe haven from communist China. After the death of General Kot in 1953, the branch leaders of the 14 K factions did not cooperate and there was no central control, which the British worked to prevent through disruption and action such as the deportation of the son of Kot Siu Wong in 1955. There were however attempts to reorganise the triad societies in Hong Kong in support of the Nationalist cause.

In 1946, another Nationalist General convened a meeting of Wo (和), Luen (聯) Tung (東) and Chuen (全) triad societies in the New Territories in Hong Kong. The larger societies were asked to put aside their differences and unite to form an organisation of over 300,000 members established as the “K. M. T. New Society Affairs Establishment Federation, Hong Kong Branch,” with the aims of supporting the Kuomintang to establish a new National Government, overthrowing the Communist Party, and providing support to establish a new China. The local triad societies were not supportive.

In 1947, a senior triad society official collaborated with members of the Wo group of societies to form a “third force” called the Man Chi Tong which aimed to displace both the Kuomintang and the CPC to establish democratic government in China. This group gained some support from several Wo group societies, but collapsed in 1948 when it became clear that the Communists would be successful in mainland China.

In 1956, a third attempt was made to form a Kuomintang-controlled organisation when officials in Taiwan planned to reorganise the 14 K into a cohesive unit to absorb other societies. This effort also failed, but partly because the call for 14 K officials to travel from Hong Kong to Taiwan was interrupted by the “double tenth” riots that started on 10 October 1956 and led to a major crackdown on triad activities by the Hong Kong Police, including deportation of triad officials and members. The patriotic origins of the 14 K were gradually lost, apart from some associations of older members with the Nationalists in Taiwan.

After the retreat of the Nationalist government to Taiwan, their military and intelligence agencies continued to utilise secret societies. Most notorious was the murder on 15 October 1984 of Henry Liu, a naturalised US citizen, shot and killed outside his home in California. Despite initial denials, in January 1985 the Nationalist government in Taiwan announced that intelligence officials had been involved in planning the murder that was carried out by members of the Chuk Luen Bong (竹聯幫, United Bamboo Gang). The Chuk Luen Bong was established in Taiwan in 1956 and was comprised of many offspring of mainland Chinese who had fled from the communist forces in 1949 and were generally supportive of the Kuomintang.

The involvement of the Nationalist government centred on Vice-Admiral Wang Chi Li, head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Ministry of National Defence, who met with Chen Chi Li and United Bamboo Gang leaders in Taipei in July 1984 and criticised overseas Chinese including Henry Liu for their betrayal of Taiwan. Taiwan authorities arrested Chen Chi Li in November 1984 in a major operation by the authorities against organised crime. Li admitted to his involvement in the murder after Wang Chi Li had suggested that Henry Liu be “taught a lesson.”

From Sun Yat Sen’s use of secret societies, to the association of the Kuomintang with Du Yusheng and the Green Gang in Shanghai, to the Nationalist Intelligence creation of the 14 K, to the use of the United Bamboo Gang to murder Henry Liu, the Nationalists showed themselves to be in league with triads and secret societies throughout their history. This provided a patriotic façade for the criminal activities of triads in 20th century China.

Patriotic Triads – A United Front

Whilst the Communist Party of China (CPC) may have been sympathetic in the 1920s and 1930s to rural secret societies as part of efforts to cultivate peasant support, after 1949 triads were subjected to a ruthless cull. The “Campaign to Suppress Revolutionaries” was launched in 1950 to eradicate the Kuomintang and other opposition. The CPC had good reason to focus on eradicating secret societies. The “Green Gang” was one of the instruments used by Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang to kill around 5,000 communist strikers and sympathisers in the anti-communist campaign Shanghai in April 1927. Moreover, the Nationalists also used triads as part of the basis for anti-communist struggle after 1949.

Yet prior to the 1949 CPC assumption of power, there are indications that they also recognised the influence of triad and secret societies and sought to utilise that influence. In 1926, Li Ta Chao, a founding member of the CPC, wrote an article regarding the Red Spears, a secret society active in northern China. Li described the Red Spears as feudal in character but advocated helping them to realise their objectives, engage in discussions with them to gain trust, spread political knowledge to them, to not attack their superstitious beliefs, and aim to transform them into peasant unions.

The extent of the influence of triad and secret societies amongst the peasantry in China resulted in the necessity for an accommodation with communist dogma. In July 1936, Mao Tse Tung wrote an appeal to the “Association of Elder Brothers” (Ko Lao Hui) praising the history of this society in activities to “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming,” their patriotic participation in the 1911 revolution, and expanding on their commonalities with the CPC. Mao stated that both were the victims of oppression by the ruling class, both supported resistance to Japan and saving the country. Mao even avowed that “The Ko Lao Hui can exist legally under the Chinese Soviet Government.”

Just as Dr. Sun Yat Sen and the Nationalists used triad societies for the benefit of the revolution against the Qing dynasty, the CPC recognised the benefit of triads as part of their United Front activities to neutralise opposition. This seemed to be reaffirmed by Tao Siju, when as Minister of Public Security in 1993 he reportedly met with persons who were alleged to be members of the Sun Yee On triad society and in later comments at a press conference said that:

As for organizations like the triads in Hong Kong, as long as these people are patriotic, as long as they are concerned with Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, we should unite with them. I believe that the more people we unite with the better … Our public security organs have broad links and ties with different strata in society, including such groups … I may as well tell you a story from my own experience … When a state leader visited a foreign country, an organization that is similar to the triads you mentioned dispatched 800 of its members to guard our state leader against any danger.

The comments suggesting that triads could be patriotic aroused consternation in Hong Kong, where the authorities had institutionalised law enforcement and legal efforts to combat triad societies and feared that the Chinese authorities would seek support from triad societies for the PRC resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, as well as to counter traditional triad links to the Nationalist Kuomintang in Taiwan.

The concept of PRC government agencies dealing openly with triad leaders for political purposes was a source of wide concern around the return of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. In May 1997, Wong Man Fong, a former deputy secretary-general of the New China News Agency, reportedly told a forum at the Baptist University that he had held meetings to befriend triad leaders and was quoted as having said that “I told them that what the administration wanted was a peaceful return and that they could not attempt to do anything to upset Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

In a 2014 news interview a self-professed former triad member said that “All the existing triad groups in Hong Kong are patriotic and follow the country’s orders … There is a public security ministry … they are not talking about cooperating with triads … Triads can only follow what they are told to do.” Such comments have led to a growing sense amongst Hong Kong people that the PRC government, or at least organs of that government, has used triad society factions as part of the work of United Front efforts.

Patriotism has appeared in the language used by triads in Macau, which has also been a haven for triad societies. The extent of triad influence, especially in the spectacularly lucrative casino industry, was apparent in 1997 when violent conflict broke out between various triad factions. A key protagonist was Wan Kuok Koi, alias “broken tooth koi”, a leader of a Macau faction of the 14 K triad society who was born in 1955 in Macao.

In 1997, Wan’s 14 K Macau group and other triad factions in Macau were in open violent conflict. In the first five months of 1997 there were over a dozen murders and more assaults, with another 21 murders in all of 1996 as part of the competition for control of casino VIP rooms and vice between the Macau 14 K, the Wo On Lok, and the Sun Yee On.

The Macau Judiciary Police eventually arrested Wan in May 1998. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on charges of triad gang membership, money laundering and loan sharking. At the same time, 22 of his followers were also found guilty. A special prison block was constructed for Wan and his associates’ incarceration because of the security concerns arising from his notoriety and triad influence. The extent of the criminality of this group was illustrated when Wan’s younger brother, Wan Kuok Hong, was arrested by the Macao Police on 1st May 1999 for smuggling arms from Cambodia as well as other organised crimes.

On 1 December 2012, Wan Kuok Koi was discharged from prison. He remained in Macau and on 22 March 2013 became President of the “World Hongmen History and Culture Association” (世界洪門歷史文化協會) with the defined purpose “To love the nation, organize cultural exchange activities in various places, and pass on the history and culture of the Revolution of 1911.” The membership is for “Anyone who loves to study the history of the Revolution of 1911 and can actively participate in the event and is willing to abide by the chapter and be approved by the board of directors.”

In a speech in February 2018, Wan stated that he planned to establish a “Hongmen Security Company” for Chinese merchants on the “One Belt One Road” initiative and that the motto of the Association is “loving and supporting the country, Macau, and Hong Kong.”

Wan said in his speech, leaked in a video clip, that “I will do my utmost to promote the national policy and assist in whatever way for peaceful and united cross-straits relations.”

Later in 2018, Wan stated that the headquarters of the World Hongmen History and Culture Association had been established in Cambodia, that it would issue “Hongmen cryptocurrency” as part of its e-commerce business, and that the Association would establish schools to allow ethnic Chinese living in other countries to learn Chinese culture.

“Hongmen” (洪門, or Hung Mun) is another name that originates from the Tin Tei Wui (Heaven and Earth Association), one of the variations of Chinese secret societies and which as discussed in the introduction are not all criminal. “Hongmen” exist in many overseas Chinese communities as mutual aid associations, notably in North America in the 19th century where Chinese immigrants who were Hongmen members formed new branches such as the Kwong Duck TongHip Yee Tong, and On Sun Tong.

The formation of the World Hongmen History and Culture Association in Macau seems to be using the innocuous nature of Hongmen mutual-aid associations elsewhere in the world, as well as extolling and exploiting patriotic Chinese virtues. The clear crossover of influence from a faction of the Macau 14 K triad society and what is claimed to be a Chinese patriotic association illustrates again the efforts of Chinese criminals to legitimise themselves.


Secret societies are not always criminal enterprises, but triad societies are by definition criminal in Hong Kong and have been the basis of organised criminal gangs. Triad and secret societies are useful criminal platforms because of their secrecy and rituals, which are a means of ensuring that the triad or secret society is enduring in the face of enforcement and suppression by the authorities.

Triads and secret societies have at times reached an accommodation with the authorities, including the Kuomintang, the British and Japanese occupying Hong Kong, and the Communist Party of China. The Kuomintang and the CPC have based their legitimacy on the principle of unifying China, which resonates with the origins of triad societies in “Faan Qing Fuk Ming”, deposing the Manchu Qing dynasty and restoring the Han Chinese Ming dynasty. Some have joined triad and secret societies for opportunist reasons, for instance Chiang Kai Shek’s membership of the Green Gang seems likely to have been for personal advancement and to make use of the gang’s power. The membership of Dr. Sun Yat Sen of multiple secret societies is more complex as most were dedicated to or were vehicles to overthrow the Qing dynasty, and hence his motives were nationalistic.

Triads became established as a tool of the Nationalists before and after the 1911 revolution. Some triads prospered in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation from 1941 and continued their criminal business after liberation in 1945. From the 1990s triads seem to have been acknowledged as acceptable to China as part of the CPC United Front.

In this context, triad and secret societies have often considered themselves patriotic, but this has at least in the 20th and 21st centuries been an accommodation with political powers that could facilitate the underlying criminal businesses of triad societies. Patriotism has been a pretext for some triad and secret societies and has hence contributed to the enduring existence of triad societies into the 21st century.