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Triad (organized crime)

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Triad members arrested in Siam
Named afterUnion of Heaven, Earth and Water, Chinese mythology, and traditional folk religion customs
Founding locationChina (Zhengzhou, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou)
Years active19th century–present
TerritoryChina, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, North America, Brazil,[1][2][3] Argentina,[4][5][6] Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Romania,[7] Bulgaria, South Africa and Russia
ActivitiesExtortion, protection, murder, assault, racketeering, human trafficking, sex trafficking, illegal gambling, loan sharking, counterfeiting, copyright infringement, kidnapping, robbery, Chinese film and music industries, especially Hong Kong film[8] and music industries, Taiwanese Film and music industries and Other's, Etc., drug trafficking, money laundering, arms trafficking, health care fraud, immigration fraud

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

The triads originated from secret societies formed in the 18th and 19th centuries with the intent of overthrowing the then-ruling Qing dynasty. In 20th century, triads were enlisted by the Kuomintang (KMT) during the Republican era to assassinate political opponents and attack political enemies. Following the founding of the People's Republic of China and subsequent crackdowns, triads and their operations flourished in Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities.[9]

Since the Chinese economic reform, triads and other triad-like "black societies" re-emerged in mainland China.[9][10] In modern times, triads overseas have been alleged to have connections to the government of the People's Republic of China.[11][12][13][14]


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 San Ho Hui (三合會), referring to the union of heaven, earth, and humanity.[15] 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.[16] This theory however is highly improbable as the term "Triad" had been used by William Milne to describe secret societies in Southern China as early as 1826, well before the colony was even formed.[17] It has been speculated that triad organizations took after, or were originally part of, militant movements such as the White Lotus,[18] 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.[19] Criminal organizations operating in, or originating from, mainland China are "mainland Chinese criminal groups" or "black societies".[20]



The Triad, a China-based criminal organization, secret association, or club, was a branch of the secret Hung Society, a secret society formed with the intent of overthrowing the then-ruling Qing dynasty. Triads therefore first began as part of an organised patriotic movement to overthrow ethnic Manchu Qing rule, which was considered tyrannical and foreign to the Han ethnic majority. At the turn of the 19th century, Chinese triads were involved in revolutionary and underground activities designed to subvert the ailing Qing, which was considered corrupt and incapable of reform.[21]

Secret societies in the Qing Dynasty era were synonymous with patriotism, with groups operating under the banner of: "Oppose the Qing and Restore the Ming dynasty" (反清复明; Fǎn Qīng Fù Míng). Triads were also enlisted by the Kuomintang (KMT) during the Republican era in order to assassinate political opponents and attack political enemies.[21] Notable organizations included the Green Gang, another Hung Society splinter which participated in the Shanghai massacre of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members in 1927.[21]

After the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, secret societies in mainland China were suppressed in campaigns ordered by Mao Zedong. Deng Xiaoping also suppressed the secret societies in his "Strike Hard" campaigns against organized crime in 1978. As a result, most traditional Chinese secret societies, including the triads and some of the remaining Green Gang, relocated to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and overseas countries (particularly the United States), where they competed with the Tong and other ethnic Chinese criminal organizations. Gradually, Chinese secret societies turned to the illegal drug trade and extortion for income.[9] In mainland China, there are of two major types of "mainland Chinese criminal organizations": loosely-organized "dark forces" (黑恶势力; Hēi è shìlì) and more mature "black societies" (黑社会; Hēishèhuì). Two features which distinguish a black society from ordinary "dark forces" or low-level criminal gangs are the extent to which the organization is able to control local markets and the degree of police protection able to be obtained.[22]

18th century[edit]

The Tiandihui fraternity was founded during the 1760s, possibly either in 1760 or 1769. As the society's influence spread throughout China, it branched into several smaller groups with different names, one of which 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.

19th century[edit]

Such societies were seen as legitimate ways of helping immigrants from China settle into their new place of residence and through employment and development of local connections. Secret societies were banned by the British colonial government in Singapore during the 1890s, and were 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.[23][24] During the Taiping Rebellion, many either decided or were forced to aid the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in opposition to the interference of the Qing dynasty.

20th century[edit]

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

After World War II, 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. After 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.[citation needed] The number of groups has consolidated to about 50, of which 14 are under police surveillance. There were four main groups of triads—the Chiu Chow Group (including Sun Yee On), 14K, the Wo Group (including Wo Shing Wo), and the Big Four (Luen Group, Tan Yee, Macau Chai, Tung Group)—operating in Hong Kong.[25] 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.

In the early 1980s, the deputy secretary of Xinhua News Agency, Wong Man-fong, negotiated with Hong Kong-based triads on behalf of the Chinese government to ensure their peace after the handover of Hong Kong.[11][26]

In the 1980s, triad activity increased in mainland China as a result of economic and political changes, increased corruption, rapid urbanization, and increased demands for illicit goods and services.[27]: 100 

21st century[edit]

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 accused 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.[28] Police seized several vehicles, businesses, properties, and bank accounts.[29]

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 human trafficking and illegal immigration aimed at the sexual and labor exploitation of Chinese immigrants into Italy, as well as synthetic drug trafficking and the laundering of illicit money through the purchase of real estate.[30] 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.[31]

Criminal activities[edit]

Triads engage in a variety of crimes, from fraud, extortion, and money laundering to trafficking and prostitution, and are involved in smuggling and counterfeit consumer goods such as music, video, software, clothes, watches, and money.[16]

Drug trafficking[edit]

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 Big Circle Gang. Triads smuggle chemicals from Chinese factories to North America (for the production of fentanyl and methamphetamine), and to Europe for the production of MDMA.[14][32][33] They are increasingly involved in unlicensed cannabis cultivation in the US.[34][35] Triads in the United States also traffic large quantities of ketamine.[35] Triad figures are also responsible for large-scale drug trafficking into Australia.[36][37]

Money laundering[edit]

Triads have become the principal money launderers for drug cartels in Mexico, Italy, and elsewhere.[13][38][39][40] They are reported to be money movers for the CCP elite.[35] According to the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, the opioid epidemic in the United States has assisted the triads in becoming "the world's premier money launderers."[41][42]


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.[43] Since the 1970s, triad turf control was weakened and some shifted their revenue streams to legitimate businesses.[44]

Health care fraud[edit]

In 2012, four triad members were arrested for health care fraud in Japan.[45]

Chinese government connections[edit]

Due to their history of "patriotic" work in support of various political movements and factions, triads have long been alleged to have connections to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), often via its related united front groups.[12][46][47][14] Triad members are alleged to be members acting as agents of the party-state in achieving its political objectives of suppressing dissent, quelling protests and silencing, intimidating, and coercing critics both at home and abroad, particularly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and countries with high concentrations of ethnic Chinese diaspora.[11][48][49] According to Martin Purbrick, the CCP "recognised the benefit of triads as part of their United Front activities to neutralise opposition."[50] This was demonstrated through the involvement of triads in the 2019 Yuen Long attack against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in 2019.[51] Hong Kong police were subsequently accused of collusion with triad criminal syndicates due to the notable absence of officers at the time of the scene despite heavy police presence at protest events in weeks prior.[52] The activities of triads are enabled by both local government corruption and law enforcement authorities who turn a blind eye to criminal behavior when influenced by the seniority of corrupt officials out of political convenience.[21]

A 2022 Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) identified connections between key triad figures linked to Wan Kuok-koi and CCP united front political influence operations in Palau.[53] In 2023, a ProPublica investigation found that the leadership of certain Chinese police overseas service stations have ties to organized crime.[12]

In 2024, the OCCRP and The Age reported on connections between triad figures and the CCP's united front operations in the Pacific, particularly in Fiji.[36][37]

Structure and composition[edit]

Balloon chart
Traditional triad organizational structure

Triads use numeric codes to distinguish ranks and positions within the gang; the numbers are inspired by Chinese numerology and are based on the I Ching.[54] The Mountain (or Dragon Master Head) is 489, 438 is the Deputy Mountain Master, 432 indicates Straw Sandal rank;[citation needed] 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.[55][56] 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.[57]

Rituals and codes of conduct[edit]

Similar to the Indian thuggees or the Japanese yakuza, triad members participate in initiation ceremonies.[16] A typical ceremony takes place at an altar dedicated to Guan Yu, 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.[58] The triad initiate is required to adhere to 36 oaths.[59]


Based in Hong Kong[edit]

The most powerful triads based in Hong Kong are:

Based elsewhere[edit]

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.[61][62]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Triads are also active in Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia.[9] 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 Malaysia).

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 government purged criminal activity in the country. According to Ho, abolishing crime was a method of protecting Vietnam and its people.[63] During the First Indochina War, Ho's police forces concentrated on protecting people in his zone from crime; the French cooperated with criminal organizations to fight the Viet Minh.[64] 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.[65] 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.[66]

International activities[edit]

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.[67]

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.[60]

In South Africa, Law Enforcement Authorities have claimed that several large independent subgroups of the Triad conduct large scale human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, as well as operate prostitution and gambling rings.[68] South African authorities have identified four major Chinese gangs connected to the Triad operating in South Africa: the Wo Shing Wo group, the San Yee On group, the 14K-Hau group, and the 14K-Ngai group.[69] On November 22, 2022, a shoot-out between rival Triad factions took place on a crowded street in Cape Town, leaving several bystanders injured.[70]


Law enforcement[edit]

Hong Kong[edit]

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.[71] Police actions regularly target organised crime, including raids on triad-controlled entertainment establishments and undercover work.[44] The journal Foreign Policy reported in its August 2019 edition, alleged triad involvement in repressing the Hong Kong protests.[72]


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.[73] 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).[46] 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).[74][75]


In June 2022, commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Reece Kershaw, stated at the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group that foreign governments were collaborating with criminal syndicates in the West and that: "state actors and citizens from some nations are using our countries at the expense of our sovereignty and economies".[76] While no country was mentioned in particular, China was notably included, with the implication of involvement of Chinese organised crime in Australia.

In August 2022, reporting by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that Hong Kong-based jewelry and real estate development conglomerate Chow Tai Fook was endorsed by the Queensland state government as a 25% shareholder in The Star casino's Queen's wharf development.

The Chow Fook Tai conglomerate is owned by Cheng Yu-tung, who was believed to have affiliations with the 14K triad and was alleged to have connections with Hong Kong and Macau organised crime syndicates, specifically through business connections with Wan Kuok Kui, "Broken Tooth", or "Broken Tooth Koi" in triad circles.[77][53]

The 14K, Sun Yee On triads were believed to have been closely affiliated with Cheng and used as enforcers for the collection of gambling debts, in addition to being engaged in prostitution, human, and drug trafficking. Kui has been the subject of sanctions by the United States Department of Treasury under the Magnitsky Act for corruption, embezzlement, and "misappropriation of state assets" as of 2020.[78]

Legislation in Hong Kong[edit]

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.[44]

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.[44] 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,[44] 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[edit]

See also[edit]


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General and cited references[edit]

Books (Triad societies)
Books (Black societies or criminal organizations in mainland China)
  • Wang, Peng (2017). The Chinese Mafia: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Extra-Legal Protection. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198758402.
Government publication
  • "Gangland- Deadly Triangle". Online video clip. YouTube, 2008. Web. Accessed 21 April 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lintner, Bertil (2014). Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia. Allen & Unwin.
Journal articles

External links[edit]