Despite the stereotypes and media hype, Hong Kong’s gangsters are motivated by just one thing – profit – and they’ll even put aside rivalries to get a share of it
Clifford Lo and Simpson Cheung
SCMP Jan 19, 2012
“If a rooster is dead, another one will arise and crow,” they like to say in triad circles – and especially so since the brazen murder two years ago of gang leader Lee Tai-lung.
The so-called Baron of Tsim Sha Tsui and a leader of the powerful Sun Yee On triad, Lee was hacked to death on the forecourt of the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel by members of the rival Wo Shing Wo gang. After Lee’s death, three of his former henchmen, known as Kai Fai, Man Ying and Ah Gwei, took control of his lucrative entertainment businesses to stop rivals moving into Lee’s territory – in particular, the leader of another faction in the Sun Yee On known as Tai Hau, who is active in Tuen Mun.
Tai Hau tried to take advantage of Lee’s death by extending his crew’s influence in West Kowloon, including Tsim Sha Tsui, with the help of other triad leaders. His attempts were thwarted by an undercover police operation, as a result of which 222 people were arrested three weeks ago.
He wasn’t the only interloper. A year ago, Lee’s three henchmen were tracked by “Ko Tat”, who like Lee was a “red pole fighter” or senior foot soldier, for the Sun Yee On crew in Wan Chai. However, he failed to win support across the harbour.
A police officer said Ko Tat’s setback in Tsim Sha Tsui paved the way for another red pole fighter, “Ko Chun”, to take over Lee’s businesses. Ko Chun was already active in Hart Avenue, a bar district in Tsim Sha Tsui. But the strength of Ko Chun’s grip on these operations is not yet known, says an officer with the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau.
“It is too early to say whether he will succeed,” the officer said. Colleagues in the bureau’s intelligence unit were “watching Ko Chun’s every move”.
According to prosecutors, Lee was killed at the behest of Leung Kwok-chung, a senior member of a Wo Shing Wo crew in Tai Kok Tsui. During a bar fight in July 2006 in Prat Avenue, just around the corner from Hart Avenue, Lee smashed a whisky bottle over Leung’s head, which left him permanently scarred and bearing a three-year grudge. While three Wo Shing Wo members were sentenced to life imprisonment in November for Lee’s killing, Leung (known as “Man Sun Chung” or “heavily tattooed” Chung) and three other suspects remain on the run.
Despite Lee’s high-profile assassination, bloody conflicts among gangs are rare, with most disputes resolved around a table instead of on a back street.
Far from the action-movie image of brawling gangsters, most triad members “just want to make money and that is their governing principle”, the anti-triad officer said. “They will explore any opportunity, whether the business is illegal or legitimate. They don’t mind working together with their rival gangs. For them, making money always comes first.”
Mandi, a reformed drug addict, former triad member and now youth counsellor, agrees. He said although triads called on their “brothers” to fight enemies, it took money to hire the men – for weapons, bail, medical treatment, as well as incentives.
“Do you think you don’t need any money when you call upon people?” Mandi asked. “You have to treat them to food and drink. While they’re waiting to be called out, at some point they’ll get hungry. They can’t fight for you on an empty stomach.”
Mandi, the son of a triad gangster and a member himself until about 10 years ago, confirmed that the gangs nevertheless preferred to avoid fighting each other, and that many disputes were solved around a table with money changing hands. He said his time as a triad was largely about hanging out and making money rather than fighting.
Hong Kong’s triads have their roots in dialect groups, trades or political affiliation. The Sun Yee On, probably the most influential, best organised and wealthiest triad society, was founded by Chiu Chow and Hoklo immigrants from northeastern Guangdong who speak a Fujianese dialect. Tsim Sha Tsui East is its traditional stronghold, but its influence extends to areas including Wan Chai, Tuen Mun and Tseung Kwan O. Its activities include drug trafficking, loan sharking, extortion and smuggling.
The Wo Shing Wo, the first of the “Wo” family of triads, is indigenous to Hong Kong. It was first active in Tsuen Wan but its influence has spread to West Kowloon, Sheung Shui and Fanling. It controls red-minibus routes and is involved in underground casinos, drug trafficking, pirated goods and vice. Other triads from this group are the Wo On Lok, also known as “Shui Fong”. Based originally in Sham Tseng, they are also active in West Kowloon. The Wo Hop To is active in Western and Aberdeen, where it engages in extortion, loan sharking and controls red-minibus routes.
The 14K triad, the Sun Yee On’s main rival, has a long history in the city and is active in West Kowloon, Yuen Long, Kwun Tong and Eastern District. Formed by a Kuomintang general in 1945 to fight the Communists, its illegal activities now involve drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and pirated goods.
Superintendent Chan Lok-wing of the anti-triad bureau said triads today were mainly involved in seven types of illegal business: drug trafficking, extortion, bookmaking, prostitution, loan sharking, counterfeit goods and cross-border smuggling.
Cross-border organised crime has a long history in Hong Kong, which during the 1960s and 1970s was the world’s leading producer and exporter of heroin. In recent years, trafficking of various drugs and goods has been on the rise to and from the mainland, Macau and Southeast Asia.
Extortion remains one of the main sources of triad income.
“Victims know well that police cannot protect them around the clock forever. So they are willing to pay protection money and do not seek help from police,” another senior anti-triad officer said.
Common practices for extorting protection money include visiting newly opened bars or restaurants and occupying all the tables during peak business hours to block their trade, sending in beggars or posting well-built men to guard the entrance.
“Fear and threat become self-generating. Victims usually give in to these demands and pay,” he said.
According to Chan, triads also run legal businesses, such as licensed premises, public light buses and taxis, which can also provide cover for illegal activities such as drug running and loan sharking.
At the top end, big triad money is linked to the film industry, property and finance. Triads also have connections in politics, and private and public organisations.
Knowing where government development will take place and big developers will build houses, triads buy farmland near these sites which they resell for large profits. Building private columbariums in the New Territories is a big earner.
Successful arrests of senior triad members depend on undercover operations, Chan said. Eight of the most recent exercises, ranging in length from several months to two years, lead to more than 420 arrests.
Finding a suitable officer for such an operation is difficult. “Undercover agents face huge pressure and the operations are dangerous,” Chan. “Not too many officers are willing to take those risks.”
Chan also said that triad members have been more alert to undercover operations, in part due to movies and TV programmes about double agents, notably Infernal Affairs, the award-winning 2002 film directed by Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak Siu-fai.
The triads’ top leadership stays out of the limelight. Most trouble is caused by young gang members who want to prove their mettle to their peers, a veteran police officer said.
The officer pointed out that the traditional structure of triads today has become looser, as recruitment of young members is less regulated.
“Nowadays, it is easy for young people to join triads,” he said. “They know a triad member and then become his henchman. They do not go through a formal initiation ceremony due to the risk of police raids. That’s why a lot of young people claim they are triads members.
“Most may not even know who their crew leader is. To police, they are just hooligans.”
Chan said triads had been glorified in the media and film, helping perpetuate the myth. This leads youngsters to believe that joining triads can help solve their problems.
“Such a myth is appealing to some youths, especially to those from low-income families,” he said.
However, a social worker specialising in youth crime prevention said not many young people were willing to join triads today. Lam Yeung-chu, from the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, said today they were more self-centred and concerned about their own safety than before, so were put off by the risk of joining triads.
“In the past, kids just hung out on the streets, football pitch or at the video game arcade. Usually they wanted protection or just to be cool. So they were easy targets for triads,” she said. “Today, youngsters hide at home to play on the computer. They seldom go out. That’s a main reason that triads recruit fewer youngsters.”
If Superintendent Chan’s optimism is well founded (arrests for triad-related crimes rose last year), the triads’ roosters will fall silent for good. Triad activity has been on the wane in Hong Kong in recent years, thanks in part to the multiple approaches taken to tackling the gangs.
This song is dedicated to all my friends in Hong Kong and China whom I haven’t been able to meet after returning to Singapore.
Greed is a form of desire. However, it is an exaggerated form of desire, based on overexpectation. The true antidote of greed is contentment.
For a practicing Buddhist, for a Dharma practitioner, many practices can act as a kind of counterforce to greed: the realization of the value of seeking liberation or freedom from suffering, recognizing the underlying unsatisfactory nature of one’s existence, and so on. These views also help an individual to counteract greed. But in terms of an immediate response to greed, one way is to reflect upon the excesses of greed, what it does to one as an individual, where it leads. Greed leads one to a feeling of frustration, disappointment, a lot of confusion, and a lot of problems.
When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing which is quite characteristic is that although it arises from the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining it. Therefore, it becomes limitless or boundless, and that leads to trouble. The interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction, as I pointed out, even after obtaining the object of one’s desire, one is still not satisfied. On the other hand, if one has a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether one obtains the object or not; either way, one is still content.(p.32)
–from Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective by the Dalai Lama, translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, published by Snow Lion Publications
Money, Happiness, and Sustainability
2012: The great wheel of time is making its inexorable turn, granting us a new beginning and an opportunity to step back, review, and renew. You can use this moment of transition to start the new year with a fresh attitude and a doable plan about the spending, saving, and sharing of your money—to live your priorities with greater satisfaction and happiness. Perhaps you are among the many who have suffered from the financial anxiety epidemic—you want to shed your fears, and regain a sense of being in charge of your financial destiny.
But how to get there? What will make this year different from all the rest? Yes, you have started many a new year with good intentions, maybe tried a new tack, and then found yourself once again, adrift on the seas of old patterns and habits. How can you get on a positive financial track when we see (and feel the effect of) world economies struggling to accomplish this goal? How can you live a happy and satisfying life making decisions that result in financial sustainability?
We know you can, And the fact that there is change in the air, and butterflies in your gut, will help motivate you to step outside of old habits and patterns, increase your Affluence Intelligence, and take actions that will give you a life that is aligned with your values, that is fun, and that is sustainable.
Let’s start with an attitude adjustment. Too many of us make financial decisions based on impulse (“I must have it now”); finding comfort in old ideas and habits; and well worn, obsolete facts. It is time to wake up to the fact that the economics of today is not the economics of your past, or the economics of your fantasy life. You can blame it on the internet, globalization, population growth, rising 3rd world economies, expensive wars, too much or too little government, or the Great Recession. It is all of the above, and more. Truth be told: Your psychological and economic operating system is going through a major firmware revision. You need to upgrade your program or find that your software won’t run very well or may not run at all.
So we need to think about our money and our lives with a broader perspective, with a mindset/operating system that can handle the dynamics of economic and systemic change in our lives and in the larger community. Certainly, we can no longer expect or rely upon any single institution, whether it is a corporate employer, or the government, to be a reliable contributor toward your financial sustainability. But how do we make decisions that will result in the ongoing sustenance of our personal and financial resources? Instead of asking the economists, who don’t seem to have any great answers these days, let’s consider some key ideas from Environmental Science. All living systems are characterized by either regenerative (growing, building, spiraling upward) or degenerative (reducing, depleting, spiraling downward) processes. Regeneration creates and harnesses energy, degeneration depletes and wastes energy. In our financial lives, we make financial decisions that are regenerative, such as starting a business that grows and thrives, or saving money to attain long term objectives—purchase of a home, or retirement. And we make decisions that are degenerative, such as living outside of our actual means, accruing a massive creating credit card debt, or buying gifts that we can’t afford. Degenerative processes can get progressively worse, in which (for example) your debt becomes the primary driving force of your financial destiny.
In fact each of us has a unique balance of both degenerative and regenerative financial processes. Few of us will only make only regenerative financial decisions; we live in a culture that continually pushes us to ‘have fun and pay later’; to enjoy immediate gratification and not think of its price. But if we want money and happiness, if we want sustainability and financial resilience, then we need to make sure that our regenerative actions trump our degenerative actions.
Therefore, sustainability in and of itself is a moving target. What you really want to aim for is what we call Regenerative Economics, in which you make money and lifestyle decisions that support you, your family, and your community’s capacity to grow and regenerate. Each of us needs to craft a plan, a personal lifestyle design that is attuned to your unique personal and financial ecology that will guide your financial decision-making so you can reach your unique balance point. Simply put: there can be no sustainability without regenerativity!
So it is time to turn up the thermostat on your Affluence Intelligence: Take the test, determine your Affluence Intelligence Quotient, and make a plan to leverage or improve your AIQ.
Here are some tips to inform your new year’s intentions and actions, based on our many years of working with people who have attain both personal and financial success:
1. Have your values drive your money not your money drive your values. Money is a tool to live your values, to help provide for your sustenance, care, and satisfactions. This is the single most important lesion we have learned from our successful clients. Know that your self worth is not equal to your financial worth. Don’t let money become your primary value. It is not a substitute for self esteem, love, connection, real productivity, or personal integrity.
2. Use a Regenerative Economics mindset: Review your spending and saving decisions. Are these decisions regenerative or degenerative? What do you need to do to shift the balance?
3. Practice conscious consumption: Ask yourself: is this purchase a need or a want?
4. If you need to earn or save more money, keep in mind: Spending less is earning more.
5. Nourish your physical and emotional health. Don’t defy common sense: if a financially related activity is making you sick, stop doing it….now! Your health, your time is precious, and not for sale.
6. Take Action: Create a three month plan for yourself, with doable action steps that you will implement tomorrow. In our book we describe a step by step method for creating such a plan.
- No excuses. Walk your talk, implement your plan.
7. Get support. Find a person (not your spouse) who is willing to be your Affluence Intelligence Buddy, a source of support and accountability.
8. Buy Local: Purchasing from local business enterprises put money back into your neighbor’s pockets, an activity that is regenerative for you and the community in which you live.
9. For each discretionary dollar of spending, put a predetermined percentage of that amount into saving and or charity.
10. Give to a charity or cause that matters to you. Giving, whether it is in the form of money or your time, will make you feel rich, and is regenerative. We have been amazed by the powerful sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that many of our successful clients experience through their generosity in giving both their money and their time. Whatever you can afford, no matter how little time you have to give, it will make a difference-for you and for the receiver of your gift.