Forget blood, it's all about the money

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.