Criminal Trial Provides Rare Inside Look at Hong Kong’s Infamous Triad Societies

Associated Press

In Courtroom No. 7 of Hong Kong’s Supreme Court building, prosecution witnesses tell dail7y of a shadowy world of extortion, characters such as the “King of Cats,” and bizarre initiation ceremonies that mix mumbo jumbo and blood oaths.

This, the prosecution contends, is the world of Hong Kong’s triad societies, crime gangs that have long plagued this British colony and whose influence extends to overseas Chinese communities.

In the defendants’ dock are a lawyer’s clerk, the director of a Buddhist temple and four businessmen.


Government prosecutors claim they belong to Sun Yee On, believed to be the largest of Hong Kong’s roughly 20 active triad societies with a membership estimated as high as 35,000.

The government says Heung Wah Yim, the 54-year-old lawyer’s clerk, is Sun Yee On’s “489” or “Dragon Head”--cryptic titles meaning top leader. The others are accused of helping manage or being holders of top positions in the underworld organization.

Law enforcement officials for the first time have invoked a provision of a 1957 law, under which leading triad figures can be held collectively responsible for a crime committed in their group’s name.

“It’s the most important triad trial in Hong Kong’s history,” said Mike Horner, senior superintendent in the police department’s Organized and Serious Crimes Bureau. He said proving suspects were triad leaders traditionally has been difficult but that in this case police have a list of Sun Yee On officeholders.

The trial, which began in late October with four other defendants pleading guilty to all charges, has provided detailed testimony on purported triad rituals and has highlighted the pervasive influence of the gangs on Hong Kong society.

One prosecution witness, restaurant manager Fung Tsang Keung, claimed that more than 80% of Hong Kong’s Chinese restaurants receive triad demands for “protection money.” He testified that a fat man nicknamed “Mao Wong,” Cantonese for “King of the Cats,” tried to extort money from him.


Another witness, police superintendent Kenneth James Taylor, estimated that about 160,000 people in Hong Kong are triad members, nearly 3% of the colony’s 5.5 million population.

Triads originally were formed as secret societies by ethnic Chinese in the 17th Century to try to overthrow the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China. They later degenerated into criminal cliques an1679844969extortion, murders, robberies, narcotics, kidnapings and prostitution.

The Sun Yee On, which means the New Righteous and Peaceful Society, dates back to 1919, according to testimony by a police detective station sergeant, Cheng Wui Shing, identified as an expert on the triads.

He also testified that triad members identify one another through secret hand signs and learn special poems and oaths.

The local media have reported that the triads are extending their influence into southern China.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that the secret societies are increasing their activities in the United States.


James Kallstrom, a senior FBI officer who came to Hong Kong earlier this year, was quoted by the English-language South China Morning Post as saying the “triad movement to the U.S. is definitely on the rise” partly because of fears of a crackdown after China regains control of Hong Kong in 1997.

But David Hodson of Hong Kong’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau said triad activity overseas does not mean an exodus of local criminals.