The Chinese Triads in Southeast Asia : From a « total social phenomenon» to a trans-national criminal organisation?

The Chinese Triads in Southeast Asia : From a « total social phenomenon» to a trans-national criminal organisation?

The criminal activities of the Chinese Triads are known to have traditionally fired imaginations, provided themes to film producers, to fiction writers and sometimes to authors of very serious journalistic surveys. A systematic study of the same has however hardly aroused enough interest among scholars until now. The triads are being talked about with renewed interest once again in Southeast Asia since about two decades, as at the end of the 19th century and during the first few decades of the 20th century, the violence generated by these secret organisations had resurfaced and was given wide coverage by the media in China and countries of Southeast Asia.

The scholar who has been working since a long time on the nature of these secret organisations referring to a specific case study of Siam, which went on to become definitely Thailand after the Second World War, is struck by all the changes that seem to have taken place

In the 19th century, the secret organisations worked as multi-functional systems. Marcel Mauss would have referred to them as complete total social phenomenon. They operated at the same time as recruitment agencies, labour unions, mutual aid or welfare societies, political organisations, economic groups, religious structures, etc.

The Chinese groups, who then had recently immigrated were surely not sophisticated enough (their potential leaders were very few in number), nor sufficiently rich to be able to maintain numerous organisations within their communities. The secret society was a simple answer and functioned economically (tua-hia later ang-yi in Thai texts, two expressions taken from teochiu, signifying « big brother » and « text written in red »).

These secret associations, very often controlled by big traders or business owners, operated as labour unions. Anyone refusing to become a member had little hope of finding a job in the tin mines located in Southern Thailand or for that matter in the rice mills of Bangkok. However, sometimes, as experienced in the Ranong or the Phuket provinces in 1876, these organisations trained and supervised workmen up in arms for better working conditions with a fair amount of success.

The ang-yi or the tua-hia served as an insurance company as well as a welfare society to its members. It settled funds incurred during legal proceedings in a court of law, ensured that proper treatment was meted out to its imprisoned members, took care of members in case of sickness and took charge of their corpses in case of death.

The secret organisations included a religious aspect. They seem to have originated from Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. They always have preserved a ritual that would appear obscure to the uninitiated. In Thailand, the secret societies rather considered themselves as rivals of the catholic missionaries who traditionally recruited members from the Chinese community.

As expected the secret societies very early took on a political dimension. It is well known that Doctor Sun Yat Sen himself became a member of one such organisation (in 1904 at Honolulu) and his objective was to transform them into a revolutionary organisations. Between 1903 and 1908, he made 4 trips to Siam during which he contacted leaders of various secret organisations. That dimension knew a profound change after the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Mandchoue dynasty. The triads had managed to achieve their political objective. In Siam, most of the triad leaders were protégés of the European governments and thus posed a political threat of a different nature to the Siamese rulers.

The economic scope of these secret societies was significant and knew very different forms. The Triad leaders were very often at the head of organisations - not always legal- involving money transfers towards China. They also catered to other needs of the Chinese immigrant workers like gambling, alcohol-drinking, opium-smoking and prostitution. At that time these commercial concerns were legal (up to 1959-1960 for the last two) but were heavily taxed. When the tax farmers of these consumer products and « services » were not themselves leaders of secret societies, they had to enter into an agreement to be able to operate in unsafe zones like tin mines and the Chinatowns.

However, as years went by, most of the activities that were formerly assumed by the secret societies disassociated themselves from the all-embracing core organisation to become autonomous and function as separate entities. An in-depth study of the history of a few institutions (support organisations, hospitals, clubs, political parties, sects, etc) will surely lead to unravelling names of some famous leaders of the secret societies. The best known case today of a triad leader- as pointed out by 2 Thai language articles that appeared in 2004- is that of Mr. Yi ko Hong, Hong Techawanit in Thai, who was conferred the title of Phraya Anuwat Rachaniyom. A gaming tax-farmer at the beginning of the 20th century, he received Dr. Sun Yat Sen during his 1908 Siamese tour and was that same year one of the founders of Po Tek Tung – a charitable foundation (which runs today one of the best hospitals of the country). He was at the helm of the Chinese secret society Hong Moen Thian Ti Hui.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Triads are back. Freshly re-imported from China and from Taiwan, they appear henceforth as nothing more than petty criminal groups, sometimes extremely violent. Far from helping the Chinese immigrants, who are disembarking once again in relatively large numbers in Bangkok and in the northern provinces, they doubly exploit them, first by asking for exorbitant sums of money to help them enter the country clandestinely and then by taking advantage of their questionable status.

The scholar should however be aware that most of the information to which he can have access originates from police records and that the dailies- especially the Thai dailies make an immoderate use of head lines and sensational news. We will undoubtedly have to wait a few years before being able to form a correct opinion about the social role of these « new Triads ».

Right now however, if one wants to attempt to go beyond the preliminary understanding of a transnational criminal organisation, we need to accept that these Chinese societies can be, at least up to a certain point, considered as spear heads of the new Chinese Diaspora. They seem to be therefore right in the centre of human trafficking (labourers, prostitutes) not only towards Asian countries but also towards European and American countries, with the Southeast Asian countries now being considered the first step. Amongst these victims, nicknamed luk mu by the Thai press and piglet by the English press, one could probably find leaders of the 21st century Chinese Diaspora.