Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ian Fleming in Hong Kong

More from Thrilling Cities. Fleming discusses the tongs and the triads...

On our way back to Hong Kong, recalling Dr. Lobo’s mention of the tongs, now known as triads, and musing over their possible connection with the smuggling of gold and opium which are more or less interconnected, I asked Dick Hughes, who knows the answer to everything in the Far East, what the triads really amounted to, and this is the gist of what he told me.

There are scores of triads, or secret Chinese blood societies, in Hong Kong, mostly concentrated in the Kowloon district, and there members, ranging from pimps and shoe-shine boys to businessmen and teachers, run into tens of thousands. Originally the aims of the triads were laudable and patriotic. Members were rigorously tested, sworn to unselfish brotherhood, and dedicated to moral and religious principles. But the process of degeneration has been profound. Politics, then squeeze and conspiracy, and finally crime, rackets, extortion, blackmail, and smuggling have debased the high ideals of the early tongs, just as the semi-religious Society of Harmonious Fists (I Ho Chuan) of A.D. 1700 became the horrendous Boxers of 1900.

The triads are not banned in Macao, and Dick hazarded the suggestion that Dr. Lobo and other members of the syndicate were probably forced to pay them protection money. (No doubt Mr. Foo failed to pay up and was punished with bombs in the lavatories of his Central Hotel). But they are illegal in Hong Kong, where they flourish underground with secret signs and passwords and iron rules of punishment and vengeance. The old membership identifications, a cash coin or a cotton badge, have gone, but nowadays one member can distinguish another by the manner, perhaps, in which he lights a cigarette or sets the tea-cups before a visitor.

The largest and most powerful of the Hong Kong triads today is formidable “14 K,” so called because the ancient Canton address was Number 14 in Po-wah Road, with the “K” added later for “karat” of gold in memory of a bloody pitched battle over “protection” against a rival triad whose members likened their strength to local but softer gold. “14 K” dates from the seventeenth century, but was rejuvenated and developed by General Kot Sui Wong as a secret agency of the Kuomintang. He was deported from Hong Kong to Formosa in 1950, but returned incognito to the colony and, before he died in 1953, re-activated all eighteen groups of the redoubtable “14 K,” which now has an estimated membership of eighty thousand divided into mellifluously named sub-branches.

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