The History of Organized Crime in China (Viewed as a Single Page)

For two thousand years, secret societies have been part of Chinese culture.

Most of these secret societies were harmless but a few were highly organized criminal organizations. Under emperors and Communists, in war and peace, Chinese crime lords have acted as shadow governments with their own laws and severe forms of punishment.

In recent decades, Chinese gangs have moved into major American cities competing with Russian gangs, Italians, Sicilians, Ukrainians, Japanese, Latinos, etc. Today, these gangs deal in more than gambling and drugs. They deal in human trafficking too.

Was she the Godfather of Chinese organized crime or a Robin Hood?

Over the last few decades, the business of smuggling people into the US by Chinese organized crime has boomed.

Many poor Chinese want to start a new life in the United States, which is known as Gold Mountain.

However, the risks are big and costly.  Each person may have to pay as much as 40 thousand dollars to the smugglers often ending in a form of slavery in America until the debt is paid.

Kingman Wong of the FBI says these smugglers are like the flu because they are always mutating their methods and alliances to find new ways to smuggle illegal aliens in to the US. There are hundreds of independent groups operating like this around the globe.

However, the beginnings of all this illegal activity may be traced to one group from the past — the Triads. The first such group was known as the “Heaven and Earth Association” and may have started in 1761 AD.

A myth says that China’s Triads started with a group of Buddhist monks that were martial arts experts who went to the assistance of a Qing Emperor to defeat an enemy.

Later, after defeating this enemy, the emperor decided to get rid of these monks since he saw them as a future threat.

After the assassination of hundreds of monks, a handful survived and started the secret societies known as the “Heaven and Earth Association”.

However, the myth of the Buddhist monks is only a legend. The truth is that the Triads (organized crime in China) didn’t start from such a noble cause.

FBI Unit Chief Kingman Wong says that Chinese organized crime members identify themselves with these ancient heroes in order to glamorize their criminal activities.

According to scholars, the true story of the Triads starts during the 1700s in Fujian province along China’s southeast coast facing Taiwan.

Dian Murray, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, says that Fujian province was China’s Wild West. For protection, young men banded together in mutual aid societies. Soon, these societies turned to crime.

The “Heaven and Earth Association” took for its emblem an equilateral triangle, which explains why these gangs are called the Triads in the West.

There was no central figure or mob boss that controlled the Triad gangs, which were similar to America’s street gangs of today.

Then in 1787, the Qing Emperor discovered the existence of these gangs and declared war.

However, to survive, the Triads in Fujian province spread to every corner of the Qing Empire, to Southeast Asia and America’s China towns where they sold drugs and dealt in prostitution and gambling.

In time, one gang, known as the Green Gang, controlled the opium trade and Shanghai in the early 1900s. The Green Gang was involved in every criminal activity.

At the center of the Green Gang’s metamorphosis was one man. His name was Du Yue-sheng. Du grew up an orphan and illiterate near Shanghai.

When Du was fourteen, he arrived in Shanghai and spent the money he earned on opium and women. In 1910, Du was sworn into the Green Gang.

Du lived and worked out of the French Concession in Shanghai where the police were the criminals.

In 1924, Du had an opportunity to become the leader of the Green Gang when the current leader, Wong, had the son of a powerful warlord beaten. The warlord then had Wong arrested and tossed in prison.

Du paid the warlord to free Wong, who then owed Du a debt of gratitude. From that day on, Du controlled the Green Gang.

Du Yue-sheng, godfather of the underworld—45 minute documentary

In 1927, General Chiang Kai-shek made a deal with the Triad Du controlled to destroy the Communists in Shanghai who were organizing labor unions.

Frederick Wakeman, a historian at the University of California-Berkeley says that Du was threatened with the possibility of a Communist victory.

Thousands of Green Gang members went after the Communists to shoot and behead as many as possible. Within hours, at least five thousand Communists had been executed.

As a reward, Chiang Kai-shek made Du a general in the Nationalist Army. Du’s public image became one of respectability while he maintained an iron control over Shanghai and the Green Gang.

For Chiang Kai-shek, the alliance with Du and the Green Gang became a useful way to raise money from Shanghai’s wealthy families.

Du was also in charge of the agency to stop the opium trade in Shanghai and he controlled the drugs seized by the Nationalists, which he would sell making a huge profit.

In 1937, Japan invaded China. On August 14, the Japanese launched a fierce assault on Shanghai. Chinese refugees fled to the foreign concessions hoping to be safe.

Du Yue-sheng had his Green Gang fight alongside Nationalist troops against the Japanese.

Three months later, Shanghai fell and Du fled to Hong Kong, and the Triads would never be the same.

A month after the end of World War II, in 1945, Du returned to Shanghai.

Any respect and fear he’d earned before the war had been lost. The Shanghainese saw him as a coward for running away from the Japanese and booed him when he was seen on the streets.

When the Communists won in 1949, broken and unhealthy, Du fled to Hong Kong and died there in 1951 at 66. The Communist Revolution ended the Green Gang in Shanghai.

  Asian Crime Gangs in the US: 43:47 min.

The Chinese Communists didn’t destroy China’s criminal underworld. With hundreds of gangs operating in other countries, the leadership of the gangs left mainland China.

In time, New York’s Chinatown would become the center of the Chinese Triads in the US.

In 1977, on Mott St. in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, a war raged between the Chinese gangs. One Chinatown gang boss, Nicky Louie, became the most feared gangster in New York’s Chinatown.

Nicky arrived in New York’s Chinatown in the 1960s along with tens of thousands of other Chinese soon after Congress changed the Chinese Exclusion Act allowing more Chinese into the US.

Work was hard to come by, so young Chinese men organized street gangs modeled after the same gangs from China that the Communists had destroyed.

Nicky, ruthless and smart, quickly became the leader of a Triad gang called the Ghost Shadows.

Under Nicky’s leadership, the Ghost Shadows became more powerful and ruthless. However, Nicky wanted to control all of Chinatown. Success then made Nicky a target and he was shot many times but survived.

During one assassination attempt from one of his gangsters, Nicky Louie was shot in the head but managed to run to the police station to save himself.

He agreed to work with the police and the federal prosecutors.

However, to gain the government’s protection, he had to admit to his own crimes and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

This led to the end of the era of New York’s Chinatown Triads.

Today in the U.S., the Chinese Triads consist of an elusive array of constantly changing alliances among many small gangs scattered across the country.

The only bond between the gangs is the desire for making money. These Triads are involved in everything from human trafficking and gambling, to heroin smuggling.

For the first time, the Chinese American Triads are moving beyond the Chinese community and are willing to work with anyone as long as they make money.

FBI Unit Chief Kingman Wong says this makes the Triads in the U.S. a more significant threat to the safety of American citizens.

It’s not easy to define Chinese organized crime today. The Triads are difficult to penetrate.

The History Channel produced a documentary on Organized Crime in China.
click the link to see the entire video—about an hour


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline

7 Responses to The History of Organized Crime in China (Viewed as a Single Page)

  1. The young me, oblivious to anything going on around me, used to hang around with friends on Mott Street because the food was great (and cheap — and they spoke Chinese which made it even cheaper). In those days, stuff imported from China was exotic and beautiful … carved rosewood boxes and painted silk. Who knew? I also used to hang out with other friends in little Italy. Same reason except they spoke Sicilian. I thought everyone was so NICE and FRIENDLY. Garry still knows a lot of family up here in Boston. And they STILL seem so nice and friendly. Except now I know they also have teeth.

    • Do I hear a memoir? :o)

      • Until I read this post, I’d rather forgotten this whole period of my life. It wasn’t a particularly happy time. My friend, the one who spoke Chinese, died very young … just a few years. She was only 19. My life moved on. I’m not sure I remember enough to write a memoir of this period. I was just 15 … 52 years ago. Time really does blur memories. But it’s a thought. The world was so different. WE were so different.

      • What you say about memory is true. Have you read what Oliver Sacks had to say about memory in The New York Review of books?

        And this is why, in 1994-95, I kept that daily journal that ended up being the primary source of my memoir, “Crazy is Normal, a classroom expose”.

        That was my 20th year of teaching and my second with on section of HS journalism and the difference between the students in that class and the kids I taught in my 9th grade college prep English classes was the difference between the surface of Mars and the earth. Knowing I would never remember the details of any of the years I taught, I decided that for one year I’d keep a detailed daily journal of that year as a teacher.

        By then, I’d read enough about how the brain works—learning about how the mind learns—that I knew I couldn’t trust my memory after one night’s sleep so I wrote each day’s entry soon after I arrived home while the memories of the day were still fresh. In fact, I kept notes on 3×5 cards during the school day and kept them in my shirt’s top left pocket. I also had copies of the referrals I wrote and brought those home too.

      • Smart. I wish I’d kept note, though by now I would surely have lost them. Each time I moved — and I’ve moved a LOT — pieces of my life went missing. Those trans-oceanic ones are real killers.

      • But I’ve lost the details of the other twenty-nine years I was a teacher. We tend to lose the good memories first and hold on to bad ones—those that were the most traumatic. At least I have that one year that was probably the most rewarding year of the thirty I was in the classroom as a teacher.

        Larry Hart, a friend and colleague, who taught HS science for thirty-two years, said, “He forgot that he’d ever been a teacher,” two years after he had retired and a few months before he died soon after cancer was discovered throughout his body.

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