The triads first formed as secret societies in southern China in the 17th century to oppose the harsh rule of the Qing Dynasty. By the year 1911, they had split off into many different factions. When the the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, many gangs fled to Hong Kong, as well as Macau, Taiwan and further overseas.
Hong Kong became known as the triad capital. At it’s height in the 1960s and 1970s, it was estimated that one in six people in Hong Kong were affiliated with a triad gang. Nowadays, it’s estimated that only around 100,000 people are triad members in a city of over seven million.
Reign of terror
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Macau, rival triad gangs were responsible for numerous grisly killings. Their involvement extended to everything from protection and extortion rackets to gunrunning and the international drug trade.
Macau’s largest and most notorious triad was the 14K. Their boss or “dragon head” was the infamous Wan Kuok-koi, known as Broken Tooth Koi – Macau’s most notorious gangland leader to date. He earned the nickname “Broken Tooth” from breaking his front tooth after crashing a stolen car.
In the late ’90s, vicious turf wars between the 14K triad and rival triad group Shui Fong broke out in Macau. Shootings were commonplace with professional hitmen on motorcycles slaying their targets in heavy traffic in broad daylight and then speeding off across the border to the safety of mainland China.
Broken Tooth’s story was immortalised on film when a movie based on his life was released in 1998. However, as he watched the movie, Broken Tooth was arrested and charged with illegal gambling, loan-sharking, criminal association, and attempted murder of Macau’s chief of police, Antonio Marques Baptista, with a car bomb. In November 1999, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was eventually released on 1 December, 2012.
Today, triad societies generally keep a lower profile. However, despite various crackdowns, loose networks of gangs such as the 14K and other smaller gangs are still believed to have tens of thousands of members to this day. They are thought to be quietly running prostitution, gambling and drug rackets, as well as more conventional businesses.
In January 2018, risk mitigation expert Steve Vickers spoke out to say that triad activities are still present in Macau. It’s thought that triads still dominate VIP gaming rooms in the city, and they now have extensive networks with mainland officials, junkets, high rollers, investors and criminals.
Furthermore, in a 2016 study, published in the respected British Journal of Criminology and titled ‘Triad Organized Crime in Macau Casinos: Extra-Legal Governance and Entrepreneurship’, Hong Kong academics T. Wing Lo and Sharon Ingrid Kwok found that triads continue to treat the VIP rooms in Macau as economic territories and are mostly involved with gambling-related debt collection.