The Global Racket

Mark Swallow

[A review of ] Martin Booth's The Triads: The Chinese Criminal Fraternity 215pp. Grafton. 13.95. O 246 13680 4] Times Literary Supplement , September 7-13 1990, 952

The Western conviction that the Chinese are inscrutable and utterly "different" extends to the Chinese underworld. Their criminals, like their bureaucrats, have been "squeezing" each other for centuries and, although we despair of understanding them, we accept that sinister brotherhoods and protection rackets are central to this oriental way of life.

In The Triads Martin Booth declares that our attitude is dangerously complacent and argues that the West should now recognize these organized crime syndicates as "Public Enemy Number One". Not only do the Triads now control 90 per cent of the world's heroin trade but they are also about to be flushed out of Hong Kong. In anticipation of a ruthless takeover by mainland Chinese Communists, the Triads are coming West in order to base their operations in the hundreds of Chinatowns where emigres, as shown in Timothy Mo's excellent novel Sour Sweet (1982), are particularly vulnerable to their powerful form of social welfare.

Booth's warning, which he describes as a "stopgap", as he hopes that a Chinese writer will soon produce a definitive analysis, is accompanied by a survey of the Triad myth and history. This background is an attempt to explain the Triad mentality, although he admits that tradition is no longer relevant to the latest generation of thugs. Quoting the Chinese saying, "When history dies, the future has no children," Booth adds that "for the Triads, history has long been buried". The ProDemocracy demonstrators of Tiananmen Square may have been to some extent inspired by the early Triads as their origins lay in secret societies dedicated to overthrowing corrupt imperial governments.

But in fact Booth is more interesting in his survey of modern Hong Kong where the Triads have spread like bindweed through the Chinese community. Along with everyone else in the territory they began to flourish after 1945 and, with meat cleaver and kung fu kick, extended their control of the street: prostitution and gambling operations expanded, profiting from the growing numbers of expatriates; coolies were unable to find work without Triad backing; protection rackets and extortion proliferated; the loyalty of police officers, both English and Chinese, was bought; Triads built shanty towns and then powered and plumbed them with illegal tappings of electricity and water; they forged everything from passports to Rolex watches. Subsequently, the microchip revolution has provided new scope for their operators and white collar Triads have built fortunes on pirated software. They have moved easily up the glass office blocks as accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers .

But, writes Booth. all this is as nothing compared to the Triads' domination of the heroin trade. As the Mafia has declined in America the Chinese drug barons have become sole brokers of the expanding poppy crop of the Golden Triangle -- an annual 1,500 tons of opium -- which they process into heroin in temporary laboratories.

In a wide-ranging and interesting final chapter Booth suggests what the Triads' ambitions are, now that for them Hong Kong is coming an end. He identifies Australia, where under their ministrations heroin addiction is already soaring, as one of their main targets. Perhaps, though, Booth speculates, they will join forces with the Japanese Yakusa or reach agreement with the IRA, or manipulate the stockmarkets of the world, or blackmail governments with computer viruses. In the immediate future it seems likely that they will expand their heroin trade with Britain. And since 150 years ago Britain began to develop Hong Kong with profits from the poppy, the future may provide a historical irony to delight even most rootless modern Triad.

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview