The Triads are a worldwide organized crime network, the oldest criminal organization on Earth and one of the main organized crime groups in the 21st century.
The Triads originated in the 17th century. Founded by several monks who despite their loyalty and service to the Manchu emperors, were betrayed as their monastery was destroyed and most of their fellow monks slaughtered by the imperial forces. They vowed to overthrow the corrupt regime and each established a secret anti-Manchu society.
Over time they evolved into the Triad and spread across China, multiplying in the number of lodges and in membership. The Manchus destroyed many of them, but like weeds new ones kept appearing. Unfortunately for the monks, the Triads never succeeded in overthrowing the Manchus and gradually mutated into organized crime.
It's a great century for the Triads as they are one of the great winners of the Cyberpunk era. The Chinese Civil War of 1992-2014 ended up benefiting the Triads in at least three ways. For starters it facilitated their overseas expansion by allowing them to get it's enforcers, mules, and prostitutes into other nation-states as "refugees". Therefore the Triad presence in Canada exploded, it turned them into the third largest organized crime group in the United States, and New Zealand now finds itself facing a growing Triad presence.
Second, due to their participation in the war against the revolutionary army of the Maoist Loyalist Cabal (MLC) which was attempting to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and revert China to Maoism, they became allies of the corporations based in Hong Kong and of the People's Liberation Army in China.
Now they are called "patriotic" and "noble" by elements within the Chinese government, which means government influence and protection. Last but not least, China is still under martial law because of surviving MLC cells and within China there is a thriving black market, and naturally the Triads are involved in that business.
Triads vary greatly in how organized they are. Some Triads are loosely organized, more like coalitions of gangs. Other Triads have a structured hierarchy, with specified ranks and perhaps even a council or a board of directors. Numerical codes that are based on Chinese numerology are assigned to members to identify what rank they have.
Members of a Triad are taught the centuries-old hand signals of the Triad and undergo initiation ritual based on Daoist and Buddhist traditions / beliefs which ends with a loyalty oath. Communication among Triad members may include the use of a numbered code. The Dragonheads (Triad leaders), usually lead a public life as a businessman running some type of small business, like a small restaurant. The idea is to keep a low profile, so though the Dragonhead may be one of the most powerful men in the city or perhaps even the country, most will keep that facade of humility.
- At the top of the Triad hierarchy is the Shan Chu (Lodge Master / Dragonhead - 489). He or she has very little contact, if any with the rank and file members of the Triad. Dragonheads are quasi-legitimate businessmen.
- In the level below, are the "483"s. The top ranked 483 is the Fu Shan Chu (Deputy Lodge Master, the top ranked 483) who manages the day-to-day operations of the Triad. Below him are two 483s of equal rank; the Heung Chu (Incense Master) who is in charge of enforcing the traditions of the Triad, and the Sin Fung (Guardian) who is in charge of recruiting. Last is the Sheung Fa (Double Flower), whom are the ones who establish new branches of the Triad.
- Below the 483's are the Triad's officers. The military commander in charge of the gangs is the Hung Kwan (Red Pole, 426). In charge of accounting is the Pak Tsz Sin (White Paper Fan, 415). The public face of the Triad who collects and pays the bribes and graft from the businesses and gangs is the Cho Hai (Grass Sandal, 425).
- Last of all are the rank-n-file members, all of whom are Sze Kau (49). They are the soldiers of the Triad who provide security, act as muscle, run a business, supervise a safehouse, or work as hitmen for the Triad.
Like the other major organized crime groups, the Triads are into a wide variety of criminal activities. Within China there is a huge black market in guns, satellite dishes, cyberware, imported food, and Japanese braindance. Wherever the Triads operate they often have their fingers into vice (gambling and prostitution). They run smuggling operations (drugs, people, stolen goods, etc), face banks, protection rackets, fences, and underground banks. Other enterprises are credstick chopping, designer drugs, counterfeit passports & ID cards, and house invasions. They even control some of the pirate packs in Chinese waters.
The Triads are present in China and throughout the Chinese Diaspora. Overseas among the Chinese Diaspora, the Triads recruit by protecting them from racists and bringing their violent and misguided youth into the Triad. In the United States they hold a stranglehold on the Chinese communities. In Europe, the Triads are strongest in England and the Netherlands. Compared to the Yakuza, the Sudams, and some of the Mafia groups who are focused only on profit and could care less about the communities, the Triads use a significant chunk of their profits to support their communities. Unfortunately turf wars between the Triads in the Far East are exported to Chinatowns around the world.
Triads have a code of honor but it's not as defined as that of the Mafia or Yakuza. It's not a united criminal organization as each Triad is led by it's own Dragonhead who may or may not be advised by a council or board of directors. In the Chinese criminal underworld there is no ruling council or board of directors overseeing all of the Triads, nor is there a boss of bosses. The hierarchy within a Triad arranges, maintains, and controls the Triad's profitable interests while the fighters (Hung Kwan) patrol the streets.
In the world of organized crime, it is among the most violent and trigger happy of crime syndicates, and unlike the Yakuza or Mafia which will break your legs or burn a building, the Triad is likely to dice you up and spread the pieces around the neighborhood as a form of warning. In the United States, the Triads are the most brutal of organized crime groups, terrorizing or killing entire families as a warning to others.
Martial arts and mysticism are used to solidify their groups. Usually members come from the same region and speak the same dialect. They prefer the "Big Suit" look which has the benefit of being fashionable as well as letting you hide armor and guns. Hitters often have cyber modifications and may use various combat drugs to give them that edge.
- Sun Yee On (Hong Kong-based)
- 14K Triad (Hong Kong-based)
- Golden Lotus Triad (Hong Kong-based)
- Lotus Eaters (China)
- 777 (Taiwan)
- Yellow Chaos (San Francisco)
- Ghost Shadows (New York City)
In reality, Chinese organized crime is an underworld that consists of thousands of syndicates and outfits with a combined membership of tens of millions of members. The largest, wealthiest, and most powerful of the Chinese crime syndicates is the Sun Yee On, a Triad from Hong Kong with 50-60,000 members which may also be the wealthiest and most powerful crime syndicate in the world. Chinese organized crime earns $100s of billions annually in revenue and perhaps even over a $1 trillion annually. Chinese organized crime has nearly a monopoly on the criminal underworld within the People's Republic of China, the defacto independent state of Taiwan, and the autonomous city of Hong Kong. It is the most influential criminal underworld in Southeast Asia, with a presence in virtually every nation-state and dominating various illicit markets and being a major player in the rest. Globally, it has a presence in more countries than any other ethnic criminal network and may be the most influential organized criminal underworld on Earth.
It has been the Chinese syndicates who have controlled the drug trade out of the Golden Triangle from the beginning. During the 1990s when the Colombian cocaine cartels where the focus of the DEA and the news, it was the Chinese Triads who were the biggest drug traffickers as they were making $200 billion a year from the heroin trade. Today the Chinese syndicates dominate the two biggest global rackets, the manufacturing and trade in counterfeit goods and the illegal sports betting industry (specifically on soccer). Each of those rackets are worth more than half a trillion dollars a year, and the lion's share goes to Chinese organized crime.  They are also the dominant global players in environmental crime (ivory, wildlife, timber, fishing, coal, oil, etc). Within Southeast Asia, the Triads dominate the rackets in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore as well as the Golden Triangle drug trade and the Southeast Asia smuggling networks (people, drugs, commodities, & duty-free goods). Inside the People's Republic of Crime, the underworld is controlled by the Chinese with no foreign competition. From which they earn untold tens of billions more.
Chinese organized crime in the late 20th century and early 21st century has varied when it comes to those it recruits. In mainland China it's usually all Chinese. When it comes to the overseas Chinese syndicates, most of them are divided by regional dialect (Cantonese, Fujianese, Chaozhou, Hokkien, etc). In Thailand, their syndicates consist of both ethnic Thai Chinese and native Thais. Down in Malaysia, they have recruited Indians into their syndicates and there are even all-female Triads. In the city-state of Singapore, the Triads have recruited Malays. Over in Vietnam, it was ethnic Viet Chinese and they recruit native Vietnamese. In Hong Kong, they've recruited South Asians and sometimes women.
Down in Australia, the Triads have recruited non-Asians from elite schools. In New York City, the Triads established Korean branches. On the West Coast, in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Triads recruited Vietnamese. Over in Great Britain, the Triads recruited Caucasians, Malaysians, Vietnamese, and blacks. Though some of these Triads have recruited non-Chinese and some of them have even recruited non-Asians, the majority of the members of most of these Triads continued to be Chinese. The leadership within most of these Triads likewise remained Chinese only and among those few Triads that had non-Chinese leadership, it was the Chinese members who had the wealth and power (acting as the syndicate's bankers). A few Chinese crime syndicates and criminal networks have been led by women.
The Chinese Mafia has possessed a wide variety of weapons depending on the time and place. During the early 20th century, in one of the warlord periods of China some of the Triad leaders became generals or warlords. Leading armies of conscripts or bandits armed with artillery and armored vehicles, and sometimes even gunboats or propeller fighter-bombers. In the Golden Triangle, Chinese drug lords control narco armies equipped with anti-aircraft artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns, land mines, anti-tank weapons (RPGs), armored vehicles, and armed riverine craft. There are Chinese syndicates involved in piracy equipped with all types of boats, heavy machine guns, and RPGs.
In mainland China in the last few decades with the resurgence of organized crime, there have been syndicates armed mostly with firearms and some with grenades, land mines, machine guns, and armored vehicles (though the latter groups have all been taken down by the government before they become a threat). In Hong Kong, Chinese crime outfits have stuck to swords, cleavers, automatic firearms, and sometimes grenades. Over in the United States, ethnic Chinese mobs of the late 20th century and early 21st century are known for using handguns, sub-machine guns, and assault rifles.
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Triads in the Real World
- Wikipedia: Triads
- Stratfor: Organized Crime in China
- Research Gate: Black Societies and Triad-like Organised Crime in China
- United Nations: Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific
- U.S. Congress: Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations
- Havoscope: Black Market Crime in China
- Global Strategy: Chinese Organized Crime
- Lords of the Mafia, Episode 2, Chinese Triads 
- Gangland, Season 2 Episode 2, Deadly Triangle 
- The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads by Martin Booth 
- Tongs, Gangs, and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America by Peter Huston 
- The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History by Dian H. Murray and Qin Baoqi 
- La Mafia China (Spanish Edition) by Alejandro Riera