Chinese Corner

Triad and Tested6 min read

Start talking like a Hong Kong gangster – RS

Editor’s Note: Chinese Corner is back in session, and we’re kicking off the academic year with a lesson in Cantonese gangster slang. Our syllabus for 2018-2019 includes more of the Cantonese you need to know (such as for ordering dim sum), the passive-aggressive use of the passive in Mandarin, ungendered pronouns and their gendered written forms, a manifesto for learning the many varieties of Chinese that are not Mandarin, and more. Classes will be held every other Tuesday to make room for exciting new features at the China Channel, such as Borderlands. There will be a light-hearted test in December to review all we’ve learned here so far, with a book giveaway prize. Office hours are 24/7 on Twitter – simply ask me a #chinesequestion. Welcome back! – Anne Henochowicz


It’s an open secret in Hong Kong that both triads (haak1 se5 wui5 黑社會) and local police worship the same deity, Guan Gong, for upholding brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness. It may be odd for organizations that represent opposite ends of the morality scale to both honor righteousness, but it’s this blurred space between right and wrong that is so fascinating about the triads of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong gangs have been called triads because “their mystic literature emphasizes a three-way relationship among heaven, earth, and man.” They trace their beginnings to societies from 17th-century China united in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and restoring the Ming. When the Chinese Communist Party took over in 1949, many gangs fled to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, where they still flourish today. Besides the usual trifecta of illegal gambling, drug trafficking and sex work, modern triads also exert their influence through extortion of businesses from small newsstands to huge construction companies. A typical practice might involve wan6 gat1 運吉, “sending luck,” a play on  gaat1, or mandarin tree. According to urban myth, the triads would bring small potted mandarin trees to businesses on the pretense of good luck but also as a veiled threat, asking for an extortionate price to buy the company.

As a teenager, my “exposure” to Hong Kong’s organized crime came through the hugely popular Cantonese triad films of the 1990s. My parents originally forbade me to see the Young and Dangerous series (Gu2 waak6 zai2 古惑仔) when it came out in theaters. Instead, my dad took my brother, who was already in high school and sporting the russet hair styles, one-sided earring and chunky silver jewelry characteristic of the MK look – a fashionable street look adopted by the gangers of Mongkok. I was pretty sure my dad hoped his chaperoning would be an edifying influence and a preemptive strike against any budding gangster behavior. I had to wait until my brother brought home the DVDs before I could see the movies myself.

Young and Dangerous – including multiple sequels, spin-offs and a prequel – was an instant hit with young and old alike. The appeal relied on the protagonist’s careful balance of sinister, saintly and cool. Despite their crime affiliation, the gangsters were often depicted as loyal and just individuals navigating a corrupt society. Chan Ho Nam, the protagonist originally featured in the comic book series Teddy Boy, remains fiercely faithful to his girlfriend, best friends and boss (daai6 lou2 大佬), even in his struggle to be recognized as boss himself. After he becomes the Causeway Bay gang leader
(zaa1 fit jan4 揸fit人) and owns a string of nightclubs with dubious side businesses, he treats all the hostesses with respect, and good-naturedly exhorts them to “get to work.” The triads were fashionable, fast-talking, and hilariously cocky(cyun3 寸)
, even in his struggle to be recognized as boss himself. After he becomes the Causeway Bay gang leader. They stood up to authority, especially when officialdom abused its power.

The success of triad films in the 1990s and early 2000s also had much to do with Hong Kong’s anxiety over its precarious political situation. Distrust of governing bodies was widespread, especially during the colonial 1970s, when rampant corruption led to the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Whether in film or real life, it wasn’t always clear who was meant to be the good guys. That’s why undercover cops posing as triads, and undercover triads infiltrating the cops, were a popular theme in movies, with the mole (ji6 ng5 zai2 二五仔) trope reaching its pinnacle in the classic Infernal Affairs (2002). Posed with the wider problem of how Hong Kong’s legislative autonomy under mainland China might take shape, moviegoers found appeal in the idea of triads taking rule of law directly into their own hands.

Another potent question in these films is whether corrupt Hong Kong was suited for democracy. Movies that skirt this topic include Election (2005), where mobsters fight hook-and-crook to gain power, as well as Young and Dangerous 2 (1996), where “Chicken” goes to Taiwan during its multi-party infancy and is unable to tell the difference between politicians and gang members. Often these connections made the leap from the silver screen to actual news reports, for example during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests, when the government was accused of dispatching triads to infiltrate student gatherings.

Growing up in Hong Kong, it was hard to know who to trust, especially when it seemed like there was always reason to doubt so-called legitimate sources such as the local media or the police. It is an interesting coincidence that the word for “cop” in Cantonese slang is caai1 jan4 差人 or caai1 lou2 差佬, literally “bad guy.” Instead, triad movies offered a false refuge, where you could believe that even the villains did admirable things.

While the triad gangsters depicted in Hong Kong films are far from modern-day Robin Hoods, they reflect a world full of contradiction easily recognizable to Hong Kongers – a world where the  “good guys” are bad, and the “bad guys” might be half-good. ∎


Today’s triad-related vocabulary and slang:
  • haak1 se5 wui5 黑社會 – the mob, literally “black society”
  • wan6 gat1 運吉 – literally “send luck,” but actually a threat like “your time is up.” Gat1 sounds like aat1 桔, or mandarin tree. According to urban myth, the triads would bring potted mandarin trees to small businesses on the pretense of good luck but also as a veiled threat, asking for an extortionate price to buy the place
  • gu2 waak6 zai2 古惑仔 (gǔ huò zǎi) – gangster, literally a “mischievous guy,” and the Cantonese title of the film series Young and Dangerous
  • MK zai2 MK仔 / MK look  – teenagers with the fashionable street look adopted by the gangers of Mongkok
  • daai6 lou2 大佬  – mafia boss or godfather, literally “big brother”
  • zaa1 fit jan4 揸fit人 – leader of a gang with a monopoly over organized crime in a particular neighborhood
  • cyun3 寸 – cocky, more bark than bite
  • ji6 ng5 zai2 二五仔 – spy or mole
  • caai1 jan4 差人 – a cop or the cops, literally “bad guy(s).” Also caai1 lou2 差佬