My involvement began in high school. There was nothing dramatic about it, I just became friends with a bunch of people I thought were cool and one thing led to another.
High school gangs are like triad training schools. They are not part of the triads per se, they’re more of a triad Mickey Mouse fan club where a group of young wannabes strut around pretending to be something they’re not. You’d be surprised at just how many of these there are.
The leaders of these high school gangs are usually affiliated with a low ranking triad member, called a 49 in triad lexicon. These are the foot soldiers. The 49 functions as big brother whose help the boys would call on in case of trouble, but big brother is also a scout who kept an eye out for promising young talent.
I must’ve seemed like one, because I was soon introduced to the 49er’s tailou (big brother), who was also a 49er. We met a few times at a local disco, snorted cocaine, gargled ketamine, popped ecstasy, and soon he trusted me enough to put me in charge of a few high-school gangs.
The triads are structured like a MLM scheme. At the lower levels, the more followers you recruit, the more powerful you become, the higher up you climb. The people above your rank are referred to as tailou or ____ ko which means elder brother, and your followers are referred to as DauGei, or children.
It’s all about the organization. So we organized.
We recruited the same way ISIS and Al Qaeda does: by giving disaffected and disenfranchised young men a sense of belonging. We start off by convincing the kids that we were cool by bringing them alcohol, drugs and other illicit goods. Then when they have issues they’d come to us for help and we’d help them. Many of the kids I recruited were bullied in school and looking for some revenge, and we’d give the kid’s bully a thorough trashing.
Some of the kids would naively come to see us as these cool guys who were looking out for them, and they’d seek to be a part of our circle. Once we got the kids on hooked on the illusion of brotherhood and coolness, they’re ours to keep. And they’ll bring their friends as well.
We went around the schools settling petty disputes such as who stole whose girlfriend – at the high school level, everything is petty- , and we enforced pax triadica with our fists. We demanded discipline from our members, and if one of our own went out of line we’d beat him up ourselves. We were a group of young bullies with our own set of rules and standards of behaviour. My recruits unwittingly traded one bully in school, for circle of friends who bullied one another.
From petty disputes we graduated on to settling disputes between local businesses. Unlicensed bars, moneylenders and illegal gambling dens would pay us a set fee, and in return we’d step in if they have problems. The money was terrible, but for a young kid, having adults and business owners turn to you for help is a huge ego trip.
I was able to grow the organization effectively because I understood the principles of peer pressure and groupthink. So if you’re a parent, I would advise you to obsess over who your teenager is hanging out with; there are many manipulators like me out there.
I must’ve been a pretty good recruiter, because the boss took me under his wing and introduced me to his boss, Suen Ko. Suen Ko was a hung kwan, or a mid-level lieutenant in the triad hierarchy. This is where I started to get involved with the actual organization. We had a short initiation ceremony in a karaoke room, and I became a 49 under Suen Ko.
Suen Ko owned a few nightclubs and bars, and virtually every night we’d be in one of his fine establishments drinking, partying, and partaking in every drug we could get our hands on. Our sort attracted a certain sort of girl, and there were girls aplenty. The bars were a money maker, but Suen Ko’s real money came from selling bootleg CDs.
At the time, bootleg CDs and eventually DVDs were an organized crime gold rush. This was before napster and way before bittorrent, and demand was so high that we filled up entire shopping malls with outlets selling pirated movies, music and software. A common joke was that if Bill Gates ever visited our malls, he’d have a heart attack on the spot.
For about 5 cents in costs for a blank CD, we sold the end product to the consumer for 15 local bucks a pop. Not even cocaine had that kind of margin. We were selling the bootlegs as fast as we could print them, and best of all piracy was perceived by the local cops as a low-impact crime and as such wasn’t rigorously enforced. Heck, many of our regular customers were cops. At the time, you could drive up to a police checkpoint with a stash of bootleg CDs on the backseat, give cheeky grin and a thumbs up, and the cops would just wave you through.
Suen Ko made millions within his first year.
I was good with computers, and I became his IT department. I helped him organize his production, and in return he gave me a handsome cut. I made quite a bit of money in my teens, but I quickly blew it all on drugs and girls.
The biggest eye opener was during the annual company dinner. They had to construct a tent hall on an empty field to fit all 5,000 of us in, and there were local politicians and community leaders on the front row tables. That drove in the impression of just how big the tree was, and how deep the roots went.
If I made the triads sound like corporations, that’s because that’s what they are. We were even registered with the Registrar of Companies as a multimedia company and we paid our taxes. The big bosses looked just like any other middle aged Chinese uncle you’d meet at the local supermarket. The best way to avoid detection is to be in plain sight and blend into the background. The so-called gangsters you see on the street strutting their stuff are amateurs; many of them are just aping what they see in the movies. The pros keep a low profile and get on with making money.
Once you go far enough up the hierarchy, violence is actually pretty rare. For the most part, being a triad is just like working in any other corporate job.
But when violence does occur at that level, it’s freaking terrifying.
Roundabout the end of my first year, there was a war. The politician who Suen Ko worked for was at odds with another politician from the same organization. There were a few shootings, grenade attacks, and choppings, but it didn’t affect me directly at first so I didn’t give much thought to it. Then a call came one night. All hands on deck. We dropped everything and converged on the HQ.
Pardon the expletive, but it was scary as fuck. There were a hundred or so of us milling about an office block, and someone started handing out machetes and sashimi knives. Suen Ko took me up to the office, and there were hard looking fuckers at every corner. The air was so full of cigarette smoke I could barely breathe. Everyone looked grim. Apparently we were expecting an attack.
I was a skinny teenager, and I was out of my depth. Till that point, I’d been involved on the white collar side of things. The guys I saw that night had the word hard etched on their faces. I’ve never felt more scared than I did that night.
We stayed there overnight, but no attack came so we went back to our branch office. They attacked us there. A dozen or so guys rushed in and we fought back with chairs, clubs, machetes, boxes of A4 paper, everything we could get our hands on. It was a hazy frantic panicky desperate fight for survival. We were cornered and if we lost it would’ve been game over. One of theirs died in the melee.
The police arrived fairly quickly and I went to jail for a bit. It was in a cell that I resolved that this life wasn’t for me. For some miraculous reason, I got off scot-free. I went home, packed my things, and left everything behind to start a new life.
So how did it feel like? Terrible.
It’s not a healthy way to live one’s life. It got to the point where I was so paranoid that whenever I went to a restaurant I’d sit facing the entrance so I’d know who was coming in. I saw potential threats everywhere, and I carried symptoms of PTSD for a long time afterwards.
It took me a very long time to put my past behind and to learn to live again without fear like a normal human being. I had cut off all ties with everyone I knew, and have difficulty trusting people. Till today I know many, but am close with very few.
If there’s any teenager reading this who is in a similar situation as I was, know that the world is vast and there are opportunities everywhere. The cool kids you see in school are anything but.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did