Massive protests hurt triads’ underworld business
Legitimate organizations not the only ones to suff er when pro- democracy movement shut down the city
HONG KONG — As thousands of pro- democracy protesters thronged Hong Kong’s major retail and business districts, blocking roads and forcing shops to close, it wasn’t just legal establishments feeling the pain.
Business for Hong Kong’s gangsters fell “about 40 per cent” in the days after the occupation started on Sept. 28, according to a man who gave his name only as Ah Lik and said he was a district head of the 14K, one of Hong Kong’s three largest organized crime outfits, known as triads. He referred to the takings of various triad- related rackets across the city and declined to give further details.
The protests brought to light how far the triads will go to protect the underground economy they dominate in places such as Mong Kok in Kowloon, a vice-prone area across the harbour from central Hong Kong that bustles with hawkers and food stalls. With student- led demonstrators occupying some of Mong Kok’s streets, disrupting businesses, scuffles broke out on Oct. 3 as groups of men punched, kicked and abused protesters.
Police initially arrested 20 men over that night, including eight suspected of triad membership. All eight were released on bail pending further investigation, Hui Chun- tak, chief superintendent of the police public relations branch, said at a briefing Oct. 8.
“Mong Kok is built on vice — brothels, nightclubs, blokes going in these establishments don’t like to be seen — this just disrupts the whole business,”
Mong Kok is built on vice — brothels, nightclubs, blokes going in these establishments don’t like to be seen … MARTIN PURBRICK FORMER HONG KONG DETECTIVE
said Martin Purbrick, a former detective who served from 1988 to 2000 in the Hong Kong police intelligence bureau investigating organized crime.
Like underground businesses, companies across the city lost money because of the protests, with sales at small-to-medium- sized companies falling as much as 80 per cent between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said . Those operating in the Mong Kok, Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui shopping areas occupied by protesters were hurt the most, it said.
Apple Daily, a Hong Kongbased Chinese language newspaper, reported Oct. 7 that members of the Wo Shing Wo gang associated with known-triad leaders “Shanghai Boy” and “Kiddo” were among those involved in the Mong Kok violence. The paper cited people familiar with triad activities.
The Wo Shing Wo gang is one of the most active in Mong Kok, according to Purbrick. The 14K, to which Ah Lik claimed membership, takes its moniker partly from the symbol for karat gold, according to Henry Prunckun, writing in Organized Crime: An International Encyclopedia. The other main group is the Sun Yee On.
Protest leaders sought to tie the Mong Kok attacks to a nexus of gangs, police and the local government — and by inference from the central administration in China.
“The government and police have allowed triads and thugs to use violence to attack peaceful protesters, cutting off the road to any conversation,” the Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a posting on its Facebook page.
Hong Kong police “resolutely” deny allegations they worked with triads, Senior Superintendent Kong Man- keung said. The force is determined to clamp down on gangs, the police public relations branch said in an email.
Ah Lik, who put his age at 40, said while his territory was primarily on Hong Kong island, it’s “impossible” that police would join forces with gangsters. “There are some people who like to take advantage of the chaotic situation,” he said, without elaborating.
Though triads are often depicted as highly organized units with vast business interests and links to the police and government, the reality is different, according to Roderic Broadhurst, a professor of criminology at the Australian National University in Canberra, who has written about the so- called “Dark Societies.”
“A lot of them are young disadvantaged kids, who join gangs and call themselves triads,” he said. “The old fraternal brotherhoods, offering mutual aid and so on remain in the background.” Triads tend to prosper when offering protection in illicit markets such as drugs, underground gambling, child pornography and debt collection, he said.
Broadhurst estimates triad membership in Hong Kong may have dropped from about 55,000 in the 1970s to 30,000 or fewer now, “though those numbers are very rough.”
There were 2,035 reports of triad- related crimes in 2013 with 2,844 people arrested, Hong Kong’s police public relations branch said. The police didn’t provide current triad membership estimates.