Wednesday Book: Chasing the deadly dragon

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The Independent Culture



VISITING TOKYO in 1985, I was stunned by my first exposure to the Japanese equivalent of the Nine O'Clock News. The entire half-hour was given over to the funeral of a yakuza (organised crime) boss, gunned down two days before. The tones of the voiceover were respectfully hushed, as were the strains of background music that played throughout. At no point was I made to feel I was bidding farewell to an arch-criminal. Rather, I might have been watching the obsequies of a crown prince.

It was surreal, as if there was no other news for Japan. How much, I wondered, had NHK, the state broadcaster, been paid? Or was NHK itself a yakuza organisation? But no; it was explained to me that the yakuza is considered as much part of the order of things Japanese as Mount Fuji or sumo wrestling. Therefore, the demise of a big man merited commemoration.

Reading The Dragon Syndicates, I was reminded of this episode; not because the Chinese Triads are ever accorded such overt public respect, but because, as Martin Booth amply demonstrates, they are similarly integral to Chinese tradition. Or, to put it another way, to demystify the Triads is tantamount to demystifying China itself. The opacity of the one is intimately connected to the opacity of the other.

Booth's thesis is straightforward enough. The Triads as criminal fraternities are the descendants of earlier "secret" societies founded on principles of clan alliance, personal indebtedness and mutual protection. They utilised a set of common legends and quasi-religious rituals to bond their members.

The need for secrecy was supplied by political circumstance. Because China is so huge, harsh regimes alone can govern it. But a particular spur to secrecy was provided in 1644, when the Ming dynasty was replaced by the Q'ing. As a result, the majority Han found themselves ruled by the minority Manchu. And this gave rise to endless trouble.

Eventually, the Q'ing dynasty succumbed to the Republic of 1912. Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek had Triad affiliations, but the latter more than the former. Indeed, Chiang was from his youth an out-and-out gangster and continued in much the same vein even after he and his Kuomintang fighters withdrew to Taiwan to set up a new republic. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he maintained close links with Triad mobsters in Hong Kong, his plan being to seize the colony and threaten his communist rivals.

An irony of postwar history is that, while Mao Tse-tung rid the mainland of its criminal elements, the US gave clandestine support to a group of remnant Kuomintang on the Sino-Burmese border. But what these Kuomintang were actually engaged in was the development of heroin production.

Enter here the second great fillip to Triad activity: the Chinese diaspora. Although Chinese traders had settled overseas for many hundreds of years, it was Communism's victory that provoked the modern exodus. And with this exodus, numbering hundreds of thousands, went the secret societies and their villains. These, in turn, provided a ready-made network for the marketing of narcotics.

Drug-dealing, however, is only one division of Triad enterprise. Managerially, one kind of crime is much the same as another. Loan-sharking, gambling, prostitution, kidnapping, counterfeiting, smuggling, illegal immigration, assassination and computer fraud are all covered by the Triad charter.

But where Booth's account startles is the extent to which such activities have been deeply seeded in locations as far apart as Amsterdam and Sydney, London and Bangkok, San Francisco and Johannesburg, to the extent that the Triads, sometimes linking up with local mafiosi, are perceived as the architects of a global lawlessness that, sooner or later, will engulf us all.

By comparison, the yakuza seems almost quaint. The Dragon Syndicates is palpably good on such subjects as Triad lore ("bullets are blind, knives have no feeling"), Triad hierarchies, Triad personalities and Triad business methods. However, although Booth has had access to police files in Britain and in Hong Kong, necessarily too many of his sources remain undisclosed. This casts a shadow over some of his more hyperbolic claims.

Thus he gives credence to the legend of the 132 one-kiloton, suitcase- sized nuclear devices the Russians are supposed to have manufactured in the pre-Gorbachev era. The Triads, of course, are involved in distributing those that have gone missing. But while this story has been going the rounds for several years, no one I have ever spoken to believes that these bombs are anything other than an example of Russian blarney. In any case, since when were the Soviets any good at miniaturisation?

However, we should give credit where credit is due. Booth's is a thumping book and has the aura of well researched plausibility in much of what it reveals. Chinatown is never going to be quite the same again.