How men in white socks get away with murder

Stephen Vines reports on the Taiwanese underworld, while Richard Lloyd Parry (below) examines Japan's escalating gang war
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Taipei - Taiwan's gangsters are keeping their heads down. Having literally got away with murder in front of a seemingly powerless police force, they now face the wrath of public opinion demanding retribution.

In recent months the gangs have gone too far. The kidnap and murder of 17-year old Pai Hsiao-yen, daughter of the well-known entertainer Pai Ping-ping, and the murders of two high-profile politicians, have highlighted a sense of public revulsion.

More than anything else, this led to the downfall of the last government and its replacement by a new administration, which is stressing its commitment to law and order while trying to get the public to focus its attention on economic matters.

A cartoon in the Chinese language political weekly, The Journalist sums up popular cynicism about these developments. It shows an unkempt gangster, roaring with laughter, hanging out of a open window with a powerful rifle trained on the new prime minister, Vincent Siew. On the wall behind are the scalps of the past two premiers.

The joke is not intended to raise a belly laugh; it produces more of a sigh. Yet the mystique of the gangs and their seeming ability to operate beyond the law exerts a compelling attraction over the young who, according to a slightly tongue-in-cheek report in the China News, are turning to gangster chic.

The big-league crime bosses are indistinguishable from the men in suits who run Taiwan's big corporations - indeed, some of them run big corporations themselves. But at street level, where the enforcers are carrying out their work, the gangsters have a distinctive appearance.

It is sufficient to ensure that they, and their emulators, stand out from the crowd. Most obvious is their predilection for chewing betel- nut, leaving their mouths smeared in vicious-looking red. Cigarette smoking, is, of course, mandatory.

Below the neck the first telltale sign of gangster chic is a gleaming gold chain, the heavier the better. The gold is displayed for maximum effect above an open-neck shirt worn loose and several sizes too big. Trousers also need to be baggy and come in two colours: black and green.

They are worn above white socks, presumably for easy night-time identification at floor level for the unfortunate victims who get in their way or end up prone on the ground while engaged in vigorous discussion about protection money. Fortunately for the victims, the thugs tend to favour soft-soled trainers.

Although gangster chic may be regarded as harmless fun, it is perhaps unsurprising in a society where Triad gangs have exerted an unusually profound influence on public life.

Taiwan's ruling party, the Kuomintang, had strong ties to triad gangs, especially in Shanghai. The triad leaders from mainland China fled with their political allies to Taiwan after the triumph of the Communist revolution in 1949.

Indeed, their influence is so blatant that the so called "spiritual leader" of the notorious Heavenly Way gang, Lo Fu-chu, was appointed as chairman of the Judicial Affairs Committee, which supervises both police and judicial budgets.

The government is excruciatingly embarrassed about gang activity and is making a great show of tracking down gang members. Television viewers were glued to their screens as they watched police surround and eventually shoot one of those accused of the Pai Hsiao-yen murder.

While the anti-gang operations are blasting away, the gang bosses have ordered their men to make themselves scarce, but no one seriously believes that they will go away.