The Chinese Tongs

Misconceptions about Chinese tongs (driven in large part by Hollywood and the Asian movie industry) in which tongs and triads are interchangeable, its members evil and endowed with special powers, 
[1] are widespread but largely inaccurate.

Modern western tongs originated in the Chinese immigrant communities of nineteenth century America (i.e., San Francisco 1874 and New York 1880) to protect merchants from brutal treatment by the non-Chinese majority, and though similar are distinct in nature to organizations such as the Hongmen [2] and triad societies [3] descended from the Tiandihui a fraternal secret society established to overthrow China’s last ruling dynasty the Qing (Manchu).

As the Chinese population grew so did the power of the tongs, protection becoming a commodity now sold along with drugs, especially opium. Gambling dens, prostitution and other illegal activities became the order of the day, with various tongs battling for ascendancy, territory and profit. These tong wars lasted from the late 1800s to the Roaring Twenties, the violence increasing in intensity until an exhausted populace finally cried enough.

Violent crime by organised gangs of all ethnic persuasions declined dramatically during the 1930s due to government crackdowns and the realization of those involved that putting their ill gotten gains into legitimate business could prove extremely profitable (the Mafia in Las Vegas, the tongs in various Chinatowns). The ease with which people could now travel made tourism and the legitimate removal of said tourist’s money extremely lucrative but demanded an end to open bloodshed and hostility. 

Tongs today seem as diverse in their activities as other organizations, some involved in crime, some involved in legitimate business, while still others are well known charitable institutions.

[1] The Boxer Tong “I Ho Chuan” circa 1900 did believe that by engaging in certain secret rituals they could be rendered invulnerable to the weapons of foreigners.

[2] Hongmen today are a grouping whose concept basically mirrors Tiandihui. It was declared illegal in Hong Kong by the British, who perceived all Chinese secret societies (rightly or wrongly) as a threat to law and order, while in Taiwan it is not only legal but also politically influential; Chiang Kai Shek and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen were both members. In the West it is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Freemasons” because of various outward similarities such as the use of esoteric symbolism, along with secret Rites and ceremonies. 

[3] Triads (the name was coined by the old British colonial administration of Hong Kong) are underground organizations based mainly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and worldwide in areas with large Chinese populations. Originally a patriotic society (the Hung) they turned to crime following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the abrupt removal of their “raison d’etre.” They are still engaged in various illegal operations such as gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking.

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