Author: cheok hong chuan
Date: 02-24-12 00:35
Somebody [was it Kobo or Charles Koon or Coyote?] requested me recently to share memories of mychildhood triad days. Here goes;
"The fact that “Kwan Kung” is the “patron saint” or deity of the Chinese triads is a reason why Chinese triads have elaborate, arcane, mysterious and somewhat surreptitious rituals and initiation and propitiation ceremonies, usually conducted by a Taoist shaman. I have no knowledge of the exact nature and procedural details of these rituals or ceremonies, not having being privy to them at any time in my life. However, by word of mouth or hearsay, their existence is trite, common knowledge. Apparently settlements of blood feuds or vendettas and territorial disputes, albeit after a spate of bloody warfare, are made by rival gangs through a formal truce or pact or otherwise, under or through the auspices of a “Kwan Kung” ceremony. When you are outside the jurisdiction of the de jure authorities and the law, you need to have a mutually recognised de facto or “spiritual” authority in this case to maintain law and order in the secret “subterranean” world of triad and illicit activity. In that sense, the traditional Chinese triads of my childhood were like a cross between the Mafia, the Freemasons & the Opus Dei.
Personally, I have heard of some details of an initiation ceremony, which involved cutting the neck of cockerel and the “smearing” of its blood on the initiate, and the swearing of an oath by the drinking of rice wine to “Kwan Kung”. The oath includes the swearing of loyalty and allegiance and affirmation to comply with the “Ancient Chivalry Code”, (of the “18 Lor Hon” or the legendary “18 Buddhist Kung-fu Warriors”), comprising within it, elements of debt, honour and integrity. I should mention that the possible source of the names for the “08” and “108” Gangs might be the Buddhist Noble 8-Fold Path and the 108-beaded Buddhist meditation rosary. The Chinese triad members do not “nick” the palm of their hands to “mix” blood to become “blood-brothers”, like what you see in “Cowboy and Indian” movies. The Chinese are neither cowboys nor Red Indians. I shall not speculate further on triad arcane ceremonies.
What is of more public knowledge is the “patois” or “lingo” or “hand signals” and other “mannerisms” or “etiquette” that triad members used in dealings with each other. Triad members could identify each other or an associated group by the way you held your fingers when you smoke or the number of times you tapped a cigarette on the table before lighting up and the way you nonchalantly mislaid the requisite number of matches on the table as an “identifier”. There might be a certain opening catchphrase for the month when you proffered salutary greetings. The triad members had or have a penchant for agglutinating words, to come up with a catch phrase, as an aphorism that had a certain unique or quaint meaning, sort of like “slang”.
It did not help that the lingua franca between the different dialect groups was Cantonese. For the Cantonese dialect have 8 or more tones for each phonetic sound. This means you end up with an alliterated language where in one sentence, an untrained ear would hear the same sound 10 or more times. The dilemma is that in fact there are possibly 6 or more different words in relation to that ‘same’ one phonetic sound! When there was a “curfew” or “war” in the sense that rival gangs can no longer enter each other’s territory, the aphorism used is “kai yim” or “no salt diet”. For “salt” gives “taste” to food and is used here as meaning “life and its relationship”. So, “kai yim” means that there is no longer a ‘living’ relationship.
When there was a “kai yim”, one needed to be extra careful and be on the full alert, as this was a time of “open warfare”. No, the Chinese triads are not like the Italian Mafia, shooting each other on sight or in surreptitious stealth, (springing up for a machine gun slaughter Al Capone style, by underhanded surprise). Triad gangland fights were organised “rumbles” scheduled in advance at a nominated time and place. Usually this was between 9pm and midnight at one of the “cross-boundary” back lanes. One common “battleground” was the back lane behind the shophouses on both sides of Batu Road. No guns were used but rather “parangs” or machetes, axes, bicycle or motorcycle chains or short handle scythes. These weapons would normally maim but could often be fatal nonetheless.
Often these scheduled “rumbles” got cancelled or postponed because an informer had alerted the “Red Berets”, the Police Special Triad Squad. When you see the Red Berets around, you know that there might be an impending “rumble”. Most of the residents are unlikely to ‘inform’. Most would, I think, sit on the fence, and prevaricate when questioned by the Red Berets. Triad warfare or killings are not usually indiscriminating. The “kai yim” and a rumble is restricted to the participating triad members and not innocent outsiders. As a local, you got wind of a “rumble’ and just avoided the proposed “battleground”. If you lived nearby, you just shut your door and windows and “pretended” that nothing was happening or had happened.
One night, my twin brother, Albert, and our foster-brother Victor, were sandwiched in the middle of a rumble, as the 2 opposing gangs were approaching, (in the moonlit darkness), at Batu Lane, (behind the Batu Road shophouse, Lim Clinic, next to “Yuen Co.”, where Victor lived upstairs above the clinic). They were at the wrong place at the wrong time and were mistaken by both gangs as to be of or from the “other side”. They got chased, all the way to the flight of steps leading to Victor’s upstairs house. Albert recounted that he missed being slashed in the legs by a parang by a matter of “a few inches”. The “banter” is still repeated today of Albert saying to Victor – “Why did you not wait for me?” and Victor’s reply – “When in danger, every man for himself!”
Unlike “kai yim” gangland warfare, the “job specific” or “person specific” targeted “poh sou” i.e. retribution or assassination, takes place by ambush or stealth. My 1st and most poignant and dramatic experience or recollection of a triad gangland assassination or killing was when I was about 5 years old. It was after dinner and “Aunty”, the family cook and servant, had long finished cleaning up the kitchen. I was chasing cicaks [geckos in Malay] crawling on the wall and ceiling and Aunty was directing us children to get ready for bed. Suddenly we heard the howling screams of someone hollering in anguished pain, and in total fear, in the Malay language, repeatedly – “Mak! Mak! Tolong! Kena Bunoh!” [Mother! Mother! Help! They are killing me!]. This was against a background noise of skirmish and melee, of scores of running and shuffling feet. In the quiet of the night, noise travelled very far, and from the running and shuffling, one could deduce that what was taking place was occurring on the 2nd dirt road through the Left Flank, directly in front of the squatter house at the back of our house. It was an indescribable, horrific and extremely traumatic experience, to hear the cries for help from a dying man being slaughtered or machete to death. His physical pain and mental fears of impending inevitable death somehow registered in the hopeless urgency and emotional intensity of his pleas. The assailants were obviously “impercipient” to his pleas for life.
We all roughly knew who the victim was. There was a mixed-Eurasian family in one of the shared housing directly across the 2nd dirt road from the squatter house at the back of our house. The young man, the scion of this Eurasian family, a minority in a Chinese settlement, must have committed a very serious “capital” offence to have been “assassinated” by the triads. Such was the indoctrinated rule or procedure in a triad dominated Chinese culture that everyone in the Left Flank, including my parents, all were “blind” and “deaf” and “silent” to this killing of the Eurasian lad. Like the 3 Monkeys in Buddhist lore, we saw no evil, we heard no evil and we spoke no evil! It is enough for me to say that I had recurrent nightmares of this experience until we moved away from the Cycle & Carriage compound.
My second, albeit an indirect, triad “assassination” experience came 2 or 3 years later. Ah Tee was a neighbour 4 years older than me. His parents and his 2 younger brothers and he, together with 3 or 4 other families lived the squatter house at the back of our house, (described in the Eurasian killing above). Ah Tee’s ignominious claim to fame or notoriety was that as a triad “mah chai” he assassinated the wrong man. He was only 14! Imagine killing an innocent man, instead of the targeted intended victim? What can you say of Ah Tee? Such a “man” is dangerous? Yet I have an indirect close association with this dangerous “man” through his youngest brother Ah Peeh, (who was 2 years younger than me). From the time I first started walking to Batu Road School, at the age of 6+, I have known Ah Peeh. He was a thin, emaciated, doleful and glum young boy of 4+ then. He was normally taciturn, probably from some slight mental retardation, or from his general ill health. He always had a runny nose and was always coughing. His face and skin colour was sallow and insipid; probably suffering from malaria or hepatitis. I do not really know. We became “friends” for about 3 years. He never got any better. Then one day, the 1st day of the start of a new school term and academic year, I never saw Ah Peeh again. I never asked nor did I bother to investigate why. You see, I used to give half my pocket money to this poor kid called Ah Peeh. I just took pity on him, for who knows why? However, my parents never knew that I had given my pocket money away. So, I was not about to reveal anything. The only other person who knew was my twin brother Albert.
Years later, when I came back from Australia to Kuala Lumpur to visit family, I ran into Ah Tee one night at Chow Kit Road. He recognised me before I recognised him. He asked me whether I was one of the Lek San twins. I confirmed I was. He said he was Ah Tee and asked whether I remembered him. I had to say I did, even if I did not. For, you can tell a triad member from his manner and expression. He said he knew of me from his youngest brother Ah Peeh. I was not sure how Ah Tee could have recognised me though. It occurred to me that in the daily walk to school I had to pass through a walkway between a woodpile of rubber firewood at the rear of my house and the 2 windows of the side wall of Ah Tee’s house. All those years, Ah Tee must have been observing me through his window as I walked past. He told me that he had been released from juvenile penitentiary and was now a “tai koh” or ‘big brother’, but he did not say which triad gang. He asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was at University in Australia. He was very impressed by and regaled in this fact, that the Tiong Nam Settlement triads were even represented in Australia. What could I say? He told me to call him up if anyone gave me trouble, for he was my “tai koh”! What else could I say but obsequiously say, thank you.
My parents did intervened in one attempted “assassination” or it might have been a “furphy” or “bluff”; just a pretext or a “warning” call. One day, during lunch break, on a working day, some local triad members “came calling” on Ah Fong, (one of my father’s employees). Ah Fong was not from the Tiong Nam Settlement but lived in Setapak, a village north-east of Kuala Lumpur. I think triad civility required that the would-be assailants had to get permission from my father, before they could carry out their dirty deed in our house. After all, father was under their protective umbrella. What ever it was, there was a lengthy back-room secret discussion; the outcome of which were lots of smiling faces and later Ah Fong coming out of “hiding”, (wherever that might have been). I thought I knew all the secret places. I suspect a fellow worker might have temporarily put him in the roof attic; but I am only speculating.
When I was much older, and already a student at Victoria Institution, I often followed my 6th Maternal Uncle, on his rounds as a triad bagman, during my school term holidays. I was having “free” lunch with him one day at a coffee shop, (about 3 doors down from the Lim Clinic) where Victor lived upstairs), when some triad members came running from the “kitchen” with machetes heading towards a customer sitting at one of the front tables. Quick as a weasel, that targeted customer rose and sprinted away, fast as lightning!
A year or two after my mother’s death, an extenuated “assassination” attempt was made on my father, outside a Chinese grocery shop, somewhere near the junction of Jalan Raja Laut and Haji Taib Road. My father was just about to get into his car when a triad member rushed at him with a wooden cudgel with a nail spike and spiked him on the right shoulder and then ran away. We never got to found out who contracted the triad to do this to him. We speculated that it might have been one of the “piew wooi” club members, chasing for payment of my deceased mother’s “tontine” debts [refer to my memoirs in “Life and Deaths in the Family”]. Anyway Albert and I contacted Ah Siew, Victor’s cousin brother, to make some discrete enquiries. How could my father have been attacked in our own triad home territory? It was later established that that the attack had not been officially sanctioned. Apparently the person who “contracted” the assault was also under the same triad umbrella, so what was done was a private arrangement to cause “minimal” harm. We suspected a lady, a “piew wooi tao” to be responsible. She was a lady, who lived nearby at Ipoh Road, and whose eldest son was a “god-son” of my mother’s. The “mishap” was quietly settled behind the scenes. I do not know the full details. My father probably received a “discount” in terms of protection money.
Ah Siew came to my assistance again in the 1990’s. I had to secure his assistance as a “bouncer” or strongman when, as Chief Operating Officer of Idris Hydraulics, I had to resort to “self-help” to repossess a subsidiary company called East Coast Electronics. The purchaser had not paid up the purchase price, after having taken possession and management of that company for over a year. The corporate raid was successful but unfortunately Ah Siew suffered a stroke and cerebral haemorrhage at the coffee shop behind Chow Kit Road, (our childhood hunting ground, which we adjourned to with the “gang” to celebrate). He suffered the stroke midway to describing, (to the rest of the “gang” that were not there at the corporate raiding of), that morning’s events. He was particularly emotionally “hyped” up; describing how I was like “Chow Yong Fatt” in the Chinese triad movies. He is, without saying, sadly missed, not just because he died helping me, but because he was an “intimate” brother, more ways than one.
My working knowledge of triad diplomacy or procedures also came in handy when I was dealing with Idris Hydraulics’s subsidiary Aokam in Sabah State in East Malaysia. Aokam owned the “Sagisan” tropical logging concessions, around Keningau town, which were plagued by illegal logging. In dealing with the triads involved in the illegal logging, direct confrontation was inadvisable.
When you see how insouciant some of the triad members are, ready and on-call for warfare, you might somewhat be mistaken, (from their lackadaisical or nonchalant attitude), that they might be unconcerned about perdition. I do not agree. In my opinion; they all fear death and the stoic fortitude is all a “show”. Italian Mafia and American Black gangsters, (that you see in Western movies), like to “strut their stuff”, wear fancy clothes, exhibit their diamond and gold jewellery and drive around in fancy extended limousines, and flaunt their status. However the Chinese triad members of my childhood were not like that. The one major thing they feared was to “lose face” or to lose their “honour”. “Honour” in this sense, boiled down to whether or not you are seen to be a “coward” or that you are unable to keep promises or whether as “protectors” or “suppliers of prostitution, drugs or contraband” or even as “assailants”, you were ineffectual, i.e. all bragging but no substance. Part of this facade of “toughness” took the form of being foul-mouthed, having tattoos, having scars, having calloused hands, or being prepared to risk everything at gambling; anything that conveyed “daring”. Another feature was the “courage” to confront “strangers” to the Left Flank or Right Flank to exert territorial “suzerainty”. The triads could at short notice galvanise the troops to protect their turf.
There are certain banal or trite words or phrases that cropped up all the time in triad lingo or patois. Phrases like “hung meh yeh loh?” or “walk what road?” meaning “what gang do you belong to?”; “yow see mun mun king” meaning “if there is a problem let us go through the issues step by step”; “pei meen” meaning “give face” and “tai-kah choot lei wan sik” meaning “we all come out to seek a living”, (a very good plea to be excused from one’s accidental transgression, on the grounds that you did what you did, like parking your peripatetic vendor cart, in the triad’s territorial “jurisdiction”, without first paying protection money). Be on guard when you hear - “mow lun yung” meaning “useless prick” or “lun see, lun yong” which means “braggart” or “narcissist”. If you get called either of this, be prepared to run away quick smart. “Lun see, lun yong” in Chinese means – “you act like a prick, in fact you are a @!#$ prick”. When I was very young; a trite profanity was – “tiew lei loh mow keh chow fah hai” or “f—k y—r m-ther’s sm--lly c--t”. This phrase came up even when “friends” were talking to “friends” in casual conversation! Imagine that! Over the years, efforts of euphemism to mollify this profanity had this phrase reduced to - “tiew lei loh mow hai”; then later - “tiew lei loh mow”; and later - “tiew lei” or “f--k y-u”; then finally “lei pei yun tiew” – “get f--ked”. So, does that evidence that triad members can, over time, and exposure to common civics, get more mellow and urbane?
Let me guide you, back in time, as to the rules of engagement, (as regards triads), in the squatter settlement. The 1st rule was never unnecessarily venture into a triad area, unless you were a local resident or visiting relatives or friends. The 2nd rule was when you have to, enter in broad daylight and during working hours; and when you do, walk with a sense of purpose, do what you have to do and exit; do not jay-walk and act like you were “prying”; triads do not like “prying” eyes. The 3rd rule is when you are accosted or confronted by triad members, (unless you are a Buddhist monk or a Catholic priest), remember to act humbly and be self-deprecating and apologetic. These triad members are easily galvanised when you react aggressively so as to cause them to “lose face” and therefore would take consequential action to “save face”. It is all a question of “face”. Do not besmirch their honour. Do not show disrespect. Show affectation! You are a “stranger” and therefore “suspect”. Act so as to allay any fears they might have and to show that you are a genuine harmless passer-by.
I must relate the experience of my best friend at university, David, a Hakka, who is from Sabah, and who cannot speak Hokkien or Cantonese. When David came to visit me in Kuala Lumpur, I took him out for late supper one night, at a Hokkien Mee hawker stall, (at the high-rise low cost housing, opposite the General Hospital in Pahang Road). After supper, while I was paying the bill, and talking to the owner, (who I had known for many years, as her Hokkien Mee stall used to be at the rear of Yuen Co. in Batu Road), David wandered off to my car parked nearby, (about 30 paces away). In that short period of time, David was “politely” accosted by triad gangsters. He was asked whether he had a light to light up the triad members’ cigarettes - yow for mah? Then whether he could pong mong - help and to tan kei kow suei koh lei – (speaking allegorically), give us some money. Poor David - he was being extorted! He was petrified! I got to my car just in time, saw what was going on, and said to the 2 triad members – “Ngoh keh pang yow lei keh! Chi kei yan.” [He is my friend! He is with me]. I exchanged salutary greetings and that was the end of the matter. We can all afford to laugh or even be cynical in retrospect; but you can see why, the local triads were, in an ideally rustic sense, Arcadians of the Chinese “18 Lor Hon” tradition or its essence in the Tiong Nam Settlement."
cheok hong chuan