According to the Internet Movie Base, the Chinese Tongs have been an integral element of violence and mystery in 140 motion pictures in China and the United States. Interestingly, the first American film on the subject,The War of the Tongs, was released in 1917. In 1985, Year of the Dragon provoked a great deal of controversy in its portrayal of a racist white cop (Mickey Rourke) battling hordes of evil Chinese gang members. The greatest flaw in the motion picture was blending Chinese gangs, the Tongs, and the Triad into one massive "Chinese Mafia" kind of amalgamated crime organization. In actuality, although the gangs exist, they are separate from the Tongs, a survivor of the protective societies of ancient times, and the Triad, a recent element of organized crime that grew out of the Tongs.
The first Tong in America is believed to have originated in San Francisco in 1874. Essentially, the Tong (which originally meant "parlor") was a merchants' protective association created to defend themselves against brutal treatment directed at them by the white inhabitants of the city. Eventually, the Tong became powerful enough to sell "protection" to the newer merchants and to establish illegal gambling halls. Success in extortion and gambling led to an extension of activities into opium distribution and prostitution.
Although in 1880 the Chinese population in New York City was only around 800, the first Tong was established there in that year. By 1890, a rush of immigration increased the total to 13,000 Chinese in the city, and the Tong was ready to exploit a population isolated by language, culture, and prejudice. In 1900, rival Tongs ignited a series of Tong wars that lasted intermittently until the 1930s. It was at that time that the larger American public became fully aware of the Tong warriors with their chain mail shirts and hatchets.
Like so many secret societies, the origins of the Triad Tong have been lost in the lore of legend. According to some students of the Tongs, in 1647 a community of monks who lived in the Fukien Province of China had become masters in the art of war. When a foreign prince invaded China, the emperor sent 138 of these monks to throw out the invading forces. After three months of bitter fighting, they routed the enemy and returned to their monastery laden with gifts and honors from the grateful emperor.
While the monks were content to resume their lives of contemplation, some of the emperor's ministers were jealous of the favors he had bestowed upon them and persuaded him that the monks were deceptively planning a rebellion. Fearful of their martial arts skills, the emperor decided to attack the monks without warning and sent a strong force of the Imperial Guard, armed with gunpowder, to destroy the monastery. It was said the flames ignited by the blasts soared up to heaven, where they were seen by the Immortals who, perceiving the injustice being dealt the monks, came down to Earth and pushed aside one of the monastery's huge walls, enabling 18 monks to escape. Most of them were so badly burned that they soon died, and the surviving five escaped from the Imperial troops by miraculous means.
After many ordeals the five monks came to a city in Fukien Province where they founded a Tong whose aim was to overthrow the emperor who had betrayed their loyalty. That Tong exists today as the Triad Tong, and the five monks who founded it, according to the legend, are known as the Five Ancestors. Although the revolt against the emperor failed, the survivors scattered throughout China and established five Provincial Grand Lodges, each led by one of the five monks.
Initiation into the Triad Society is based on a blood ceremony. First, the ancient Five Heroes are invoked by an "Incense Master" who offers libations of tea and wine. The candidate for initiation is challenged at the entrance to the lodge by guards carrying razor-edged swords. He is allowed to enter only after answering a series of ritual questions as he crawls under crossed swords. Once inside the lodge, the initiate participates in a lengthy reenactment of the traditional ordeals of the Five Ancestors, swears 36 oaths, and learns his first secret signs. Then a rooster is brought in and beheaded, a warning to the initiate that he will suffer the same fate if he betrays the Tong. Finally, he drinks a mixture of blood, wine, cinnabar, and ashes. In times past, the blood used to be drawn from the initiate and other members of the lodge. Today the blood is generally that of the slaughtered rooster.
The blood oaths that were so favored by the Tongs originated with the Yellow Turbans, one of the earliest and most mystical societies in China. Founded in the middle of the second century in northeast China, the Yellow Turbans revered Chang Cheuh, a great healer and magician, as a savior of the nation against the despotic Han dynasty. Cheuh's society soon numbered so many thousands that he needed 36 generals to lead the rebellion that conquered the entire north of China within less than a month. Three of Chang Cheuh's disciples have been credited with taking the first blood oath when each of them slit open a vein, filled a vessel with blood, and drank the mixture of their vital fluid while vowing eternal brotherhood. This basic blood oath ceremony, with many variations, became an integral part of Tong ritual.
In the summer of 1900, the notorious Boxer Tong drove more than 3,000 people— mainly European missionaries, their families, and Chinese Christian converts—into the legation district of Peking. The siege had been provoked by the terror tactics of the Tong, which had been given almost a free hand by the Manchu government to free the nation from the foreign imperialists whom they accused of exploiting the Chinese people. "Boxer" was the Western name for this Tong, derived from its symbol of a clenched fist. The true name of the Tong was "I Ho Chuan," which means the Tong of "The Fists of Righteous Harmony."
The Boxers believed that they could achieve the righteousness of their cause by force, and they depended greatly on supernatural elements to aid them in achieving invulnerability. They employed rituals compounded of self-hypnotism, mass-hysteria, and drugs. At the height of their ceremonies, the initiates reached a state of frenzy wherein they would smash their clenched fists against unyielding surfaces until the blood flowed from broken knuckles. Then after a period of spasmodic twitching, foaming at the mouth and screaming hysterically, they would roll about on the ground until they became unconscious. At this point, they were led into the Inner Temple to be taught the magical secrets of the Tong and to receive their power of invulnerability against death at the hands of a foreigner. The imparting of invulnerability was followed by the blood oath of the Tong, in which each initiate drank a measure of blood.
Initially the violence of the Boxers was directed against small Christian missionary outposts, especially in the Shantung province. The Empress Dowager, who became a regent after forcing her nephew from the throne, had encouraged the attacks. On her orders, Imperial officers were ordered to assist the Tong during the 55-day siege against the foreign legations. However, even before the various nations whose citizens were under attack sent relief forces to capture the city and squelch the rebellion, many Imperial soldiers had already deserted the Boxers and were starting to fight against them from the ranks of other Tongs.
The Triad reached the United States with the mass of Chinese workers who immigrated to the west coast during the gold rush fever of the 1840s. Bewildered in a strange land and mercilessly exploited by people who had hired them as common laborers, the Chinese immigrants welcomed the protection provided by the Triads that sprang up among their communities, hiding behind the fronts of innocent social clubs. Among the first of the Triads to establish itself in the United States was the so-called "Five Companies," named after the five districts of China. Once it had established itself, it began to exploit the same Chinese population it had previously protected.
The main nerve-center of the Triad was— and remains—Hong Kong. There are seven main branches, each with its own area of influence and working independently of the others. Although its influence on the course of Chinese politics has been considerable, the Triad has never been unduly concerned about which government happens to be in power.
"Boo How Doy: The Early History of Chinese Tongs in New York." Organized Crime. [Online] http://organizedcrime.about.com/library/weekly/aa062401a.htm.
Booth, Martin. The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001.
Chin, Ko-Lin. Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity. Studies in Crime and Public Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Huston, Peter. Tongs, Gangs, and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America. Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press, 1995.