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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

Triad Involvement in the Sex Service Industry in Hong Kong and Its Impacts on Southeast Asia

Chu Yiu Kong

Texte intégral

1. Hong Kong Triads

1Triad societies appeared in Hong Kong even before the Chinese ceded it to be a British colony in 1842. Although the triads in Hong Kong had some indirect links with those in China, the take-off of Hong Kong triads was a direct response to the conflicts between different migratory dialect groups for job opportunities in the labour market by the turn of the 20th century. According to the record of the Hong Kong police, there were more than 300 triad societies in the region. Most of them were established between 1914 and 1939. Nowadays, there are around 50 triad societies still existing in Hong Kong, about 15 of which regularly come to police attention. The most active triad societies are Sun Yee On, 14K-Hau, 14K-Tak, 14-Ngai, Wo Shing Wo, Wo Hop To, Wo On Lok (Shui Fong) and Luen Ying Sh’e. Sun Yee On was believed to be the most powerful triad society in Hong Kong in the 1990s. In these few years the Hong Kong Police have paid more attention to the Wo Shing Wo triad society.

2Hong Kong triads do not possess a central organisation with a Godfather at the top directing their local and overseas branches to organise a variety of criminal activities. They are loose cartels consisting of a number of independent societies which adopt a similar organisational structure and ritual to bind their members together. Although various societies are symbolically under the same roof of the triad family, they are decentralised to a certain extent in that no one single central body unites different societies and gives universal commands. The traditional rank system has largely reduced to mainly three ranks, i.e. 426 Red Pole, 49 ordinary member, and Blue Lantern. The simplified initiation ceremony and the method of ‘handing the blue lantern’ based on oral agreement are widely practised to recruit new members.

3A well-organised triad society may have a central committee at the top to co-ordinate many autonomous gangs under its name. The Chairman, Treasurer, and other committee members are elected by various area bosses who physically control a particular territory with their own followers. A fragmented triad society such as the 14K has no central committee, but consists of various independent gangs headed by different area bosses, and they only co-operate on an ad hoc basis. Therefore, triads are neither a highly centralised nor a totally disorganised organisation. They are not single big pyramid with a Godfather at the top controlling the whole organisation, but have many small hierarchical pyramids led by area bosses at the district level.

4There is no doubt that triads are a menace in Hong Kong, thriving on public fear through their mystery and intimidation. In reality, not all organised crime is the work of triads. According to the Hong Kong Police, the total number of reported crime was 88,377 in 2003, but only 2,471 (2.8%) triad-related crime cases were recorded (see Appendix 1). Although triads are known to have long been involved in illegal businesses, the illegal market is not monopolised by triads with a godfather-like figure at the top to control his members for the production of illegal goods and services. For instance, there is no sufficient evidence to show that the triads are dominant in the businesses of smuggling, counterfeiting, swindles, organised illegal immigration, and money laundering. Illegal operations can be headed or run by persons without a triad background.

5Triad participation in illegal businesses varies from one to another, or even within the same business. Even if triad members are involved in a specific illegal operation, it is not a society'business. Instead, it is strictly a private investment. Profits will remain in the hands of the individual members and do not channel up to the triad hierarchy. Moreover, triad members are free to seek business partners from their own circle, other societies, or the people who are not triads. Nowadays, Hong Kong triads have become adept to adjust themselves in a changing environment. In this paper the sex service industry is used as an example to show the roles of the triads in the illegal market.

2. The Sex Service Industry in Hong Kong

6Prostitution is normally undertaken by a female who earns money by having sex with anyone who will pay for it. Although no specific laws have made prostitution illegal in Hong Kong, virtually every activity connected with it is regarded as an offence. These offences include soliciting in a public place for immoral purposes, trafficking in women, harbouring or exercising control over a woman for the purposes of prostitution, causing prostitution, and keeping a vice establishment or permitting or suffering premises or vessels that one owns or rents to be used for prostitution. Nevertheless, commercial sex is prevalent in Hong Kong and it can cater for almost every need. Female sex workers in Hong Kong can be grouped into six major categories including callgirls, massage girls, PR girls, one-woman brothel sex workers, street sex workers and cyber café girls. They work in different vice establishments.

7In Hong Kong there are a large number of ‘villas’. They are small hotels that rent rooms by the hour. No sex workers stay in the premises. When a customer needs a girl, the keeper will call an agent. The agent will escort a girl to the hotel to provide sex service. The service normally lasts for 45 minutes and it will cost the customer from HK $ 300 to 400. There are unlicensed massage parlours. In the cubicle the massage girl can provide sex services from masturbation to sexual intercourse. The cost may range from HK $ 500 to 1,000. Some night clubs, dance halls and karaoke lounges allow the customer to ‘buy out’ their PR girls for the evening in a hotel. The cost is relatively high from HK $ 1,000 to 1,500 (Vagg 1991 and Police Interview, 8 October 2004).

8Although public brothels do not exist in Hong Kong, there are a number of so-called ‘one-woman brothels’. They are actually small residential flats, each with a single female both living and working in it. According to law, at least two females must be working as sex workers in an apartment before it can be classified as a vice establishment. Thus, lone sex workers who sell their bodies for sex in the one-woman brothel are technically committing no offence. The one-woman brothel sex workers solicit their business by advertising in newspapers and magazines. Also, they will show some symbols at the nearby like installing a coloured light bulb at the top of the doors and mark a symbol at the door bells to act as a hint to their potential customers. The charge is varied by the appearance of the sex worker and where the brothel is located. It may range from HK $ 150 to 800 (Vagg 1991; Ma 1998 and Police Interview, 8 October 2004).

9Street sex workers will solicit their customers on the street. After agreeing on the price, they will take their customers in a nearby guest house to provide sex services. Normally street sex workers are relatively old, above 35 years old, and are less attractive than the sex workers in other vice establishments. The cost is between HK $ 100 and 300. (Ma 1998 and Police Interview, 8 October 2004). In the 1990s the cyber café started to become popular in Hong Kong. In the last five years, some indecent cyber cafes were opened. They mainly provided young local girls as Internet Instructors. The customer can enjoy hand gratification by touching the young girl’body. In some cases the customer can ‘buy out’ the girls for sex services in a nearby hotel.

3. Triads and the Supply of Sex Workers

10As a number of vice establishments exist in Hong Kong, there is a constant demand for sex workers. It would be a lucrative business if somebody could systematically recruit and arrange for girls to work in vice establishments. Triads, with the real capacity and reputation for violence, have been dominant in the business of supplying sex workers.

11Nevertheless, their roles in the business may vary in different periods of the Hong Kong prostitution history.

12In the 1960s and 1970s the most common method used by triads was to cajole selected girls for prostitution. The youths who specialised in this job were locally known as Koo Yae Chai (professional boyfriends). According to Chang (1989), all professional boyfriends are triad members. The reason is that if they had no back-up from their triad brothers, their cajoling projects might not be successful. Even if they can cajole a girl, it was hard for them to sell her to a vice establishment without triad arrangement. In addition, their girls would be easily hijacked by other gangs if they were not triad members. When a victim was trapped, she would be ‘sealed’ -having sex with her ‘boyfriend’. At an appropriate time the victim would be confronted with a deliberately devised situation whereby her ‘boyfriend’ found himself in need of help to pay off heavy and pressing debts, usually said to be connected with triad-backed gambling or triad loan-sharking operations. The young victim would then be cajoled into prostitution to earn money to enable her boyfriend to pay off his debts. When she agreed, she was traded to a call girl centre. The ‘boyfriend’ quickly disappeared with his profit, leading the victim to repay the purchase price to the call girl centre by way of their income from prostitution.

13Since the 1980s, it has become common for triads to recruit girls as their members and then wait for the opportunity to convince them to become sex workers. According to a study of young sex workers in Hong Kong, the majority of the girls in the sample (50 cases) admitted that before entering into prostitution they had followed a ‘Big Brother’ or formally joined the triad society. Some of the girls joined the triad when they were only nine to twelve years of age. They believed that their Big Brothers would offer them protection and their triad status would earn them respect from their peers. Since many Hong Kong girls now see prostitution as a rational alternative to their educational abilities and future prospects in manual, clerical and retail jobs, young girls are now relatively easily recruited to be sex workers by triads (Tang and Lam 1986).

14In the 1990s, the prostitution scene has changed. The flow of overseas sex workers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and recently China, has provided vice establishment operators with more channels from which to obtain girls. Although triads still play a significant role in the recruitment of sex workers, they are losing their competitive edge in running the business because violence is now relatively seldom used to recruit girls into prostitution. More non-triad people are able to be involved in the business. Since Mainland Chinese sex workers (locally known as Northern Girls) are both cheaper and better in quality, they have become the mainstream sex workers in Hong Kong (see Appendix 2). The usual practice now is that Mainland Chinese gangsters (locally known as Chicken Head) look for girls in China and then arrange them to come to Hong Kong legally or illegally. Upon arrival, Hong Kong syndicates will take over. After one or two day orientation, syndicate members will arrange these girls to work in vice establishments.

4. Triads, Ownership and Protection Services

15As the persons providing the finances often use two or three middlemen to hide their role, it is difficult to prove the ownership of a vice establishment. The actual managers may not even know who the owners are. Even if these establishments are constantly raided by the police, only the front men appear in court with one or two of the sex workers. In Hong Kong, vice establishments, such as villas, licensed massage parlours, low-class nightclubs and dance halls, indecent cyber café, and karaoke lounges with the company of young girls, are basically legal public entertainment services and they are registered as companies, although their premises may provide facilities for sex workers and their customers to meet each other. Thus, the background owners of a vice establishment can be any business entrepreneur who has the connection with triads to obtain girls and back-up staff for the business.

16In some cases owners of vice establishments are retired law enforcers or people whose family members are law enforcers. Even if the vice establishments are owned by triad members, it is strictly a private business and the profits will not channel up to their societies. In order to minimise risks, it is common for triad members from different societies to group together to invest in vice establishments. Although triads are not likely to monopolise the prostitution market, it is quite clear that they are dominant in providing protection services to vice establishments.

17Most vice establishments are registered as legitimate companies and the operators, at least in theory, commit no offences and can resort to law if they are victimised by criminals. In reality, nevertheless, vice establishments are actively supporting the prostitution business in their premises. In order to conceal their illegal practices, operators may hesitate to report to the police when they have troubles. In addition, their customers can come from any walk of life (including the underworld) and their businesses usually involve a large cash flow. These factors further make their businesses vulnerable to dishonest customers, extortionists and robbers. Security is one of the main problems in running vice establishments.

18In Hong Kong it is quite common for vice establishment owners to buy protection from triads. When a new vice establishment is about to open, the operator contacts the boss of the most influential triad group in the area for protection. The triad boss will answer calls if the premises are visited by dishonest customers or harassed by other gangs. In this case, the operator uses the ‘reputation’ of the triad boss to deter troublemakers and other extortionists. If operators themselves are triad members or connected with a particular triad group, they often employ their members to be bouncers. However, if the premises are located in an area with no connection to his triad, it is common for the owner to pay protection fees to local triads.

5. Triads, Callgirl Services and the Horseman System

19In the 1970s callgirl centres were popular in Hong Kong to provide sex services. A callgirl centre could be located in any residential flat in the urban area. The manager kept a group of sex workers in the apartment. When villa keepers called for girls, he arranges for his followers to escort the girl to the villa to serve the customer. These centres were normally run by triad officials. Their back-up staff and escort agents were also members of the same triad group. The main reason for the triad monopoly of callgirl centres at that time may be that most of their girls were forced to work as sex workers. Consequently, it was tempting for them to run away or report it to the police. Without a strong triad back-up, it was difficult for the manager to control these girls.

20Since the 1980s, the organisational structure of callgirl centres has become flexible. The boss now tends to franchise the operation to their horsemen (escort agents). Every horseman is given a girl. The duty of the horseman is to look for customers for his girl, escort her to the villa to serve the customer and protect her if she gets trouble from the police, customers or criminals. His salary is based on commission. In 1992, it was reported that a horseman was given an average of HK $ 50 per customer. One horseman said that every day he started to work at 2:00 p.m. He had a list of 50 to 60 villas. He reported to keepers that his sex worker was available. In order to get more business for his sex worker, he would go to introduce himself and leave his business card when a new villa opened.

21Although forced prostitution is now not too common, triads are still influential in the field. Compared with other vice establishments which simply provide meeting points or facilities to their customers and sex workers, callgirl service operators supply sex workers directly. The operator and horseman can easily be charged with living off sex workers or other offences. In addition, centre managers usually give loans to the girls or their overseas agents and deduct the debt against their future income. If the operator and horseman are not stronger than their sex workers, it is hard to ensure that the latter will work according to contract because it cannot be enforced effectively in a legal way. More importantly, sex workers are vulnerable to customers and robbers. If the operator and horseman have no triad back-up, they may find it difficult to protect their sex workers.

6. The New Trend: The One-station Operation

22In May 2002 the Hong Kong Police launched Operation Firelily that mobilised more than 900 officers to raid 77 vice establishments connected with a large prostitution syndicate in the Mongkok area. They arrested 213 people. Among them were 18 suspected core members of the syndicate, including eight directors, a shareholder, four photographers and another four employees of a pornographic publication and several internet companies. The syndicate has purchased a total 24 premises for the operation of vice activities in Mongkok. They controlled the full operation of the business from recruiting sex workers in Mainland China, promoting their services in magazines and on the internet, managing the villas and employing horsemen to escort the sex workers to the villas. That was the largest prostitution ring in Hong Kong with a monthly turnover amounting to HK $ 10 million.

23The syndicate worked with its Mainland partners who periodically recruited women from different provinces into Hong Kong for prostitution. After the selection of the women, they were smuggled into Hong Kong by land and seas routes. The syndicate could also provide fake and genuine travel documents for the women. After arriving in Hong Kong, the women were housed in quarters where they received training before being sent to work. The syndicate arranged photographers to take pictures of the women, which would be printed in pornographic magazines, newspapers and on websites together with the personal details of the women and what services they could provide. A sex worker would be assigned to an escort agency (the horseman). The agent would look for customers for the girl and escort her to the syndicate operated villas to provide sex services (South China Morning Post 8 May 2002).

24The service cost the customer HK $ 420. The syndicate organiser would take HK $ 170, the sex worker would receive HK $ 100, the villa would get HK $ 90, the horseman would obtain HK $ 50 and finally the keeper would be offered HK $ 10. The sex worker normally had to service up to 100 clients to pay back the smuggling fee or the cost of their travel documents before being paid for their sex service. Although the syndicate leader had 14K triad background, there was no evidence to support that the whole production line was controlled by the 14 triad society. In fact, this was a private investment. The main organiser employed core members to assist him in running the business and contracted out specific tasks to persons or smaller teams through his personal networks. Those who contributed their brains, capital, skills or labour in the operation would receive appropriate rewards. If his core members or contracted labourers were triad members, they did not necessarily come from the same triad society.

7. The Impacts on Southeast Asia

25Although there are still some Hong Kong women going to Japan to become sex workers, Hong Kong is mainly a destination point for prostitution. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Southeast Asian girls such as Thai, Filipino and Malaysian Chinese were major overseas sex workers in Hong Kong. In the last ten years, Mainland Chinese women have been gradually taking over local commercial market and they have become the major target of law enforcement agencies. For instance, in 2002 the total number of sex workers arrested by Hong Kong law enforcement agencies was 8,970. Among 8,970 sex workers, there were 8,455 Mainland Chinese, 284 Thai, 78 Vietnamese, 3 Filipino, 1 Macanese and 3 Indonesian (see Appendix 2). In September 2004 the Hong Kong Police launched an anti-vice operation. Thirty-six sex workers were arrested. Most sex workers were from Mainland China and others were from Thailand, Philippine, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and India

26This reflects the extensive networks of human smuggling across the region. Prostitution rings in Hong Kong rely on their counterparts in Southeast Asia countries to find and select women. These women are then brought to Hong Kong via illegitimate pathways, tourist visas, chop-head visas, bogus marriage or fake visas. The methods that these girls are recruited differ. Indeed, there have been some cases that girls are abducted in rural areas and forced into prostitution in Hong Kong. For instance, some women originally leave the country for positions other than prostitution. They soon realize the fact when they arrive in Hong Kong. They have no choice but become sex workers to repay the travelling and other fees of being brought to Hong Kong. In most cases the women know that they will become sex workers and they see this as a method to earn quick cash. However, they are not fully aware of the working conditions they would encounter in Hong Kong. For example, they may be required to entertain 15 or even more customers every day.

27Chinese prostitution has become a global phenomenon. Mainland Chinese girls not only come to Hong Kong to be sex workers, they are also smuggled to other Southeast Asian countries for prostitution such as Macau, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Burma. In May 2003, for instance, the Malaysia Police raided 1,740 nightspots in the major cities and towns as part of a cleanup campaign. In every one of the raids, they found Chinese women outnumbering Malaysians and other nationalities working in the clubs. Most of these clubs were thinly disguised fronts for brothels (Asia Times 16 July 2003). In Singapore prostitution is legal in several red-light districts where Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Indian and Chinese women ply their business in brothels, karaoke lounges and massage parlours. It was reported that China has become the biggest source of new sex workers in the last few years (Reuters 12 October 2004).

28Mahatdhanobal (1998) describes how the gangs moved Chinese women from China to Thailand for prostitution. First, the gangs used either an intermediary known by the women or a gang member contacted the woman directly. Second, they convinced the woman to leave her home. Third, they led her across the border. Fourth, the woman was swapped between the Chinese, Burmese and Thai gangs. Finally, the woman was handed over to a person in Thailand before being taken to the sex establishment. Therefore, the gangs had clear procedures for deceiving and transporting the women. He also observes that the gangs had a strong network of people. At each of the different points along the routes used to transport women, the gangs had connections with people of various nationalities. When the women arrived in Thailand, the network was evident from the way they were delivered to the sex establishments. Though illegal, the gangs’activities were very systematic, organized and well-coordinated. Further, they were coordinated horizontally, not vertically, i.e. not conducting their activities as a single organization (cited from Chantavanich 2003).

29It is true that triad societies are found in Southeast Asian countries. For instance, triads have long been existing in the Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore. It is said that 14K and Wo Shing Wo are active in Philippine. Recently Sun Yee On and 14K have been identified by the Vietnamese Police. It is also reported that triads are taking root in Cambodia. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to support that triad societies in Southeast Asian countries are under a single giant triad organisation. It is definitely not the case that triads in Southeast Asian countries are controlled by the Hong Kong triads. In fact triads in all over the world including Hong Kong are independent gangs although they are symbolically under the same roof the triad family.

30It is quite clear that Chinese criminals in China and different parts of Southeast Asia countries collaborate to bring a large number of Chinese women to the destination country for prostitution. It should be noted that these syndicate members are not necessarily triads and usually nothing to do with Hong Kong triads. They connect each other to run this cross-border crime projects based on their personal, family, kinship and regional relationships.

31Traditionally any overseas Chinese found committing a crime, whether it be drug smuggling or petty theft, is usually automatically labelled a triad member by the police of the country involved. In reality, not all Chinese crime is committed by triads. International Chinese organised crime such as smuggling of sex workers is committed by different ethnic Chinese crime groups. Apart from Hong Kong Chinese, Singapore Chinese, Malaysia Chinese, Thai Chinese, Vietnamese Chinese, Indonesia Chinese and recently Mainland Chinese are also involved in this international organised crime. Even if the smuggling of sex workers is organised by Hong Kong Chinese, in many cases, they are not triads. In the operation of international organised crime, there is no gang boundary. A group of people, whether they are triads or not, can team up to organise the business if they possess the required resources.

Appendix 1: Triad-related Crime Cases from 1993 to 2003


Total Reported Crime Cases

Triad-related Crime Cases














































Source: Interview with an anti-triad police officer in Hong Kong on 8 October 2004.

Appendix 2: Sex Workers Arrested in Hong Kong from 2001 to 2003




2003 (up to 3Q)

Mainland China








Hong Kong




























































Source: Interview with an immigration officer in Hong Kong on 25 October 2004.



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Assistant Professor Department of Sociology The University of Hong Kong
Yiu Chu Kong received his PhD in Police Studies in the University of Exeter in the UK in 1997. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and a Fellow in the Centre for Criminology at the University of Hong Kong. He is also one of the founding members of the Asian Association of Police Studies (AAPS) and the Hong Kong Juvenile Delinquency Research Society (HKJDRS). He has been invited by various police forces in Asia and Europe to give guest lectures on Chinese organized crime and policing. Yiu Chu Kong writes a clear introduction on the current triad’s situation and use the field of prostitution as an example to show their participation in the business in Hongkong and it impacts in South-East Asia. He examines the networks establishing by the triads all over South-East Asia to recruit those implicated in this business and how the business is ruling.

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