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    Greater China
     Jun 4, 2005
Taiwan's gangs go global
By Mac William Bishop

TAIPEI - It isn't often that the dark, slimy world of organized crime gets exposed to the light of day, but on May 29 more than 10,000 gangsters from dozens of crime syndicates from across Asia gathered in Taipei.

They came to pay their respects at a memorial for one of Taiwan's most well-known and "respected" gang bosses. Even gangsters, it seems, get sentimental and wax nostalgic.

The gangster's name was Hsu Hai-ching, but everyone knew him as "Wen Ge", or "Mosquito Brother".

Until he retired in the early 1980s, he was known principally for his ability to negotiate accords between rival gangs, thus earning him the nickname "The Final Arbitrator". On April 6, he died at the age of 93 from complications resulting from an encounter with a piece of nigiri sushi, on which he had almost choked to death 12 days earlier.

The various organizations represented at the memorial make up a who's who list of Asian gangs. Included in the mix were the Bamboo Union, the Four Seas and the Celestial Way, Taiwan's largest gangs, as well as the Yamaguchi-gumi - one of the two most powerful yakuza organizations in Japan - and several triads from Hong Kong and Macau.

Police turned out in the hundreds to keep the event peaceful - and also to videotape the proceedings and gather intelligence about gang members and their affiliations. The gang members, wearing black shirts, formed a procession of three abreast and escorted Hsu's ashes for 10 kilometers to a cemetery on the outskirts of Taipei.

The procession seriously disrupted traffic in the city, wreaking havoc for the more than 50,000 students trying to take their high school entrance exams.

Hsu's career is a microcosm of Taiwan's history.

Starting off as a small-time local gangster when Taiwan was still a Japanese colony, Hsu made a name for himself in the Taipei district of Wanhua in the late 1930s. As with most Taiwanese from his generation, Hsu spoke fluent Japanese, which enabled him to forge ties with the Japanese underworld.

When Chinese Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, they brought the gangsterism of Shanghai with them. The Chinese Nationalist Army was little more than a rabble of illiterate and uneducated bandits, and many of its senior officers were basically warlords and thugs. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek himself climbed to power with the cooperation and muscle of the powerful gangsters in Shanghai.

After it had established itself on Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), used gangs established by the scions of its leaders for a number of nefarious purposes - including assassinations, brutal attacks on dissidents, and outright theft - throughout the period of martial law in Taiwan.

The Bamboo Union, or Zhu Lien Bang, quickly became the largest and most powerful of these gangs, a position it retains to this day.

According to Taiwan's National Police Agency (NPA), gangs in Taiwan are broken down along ethnic lines, with the two largest gangs - the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas - comprising mainland Chinese and their descendents who fled to Taiwan with the KMT. The Bamboo Union has more than 10,000 members worldwide, according to the US Customs Service, while the Four Seas has about 2,000 members.

The third-largest gang in Taiwan, the Celestial Way, or Tien Dao Meng, is made up primarily of Hakka Taiwanese - descendents of Chinese from Fujian province who came to Taiwan nearly 400 years ago.

The NPA estimates that the Celestial Way has about 500 to 700 members. But one Taiwanese police official said it was difficult to arrive at an accurate estimate of membership figures for Hakka Taiwanese gangs, due to their comparatively loose organizational structure.

In comparison, the mainland gangs - especially the Bamboo Union - are relatively disciplined and well organized, complete with rank systems, promotions and benefits. According to a junior Bamboo Union "boss" who asked to be referred to as "Big Brother Hsu" (most senior gang figures are given the honorific prefix "Da Ge", or "Big Brother") the gang is divided into approximately 13 divisions, or tang kou, with names such as "Tiger Division" and "Dragon Division". Big Brother Hsu is not related to Hsu Hai-ching.

"In reality, the Bamboo Union's tang kou operate as independent gangs, and often fight each other for territory and business," a Taiwanese police officer who specializes in gangs said. Due to the sensitivity of his job, he requested that he be identified only by his surname, Wang.

"The gangs have followed the same trends as Taiwanese companies - they keep their headquarters and their profits in the country, while 'outsourcing' production and distribution to mainland China and Southeast Asia," Big Brother Hsu said. "We are basically just businessmen."

And enterprising ones, at that. According to Taiwan's NPA, the Bamboo Union's members are involved in virtually every facet of illegal activity imaginable - from the standard activities of prostitution, gambling and extortion locally, to gun-running, drug-smuggling and human trafficking on a global scale.

According to one expert on organized crime, Lin Chung-cheng, Taiwanese gangs are involved in businesses worth nearly US$1.85 billion a year - and their activities are as internationalized as any multinational corporation.

Bamboo Union-linked gangsters are active in the US, Canada, Britain, France and Australia, as well as virtually every country in Asia. In January 2004, members of the Bamboo Union were even tracked to North Korea by Taiwan's National Security Bureau (NSB).

The NSB believes that the reclusive regime of Kim Jong-il has been using Taiwanese gangs - who maintain extensive connections with their brethren in mainland China, as well as with the descendents of the "Lost Nationalist Army" that fled to the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia after the Chinese civil war - as a conduit for the smuggling of drugs.

In fact, many high-profile and internationally wanted gangsters from the Bamboo Union flee to or retire in Southeast Asia or China. One such gangster is Bai Lang, or the "White Wolf", who was connected with the assassination of Taiwanese dissident author Henry Liu in Daly City, California, in 1984, and was charged in Taiwan with involvement in narcotics smuggling. Bai Lang now lives in Cambodia.

This correspondent was granted a rare opportunity to observe the cooperation between Japanese and Taiwanese gangs during a meeting at an upscale hotel in Taipei. Members of the Bamboo Union and the Celestial Way met with representatives of the Japanese yakuza gang Yamaguchi-gumi in the wake of the memorial service for Hsu Hai-ching.

Security was heavy, and yakuza members frisked everyone entering the suite in which the meeting took place. Although the day had been officially declared a day of truce by the organizers of the memorial, the Celestial Way, it was clear that the yakuza were taking no chances.

When asked why the Yamaguchi-gumi - which, according to Japan's top law enforcement agency, has more than 38,000 members worldwide - was making such a conspicuous display of their presence in Taipei, one of the yakuza members responded: "We wanted to show our appreciation for Brother Hsu [Hai-ching]. Besides, people should know that we are always here. We have lots of friends in Taiwan."

It is because of the growing links between Asian crime syndicates that US law enforcement agencies have begun to describe Taiwan as a major transshipment point for illicit drugs, guns and human trafficking.

And the gangs have no problem casting aside their rivalries when there is money to be made.

"We recognize that we often have more to gain through cooperation than through feuding," the yakuza member said. He would not go into detail about how the Yamaguchi-gumi was cooperating with Taiwanese gangs.

But Big Brother Hsu offered a quick example of how the gangs worked together. "Let's say someone wants to ship heroin to Japan, Australia or the US. One of the best ways would be to bring it through southern China, across the Taiwan Strait in a fishing boat, and then load it onto a container ship in Kaohsiung [in southern Taiwan - one of the busiest ports in the world]," he said. "The shipment could then be met by people at the destination.

"To do that," said Big Brother Hsu, "a person would have to cooperate with lots of [gangs] along the way."

And what about guns, or people?

"There are factories in China that produce illegal Black Stars [a type of 7.62 millimeter semi-automatic handgun]. And there are always people trying to leave China and Southeast Asia," Big Brother Hsu said said. "Many of them want to come here, go to Japan, the US, or Europe - even Australia."

So where do the guns end up? "Wherever people can afford them," he said, smiling.

Mac William Bishop is a journalist based in Taipei. Queries or comments may be sent to mwbtaiwan@hotmail.com

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