|Taiwan's gangs go
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
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
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
Hsu's career is a
microcosm of Taiwan's history.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"To do that," said Big
Brother Hsu, "a person would have to cooperate
with lots of [gangs] along the way."
what about guns, or people?
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 email@example.com
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