Subject of a thousand Hong Kong Films and a recurrent trope in Western Yellow Peril stories, the Triads started life as a Ming-restorationist Secret Society during the 1760s. There was a precedent for this sort of thing working, given the Red Turban society and rebellion which fractured the Yuan Empire and allowed the Ming to conquer China in the late 14th century, though said society's original intent had actually been to restore the Song Empire.
Accordingly the Triads were associated with the colour red and the name 'Hong' because it was part of the first Ming Emperor's reign name (Hongwu, lit. 'superlative martial accomplishment') and the name of one of the society's founders. From the beginning they created an official mythology which claimed that had actually been created during the Ming-Qing wars of the 17th century, after the burning of the southern Shaolin temple, by five survivors of the battle. Some even claimed that one of them was Jee Sin, who was the master of the 5 Elders of Southern Chinese kung fu.
After contributing to the fall of the Qing Empire in the 1911 revolution, without resurrecting the Ming (as had been their original intention), the Triads now found themselves without a purpose and there was a split between the Mainland and overseas branches. The Mainland group is what we now commonly refer to as the Triads, while the overseas group became known as the Hongmen. The mainland Triads now turned to crime as they were unable to reenter normal society. After the Communist takeover, many Triad members moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan to escape new measures against organized crime. Hong Kong's Triad problems peaked in the 1970s, helped by police corruption.
The Hongmen is divided into 180 branches, and is arguably a Freemason-like organization, with an emphasis on patriotism, given the circumstances of its origin. Distinguished politicians such as Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek were senior members. It shares traditions with the Triads, since they were one and the same not that far back. They are illegal in Hong Kong due to their relationship with the Triads, but are legal in Taiwan as a secret society. Not surprising, since President Chiang Kai Shek was a member. They exist in China as a political party, and hold the single non-communist ministerial seat. It has branches in other overseas Chinese communities, where it is referred to as Chinese Freemasonry. Its membership is rapidly aging with the change in the times.
Another group are the Tongs (literally "meeting hall", each Tong was named after the hall in which they were headquartered), modeled on the Triads, which arose in the US in response to the need for support organizations for new immigrant Chinese, as well as taking charge of protecting their members from violence from other groups. Some Tongs are fully legitimate organizations, providing charity to needy immigrants, giving them jobs and such. Others are more criminal in outlook, engaging in drug smuggling (opium being the most stereotypical one), prostitution, and racketeering. But usually, the average Tong was composed of both criminal and legitimate branches, with the criminal activity funding the charity (and the charity providing cover for the crimes). Many Triad members would join Tongs on reaching America, causing some Tongs to be strongly influenced by the Triads.
Chinese secret societies are guaranteed to exist anywhere in the world with a significant Chinese immigrant population, from Australia to L.A.
The secret societies used to be governed by strict codes of conduct and an inflexible hierarchical system, but that system has broken down in recent years, leading to behavior that many older members would consider unethical. The traditional secret societies have 36 Oaths which basically say, "don't screw over your sworn brothers, or you will get chopped up with lots of blades." (This phrase is repeated many, many times during the oaths, just to remind you). Doesn't mention anything about the morality of killing innocents. The oaths are sealed with the drinking of blood mixed with wine, and the oath-takers enter into a sworn brotherhood with the rest of the members of their organization. No problems with having more sworn brothers from elsewhere, though.
The traditional hierarchy and rituals, based in esoteric numerology and mythology, are not always followed as strictly or exactly as the old days, but many traditions live on in lingo and ceremony. The leader of a Triad is called the Mountain Master or Dragon Head. Below him are his highest tier: Deputy Mountain Master, who acts as the Dragon Head's advisor and proxy, Incense Master, who oversees ceremonies and initiations, and Vanguard, who handles recruitment and assists the Incense Master. The middle officers are the Red Poles, White Paper Fans and Straw Sandals. Red Poles are the gang bosses and war leaders, commanding their own units to attack enemies, defend turf and engage in street crime. White Paper Fans are the consiglieres and administrators, managing and advising on finances, business and legal matters. Straw Sandals are liaisons, organizing and scheduling important meetings or gang fights. At the bottom are 49ers, who are simply the low-ranking initiates under Red Poles, and Blue Lanterns, the miscellaneous thugs, dealers, and contacts who are informally affiliated with or freelance for the group but not properly initiated into the Triad for life. Blue Lanterns tend to outnumber 49ers in modern times, but obviously are less trusted and more expendable. 25er is slang for a corrupt cop or contact in a rival group, serving as spies and informants.
As mentioned earlier, the traditional punishment is death by a hundred cuts, or getting ambushed and hacked up which is easier and quicker. Hong Kong triads especially love their cleavers, given the difficulty of obtaining guns in Hong Kong. A machete is fine too. Overseas groups may use guns, automatic weapons and explosives, if they don't find them dishonorable. Some martial arts, especially some of the Southern Shaolin styles tend to have a reputation as being used by the Triads, especially due to their common origin myth in the Southern Shaolin temple.
The patron god of the Triads is none other than Guan Yu (of both literary and video game note). He is also the patron god of the police... and a patron god for business. Basically, Guan Yu is the god for any high risk endeavour where you want trustworthy 'brothers' watching your back.
It should be noted that 'Chinese Mafia' is both an oversimplification and misconception of Triads and Tongs, as neither have that much presence in China itself. Triads have some influence in certain regions of China, but operate most extensively outside of mainland China, as Mao's regime dismantled traditional secret societies during the Cultural Revolution, and the Tongs are largely a western phenomenon. Within the actual People's Republic of China there are criminal outfits called Black Societies, which wield significant but subtle political power and clout with local law enforcement, and Dark Forces, which are less organized, less powerful gangs (both terms being awkward translations of weird Chinese terms), neither having any relationship to traditional Chinese mysticism. Essentially, Triads are ethnically Chinese criminal societies abroad.note
- The Red Dragon Syndicate, Cowboy Bebop.
- Mr. Chang from Black Lagoon is a member of Sun Yee On, and members of the 14K also make an appearance.
- The Chen Long Tang in Darker Than Black.
- The Bai-Lan "organization" from Bakuretsu Tenshi (Burst Angel). (Sei's the heiress to the organization; the other main characters are technically mercenaries on retainer.)
- The Triads play a role as a rival to the Yakuza in Sanctuary.
- Fong-Fong and Ling-Ling Wong from Rosario + Vampire.
- In the second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, they show up in an episode where Major Kusanagi visits the territory primarily occupied by (generally Korean and Chinese) refugees. They have a dignified Don, but the lower ranked gangsters are all common thugs.
- In Mayu Shinjo's Haou Airen, an Ordinary High-School Student named Kurumi Akino saves the life of a handsome stranger and nurses him back to health. It turns out he's Uon Hakuron (a.k.a. Li Shen Wong), a dangerous and sexy Triad leader, and soon after said incident she's kidnapped from school and taken to Hong Kong. Did we mention Mayu Shinjo has a thing for Bastard Boyfriends?
- The 108 Dragons in Crying Freeman.
- A two-part episode of Noir pits the team against the Hong Yiban triad.
- In Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, Iron Lady Stephanie Luio and her group are all but stated to be associated with the Triads. She has goons at the ready and her company is also a front for all sorts of illegal activity.
This is Hong Kong City. You can't trust anyone.
- In Punisher Max the Chinese Mafia is one of the many criminal organizations operating in New York. They have a brief but memorable appearance when Nicky pays them a visit and teaches them why you don't fuck with the Cesare Crime Family. Hint: It involves child homicide and soup... please don't ask for more details.
- In Judge Dredd, the judicial system of Hong Tong (the future Hong Kong) has been largely infiltrated and taken over by Triads, much as the Hondo-Cit (Japan) Judges were overtaken by the Yakuza.
- The Triads play a prominent role in the Corto Maltese book Corto Maltese in Siberia (Corte sconta detta Arcana), as well as in the Animated Adaptation based on the book, Corto Maltese: La Cour secrète des Arcanes.
- New York's Chinatown Tongs are a major force in DMZ, especially due to their cunning leader Wilson.
- Sin City mentions Tongs being present in the town (Miho once needed saving from a bunch of Tongs) but they have yet to appear in the series.
- Darcy Parker in Strangers in Paradise supposedly had Triad connections. Since she began her criminal empire in her native Hong Kong, this is not surprising.
- The villains in The Shadow Hero are a Tong that has degenerated into a mere criminal gang, although the ending implies that it may regain its honour under a new leader.
- In The Couriers, Special was previously a minion of the NYC Triad gangster Johnny Funwrecker, whose downfall at her hands is presented in the final graphic novel of the series, "The Ballad of Johnny Funwrecker". Additionally, the second novel features Triad thugs working for a corrupt People's Liberation Army officer.
- Gotham's secretive China Town has been ruled over by numerous Chinese based gangs over the years. Eventually the Ghost Dragons, who started out as Robin villains, took control from the fractured Triads and Tongs in the neighborhood. The Ghost Dragons' influence spread further into the city as The Mafiya lost ground.
- Like canon, The Legend of Korra Next-Gen Fic Avatar: The Legend Of Arata has three bending gangs. The Triple Threats runs by Chikao and later Habiki, the Agni Kais ran by Kosuke, and the Red Monsoons ran by Jiang.
- Ranma Saotome, Chi Master has a dangerous Triad leader named Qiáng Wang as a major antagonist.
- Infernal Affairs and its sequels. The first film was remade into The Departed, with the Triads replaced with The Irish Mob.
- Young and Dangerous, a series of films based on a comic. Blamed for glamorizing Triad life among young people.
- The Wing Kong and Chang Sing street gangs/tongs in Big Trouble in Little China.
- Election, and its sequel Triad Election in which the oldest HK Triad kills and maims more of its own members than the rival gang.
- A Better Tomorrow. Mark Gor (Big Brother Mark) inspired a generation of Chinese kids to walk around in dusters and sunglasses while chewing on toothpicks. Mark Gor (and every "criminal" that Chow Yun-fat played afterwards) is a romantic in a cynical world, who steadfastly holds onto notions of brotherhood and honor, and would gladly lay down his life to protect innocent women and children.
- Fu Manchu often works with/controls these groups in films which feature him.
- The 1985 film Year Of The Dragon (based on the novel by Robert Daley, screenplay by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino) tells of the struggle between a controversial New York police captain and an ambitious young Triad member, both of whom upset the 'live and let live' status quo between the Triads and the police.
- Push featured the triads as baddies.
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with Indiana Jones confronting a Shanghai mobster named Lao Che and his henchmen. Indy tries to bargain with Lao for the ashes of a Qing dynasty emperor, only to be double-crossed when the gangster poisons Indy and offers an antidote in exchange. Naturally, a fight ensues in Lao Che's nightclub.
- Shanghai Triad by Zhang Yimou.
- Their money is stolen, kicking off the main plot of Nuns on the Run.
- In Kung Fu Hustle, several gangs are causing trouble in Shanghai with the Axe gang being the most powerful one. In fact, the beginning starts with a small gang bullying a police station, only to get eliminated by the Axe gang.
- Jean-Claude Van Damme takes on the Triads in the movie Wake Of Death.
- Romeo Must Die has an African American gang and a Chinese gang butting head over waterfront property.
- The second and third Rush Hour movies deal with the Triads. Of particular note are the Parisian Triad members who don't even speak Chinese. The first movie has a Chinese gang, but they are working for an Evil Brit.
- War involves a conflict between the Triads and the Yakuza in San Francisco.
- Featured in From Paris with Love.
- Buster Keaton silent film The Cameraman, in which Buster the newsreel cameraman goes to film a parade in Chinatown and winds up capturing a shootout between rival gangs (the "Tong War"), may be the Trope Maker.
- Not the Trope Maker, since Sessue Hayakawa had starred in The Tong Man in 1919.
- The French film Les Anges Gardiens has a club owner trying to rescue his late friend's son (and millions) from the Triads.
- The main villains of Lethal Weapon 4. Their leader, Wah Sing Ku (played by Jet Li), seeks to free the real founders of the Triads, the Four Fathers, with the use of Counterfeit Cash.
- Kick-Ass and Justice Forever crash a Triad-run poker game to take down a human trafficker early in the second movie. The Motherfucker also hires an ex-Triad enforcer (whom he dubs Genghis Carnage) to be part of the Toxic Mega Cunts.
- City of Industry: The Triads are one of the gangs allied to the bad guy, a robber who betrayed his partners after a jewelry store heist.
- The Triads are the main villains in the Mark Wahlberg film "The Corruptor"
- In David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series, the Triads become increasingly powerful in the lower Levels
- The Yellow Peril variant is referenced, and averted, in East of Eden, in which Adam Trask's Chinese servant Lee tells Adam and Samuel about going for help to his "family association".
Samuel: "I have heard of them."
Lee: "You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl? It's a little different from that, really."
- How different? Well, it turns out that Lee and his Tong leaders have been studying ancient Hebrew in order to analyse a single word in The Bible.
- The Triads in Hong Kong are a persistent thorn in Dirk Struan's side in James Clavell's Tai Pan. Unknown to him, several Chinese characters are members, including his illegitimate son.
- Hong Kong Triads feature in Dark Heavens, led by Simon Wong.
- Key to the plot of Michael Connelly's novel 9 Dragons, in which Harry Bosch's daughter is kidnapped by a Triad gang.
- In Skeleton Key a branch of the Triads called the Big Circle attempts to set up a betting scam at Wimbledon, but Alex uncovers the scam and ruins it. A Big Circle agent later attempts to assassinate Alex in revenge.
- Due to Even Evil Has Standards, they're the good guys for once in The Power of Five.
- Part of the backstory of the titular doctor of Dr. No. He started out as the treasurer for a Tong, before running away with their money to continue his career. They chopped his hands off when they found him and left him for dead.
- In Deadwood, a Tong gang supported by George Hearst wrests control of Celestial Alley from the local strongman Mr. Wu, with the goal of supplying Chinese prostitutes and opium to white residents. Eventually Al Swearengen helps negotiate for Wu to retake control of Celestial Alley and slaughter the new Tongs.
- The Doctor Who story "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" has the Tong of the Black Scorpion as Mooks serving their Physical God Weng-Chiang (who turns out to be a psychotic time-traveller from the future who bamboozled them with high-tech tricks).
- Tongs were the focus of a couple of episodes of Kung Fu
- A really ridiculous episode of Psych depicted a kidnapping related to two rival Triads in Santa Barbara. Yes, two Triads in Santa Barbara.
- A group of Tong serves as the main villain in the "The Blind Banker" episode of Sherlock though it's referred to as an ancient Chinese crime syndicate rather than a Chinese-American organization a little over a century old ( and, as with the previous episode's villain, it turns out that Moriarty's The Man Behind The Dragon Lady).
- An episode of Castle features a tong. This example is unusual in that a character mentions that most tongs are legitimate organizations.
- In an episode of Arctic Air the police are looking for a hitman from Vancouver who is trapped in the arctic community when a snowstorm stops all traffic in and out of town. One of the older mechanics starts telling stories about how nasty and deadly Triad assassins are. His stories are mostly nonsense and the hitman is actually Caucasian and working for a biker gang rather than any Chinese crime group.
- The mission that qualified Nikita for active duty involved the assassination of Victor Han, a member of the Department of Homeland Security in its early days. In actuality, the assassination was faked in order to remove Han, a triad member, from the intelligence community without pissing off said triad overmuch. Fast forward to the present day, and Nikita lays into a triad's New York operations only to discover Victor Han is in charge.
- In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk Gets Cabin Fever", Adrian Monk accidentally stumbles upon a gangland murder in San Francisco's Chinatown district. This forces Monk to seek federal witness protection by hiding in a remote cabin in the woods. Meanwhile, Monk's cop friend Randy Disher is dating a pretty woman of Chinese descent, who's secretly aligned with the local Triad and tricks Randy into leading her gangster friends to Monk's hideout. This results in a shootout between the Triad hitmen and law enforcement.
- Triad gangs show up in seasons one and two of Iron Fist. In the second season, one of the major plots is a growing war between two gangs, the Golden Tigers and the Hatchet Gang as a result of the power vacuum left by the Hand's elimination in The Defenders.
- In Lucha Underground, the enigmatic Black Lotus is apparently the daughter of the leaders of the Black Lotus Triad, out for revenge on her parents' murderer, although whether the triad was wiped out by a rival mercenary group or a enormous insane luchador possessed by the Aztec gods is still uncertain.
- The Triads are one of the biggest powers in Shadowrun, and effectively have all of Hong Kong in their pockets. The Yakuza are engaged in a vicious rivalry with them in San Francisco.
- The Triad Sourcebook, one of the few supplements for Hong Kong Action Theatre, is an invaluable resource on the Triads and their use in Hong Kong action games in general.
- A common enemy and occasionally ally in the contemporary juncture of Feng Shui. As with other criminal syndicates in the Feng Shui setting, they're largely controlled by the Ascended.
- The Martian Triads are one of the major inner-system crime organisations in the GURPS Transhuman Space setting. While they do the usual organised crime stuff (loansharking, smuggling, protection), the bulk of their income comes from selling restricted and illegal bioroids, and they're known to have at least one Evilutionary Biologist on staff.
- Killing Streets, an expansion for Kindred of the East, describes the Old World of Darkness take on the state of in-game Triads and how to turn a campaign towards involving them. That's right, Chinese Demon Vampire/Were-whatever Gangsters.
- In Eclipse Phase a few Triads are essentially the only ethnic syndicates to survive the Fall thanks to China's significant presence on Mars beforehand. The few survivors of the Mafia and Yakuza and Cartels coalesced into the Night Cartel.
- The Triads and the Tongs have been featured in every 3D Grand Theft Auto game thus far. You only work with them in San Andreas, however, though you get to wipe them out in GTA3.
- The DS game Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars obviously features them far more heavily than other GTA games. The player is the nephew of a triad leader.
- Deus Ex features them from the Hong Kong levels onward.
- In The Elder Scrolls series, the Camonna Tong is essentially the native Dunmeri (Dark Elf) Mafia, with elements of The Syndicate. Into the early 4th Era, they essentially run Morrowind's smuggling, drug, and illegal slave trade operations. There is also the Morag Tong, a legal (at least in Morrowind) assassin's guild that is officially sanctioned by the Dunmeri government as an alternative to destructive open warfare between the Great Houses. Both of these come from Tong being Dunmeri for 'Guild' (Morag means 'Forester'. What Camonna means was never explained).
- Triads are mentioned in City of Heroes... as being wiped out by the Tsoo, a magically tattooed gang of ninjas and wizards. Really.
- Given their focus on ancestor worship and ability to summon said ancestors' spirits, it's likely that in this game's verse the Tsoo actually came first and that a lot of the Triads were willingly assimilated.
- In True Crime: Streets of L.A. the Triad was your introductory set of mooks. In True Crime: New York City, the Shadow Tong was a more intermediate set.
- The Bangkok mission set in Mafia Wars has the player choose to ally him or herself with the Triads or the Yakuza, affecting which missions become available.
- Stranglehold, in keeping with its cinematic predecessor Hard Boiled, has Tequila going up against two of these along with a Russian crime syndicate.
- Rubi of WET travels to Hong Kong on several of her missions, and thus has to fight these guys several times during the course of the game.
- The Triads play a semi-major role in the last 3rd of the plot of Mafia II.
- The White Mountain Triad is a minor faction in Alpha Protocol, and its leader, Hong Shi, is a source of intel, missions, and resources during the first half of the Taipei mission hub.
- The very first set of levels in Hitman: Codename 47 involve stirring turmoil between the Red Dragon and Blue Lotus Triads by killing key members during negotiation attempts as part of a plan to get close to and assassinate the Red Dragon leader, Lee Hong.
- Sleeping Dogs is set in Hong Kong's criminal underbelly, with the protagonist Wei Shen being an undercover cop trying to infiltrate the Sun On Yee gang.
- The Getaway features a London branch of the Triads, and it's spin-off "Gangs Of London" has the Water Dragon Triad as one of the five playable factions.
- Strider Hiryu confronts a large-scale Chinese Mafia terrorist strike in the first stage of Strider 2.
- The criminal Baoliusung Gang from the second Tenchu game.
- Far Cry 4: Pagan Min, as well as his top lieutenant Yuma Lau and most of his army, originally belonged to a Triad-run drug cartel headed by Pagan's father operating in the Golden Triangle. It's mentioned that after Pagan killed his father and usurped control of the gang, he butted heads with the Triad's "old guard" for dominance, but lost and was run out of Southeast Asia as a result.
- In Akatsuki Blitzkampf, the Scary Black Man Wei and the Dark Action Girl Marilyn Sue Dae Jie are members of the fictional Black Hand Triad under the leadership of a man named In Fu. Their Story Modes are kickstarted when In-Fu is murdered by Marilyn herself, under orders of the witch Mycale. It's also strongly implied that In Fu was a clone of the Big Bad Murakumo, and was offed because he was developing his own agenda.
- Naturally present in the Chinatown level of Dead to Rights. They return for the 2010 reboot, though for some reason most of them, including their boss, have a Monster Clown motif as well.
- Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong, given the setting, features them pretty heavily. Your main benefactor and boss, Kindly Cheng, is a Straw Sandal (a middle-manager) of the fictional Yellow Lotus triad and the background lore mentions an escalating turf war between Yellow Lotus and (also fictional) Red Dragon. Several of your runs involve hits on the Red Dragon, like kidnapping one of their Red Poles (a military commander) and pulling a False Flag Operation to put heat on them from a Mega-Corp.
- Perfect Dark Zero's first few levels pit you against a Triad gang led by Killian.
- The Snake Flower Triads are one of the villains in the first Yakuza game, led by Lau Ka Long, who returns in the third game. The Triads once again play a role in the sixth game as one of the groups trying to go after Haruka and her child due to the fact that the child's father is secretly one of the sons of the boss.
- The "Slingshot" DLC for XCOM: Enemy Unknown introduces Shaojie Zhang, a former member of the Triads who defects to XCOM after acquiring a dangerous piece of alien technology.
- In Kaiserreich, the Triads have become very influential in the Legation Cities, and part of their focus tree involves dealing with the Triads. Alternatively, the player may choose to have the Triads launch a coup and outright take over the Legation Cities, making the Triads a nation-state in their own right.
- In Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, the Tong are a major presence in Los Angeles' Chinatown, thanks to the Chinese Vampire Ming Xiao backing them to destabilize the area and allow her Kuei-Jin faction to gain a foothold. The player character has to rescue a powerful businessman's kidnapped daughter from the Tong and later gives a Tong leader a hard lesson about Mugging the Monster.
- In Persona 2, the triads - particularly the "Taiwanese mafia" Tai To Tien - are part of The Conspiracy, and their members are frequent random encounters in Club Zodiac. In addition, they manage the mass kidnappings that take place during the game and are hired to commit hits on people who dig too deep in the business of their sponsors.
- ASH: The Onyx Eye tong are a crime syndicate and a villainous martial arts school.
- The Legend of Korra has Triad groups of bending criminals that have a large amount of influence in the poorer areas of Republic City, who are thematically a mix of both traditional Triads and 1920's American mobsters. The Triple Threat Triad, which accepts members of all three main bending disciplines, is the criminal group most focused upon in the series (particularily in the first two seasons), but some episodes have shown more element-exclusive Triad groups such as the Agni Kai Triad (firebenders), Red Monsoon Triad (waterbenders) and Terra Triad (earthbenders).
- It's safe to say that Pandabubba from Xiaolin Showdown and his underlings fall under here.
- A few Triad members appear in "Sneak Peek", an episode of Batman Beyond, where the Triad leader Jimmy Lin attempts to talk to the DA, and is filmed by journalist Ian Peek.
- In The Boondocks episode "Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch", Luna recalls through a flashback that the first of her abusive boyfriends was a Hong Kong mobster named Kenny Wu. Aside from being a criminal, Kenny clearly wasn't a nice guy; for example, he angrily slapped her just for undercooking a piece of chicken that came out too cold.
- Time marches on. A "Tong" in Chinese can mean group, organization, association, club, etc. The likelihood of Tongs containing members who speak Chinese (or at least were ethnically Chinese born) is high, but the odds of it being a criminal organization is no higher than an Italian Restaurant today being a Mob front.