Bamboo Gang, Heavenly Way Alliance, and the Four Seas Gang: The World of Taiwan’s Triads

Aris Teon , July 10, 2015 8:48am

On April 26, 2010, the funeral service of Li Zhaoxiong (李照雄), the former boss of the Big Lake Gang, was held in Taichung City. It was attended by 20,000 people.

Among them were triad members from Taiwan as well as neighbouring Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Thailand. But there were also high-ranking Taiwanese politicians. The list of prominent guests included Legislative Speaker Wang Jinping, Chiayi County Commissioner Zhang Huakuan, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Yu Tian, and Taichung City mayor Jason Hu. Sitting side by side, politicians and mobsters mourned a man who had risen from rags to riches through illegal activities.

One hundred and eight limousines – an auspicious number – led the Buddhist procession, while models paraded placards with the names of businesses that had payed tribute to the godfather.

“I felt I had to come to express my thanks,” said the mayor of Taichung to the media, referring to the fact that Li Zhaoxiong had left $2 million to charity in his will.

Li was considerate a “moderate” mobster, who did not engage in prostitution and avoided violence. He refused to let his son enter the underworld. Since the police never revealed Li’s criminal record, it is unclear whether he spent time in jail on charges of gambling and firearms smuggling, as an anonymous source told the Taipei Times. Li was dubbed “the mafia arbitrator” because he used his influence to effect the release of politicians and businessmen who had been kidnapped by gangs.

Official statistics show that there are at least over 5,000 gangsters in Taiwan. According to the police, however, these take into account only gang members monitored by the authorities. The actual total number is likely to be higher.

The largest criminal syndicate in Taiwan is the Bamboo Gang with over 1,700 members and 68 branches, followed by the Four Seas Gang with 46 local branches and 726 members, and the Heavenly Way Alliance, with 36 branches and 632 members.

The Bamboo Gang (竹聯幫; pinyin: Zhūliánbāng) was established in 1957 in Yonghe District of Taipei Country (now New Taipei City) by children of refugees from mainland China. The so-called ‘mainlanders’ had fled to Taiwan after the government of the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) had been defeated by the Communists in the bloody Chinese Civil War (1946-149).

The newcomers were more often than not in conflict with the local Taiwanese population. The Bamboo Gang was initially formed by youngsters who wanted to defend themselves from attacks by gangs of Hoklo Taiwanese. The Bamboo Gang was better organised and more violent than its rivals, and soon it became one of the island’s most powerful criminal syndicates.

While the Bamboo Gang was pro-China and pro-Guomindang, rival Hoklo groups were opposed to the government and had a ‘nativist’ mindset.

The Four Seas Gang (四海幫, pinyin: Sìhǎi bāng), which operates in Shilin and Beitou districts, was established in 1955 and its members are drawn from the Hoklo community.

The Heavenly Way Alliance (天道盟, pinyin: Tiāndàoméng) was founded in 1986 by a group of gangsters who had been sent to jail on Green Island by the Guomindang. They began their illegal business in prison, where they monopolised the cigarette market. Inmates who wanted to buy cigarettes had to go through the Alliance. The gang had a strong anti-Guomindang stance. Their goal was to unite all ‘native’ gangs against ‘mainland’ gangs and the Guomindang.

The activities of Taiwan’s criminal gangs range from protection racket, gambling and prostitution to running businesses such as restaurants, night clubs and construction companies.

Secret societies, triads and gangs have existed in Chinese society for centuries. Many of them, such as the White Lotus, the Tiandihui and the Green Gang, even played a major role in politics. This characteristic of Chinese triads is reflected in the ethnic divide and political affiliation of Taiwan’s gangs.

Following the growth of opposition groups in Taiwan, which culminated in the tragic Kaohsiung Incident of 1979, the Guomindang co-opted the Bamboo Gang. Senior officials met with Bamboo Gang leader Chen Qili (陳啟禮), asking him to “serve the country”. The use of gangs would allow the government to get rid of its enemies while maintaining the pretense of legality and respectability (recently a similar strategy seems to have been adopted by the Communist Party in Hong Kong). The Guomindang’s association with triads dates back to the days of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, both of whom were affiliated to secret societies.

The Bamboo Gang gained international notoriety in 1984, when members of the syndicate assassinated Henry Liu (Liu Yiliang), a Taiwan-born US citizen who had written a critical unauthorised biography of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo. The murder was carried out in Daly, California, where the writer lived at the time.

The FBI uncovered the links between the assassins and Taiwan’s military intelligence, causing a major row between Washington and Taipei. It appears that the killers were backed by the Guomindang and state organs, possibly by Chiang’s ambitious son, Chiang Hsiao-wu.

After the murder of Liu, Chiang Ching-kuo unleashed a crackdown on organised crime. The head of the military intelligence, Wang Xiling, and two major Bamboo Gang leaders, Chen Qili and Wu Dun, were sentenced to life imprisonment (though they were released in 1991). Chiang’s son was demoted. He was sent to Singapore, where he headed the local Taiwan trade office. It is unclear whether Chiang Ching-kuo ordered Liu’s murder and then suppressed the Bamboo Gang in order to appease Washington.

In 1996, after Taiwan’s democratization, Chen Qili was forced to flee to Cambodia. He died in Hong Kong in 2007. According to interviews given by his associates, Chen very much resented the way the government had treated him. He had wanted to return to Taiwan and be treated like a “patriot”, rather than like a criminal. Wu Dun, Chen’s accomplice in the Liu murder, declared that “the government had treated Chen very unfairly … It is very disappointing that a man who sacrificed himself for the country was forced into exile overseas.”

After Chen’s death, some gangsters and even celebrities and media began portraying him as a patriot and a “hero”. One of Chen’s apologists was Zhang Anle (張安樂, spelt Chang An-le or An-lo in Taiwan), the former leader of the Bamboo Gang. He stated that Chen was an idealist who had made money doing the right thing.

For many years Zhang Anle, commonly known as the “White Wolf” (白狼), was considered by the Taiwanese media the “brain” of the Bamboo Gang. He is a living example of the connection between triads and politics, and of the way in which both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party use criminal gangs to impose their own ideology.

According to Wikipedia, Zhang Anle was born in 1948 in Taipei City. But other sources claim he was born in mainland China. This is, for instance, what author Chin Ko-lin states, but without specifying Zhang’s alleged birthplace. Zhang established links with the underworld as a boy. He joined the Bamboo Gang in 1964 and later rose to its leadership.

When the Liu murder took place, Zhang Anle was in Los Angeles, and although he did not kill Liu, he tried to help Chen Qili. The US authorities sentenced Zhang to 10 years in prison for drug-trafficking. He returned to Taiwan in 1995.

However, the next year the ROC government unleashed another major crackdown on organised crime, and Zhang fled to China. He lived there for 17 years, and returned to Taiwan in June 2013. Upon arriving at Songshan Airport, he was arrested by the police, but released just a few hours later on a NT$1 million (about $30,000) bail.

Ever since, Zhang has started a ‘new life’, taking part in TV shows and founding a new party that advocates the reunification of China and Taiwan – the Party for the Promotion of Chinese Unification (中華統一促進黨; simpl. Chinese: 中华统一促进党, pinyin: Zhōnghuá tǒngyī cùjìn dǎng). Zhang has invented pro-unification slogans such as: Peaceful Unification, One Country Two Systems (和平統一、一國兩制), and Taiwan’s Independence Means War (台獨就是代表戰爭).

Zhang Anle’s allegiance to the Guomindang and the CCP derives from his belief in pan-Chinese nationalism. He is openly pro-Guomindang, and in some cases he even offered his ‘services’ to them. For instance, in November 2013, he threatened to deploy 2,000 of his men to protect President Ma Ying-jeou, who was the target of fierce protests at the time. During the 19th National Congress of the Guomindang in Taichung, on 10 November 2013, angry protesters even hurled shoes at Ma.

Despite supporting the Guomindang, he has also vowed to help the Communist Party take over Taiwan. In a 2013 interview with the PRC’s state-owned paper Global Times (環球時報), he said:

In Taiwan, I want to nurture the grass-roots level red electorate (我要在台灣基層培養紅色選民).

Journalist J. Michael Cole, who visited the headquarters of Zhang’s party, reports having seen a large PRC flag in a conference room.

During last year’s Sunflower Student Movement, Zhang and his men repeatedly clashed with students. According to Cole, on different occasions “his goons turned up at the site [of the protest] and attempted to pick a fight with the students, threatening them with knives, firecrackers, and homemade bombs.”

During the Kaohsiung prison drama last February, Zhang tried to mediate between the police and the inmates who had staged a revolt.

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Aris Teon

A blogger writing about Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.