It is a hot dusty afternoon in 1840. You are a sin kheh (new immigrant) from Fujian who just arrived at the famed port of Singapore where, hopefully, the streets are lined with gold coins and dumplings.
Getting out of that floating sardine can of a junk is literally a breath of fresh air – but wait – Where do you start? Everything here looks and sounds completely new – from the tropical smells to the weird coloured people and their incomprehensible babble. You begin to panic as three weeks’ worth of seasickness threatens to re-acquaint itself.
Suddenly, a voice cries out your name in Hokkien. It’s your neighbour Ah Kow from back home! Ah Kow had left Fujian 5 months before and rumour has it that he had made quite a life for himself over here in Singapore.
Ah Kow listens intently to your little problem and tells you about this wonderful association that he joined recently and promises that they will take care of everything for you. You're a tiny bit sceptical, but it’s your only chance of making it alive 3000km away from home. Hesitating a little, you agree to join. Welcome to the world of secret societies.
The Mother of all Triads
It is thought that the first triad ever formed was the Tian Di Hui (天地会) – literally Heaven Earth Society, set up in Fujian. Its name reflects the harmonious relationships between Heaven, Earth, and Man, according to Chinese beliefs. Throughout history, Tian Di Hui was also known by a confusing variety of names - Three Dots Society, Three Unities Society, and even Pure Water Society. Obviously some members did not get the memo.
There are many legends about the founding of Tian Di Hui, but they generally run along these lines:
A group of Shaolin monks assisted Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi in defeating Northern barbarians called the Xi Lu. Kangxi was delighted and bestowed favour upon them.
However, his senior officials became jealous and falsely accused the monks of treason. Alarmed, Kangxi ordered the monks to be wiped out. His men set fire to the Shaolin monastery in the dead of night, killing all but 5 who managed to escape and survive the fighting. Along the way, they encountered divine omens that prompted them to create a society to overthrow the Qing dynasty.
On the day of their formation, there was a bright red glow in the sky, which inspired them to change their surnames to Hong (洪) which sounds like the Mandarin character for ‘red’ (红). These 5 monks went on to form the 5 different sub-lodges of Tian Di Hui.
Kangxi: Flip flops faster than some politicians and bloggers
Secret Societies in Singapore
Before they were criminalised, secret societies (会) were not much different from clan associations (会馆). Both helped Chinese immigrants by providing them with a brotherhood network for support and financial help – especially important for new Chinese immigrants, who found themselves alienated by the colonial government.
Ah Kow boasts that his secret society, the Ghee Hin Kong Si (义兴公司), is an offshoot of the original Tian Di Hui, and it is the biggest and most famous in Singapore with an estimated 3,000 members from all 5 of the biggest dialect groups - “much bigger than the Kwan Teck Hui (关帝会) or Hai San (海山) societies,” scoffs Ah Kow.
Left and centre: Receipts by Ghee Hin Kong Si; Right: Ghee Hin membership certificate. Source
Ghee Hin Receipt Seal - used to indicate the completed payment of fees. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board
The Trippiest Orientation Camp Ever
One week into your new life here, Ah Kow jios you to the kongsi’s Kai Xiang Tang (开香堂) – the initiation ceremony. In the dead of night, you follow him into a pepper and gambier plantation where an elaborate system of gates and symbolic items are laid out.
You are told to roll up your left pant leg and right sleeve, and replace your shoes with grass sandals. A man dressed in white leads you through 3 gates – The Hong Gate (洪门), Hall of Loyalty and Righteousness (忠义堂), and the Hall of the City of Willows (木杨城). You follow suit, each time answering trick questions and reciting tediously long oaths.
The journey ends at the Red Flower Pavilion (红花亭) where your finger is pricked and the blood mixed with chicken blood, rice wine and sugar.
“Drink, and become our sworn blood brother,” the man in white commands. You hesitate, but the sight of the gleaming sword in his hand convinces you to take a sip. At the end, you are given a membership certificate which you are told to guard with your life.
The example of the Tsung Sin Kongsi (松信公司) membership certificate below contains a numerical puzzle at the top of the inner octagon – these symbols represent numbers which add up horizontally, vertically, or diagonally to 15.
Tsung Sin Kongsi Membership Certificate. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore , National Heritage Board
Hung Seal used by Masters of the triad lodge to validate membership certificates. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.
Swear By Your <insert body part>
Triad members took their oaths very seriously – the consequence of breaking any one of them was impending horror involving, more often than not, the loss of certain body parts. Below are some examples 1:
- The first duty of a brother is to honour his parents. It is forbidden to abuse his brothers and parents, and if he be so dishonourable as to break this law, may he, within a month, be drowned in the ocean, his flesh float on the surface of the waters, and his bones be buried in the ocean bed.
- If a brother enters the house of another brother, tea and rice must be served to him. If any brother fails to do so, may he die by losing his blood along the street.
- Having performed the ceremonies, on returning home a brother must not sell the signs and secrets of the Hung brotherhood. If any brother be so shameless may he be killed by a tiger or have his eyes bitten out by a snake.
36 Oaths from a secret society’s initiation ceremony. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.
Check out this short video on the oaths taken by secret society members.
Deconstructing Signs And Codes
As you begin your work in the secret society, you learn the ropes of secrecy from Ah Kow. You notice that your membership certificates looks just like trade receipts, complete with stamps, so as to avoid undue suspicion from the outside world. You also learn a neat set of hand signs, unique to your secret society, which enables you to communicate with your members openly. Occasionally, Ah Kow passes you a hidden message on a piece of cloth, which can only be revealed when you fold it a certain way.
Hand signs2 used by secret society members
Chinese characters were disguised by leaving out certain strokes (for example, 顺天行道 became 川大丁首). Numbers were used in place of words – 3-8-21 was used to represent the triad name Hong (洪). The 洪 character deconstructs into 三 (3), 八 (8), 廿 (20), and 一 (1).
Hung code: 洪is deconstructed into the numbers 3, 8, 20, 1. The character 合 is also deconstructed into the characters for “Man”, “One”, and “Mouth”. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.
It is now nearly a month since you joined the triad. Ah Kow tells you that Da Ge (大哥 - literally Big Brother - what the guys call the Headman) is extremely pleased with your work so far and might be promoting you up the ranks soon.
Whoa not bad, you think to yourself. The prospect of doing less saikang yet earning more money is every coolie’s dream.
“Brother, let’s celebrate tonight,” said Ah Kow with a huge grin. “I have a surprise for you!”
Enjoyed reading this peek into the mysterious world of the triads? Look out for Part 2 of this journey into the old secret societies of Singapore next week!
1Examples of oaths taken from Secret Societies in Singapore (featuring the William Stirling Collection) by Irene Lim
2Adapted from illustration in Secret Societies in Singapore (featuring the William Stirling Collection) by Irene Lim
Special thanks to National Heritage Board for granting approval for the use of the William Stirling Collection images in this article.