A light rail train travels through a street in the Yuen Long district, Hong Hong. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

Violent attacks against pro-democracy protesters by dozens of masked, stick-carrying men have shocked Hong Kong. The brazen assaults took place over the course of an hour July 21 in a train station, with police nowhere to be seen. The police say some of the handful of men later arrested in connection with the incident had links with the city’s notorious organized crime syndicates, known as the triads. It’s not the first time triads have been linked with violence against political demonstrators.

1. What are triads?

Popularly known as the Chinese mafia, there are half a dozen or so main groups in Hong Kong with, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, some 100,000 members. The three best-known groups -- 14K, Sun Yee On and Wo Shing Wo -- also operate just across the border in southern China and as far afield as the U.S. and the U.K. Triads specialize in the organized crime staples of prostitution, racketeering and drugs, but also have developed a reputation as thugs for hire in recent years, said T. Wing Lo, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong who researches organized crime. Counterfeiting, pornography and cigarette- and fuel-smuggling are also important sources of revenue. Stomping grounds include the crowded Mong Kok area in Kowloon, a neighborhood across the bay from Hong Kong Island that’s popular with both local and mainland shoppers and diners. Police say the majority of triad arrests are for violent assault. The gangs have managed to survive even though Hong Kong is one of Asia’s most crime-free cities.

2. Where did triads originate?

They have their roots in mainland China; the first triad was a patriotic secret society formed in the 17th century to overthrow the Qing dynasty, which had been founded by Manchu invaders, and to restore the Han Chinese Ming dynasty. By the beginning of the 19th century, the group had disintegrated into gangs operating independently all over China. Their membership in Hong Kong surged as refugees fled civil war and political upheaval on the mainland. In 1960, then-Police Commissioner Henry Heath mused that one in six of the city’s 3 million residents probably belonged to a triad, according T. Wing Lo. Triads are regularly fictionalized in popular culture and were most pervasive in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, bolstered by police corruption so rampant that it sparked protests and the creation of an anti-graft commission.

3. Why are they in the news?

Hong Kong has seen months of protests in response to a city government proposal to allow extradition to mainland China. Even after the authorities caved in and shelved that idea, the protests persisted but with broader demands. After a day of demonstrations on July 21, around 100 masked men wearing white T-shirts laid into black-shirted protesters returning home. Other passengers and journalists were also attacked with batons at the train station near the Chinese border. An opposition lawmaker caught in the fray said he suspected that the aggressors -- some in their 20s and some as old as in their 60s -- had ties to triad gangs.

4. Is that true?

A senior police official said that some of the first six men arrested in connection with incident had triad ties, while the SCMP quoted unidentified police sources as saying they thought members of 14K and Wo Shing Wo were involved. Pro-democracy lawmaker Hui Chi-fung went so far as accusing police of colluding with triads, after victims of the attack said officers had failed to respond to the melee. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo denied any links between his force and the attackers. The attacks were an escalation of months of violence that included police firing tear gas at crowds and demonstrators smashing their way into Hong Kong’s legislature.

5. Why would triads attack protesters?

Protesters note this wasn’t the first time that government opponents had been attacked by organized gangs. In 2014, when thousands of student-led pro-democracy protesters occupied Hong Kong’s major retail and business districts, there were arrests after triads beat up demonstrators. Many protesters had taken up residence in Mong Kok, hurting business in a key area for criminal organizations. Triad members attacked protesters “with impunity,” according to Andreas Fulda, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham and author of “The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and its Discontents.” Police also issued denials then that they worked with triads. Protest leaders and groups including the Hong Kong Federation of Students had sought to tie the Mong Kok attacks to a nexus of gangs, police and the local government -- and by inference, the central government in Beijing.

--With assistance from Iain Marlow and Fion Li.

To contact the reporters on this story: Karen Leigh in Hong Kong at kleigh4@bloomberg.net;Kari Lindberg in Hong Kong at klindberg13@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Grant Clark, Paul Geitner

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