Monday, February 10, 2014

Al Pacino and the Chinese mafias on Chinese New Year

On the eve of Chinese New Year, my family and I sat around the dining room table feasting on our celebratory meal of hot pot.  There were sliced beef, delectable seafood and fresh green vegetables parading around the steamy hot cauldron.  My dad wanted to enlighten the room with music and played one of his favorite CD’s.  Being an opera fan, we were enchanted with Placido Domingo singing “Ave Maria”.  Placido’s voice cascaded the room with grace and sanctimony.  It was so beautiful, we were left in silence for a few good minutes.  Immediately, I had an image flash in my head.   It was Al Pacino in “The Godfather” movies.   
Yeah…..this guy:


Al Pacino as young Michael Corleone, the succeeding Don of the Corleone crime family.    
As Placido continued singing Ave Maria, I recalled the restaurant scene, the one where Michael makes his first show of strength.  Michael Corleone enters a quiet Italian restaurant on a dark evening to meet with Sollozzo and McCluskey, his father’s enemies.  The conversation begins in Italian.  After realizing the two men are not taking him seriously, Michael then excuses himself to go to the restroom.  In the solace of the toilet stall, Michael locates a gun carefully hidden.   He returns to their table, points the gun at both men and kills them point blank.   The music escalates, he throws the smoking gun onto the floor like a rap artist dropping his mike and walks out of the restaurant and into the darkness.  If they aren’t going to play it his way, then it’s no way.   

Quickly I say to my parents, “Every time I hear Ave Maria, it reminds me of The Godfather.”  They look at me and continue eating.  For light dinner entertainment, I then explain the restaurant scene play by play.  I even amateurishly re-enact the death of McCluskey who was eating an Italian meal  when shot by Michael Corleone.  I pretend to choke on the Chinese bok choy that I was chewing in my mouth while gasping for air as if a bullet just entered the middle of my forehead.  For additional dramatic effect, I then slowly tilted my body to my right and slid out of my chair in agony.  Dead, shot by a Mafioso.   
My parents looked at my half limp body on the floor.  They were not amused.
My mother asks me out of curiosity, “How many times have you seen this movie?”   
“A couple of times” I replied. 
I’m not an insane Godfather fanatic.  However, I’ve seen enough re-runs of the Godfather movies to vividly remember the intense restaurant scene.   How can you not remember the first time Michael Corleone shows his father’s enemies who is the boss?  It had “family successor” and “heir to the Corleone family” written all over it?
Upon seeing my Pictionary-level showing of the restaurant scene in The Godfather, my father, being Chinese, doesn’t respond with interest to humor or entertainment.   Rather, he saw it as an opportunity to chime in to preach and bestow wisdom.  See, Chinese parents can never delight in stories for conversation or entertainment when you have over 5,000 years of history to draw upon.  Why bother? Conversations that are intended to be light and humorous will take a sudden serious turn into a history or philosophy lesson or a long exasperated discussion about a Confucius quote from a simple question such as, “Will it rain tomorrow?” Levity has a different meaning in the Chinese culture.  Levity means putting less hot sauce than the usual in cooking.  It has nothing to do with humor.  Instead, unsolicited advice or teachings are given quite frequently when conversing with the older generation.  Or I’d like to refer to them as “Old China”.  I’m sure you might have encountered the little old Chinese lady who owns your local liquor store, mini-mart or donut shop around the corner.   If given the opportunity, she might reply with long winded answers filled with history, personal experience and a smattering of wisdom.     
Even a simple question like, “Should I get a chocolate or glazed donut today?” can be a trigger. 
She’ll reply, “You know…..” and the rest is history……literally. 
I am not sure how accurate many of their stories are that are bestowed upon the younger generation as many are gathered from fading memories, but if anything they are entertaining and interesting to hear. 
Now that I’ve brought up Al Pacino and the Godfather, it has become bait for my father to launch into a wisdom marinating sermon. 
My father clears his throat as if he’s ready to give a speech.  Okay, I sense a history lesson coming about now.  I’m counting down…5,4,3…..
And he begins, “Do you know where the mafias began in China?” asked my father.
“No, Dad. Where?”  The countdown ends…..2,1.  
“Shanghai” responds my father.  The bells chime, class has begun.  Our dinner table is now a classroom. 
Welcome class, school is now in session: 

“Shanghai? I thought it was in Hong Kong” I ask.  I’m thinking of the notorious triads and secret societies in Hong Kong and Macau.   
“Shanghai, near the Huang Pu River where commerce and trade began with off shore merchants from around the world.”  My history lesson about the mafias and the underworld of China with Professor Father begins.    
During the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, Shanghai grew in importance due to European recognition of its favorable port location along the Huang Pu River and economic potential.   The city was the only city in China at the time to open Western and foreign trade which allowed the city to flourish as a center of commerce between east and west, and became the financial hub of Asia even until today.  It’s onset of foreign influences followed after the British victory over China in the First Opium War and the subsequent 1842 Treaty of Nanking which allowed the establishment of the Shanghai International Settlement. The city then flourished with international concessions or communities that resembled early colonialism with British, French, Americans, Japanese and Germans.  British and American businesses thrived immensely in trade and finance and Germans used Shanghai as a base for investing in China. Shanghai accounted for half of the imports and exports of China.  At that time, Shanghai was probably the only city in China to openly receive and embrace Western influences on a wider scale and especially among its aristocracy.  The Western flair was visibly noted through clothing, food, fashion, architecture, music and entertainment and more.  Thus, Shanghai earned its widely known nickname, “The Paris of the East.”

Shanghai aristocracy, early 1900’s

Classic old home with European architecture in Shanghai’s French Concession, now redeveloped into a chic cafĂ© and bar.  Picture taken on my trip to Shanghai in 2011.

In the late 1800's, Zhongshang Road which face the Huang Pu river clustered a thriving community of international banks, embassies and trading houses that now line the same area known as the Bund. 

The Bund, circa 1890

Business grew so well that there were banks and trading houses from United Kingdom, France, Belgium, United States, Italy, Russia, Germany and many others sitting on Zhongshang Road or the Bund.  Many tourists today comment that the architecture on the Bund looks like Europe and it’s a reflection of the Western influences in and around Shanghai of those early decades.    

The Bund, 1930’s

Trade and commerce flourished and within countries, nations and cultures.  For many that didn’t trade in the formal regal of institutions and banks, there developed “triads” or private organizations that traded amongst themselves.  They were men and sometimes women of commerce and economy that didn’t take the formal routes and maybe lacked formal education.  But they were extremely street smart. 
They even developed their street vernacular or hand signs for counting money. 

My niece and I were counting one day in Shanghai using hand gestures for fun and it freaked out my family.  Because of the origin of the hand gestures and their association with street culture, it is commonly perceived as uneducated and street ghetto.
Back to the lecture at hand.

These triads traded anything that had a demand.   They were unregulated, unsupervised and often revered.  Soon, the healthy profits  attracted the gangsters of the underworlds that wanted in on the action.  In time, a new breed of triads or Chinese mafia of organized criminals dealt in prostitution, gambling, money laundering and other illicit affairs.  Being that there was a gray area between legal and illegal activities in Shanghai in those days, these triads made a killing…..literally.   The newly established Chinese mafias operated similarly to the Sicilian mobs and they weaved through the daily legitimate dealings in Shanghai in co-existence.  

“Shanghai Triad” movie starring the beautiful Gong Li and directed by Zhang Yimou, the director for “Hero” and the opening and closing ceremony for the Beijing Olympics 2008.

“That’s how the triads began, in Shanghai, along the Bund” said my father.  I see Professor Father.  
I am reflecting on the Bund today and it’s one of the most beautiful lined streets in Shanghai with expensive haute couture boutiques like Gianni Versace, Louis Vuitton and 5 star hotels and restaurants.  To think that the enclave is where the triad began is daunting.  Today, real estate in and around the Bund is one of the most expensive in the world and rivals New York and London.

The Bund, summer days

The Bund at night

Northern section of the Bund overlooking Pudong and the Oriental Pearl and Radio TV tower.

Then my father asked me, “You know your Uncle David in Shanghai?” 
In the Chinese community, every one of my parent’s friends and of their generation is an Aunt or Uncle. 
“Yeah, I remember him” I replied.  Uncle David is a tall retired happy gentleman living in Shanghai and enjoying the good life as a retired widower.  He and my mother went to the same grade school and their friendship spanned many years.  When I landed in Shanghai for the first time, I met a very spry and well-dressed Uncle David a few days later at a restaurant.  We chatted up warmly.  Uncle David speaks both English and Mandarin.  After we spoke briefly, he handed me his business card.  He lowered his voice and said explicitly said to me, “If you get into any trouble here in Shanghai, you contact me” and looked me straight in the eyes with seriousness.   I took the card and held it in my hand firmly sensing that it might mean something to me someday.  Then he further said, “Your mother and I go all the way back to grade school, she is like my sister.”
Got it.  Say no more.
I felt the kinship and bond which is now playing out in a guided hand and invisible support if I ever needed it here in Shanghai.
Then my Dad said, “Uncle David came from a generation of triads.”  1+1 = 2, knick knack paddy wack, it all makes sense now.
Immediately, I asked, “You mean, the illegal kind?”
“No, the legal ones.  David’s father was a very successful off market triad trader in Shanghai during the early 1900’s.  He bought and sold whatever the institutions and banks couldn’t trade or move that day.  He knew all the well established businesses, politicians and merchants in Shanghai.  So that’s why Uncle David knows everyone in Shanghai…and he can help you in many ways when you are here."   
Through the generations, the triads spread throughout China and criminal offshoots developed in Hong Kong and eventually morphed into tongs in the United States and Canada.  These Chinese mafias became so large that they developed a notorious reputation for extreme violence and seedy dealings like in those early Jackie Chan Kung Fu movies.  

But according to my father, the early triads were legitimate organizations that began through the necessity of trade in Shanghai.  It was only when the underworld saw an opportunity for unregulated trade with viable profit did they infiltrate and developed their own network of systems into a criminal organization.  With the rapid urbanization of Shanghai and its evolution in becoming a financial powerhouse worldwide in the last generation or so, triad organizations have long been replaced by big corporations.  Many of their age-old familiarities have since faded.  However, one thing remains constant.  Shanghai continues to open its ports and business to international companies and cultures worldwide.  Because of its Western cultures dating back to the late 1800’s, it continues to retain its reputation as being more Western, liberal, open-minded and leading edge.  Today, it’s the first city in China to launch free trade zones by the Chinese government to test economic reforms with minimal governmental intervention.

 Shanghai, 21st century 

So if I hadn’t of remembered Al Pacino upon hearing “Ave Maria” at dinner on Chinese New Year, I wouldn’t have re-acted his scenes from “The Godfather” in a futile attempt to try and add some entertainment to the dinner table.  It wouldn’t have prompted my father to turn our dining room into a classroom about the origins of triads and mafias in China.

Written by Gina Tang, author of “The Beijing Family” book series.

Photo credits: Wikipedia   

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