There have been Chinese secret societies in existence for many centuries. Whenever there has been injustice or misery, Chinese people have gathered together quietly in the name of solidarity and mutual protection. In some cases, the society became famous and reached a measure of success – for example, the Boxer Rebellion has become famous for the resistance of Chinese people against colonial oppression, although ultimately the revolt failed.
When Chinese people migrated overseas, they often joined local, community associations which enabled them to keep in touch with their homeland, passed on remittances and helped recruit wives. If money had been passed officially across borders, government mandarins would apply a squeeze (i.e. taken a percentage), which is never very popular. Consequently, there was a need to retain secrecy and, where there is secrecy and cash involved, organized crime is never far away. These societies, known in Siam (now Thailand) as ‘Ang Yi,’ have also become the basis of the Triads, criminal gangs with numerous exotic ways to make money.
In Siam, a strictly-enforced feudal system ensured that all Siamese people who were not members of the aristocracy were peasant farmers, slaves or other highly controlled classes. As the nineteenth century continued, the need for wage labour increased – people to work in early factories, plantations, tin mines and urban based occupations such as rickshaw operator.
Chinese were imported to meet this need. They wore a coin on a cord around their wrist to show their status as non-slaves, which they paid an annual fee to secure. Of course, they also needed Ang Yi to represent their interests.
In some cases, these Ang Yi became a kind of labour union to help workers negotiate for less dangerous conditions and better wages. In other cases, they became fronts for gangsters involved in organized crime. The role of some Ang Yi, particularly the Tram Workers’ Union, in the Revolution against the Absolute Monarchy in 1932 was never forgiven by members of the elitist aristocracy. When power was seized by Field Marshal Sarit in 1953 as part of a military coup, both Ang Yi and labour union were completely banned and ruthlessly persecuted.
Eye witnesses speak of people gunned down in public in cold blood to demonstrate Sarit’s determination to suppress those who opposed him. Since then, no Ang Yi have been reformed. Labour unions were unbanned in 1973, at a time when the influence of Communism in the region was strong. Further suppression of opponents of the state continued thereafter.