Secret Tea Ritual of Hong Kong’s Triad

The secret tea ritual of Hong Kong’s Triad, the homegrown mafia, is a call to arms as opposed to a Japanese green tea ceremony’s contemplation on peace.

I’ve been a fan of Asian cinema since I was a kid. From Bruce Lee to Zatoichi, I devoured them all as a part of my well-balanced movie diet. John Woo, the Hong Kong director-maven of gangster movies is a favourite of mine. In a lot of these gangster movies, it’s quite common to encounter a scene best described as a “harmony banquet”.

The premise for these scenes usually being two rival gangs meeting for negotiation of truce. Before the start of any talking, there was always a deliberate, ritualistic arranged display of teacups and teapot to determine friend or foe.

This is the secret tea ritual of the Triad, or Hong Kong’s own mafia.

I have to admit that this is a mere glossary of a ritual layered with symbolism and cultural subtext that’s beyond my grasp, with zero command of Mandarin. It would require extensive reading of Chinese classics, some of which have not even been translated to English, as far as I’m aware.

My interest arises more out of a puerile obsession of suave gangsters and notions of undying brotherhood. However, this is no less charming than a Japanese green tea ceremony. I’d like to imagine that if the Japanese green tea ceremony is a deliberation on peace, the Triad’s secret tea language is a call to arms.

The rise of the Triad
Like a lot of things that started with good intentions but ended with a perversion of the original goals, the forebearer of the Triad was the Heaven and Earth Society. It was established in 1760 by the patriots of the deposed Ming Dynasty to overthrow the Manchus of the Ching rulers.

AS THESE REBELS SET UP RENDEZVOUS POINTS AT TEA HOUSES, THE SECRET TEA LANGUAGE WAS A MEANS TO COMMUNICATE WITH COMRADES, NOT UNLIKE A MORSE CODE.

When the communists took over in 1949 and clamped down hard on all dissent and undesirables, the bulk of these rebels escaped to Hong Kong, then a British colony. Gradually the noble cause to restore the Ming Dynasty was forgotten and the society evolved into a money making entity to support and enrich its members, unconstrained by the veneer of social responsibilities. The secret tea language was absorbed into the pomp and circumstance of the Triad.

The 3 stages of secret tea language
Esoteric like a Shaolin kungfu manuscript and rarely known in the West, the ritual has four main purposes. Verifying identity, seeking help, visiting friendlies and grandstanding. There are three stages to the rite:

The first stage is the set up. The tea cups and tea pot are arranged in a specific manner. Each set of arrangement symbolises a purpose like verifying friend and others.

The second stage is ‘breaking’ or decoding the set up. Once a particular tea arrangement is set, the responder moves the cups and pot into a specific position in reply.

The third stage is for the responder to voice a few specific verses. Imagine it as a double verification system. The first is moving the crockery, the second is verbal counter.

Cultural subtext of secret tea language
With the help of a friend who provided translation, I’ve illustrated some of the simpler tea arrangement sets without the verses, as some of the arrangements require five cups and more. There are at least 45 ‘patterns of arrangements’ and every arrangement has a specific name. Often these names are taken after popular characters and places from Chinese novels, operatic scripts like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and Chronicles from the Tang Kingdom. These names appeal to the Triad members as the characters in the novels represent virtues that they value like bravery, loyalty or in the case of a place, a symbolic significance not unlike a Buckingham Palace or Normandy.

Tea arrangement – ‘Single-Handed’ set
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For example: a tea arrangement set called ’Single-handed’. This set is named after a legend during the Three Kingdoms when General Zhao Yun single-handedly rescued the only son and wife of Emperor Liu Bei from enemy soldiers.

To decode the arrangement in the second stage: if you could render help, drink the cup of tea. If you can’t, pour the tea from the cup into pot. Pour tea from the pot into cup again, then drink from the cup.

The verses that are voiced in the third stage:
I roam the world alone, arrived bearing the weight of dust from the ages. A transformed golden dragon bear great fortune, the King ascends the protected throne.

Tea arrangement – ‘Loyalty’ set
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To decode: drink from the middle cup to show your loyalty.

Tea arrangement – ‘Challenge’ set
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To decode: drink from any one cup if you decline the challenge. Drink all three cups if you accept.

Tea arrangement – ‘Loyal Subject’ set
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To decode: starting from the left, drink the first cup if you agree to take care of a comrade’s wife when your comrade is not around. Drink second cup if you agree to loan money. Drink third cup if you agree to render help and the last cup if you promise to not create trouble for someone.

Tea arrangement – ‘General Zhao Joins the Alliance’ set
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To decode: move the lower cup to align horizontally with the three cups to signify you are joining the alliance.

Tea arrangement – ‘Aiding the Poor’ set
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To decode: if you can render aid, take away the pot and drink from any cup.

Tea arrangement – ‘Wu Kui’ set (one of 28 stars from Taoist’s scriptures)
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To decode: move the last cup on the left column to the right column. Symbolically it represents the Chinese character, “Ming.” This set is for verifying friendly forces.

Some of these sets that I have shown requires a third stage of voicing some verses that are beyond my understanding. To see a complete visual representation, click here. But you’d need to read Mandarin because auto-translation doesn’t work well 😉

To decode the tea arrangement at the top: pour both cups of tea back into pot. Pour tea from the pot back into the cups and drink both cups. Else there will be bloodshed.

Christos Gkosdis is an engineer by profession and a foodie at heart. A connoiseur of chilies, he can take as much heat as the best of asians. In his free time, he likes to relax with a book, especially books on World War 2 and Greek history.