From the earliest days of phosphate mining on Christmas Island there existed a branch of the Chinese society known as the Hungmen (洪門) or the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會). It started with the arrival of the Chinese labour force in 1899 or shortly thereafter. It was a Society whose original purpose was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty (Manchu) and return the Ming (Han) to power and was a fraternity or brotherhood in the sense that it provided support and aid for those of its members in need. (You can read one version of the 36 member oath at the end of this article.) It also importantly maintained traditional practices and beliefs that anchored the CI coolie labourers to the culture they had left behind in China. Far from home and family, toiling with back breaking work with sickness and death ever present, the presence of the Hungmen would have provided the coolie with brotherhood comfort.
I first read mention of the Hungmen on Christmas Island in the National Trust’s “Temples and Shrines of Christmas Island” document a couple of years ago. I thought the Hungmen was just an early benevolent society. Then more recently, as I was preparing the article “A glimpse back to the Island’s secret societies” I did some background reading on Chinese brotherhoods/societies and inevitably learnt more about the Hungmen. It’s origins, history, evolving structures with spin off groups and broader context of its operations is a fascinating topic. Entire books have been written on the subject; the information overwhelming and at times confusing. This left me with questions as to the original function of the Hungmen on Christmas Island. Was it truly just a benevolent society then?
The main problem for the historian is the multi-faceted nature of such organizations. Although all shared the political goal of overthrowing the Manchu dynasty that ruled China, some were more or less purely social groupings that focused on mutual aid and recreation for members. Others served administrative and judicial functions within the community, allocating business locations and cemetery sites, settling disputes, and enforcing the payment of debts. Still others engaged in criminal activities: protection rackets, extortion, and strong-arm methods for controlling such tolerated vices as gambling and prostitution. And, confusingly, a few such organizations were involved with all three sorts of activity at once: mutual help, administration, and crime.
How was the Hungmen operating on Christmas Island?
The implications that arose when the 1890 Societies Ordinance Law came into being in Singapore (barely ten years before mining commenced on the Island) would have determined early Society operations on the Island; the seen ones at least.
It made all Chinese secret societies ipso facto unlawful societies, but provided them with a loophole for survival, by designating societies formed for “Recreation, Charity, Religion, and Literature” eligible for exemption from the provisions of the new Ordinance. In the years to come many of these seemingly harmless clubs and societies became “cover” organisations for secret society intrigue, and the secret society praxis that the illegal can co-exist with the legal seems to have been overlooked.
Comber, L. (1956). Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya; an Introduction. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 29, No. 1 (173).
Did the Hungmen have a formal place of meeting? Where may it have been operating from? It is tempting to think of Ong Sam Leong’s first kongsi; he was the labour contractor. Photos of the kongsi dating between 1900-1902 show Chinese characters on its verandah floor edges that come from the “Thousand Character Classic”. The Classic formed part of the basis of literacy training in traditional China so it is obvious there is a literary link to those premises. Does this lead by extension to the Hungmen?
Bearing this in mind, it is also interesting to take into account the business dealings of Ong. Despite, or in spite of, the Societies Ordinance Law, what involvement did he have with the Hungmen both in Singapore (his base) and his business monopolies on Christmas Island? For example, prostitutes were brought onto the Island presumably through his labour contract company and yet that profession had long been under the provision of the secret societies. He, along with other business leaders could not have operated without involvement of the Hungmen. This is not meant as a statement of judgement but is rather an observation; a fact of life that in order to run a business certain relationships were inevitable especially if straddling legitimate, and let’s say less savoury, practices. Apart from prostitution, Ong’s other income streams on Christmas Island included gambling and the monopoly to supply opium to the Island. I might add that all these practices were legal/tolerated at the time (the Government themselves took over the opium monopoly in the Straits Settlements in 19111) His “rice bowls” would also need to be protected. So, this is another aspect of possible Hungmen involvement/links to Christmas Island that needs to be taken into account.
Just as life is rarely black or white, but rather a rainbow of coloured nuances, the same probably also applies to the answer given to my original question as to whether the Hungmen was a purely benevolent society on Christmas Island in those first early years.
The 36 Oaths
- After entering the Hung doors, esteem filial piety and obedience to parents as most important. Dwell in harmony with your neighbours. Do not in any way oppose your parents, nor commit adultery, nor act lewdly, nor offend against propriety or disturb your neighbours. May those who disregard these injunctions die by being sliced with knives into ten thousand pieces.
- After entering the Hung doors, your brethren’s parents become your parents, and your brethren’s wives and daughters become your sisters-in-law and nieces. If any commit adultery or act improperly with them, may they die by a thousand knives or perish by ten thousand wounds.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must be loyal to your chief, and not blab to your father, son, brother, or other persons, nor tell them when Heaven’s time for action comes. May the Five Patriarchs look down on and be witnesses against those who disregard this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, fidelity and constancy are most essential. You must not for the sake of reward get outsiders to arrest a brother, nor inform against him, nor point him out to the government soldiers that they may arrest him. May Heaven and Earth join to extirpate those who offend against this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, the virtuous, worthy, upright, and just men, whom all salute as Great Brothers must not presume on their greatness to oppress the humble. When the brethren have business, it must be transacted straightforwardly and justly. May those who disobey this injunction die beneath a thousand knives or perish of ten thousand wounds.
- After entering the Hung doors, in your intercourse a patriotic spirit and mutual respect and love must be shown. None must presume on their wealth to insult the poor, nor on their strength to insult the weak. None must regard with scorn or maliciously injure a brother. May those who disobey this injunction die in the uproar of battle.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must not cause shame and ridicule, by telling outsiders our ritual, signs, test words, and responding verses. May thunder strike and fire consume those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, all brethren must elect the wise and discerning to be Instructors. Be not remiss in this, for skilfully written books and secret papers are required. May the gods look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, all brethren are expected to subscribe money for the festival on the twenty-fifth day of the seventh month, for Duke Tah-tsung’s birthday anniversary, on the ninth day of the ninth month, and for sacrificial clothing for the relief of neglected spirits. May the Fire Patriarchs look down on and judge those who refuse to subscribe.
- After entering the Hung doors, all brethren are warned that if on vessels or on the highway they see the secret sign of the Hung family shown by a brother, they must not steal from him in open day nor rob him by night. May those who disobey this injunction perish from ten thousand wounds.
- After entering the Hung doors, no matter whether industrious labourers, diligent students, scholars, farmers, mechanics, merchants, physicians, diviners, astrologers, geomancers, physiognomists, actors, singers, executioners, lictors, Confucianists, Buddhists, or Taoists, you must not get drunk and by fighting and riotous conduct cause trouble. May the gods look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must be frugal and complaisant in controlling your families. One brother must always repay what he borrows from another. May the Fire Patriarchs look down on and judge those who borrow and do not repay.
- After entering the Hung doors, how do we know that amongst so many members something may not happen to some of us? If any day a brother gets into trouble and any of you are able to save him and do not, nor inform him that he may escape, may thunder from every point annihilate you.
- After entering the Hung doors, it is the duty of the Iron Soles, if a letter arrives saying that brethren in a distant place are in trouble, to take it at once into our family. No matter whether it blows or rains, or if it is late at night, the information must be communicated. May those who disobey this injunction he annihilated by thunder from every point.
- After entering the Hung doors, if you have to keep guard or watch over a place, you must not steal, nor allow others to steal. If any of you act unlawfully in this, may thunder from every point annihilate you.
- After entering the Hung doors if you have no trouble you must not, in order to obtain subscriptions, pretend you have, nor swindle your brethren, nor must you presume on your strength to compel them to lend to you. May those who disobey this injunction die from blows with clubs.
- After entering the Hung doors, if a brother happens to go to your house, detain him to rest and supply him with drink. Show him no disrespect. Whether of the same village or of different villages, we are all of one body. May the gods look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, if you meet a brother in difficulties rescue him, and if in sickness assist him, and should a brother’s great reckoning (death) come, subscribe money for his coffin. May thunder from every point annihilate those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, if you hear or know of a letter arriving for a brother from a brother in another province, you must immediately inform him, and if money or other valuables be sent, yon must not stealthily appropriate it. May those who fail to deliver to the proper personal property that is so sent, die beneath a thousand knives of ten thousand wounds.
- After entering the Hung doors, if your circumstances change (i.e. if you happen to be robbed), you must at an early date give information and show the secret signal ; but without causing any alarm. May those who rob a brother of the Hung family perish by clubs in a fight.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must carefully conceal the purse and little ticket (certificate of membership and books of the society) and bear in mind and take heed that you do not divulge the secret signs given by the mother (by mother we mean the Incense Master). May the Five Patriarchs look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must not disregard the sympathy you felt at the time of pledging brotherhood. May Heaven and Earth join to annihilate those who devour their brethren, or swindle a brother, or intrigue to obtain a brother’s property.
- After entering the Hung doors, you are taught to get on in life by just trade. If a brother has money and refuses to lend it to you, you must not harbor resentment. You must not force a brother to buy off you or sell to you. May the Five Patriarchs look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, you are taught that in the affairs of the Hung family, a chief manager in his transactions must not borrow the public funds for his private use, nor misappropriate the entrance fees of new members. May thunder from all points annihilate those who so misappropriate the funds.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must wear mourning for a parent three years, after which, if your mother be alive, you may undertake the management of matters.
- After entering the Hung doors, on the completion of ten months, you are eligible for a minor office and after two years for the office of Vanguard. Those who are loyal in bringing in members must not accept bribes. May thunder from all points annihilate those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, if anywhere the brethren observe the sign that the Hung family are going to fight with non-members, they must assist. If any join in the battle and retreat, or pretend they did not know of the fight, may they die of ten thousand wounds from a thousand knives.
- After entering the Hung doors, and swearing our fearful oaths, you must not return to your homes and prepare offerings of incense in the presence of Heaven, to the powerful spirits to remove your guilt. Heaven must extirpate those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, if any of you appropriate the new members’ first month’s subscriptions, instead of sending them to the Incense Master, may you meet the fate of Ma I-fah and perish beneath a thousand knives.
- After entering the Hung doors, under every circumstance you in must behave consistently as brothers. Should a brother entrust his wife or son with you, you must not wickedly appropriate her or him to yourself. May thunder kill and fire consume those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must not by cross words or crooked talk ruin the Incense Master ; nor may an Incense Master wickedly scheme to injure other
- After entering the Hung doors, you must not to obtain your desires injure a brother. If brother has money to lend and refuses to lend to you, you must not scheme to
- After entering the Hung doors, do not in all things put reliance in scheming talebearers, nor listen to the talk of mean persons. If a brother breaks the laws, let all the brethren come and settle the matter in public, without, by using cross words and crooked language in front of the Incense Master, adding fuel to the fire. May the gods look down on and judge those who disobey this injunction.
- After entering the Hung doors, traitors and turn-coats are cudgeled, but the loyal and patriotic are not beaten. If a brother offends, let all the brethren discuss his case and punish him, and if he harbours resentment or disobeys this injunction, may the gods look down on and punish him.
- After entering the Hung doors, if a member offends in anything he must suffer punishment himself, and not turn round and incriminate others. May those who disobey this injunction be annihilated by thunder from every point.
- After entering the Hung doors, you must not marry, commit adultery with or kidnap and sell deceased brothers’ widows, so that, in after days, your children and grandchildren may marry with theirs according to propriety, and be fortunate, prosperous, and ever rich and honourable, with prosperous children and grandchildren to succeed them.
The Triad Society: Or, Heaven and Earth Association by William Stanton c1900
1. John Hunt, Suffering through strength page 61