The Highbinders’ in Canada

R. Bruce Bennett September 1 1910

The Highbinders’ in Canada

R. Bruce Bennett September 1 1910

The Highbinders’ in Canada

R. Bruce Bennett

WITH the suggestion of Bert Harte’s “ways that are dark and tricks that are vain, the heathen Chinee is peculiar,” the prevailing idea of the immigrant from Cathay, is that he is of intricate methods individually and secret societies collectively. When onehears of such organizations as the Highbinders’ Society, this impression becomes more decided. It will be found, however, that human nature is little different in the Chinese than it is in the Caucasian, and the apparent mystery of the Chinaman is due to his reticence. This unwillingness to unfold himself to everyone he meets is not because of ignorance, but rather of a high intelligence, for the Chinaman, though he may be heathen from the Christian point of view, is accredited by people who know him, as

being equal in anything which calls for the exercise of intellectual ability.

So the development of the Highbinders’ Society has not been the result of any particular love of secret fraternities. It was instituted with the definite purpose of restoring a dynasty that had been deposed from the throne, but by the time it became known on the American continent it had degenerated into an organization not unlike the Italian Mafia or Black Hand, which has, of late, become so notorious. The record of the Highbinders in the Pacific Coast has been of blackmail and murder, which was the natural outcome of the quality of its membership. Still, every murder credited to Highbinders has not been committed by them. The remark has not been unusual when a Chinese murder occured, “It was done by High-

binders.” A Chinaman may have been the criminal, but then every Chinaman is not a Highbinder. As the stilletto marks murder by an Italian, so there is distinction in the Chinese method of killing. It is a proved fact that while he may be vengeful, for uncontrolled human nature is always so, the Chinaman abhors the presence of blood on his person. For that reason he rarely uses a knife, or, if he does, the knife remains where it is placed. He prefers an axe, which will give him a safe distance from the spattering life-fluid, or a bludgeon. The revolver is also a handy weapon. This peculiarity is one which has few exceptions.

Tradition of the origin of the Chee Kong Tung, the English interpretation of which is Highbinders’ Society, is that three hundred years or more ago, there existed in the South of China, near Nanking, a large institution presided over by monks. Over five hundred were in the castle, under which were all kinds of dungeons,

trap doors and secret passages, none of which were known to outsiders. One day, a servant broke a sacred lamp in front of an idol, and being severely reprimanded and dismissed from the service for the offence, he revengefully decided to expose the secret tunnels which led -to the castle. He led thither a large party of soldiers, who slaughtered without mercy and set fire to the monastery. All but twelve men perished, and seven of these were so badly injured that they died. The remaining five organized the Chee Kong Tung, which in China is now a branch of the Order of the Triangle, known as the San Hop Woy. The monastery was destroyed during the reign of the present dynasty, and as the soldiers were of the empire, so the object of the society determined itself into substituting a representative of one of the ruling families of the past for the occupant of the throne.

The average human dearly loves forms and ceremonies. This is evidenced in public, religious and even

private life, but finds particular exemplification in the initiation ceremonies of the various secret benevolent societies. The Chinaman is not a whit different from his white brother, and the initiation ceremonies of the Chee Kong Tung are lengthy and impressive. The signs of secrecy are many and are constantly employed to make the union of brotherhood more binding and complete. Initiation begins at the mystic hour of midnight and continues till six o’clock in the morning. The candidate for membership, after successfully negotiating three red cloth gates, passes through a hoop, which has nine teeth in the top and twelve in the bottom, and this passage is supposed to indicate that he has been born again. As he is reborn, he leaves behind all earthly relatives, and is taken in hand by the “mother” of the lodge. Thirty-six oaths of secrecy are administered as he crawls through the gates once more, and, as he declares his adherence, lighted punksticks are snapped out one by one, to convey the terrible idea that if he breaks one oath, his life will be snap-

ned out just as quickly. The same danger threatens if he fails to execute any command or commission. On towards morning, as the initiate becomes fatigued, come the more solemn ceremonies, such as drinking “holy water,” in which is blood, secured by incisions in the finger ; passing through burning paper, signifying the gates of hell, when a rooster’s head is cut off, representing the fate of the traitor. (The decapitation of the rooster is the most solemn oath taken by Chinese in a court of law.) At six o’clock in the morning, the new brethren are received at a banquet, wrhich they furnish, and the various signs and passwords are then bestowed.

Whoever secures a new member is entitled to a fee, never less than $1.50, and as much as the new member can be reasonably assessed. If a member who has money backslides, he is blackmailed, and if cash is not forthcoming, then murder is threatened and carried out if refusal is still persisted in. Five times during the year, feasts are held to celebrate the anniversaries of the births of the five original found-

ers of the Order, and to provide for these a levy is made. The custom has been to select for contributions violators of the law, such as prostitutes and gamblers. This was the prominent feature of the brotherhood, as it was known on the Pacific Coast, where it flourished in the past and is still not altogether unknown. Where these unlawful places were to be found, the Highbinders flourished exceedingly. Members were not molested, or if by mistake money was taken from a fellow-member, it was returned, which accounts for the degenerate quality of the membership, since all Chinese who required protection were quick to join to secure it. If violators of the law had particular friends among the members, the assessment for the feasts was comparatively light. If they had no friends, then the levy was as much as it was thought could be convéntly paid, and never was less than $20. Guards were appointed to see that the money was forthcoming, and, if it was not paid, the final order for murder was given, and, as a member of the order has stated, “there were always a few hatchet boys or axe wielders to do the necessary work, when assessment was refused.”

This member has also made the statement that while initiates are advised not to get into trouble with any one and to live in brotherly affection with their fellowmen, such advisement meant nothing. He had never heard any discussion or any plan in the society for the good or benefit of any person, either in the organization or out of it. Promotion was not according to ability, but wealth.

Occasionally one hears of the dangers that threaten from Highbinders, sometimes when inside information is made public. If murder takes place because of such, the uninformed will mysteriously mutter “Highbinders,” but a prominent Chinaman declares that it would be exceedingly doubtful if Highbinders would be implicated.

Every murder of an Italian is not the

work of a member of the Black Hand. The Highbinders are not organized for the special purpose of killing, but since the members are of the lowest order, they have no hesitation in taking life to attain their ends. The “hatchet boys” are murderously employed under oath to enforce the system of blackmail, and it is very doubtful if one were apprehended by the law, if vengeance would be wreaked :by the organization, on any policeman or judge, if conviction were obtained.

Fifteen years ago or more, Highbinders’ societies flourished in Victoria, Vancouver, and other cities on the Pacific Coast, but to-day strict enforcement of the law, and improvement in general conditions has resulted, if not in their effacement, at least in reducing the organization to a weak smoulder. With the desire of the Chinese for a higher plane of life, recognizing as they do that adoption of occidental manners and customs is a factor in success, such organizations as the Chinese Reform Society, are doing good work. Their motives are thoroughly good, they are aggressive and co-operative, and the Chinese that one sees on the streets, and in the life of western cities, in no way suggests the ways that are dark. Instead, they exemplify the progress that comes with education, and the adoption of a style of living, in the average case on an equality with that of the races which lay claim to the highest civilization. Such being the case, it can be easily seen why the Highbinders are disappearing from view. Since the immigrant Italian has no association which has for its object the advancement of its members to the high Caucasian standard, it can be just as readily understood why the only comparison to the Chee Kong Tung, namely, the Mafia, is evident in whatever part of the United States or Canada the laborer from Italy has found a place. On the other hand, less and less is heard of the organization which is distinctively Chinese.