Tangs and Secret Societies -1

What exactly is a Tang? To some people it calls up images of a hatchet man hiding in a doorway, dull metal head ax just tucked under his white cuffed sleeve. Others consider it the Chinese Mafia (without knowing that there might be legendary connections…) To some the sobriquet “Benevolent Association” is taken seriously, though for others it’s hard to accept anything positive about the Tangs (also spelled “tong”).

The Italian/American comedian with the misleading name, Pat Harrington, used to start his stand up routine with “Tonight I’m here to talk to you about the GOOD the Mafia does…” That drew a laugh for it is exquisitely difficult for many middle class people to accept the positive side of such organizations so much do they seem to conflict with law and order.

The Problem of Law and Order

But throughout Chinese history, “law and order” has been exactly the problem. There is a perennial distrust among Chinese for the police and any equivalent — and with good reason. Local officials have often been a greater plague to Chinese people than bandits: bullying, taking bribes, lying to higher officials, indulging in outrageous nepotism. In many cases they were completely unreliable in maintaining the law and order they were supposed to represent.

The only thing you can say that is definite about the Tongs is that they were created to deal with the local needs of the people. For instance, one of the most famous Tongs in America, the Hop Sing Tong is not ancient at all. It was created in 1875. It was started in the United States to aid in Chinese coming to new situations in the New World. Among its goals was a creed aimed at “wisdom”, “benevolence”, courage”, “promoting commerce”, and “welcoming all living creatures”.

The Word and the Place

One of the reasons such organizations are so little reported in history is an interesting convergence of prejudice and etymology. The word TANG (堂) means “hall” but can be translated in a number of shades. There are also other possible words for “organization” such as HUI (會). Tang itself has variations such as SHAN TANG (善堂) which indeed means “Benevolent Association”. You also have spin-offs or smaller member groups such which might best be termed “sects” such as PAI (派) and MEN (門) which in daily usage simply means “door”.This allows you a perfect opportunity to play a political shell game. For instance, while the Western world went through its “Yellow Peril” stage in the early part of the twentieth century,the Tangs figured prominently in pulp fiction and the like. Fu Manchu and his ilk, endlessly utilized Tang members to advance their plots for world domination.

Yet that vast and popular organization which so effectively backed Sun Yet Sun was always referred to as the Hung LEAGUE; a nicer, more respectable designation to be sure. So a Tang by any other name might be an Association, a league, a lodge, a fraternity, a cult, a a branch, a society, or any other politically expedient nomenclature. As the Chinese discovered first and long ago, control the name and you control the thing.

Tangs were often placed upstairs in Chinese buildings, the section of the residence associated with the women of the family. How can this be? Because—as in the case of Kung Fu—the “inner chamber” or even “the bedroom” disciple was the truly trusted individual. So, in the world of the Tang, the upstairs was the “inner chamber” of the building and placed with appropriate Feng Shui.

Kung Fu in the Tangs

Tangs often collectively hired Kung Fu instructors to teach male members. Often the level of the instruction was quite high while the level of the membership skills could be rather low. It depended on the resources of the Tang and the motivation of the membership. In the case of some Tangs the roll was in the tens of thousands and quite determined. The pressures of starvation, displacement, foreign rule by the Manchus,  the humiliating stature of China, foreign pressure by the Europeans and the Japanese, and just patriotic loyalty made the Tangs a courageous and often admired choice of allegiance, at least to some people and at least some of the time.

The official teacher of the Hop Sing Tong was Lau Bun, a master of Choy Lai Fut and one of the top martial artists on the West Coast. There are many stories about him. One said that he only employed Samoans for bodyguards in case some Chinese among the membership were compromised. Another was that he would throw bags filled with sand in the air and let them fall on him for conditioning. Another than he would knock people out with a soft palm stroke.The stories also said that one of the brothers of a famous Kenpo team became the first white member of the Hop Sing Tang. He told me personally that when Lau Bun died the end of his patronage created a situation where he would have had to fight just about everyone in that Tang to stay a member. Characteristically he added, “I probably could have beaten them all but what was the point?”

The Kung Fu of the Tangs had to straddle many concerns. A number of powerful Tangs were based on religious views which most people nowadays would call “cultic”. The White Lotus and the Great Peace, for instance, are often associated with apocalyptic visions. This may seem a little crazy (though certainly not more than than some group of citizenry creeping this minute through some dark American forest) because, from the Chinese standpoint, their world was ending. And, indeed, the Millenarian prophets were absolutely right because that Chinese world is not only gone but will never return. (Perhaps modern groups know something we don’t.)

So Kung fu, especially and including associated, Qigong, took on Tang inspired shape and goals. Can any student of Kung Fu forget the documented tricks play on new recruits by Qigong quacks demonstrating their invulnerability to bullets then upbraiding those poor unfortunate fools who walked into Gatling gunfire: telling their victims that they had not practiced wholeheartedly enough? (Shades of showing that bullet-pierced bible to those plough boys before Verdun.)

Do the Tangs still exist? The pressures of modernity may be repainting their faces but we bet that they will outlast this century. Here are over a dozen doorways we photographed in an hour weaving through Grant St., San Francisco.

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