Tommy hung up the phone and looked again at the nearly US$30,000 stacked neatly before him. He knew Brigham was from a wealthy family and had been tipped off that Brig may be carrying a large sum of money, but thirty thousand dollars? It wasn’t enough to pay off his debtor, not nearly, but it would be enough to hold them off a little while longer until he figured out how to come up with the balance.
Tommy was born in Hong Kong sometime in the mid-to-late fifties. He never knew his mother or father, but was given food and shelter by an opium-addicted prostitute that collected unwanted children like others collected unwanted cats or dogs. According to “Auntie,” which everybody called her, Tommy’s mother was likely one of the millions of refugees that fled the mainland when the nationalists and communists renewed their civil war following the Japanese occupation during World War II.
Tommy grew up in the infamous Kowloon Walled City. His earliest memories were of running wild through the narrow, filthy tunnels of the city with his orphaned brothers and sisters. The Kowloon Walled City had been torn down in 1994 prior to the British returning the colony to the Chinese in 1997. For a variety of historical and political reasons, the Walled City had remained largely ungoverned. The legend was that the Walled City was several feet below sea level, and consequently, a territory of China, making it illegal for Hong Kong authorities to enter. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Hong Kong triads mostly controlled the Walled City, specifically the 14k and Sun Yee On gangs.
Competition between the two gangs for recruits was intense. Tommy became a Blue Lantern, or uninitiated member, of the 14K triad at a very early age. Like other Blue Lanterns, he ran errands, stood watch, served alcohol, and did other menial job that a “big brother” commanded him to do. He was quick, smart, and politically astute. He took care of the most important brother’s needs first, served the best cuts of meat at banquets, and sat in the best seats at important events.
At some point, Tommy impressed Chang Ji Keung, a 439, or Incense Master. Triads use an ancient system of numeric codes inspired by the I Ching to distinguish between ranks. The highest position is a 289, called the Mountain Master, or Dragon Head. Reporting to the 289 are various officers, including the 426, the military commander, the 438, the “Deputy Mountain Master,” and the 439, Incense Master, who managed inductions into the triad. “49ers” were rank-and-file members, and Blue Lanterns were considered not yet worthy of a designation.
Although public school was available to the children in the Walled City, few if any of the boys in gangs attended. However, big Brother Chang saw something in little Tommy, and much to young Tommy’s dismay forced him to attend school. The other, older Blue Lantern’s teased him, even beat him on occasion. He earned the nickname “Reluctant Scholar.”
Tommy loathed school and often took his frustration out on the other kids that knew of his “connections.” As Tommy got older, he noticed that even his teachers were afraid of him. During the years he went to school he learned how to read, and found he had a gift for languages, particularly English, a talent that would serve him well as he climbed the ranks of the triad.
When he wasn’t at school, he honed his craft of picking pockets, and its close cousin the confidence trick, or con (Louh Chin—Old Thousand). One of his earliest and most successful scams was one he ran out of the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. He would target a tourist couple and position himself somewhere along their path. When the couple walked near him, he would begin to cry. Ordinarily, the couple would stop and try to help. They would be surprised to learn that the little boy spoke English. Tommy would make up a story about how he had gotten separated from his mother. How he knew how to get home, but he needed money.
He was one of the best young earners amongst the 14K’s Blue Lanterns. Like all initiates, Tommy gave half of his earnings to the triad. If an initiate was caught giving less, they were severely punished and kicked out of the brotherhood. By the time he was fourteen, Tommy had made such an impression that Big Brother Chang announced he would be admitted as a full member after his initiation.
Tommy’s initiation ceremony included incense burning, animal sacrifices to Guan Yu, a large “14K” tattooed across his back, and a severe beating by his brothers. Tommy was never in any real danger, and he fought back as expected. Initiates rarely suffered any permanent damage during the initiation, but there was always pain.
During the months that followed his initiation, Tommy added other tattoos to his chest, arms, and back: a long tall Mandarin Scholar on his left bicep, a fire-breathing dragon on his chest and a bare-breasted mermaid down the length of his right arm. He would one day regret his tattoos, but as a young man, he wore them proudly.