Jul 24, 2022
11 mins read
The mandarins draw their power from the law; the people, from the secret societies. (Chinese saying)
Last winter I read a book on the Chinese Tongs (Primitive Revolutionaries of China: A Study of Secret Societies in the Late Nineteenth Century, Fei-Ling Davis; Honolulu, 1971-77):— maybe the first ever written by someone who wasn’t a British Secret Service agent!—(in fact, she was a Chinese socialist who died young—this was her only book)—& for the first time I realized why I’ve always been attracted to the Tong: not just for the romanticism, the elegant decadent chinoiserie decor, as it were—but also for the form, the structure, the very essence of the thing.
Some time later in an excellent interview with William Burroughs I discovered that he too has become fascinated with Tongs & suggests the form as a perfect mode of organization for [redacted], particularly in this present era of shitheel moralism & hysteria. I’d agree, & extend the recommendation to all marginal groups, especially ones whose jouissance involves illegalism (psychonauts, sex heretics, insurrectionists) or extreme eccentricity (nudists, pagans, post-avant-garde artists, etc., etc.).
A Tong can perhaps be defined as a mutual benefit society for people with a common interest which is illegal or dangerously marginal—hence, the necessary secrecy. Many Chinese Tongs revolved around smuggling & tax-evasion, or clandestine self-control of certain trades (in opposition to State control), or insurrectionary political or religious aims (overthrow of the Manchus for example—several tongs collaborated with the Anarchists in the 1911 Revolution).
A common purpose of the tongs was to collect & invest membership dues & initiation fees in insurance funds for the indigent, unemployed, widows & orphans of deceased members, funeral expenses, etc. In an era like ours when the poor are caught between the cancerous Scylla of the Insurance Industry & the fast-evaporating Charybdis of welfare & public health services, this purpose of the Secret Society might well regain its appeal. (Masonic lodges were organized on this basis, as were the early & illegal trade unions & “chivalric orders” for laborers & artisans.) Another universal purpose for such societies was of course conviviality, especially banqueting—but even this apparently innocuous pastime can acquire insurrectionary implications. In the various French revolutions, for example, dining clubs frequently took on the role of radical organizations when all other forms of public meeting were banned.
Recently I talked about tongs with “P.M.,” author of bolo’bolo (Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series). I argued that secret societies are once again a valid possibility for groups seeking autonomy & individual realization. He disagreed, but not (as I expected) because of the “elitist” connotations of secrecy. He felt that such organizational forms work best for already-close-knit groups with strong economic, ethnic/regional, or religious ties—conditions which do not exist (or exist only embryonically) in today’s marginal scene. He proposed instead the establishment of multi-purpose neighborhood centers, with expenses to be shared by various special-interest groups & small-entrepreneurial concerns (craftspeople, coffeehouses, performance spaces, etc.). Such large centers would require official status (State recognition), but would obviously become foci for all sorts of non-official activity—black markets, temporary organization for “protest” or insurrectionary action, uncontrolled “leisure” & unmonitored conviviality, etc.
In response to “P.M.”’s critique I have not abandoned but rather modified my concept of what a modern Tong might be. The intensely hierarchical structure of the traditional tong would obviously not work, although some of the forms could be saved & used in the same way titles & honors are used in our “free religions” (or “weird” religions, “joke” religions, anarcho-neo-pagan cults, etc.). Non-hierarchic organization appeals to us, but so too does ritual, incense, the delightful bombast of occult orders—“Tong Aesthetics” you might call it—so why shouldn’t we have our cake & eat it too?—(especially if it’s Moroccan majoun or baba au absinthe—something a bit forbidden!). Among other things, the Tong should be a work of art.
The strict traditional rule of secrecy also needs modification. Nowadays anything which evades the idiot gaze of publicity is already virtually secret. Most modern people seem unable to believe in the reality of something they never see on television —therefore to escape being televisualized is already to be quasi-invisible. Moreover, that which is seen through the mediation of the media becomes somehow unreal, & loses its power (I won’t bother to defend this thesis but simply refer the reader to a train of thought which leads from Nietzsche to Benjamin to Bataille to Barthes to Foucault to Baudrillard). By contrast, perhaps that which is unseen retains its reality, its rootedness in everyday life & therefore in the possibility of the marvelous.
So the modern Tong cannot be elitist—but there’s no reason it can’t be choosy. Many non-authoritarian organizations have foundered on the dubious principle of open membership, which frequently leads to a preponderance of assholes, yahoos, spoilers, whining neurotics, & police agents. If a Tong is organized around a special interest (especially an illegal or risky or marginal interest) it certainly has the right to compose itself according to the “affinity group” principle. If secrecy means (a) avoiding publicity & (b) vetting possible members, the “secret society” can scarcely be accused of violating anarchist principles. In fact, such societies have a long & honorable history in the anti-authoritarian movement, from Proudhon’s dream of re-animating the Holy Vehm as a kind of “People’s Justice,” to Bakunin’s various schemes, to Durutti’s “Wanderers.” We ought not to allow marxist historians to convince us that such expedients are “primitive” & have therefore been left behind by “History.” The absoluteness of “History” is at best a dubious proposition. We are not interested in a return to the primitive, but in a return OF the primitive, inasmuch as the primitive is the “repressed.”
In the old days secret societies would appear in times & spaces forbidden by the State, i.e. where & when people are kept apart by law. In our times people are usually not kept apart by law but by mediation & alienation (see Part 1, “Immediatism”). Secrecy therefore becomes an avoidance of mediation, while conviviality changes from a secondary to a primary purpose of the “secret society.” Simply to meet together face-to-face is already an action against the forces which oppress us by isolation, by loneliness, by the trance of media.
In a society which enforces a schizoid split between Work & Leisure, we have all experienced the trivialization of our “free time,” time which is organized neither as work nor as leisure. (“Vacation” once meant “empty” time—now it signifies time which is organized & filled by the industry of leisure.) The “secret” purpose of conviviality in the secret society then becomes the self-structuring & auto-valorization of free time. Most parties are devoted only to loud music & too much booze, not because we enjoy them but because t he Empire of Work has imbued us with the feeling that empty time is wasted time. The idea of throwing a party to, say, make a quilt or sing madrigals together, seems hopelessly outdated. But the modern Tong will find it both necessary & enjoyable to seize back free time from the commodity world & devote it to shared creation, to play.
I know of several societies organized along these lines already, but I’m certainly not going to blow their secrecy by discussing them in print. There are some people who do not need fifteen seconds on the Evening News to validate their existence. Of course, the marginal press and radio (the only media in which this sermonette will appear) are practically invisible anyway—certainly still quite opaque to the gaze of Control. Nevertheless, there’s the principle of the thing: secrets should be respected. Not everyone needs to know everything! What the 20th century lacks most—& needs most—is tact. We wish to replace democratic epistemology with “dada epistemology” (Feyerabend). Either you’re on the bus or you’re not on the bus.
Some will call this an elitist attitude, but it is not—at least not in the C. Wright Mills sense of the word: that is, a small group which exercises power over non-insiders for its own aggrandizement. Immediatism does not concern itself with power-relations;—it desires neither to be ruled nor to rule. The contemporary Tong therefore finds no pleasure in the degeneration of institutions into conspiracies. It wants power for its own purposes of mutuality. It is a free association of individuals who have chosen each other as the subjects of the group’s generosity, its “expansiveness” (to use a sufi term). If this amounts to some kind of “elitism,” then so be it.
If Immediatism begins with groups of friends trying not just to overcome isolation but also to enhance each other’s lives, soon it will want to take a more complex shape:—nuclei of mutually-self-chosen allies, working (playing) to occupy more & more time & space outside all mediated structure & control. Then it will want to become a horizontal network of such autonomous groups—then, a “tendency”—then, a “movement”—& then, a kinetic web of “temporary autonomous zones.” At last it will strive to become the kernel of a new society, giving birth to itself within the corrupt shell of the old. For all these purposes the secret society promises to provide a useful framework of protective clandestinity—a cloak of invisibility that will have to be dropped only in the event of some final showdown with the Babylon of Mediation….
Prepare for the Tong Wars!
— Peter Wilson, 1994
Read. White Devil: The True Story of the First White Asian Crime Boss. "The amazing true story of the only white man to rise to the top of the Chinese mafia.
In August 2013, "Bac Guai" John Willis, also known as the "White Devil" because of his notorious ferocity, was sentenced to 20 years for drug trafficking and money laundering. Willis, according to prosecutors, was "the kingpin, organizer and leader of a vast conspiracy," all within the legendarily insular and vicious Chinese mafia.
It started when John Willis was 16 years old . . . his life seemed hopeless. His father had abandoned his family years earlier, his older brother had just died of a heart attack, and his mother was dying. John was alone, sleeping on the floor of his deceased brother's home. Desperate, John reached out to Woping, a young Chinese man Willis had rescued from a bar fight weeks before. Woping literally picks him up off the street, taking him home to live among his own brothers and sisters. Soon, Willis is accompanying Woping to meet his Chinese mobster friends, and starts working for them.
Journalist Bob Halloran tells the tale of John Willis, aka White Devil, the only white man to ever rise through the ranks in the Chinese mafia. Willis began as an enforcer, riding around with other gang members to "encourage" people to pay their debts. He soon graduated to even more dangerous work as a full-fledged gang member, barely escaping with his life on several occasions.
As a white man navigating an otherwise exclusively Asian world, Willis was at first an interesting anomaly, but his ruthless devotion to his adopted culture eventually led to him emerging as a leader. He organized his own gang of co-conspirators and began an extremely lucrative criminal venture selling tens of thousands of oxycodone pills. A year-long FBI investigation brought him down, and John pleaded guilty to save the love of his life from prosecution. He has no regrets.
White Devil explores the workings of the Chinese mafia, and he speaks frankly about his relationships with other gang members, the crimes he committed, and why he'll never rat out any of his brothers to the cops.
Told to Halloran from Willis's prison cell, White Devil is a shocking portrait of a man who was allowed access into a secret world, and who is paying the price for his hardened life."
And, of course, some music.
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