Gangster life: Taiwan’s real-life Sopranos

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The World

TAIPEI, Taiwan — They came by the thousands to pay their respects — politicians, Buddhist nuns and hundreds of tough-looking guys in black.

The object of their veneration: Lee "Fool-face" Chao-hsiung, a top godfather of the Taiwanese mob who died in March.

Lee went out in style last week, his body carried to a crematorium in a 108-car convoy of Rolls-Royces, Mercedes-Benzes and Beemers. As a nervous phalanx of police rolled videotape, the cream of Taiwan's underworld filed past, joined by scores of politicians, female models and chanting, robed nuns and monks from the island's top Buddhist groups.

Like their counterparts the world over, Taiwan's gangsters boast colorful nicknames and truck in drugs, gun-running, prostitution, human trafficking, construction firm kickbacks, petty extortion and other racketeering.

But what sets Taiwan's wise guys apart from their Sicilian or Japanese brethren is the extent of their open involvement in political and religious life. No event better highlights that tangled web than a mob funeral like that of "Fool-face."

"Some gangsters aren't so bad, and have close relations with political parties and local religious factions," said Chiu Hei-yuan, a sociologist at Taiwan's Academia Sinica. "That's a part of Taiwan society."

In Taiwan, gangsters don't just "buy" politicians, they become them. About 15 to 20 percent of local township and county councilors and township heads are gangsters, or "heidaoren" (people of the black way) according to Chao Yung-mao, an expert on Taiwan politics and the mob at National Taiwan University.

The numbers are especially large in rural central and southern Taiwan, where traditions and old-boy networks still run strong.

He said about four or five gangsters hold office in the national legislature, and one wise guy even held a powerful county commissioner seat.

Chao dates the mob's big move into politics to the 1980s, when illegal lottery fever swept Taiwan and gangsters were looking to get a cut of the action. "That was a good time to get into politics, so you could host the games and make money," he said.

"Fool-face" didn't hold elective office. Instead, he made a name as a trusted judge of underworld disputes, earning him the moniker "Big Fool-face" in his later years, according to the China Times. He was a top figure in the Tiandaomeng, or Heavenly Way Alliance, a "super-group" of local Taiwanese gangs formed by top mobsters while they were jailed together in a crime sweep, said Chao.

Heavenly Way's underworld competitors are "Mainlander" gangs like the Bamboo Union with roots in the 1940s Kuomintang exodus to Taiwan; that rivalry was the backdrop of a recent hit film "Monga."

Gangsters also have indirect pull on politics, leaving office-holders bound in ties of obligation. They can help mobilize votes, through "vote-buying" or intimidation. That can be important in a close election, said Chin Ko-lin, an expert on Taiwan organized crime at Rutgers University.

"For a politician, what are you going to do, take the risk of losing an election?" said Chin. "And not many people will criticize you for showing up at a gangster's funeral."

The politicians in attendance at Fool-face's farewell included more than 10 legislators, the legislative speaker (who doubled as the head of Fool-face's funeral committee), the local county commissioner, the local city council head and a prominent mayor, according to the China Times. The mayor said he was there to show gratitude for Fool-face's $630,000 gift to the city.

The don also donated large amounts to Buddhist groups, which isn't a surprising development. Gangsters here attempt to influence religious life. One mobster-turned-legislator runs a famous temple in central Taiwan, not far from Fool-face's home turf. Chiu, the sociologist, says he has difficulty explaining to foreign colleagues how local people could accept this. (Imagine a Michael Corleone who doubles as a congressman and also runs a prominent local Catholic church.)

Chiu suspects it has something to do with Taiwan's casual take on religion. "Taiwan folk religion is so secular. It's not sacred," he said. Rural Taiwanese worship a jumble of Taoist, Buddhist and folk figures, and gods who don't answer prayers are promptly kicked to the curb. Temples are rowdy places, with cell phone ring tones mixing with the clacking sound of divination blocks hitting the ground.

Gangsters also have strong support in their home communities, usually poor farming or fishing villages, said National Taiwan University's Chao. They make their money on the sins of the city, while doling out cash, favors and "face" to their loyal and affectionate hometown crowd.

"They take care of their home communities, and only 'hunt' or do something illegal in urban areas," said Chao. "That's why they can win elections."

Chao said gangsters' political reach distorts Taiwan's democracy and hurts society. He cited poor-quality construction and the appointment of gangster cronies to local government posts as just two examples.

But he was hopeful that change is coming, even if slowly, as rural traditions fade.

"Urbanization is a big challenge for the mafia world," said Chao. "Young people don't care as much about 'guanxi' [personal networks of obligation] — they care about a politician's performance. That's a good environment for change."

Just don't tell that to Fool-face.

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