The name Red Butterfly may sound harmless and nothing unusual in Singapore today. In fact, in Chinese legend, it is viewed as a bringer of good fortune and happiness. But back in the sixties and seventies, it represented a dark side of the streets of Singapore – the name of an all-girls gang that once terrorised the streets with assaults, intimidation and extortion.
It began in the late fifties, when some 20 young girls, aged between 16 and mid-20s, got together, probably prompted by sense of insecurity and the need to protect themselves, to form a fearless gang called Red Butterfly, or Ang Hor Tiap in Hokkien. These girls, working as prostitutes, bargirls and dance hostesses, would then terrorise their victims, usually other bar waitresses and prostitutes, for protection money.
Dressed in black tight-fitting clothes, the woman gangsters often used their belts to whip the victims into submission. Sometimes, they would brutally attack the victims’ faces using stone-removed ring prongs as jagged-edged weapons. Those who refused to pay them money were disfigured and maimed.
But the biggest source of the Red Butterfly’s income was their lucrative “service” to women who wanted to teach a lesson to their cheating husband’s mistress or girlfriend. For a fee, the gang would track down the mistress, threatening them to leave the unfaithful man or else suffer the “consequences”.
Recruitment was harsh and cruel too; those who refused to join the Red Butterfly would be beaten up severely. Resentful women who were jilted by their lovers, or had unpleasant experiences with men, were favourably recruited as new members.
With their influence growing strong, the Red Butterfly became affiliated with the notorious 108 secret society. To be their sworn “sisters”, initiation ceremonies were held where the girls drank the rooster’s blood mixed with their own blood. The women gangsters often pak tor (dated) with the secret society members, or they would keep their own men whom they called Romeo. When they got tired of a Romeo, they would set gangsters on him.
All members of the Red Butterfly gang wore butterfly tattoos on their shoulders or thighs. The butterfly tattoos came in different colours – red, black and blue. Only the leader was qualified to own the red butterfly tattoo, and she was respectfully known as Madam Red Butterfly by the underworld realm.
Organized crime, secret societies and gang fights were rampant between the fifties and seventies. Each secret society controlled its own territory tightly, operating illegal businesses like chap ji kee (a lottery game), gambling dens, opium dens and brothels. It also gained other sources of income through protection money, extortion, robberies and kidnapping. Clashes over territories, interests or revenges were so frequent that they were almost like daily affairs.
The major secret society groups in the sixties were the 108, 24, 32 and 36. Over the years, they expanded so fast and large that they often had branches or small triad groups under them. For example, the Pek Kim Leng (White Golden Dragon) was under 108, and it controlled territories from Chinatown to Bugis.
Different areas in Singapore were “owned” by different secret societies and gangs. The Tiong Bahru vicinity was, for example, “ruled” by Ang Peh Hor and Hai Lock San, whereas Ang Soon Tong was the active triad around Nee Soon and Sembawang Road. See Tong, affiliated to the infamous drug-dealing Ah Kong gang, made their presence felt at North Bridge Road, Seah Street and Beach Road. Sio Oh Leng, Leng Hor San and Sar Ji each established their respective “strongholds” at River Valley Road, Havelock Road and Boat Quay.
The Red Butterfly did not vie for territories with other secret societies; they were mainly active at the nightclubs and bars around Cecil Street. But they did often get into fights with other women gangs at Clifford Pier, Geylang, Jalan Besar, Sungei Road and near the Capitol Theatre. Police arrested the Red Butterfly gang members several times but could not bring charges to them as there were either not enough evidences or the victims were too terrified to testify against them.
But the lawless days of the Red Butterfly did not last for long. The police invoked the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance, and by the mid-sixties, thousands of secret society members and gangsters were detained without trial. Some were put into custody at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Headquarters; others were locked up at Changi Jail and Pulau Senang.
By 1972, it was estimated that there were still 20,000 secret society members and gangsters in Singapore. A year later, in 1973, the CID detectives made headlines by successfully tracking down and arresting the head of Ang Soon Tong. This led to the decline of one of Singapore’s remaining secret societies that still held triad rituals, initiation ceremonies and blood oaths of allegiance.
Six members of the Red Butterfly were put on police supervision for two years, and the seventh, a Malaysian, was banished. In 1968, the Red Butterfly tried to make a comeback with a new leader and 30 gang members. This time, their main tactic was to seduce unsuspected men and robbed them. But again, they were swiftly busted by the police. The rest of the Red Butterfly members then lied low but remained active till the seventies.
The eighties saw the rise of several rebellious girl gangs, such as the Yong Sisters and Mother Ang’s Brood, who were largely involved in shoplifting, stealing and robbing of the elderly, children and other girls. There were teenage girl gangs in the nineties too, such as the ones with cutesy names like Xiao Ding Dang and Xiao Tian Tian, who spent their time fighting one another and extorting the others. But despite the defiant nature of these girl gangs, they were nothing like the infamous and vicious Red Butterfly.
Published: 01 June 2016
Updated: 20 June 2016