violent criminal gangs of young immigrant men from Hong Kong, Macao and Vietnam - have become one of Canada's major law enforcement problems.

In their 1988 report on organized crime, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Canada's Criminal Intelligence Service rank the Triads at the top of the list of the most dangerous organized criminal groups in the country, along with motorcycle gangs and the Mafia.The Triads that have set up shop in Canada claim lineage to ancient societies with roots in clashes between Chinese dynasties. To the Canadian police, however, they're just thugs.

Hong Kong-born Toronto police constable Benjamin Eng, a member of the city's Oriental Crime Unit, says Triad members function in a three-tier system. High-school-age recruits take orders from the middle tier, and often commit the most serious crimes. The older groups direct all operations.

Canadian police say that with Hong Kong due to come under Communist Chinese control in 1997, Triad members are fleeing the British colony in increasing numbers for new "turf" in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Across Canada, there are 10 Triads with 750 active members and as many as 2,800 "associate" members. The Triads have spread from cities with large Chinese populations, suc as Toronto and Vancouver, to eight smaller cities, such as Calgary and Winnipeg, which do not have large Chinese immigrant communities.

In their report, police agencies describe Triads as having "a propensity for physical violence and the use of weapons for settling disputes."

Triad members beat, extort and even murder fellow Chinese immigrants for profit. Students, shopkeepers, restaurant owners and merchants pay untold thousands of dollars to the Triads for "protection" - from Triad violence.

The Triads are also active in prostitution rings, gambling, fraud, armed robberies, weapon offenses and drug importation. The report suggests that the gangs are accepting many of the dirty criminal jobs that the more-established Mafia will no longer undertake.

Police link Triads in Canada not only to criminal groups in Hong Kong, but also in Vietnam and other parts of Asia, and the United States.

In Toronto, which has a thriving and growing Oriental community of 150,000 people, the Triads are particularly dangerous and feared.

Ontario Provincial Police constable Gus Riddell, part of a three-force team in Toronto that includes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Toronto police and Ontario officers, says that much of the violence comes at the hands of Vietnamese thugs hired by the Triads. He adds that the Triads have spawned a new type of crime for which there is no law on the books.

"It's called the home-invasion robbery. A group of them will invade the home of a wealthy Chinese restaurateur or business owner and they'll hold the entire household hostage till they get what they want."

Riddell adds: "It's so bizarre and it's so different from anything we've got on our books, we don't know what to call it. We're pressing government to write a new statute for that crime, but it's very difficult."

According to Riddell, the victims of and witnesses to Triad crimes are "absolutely not" coming to police with information.