30 July 2017

Into the Jungle

Khun Sa
photo by Satham Pairoah
From roughly 1963 until 1996, a man with the chosen name of Khun Sa operated as an opium warlord in the region of Southeast Asia known as The Golden Triangle. This triangle consisted of a mountainous jungle area involving three countries: Burma, Laos and Thailand. The land was populated by many people of different ethnic groups, several of which were hill tribes. For centuries, Turks from the west, Mongols from the north and various waves of Chinese out of Yunnan Province had invaded this land and absorbed the local inhabitants. As a result, a great number of languages and dialects were spoken here. Religions ranged from Muslim to Buddhist to animalistic and variations.

#1 "Across the Salween"
AHMM Nov 2013
Khun Sa, which means Prosperous Prince in the Shan language, was a man with a murky past and a strong future. Most historians agree that he was born of a Chinese father and a woman from the Shan hill tribe in Burma. He lived in an atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances among the various opium armies where only the strong and cunning survived. And, he was a survivor, but like the Germans in World War II, he eventually found that he couldn't fight a war on two fronts at the same time. The Burmese Army had finally squeezed his Shan Army into a small area where he had his back to a river. Being a survivor, he surrendered to the Burmese government and went on to become a thriving businessman in his retirement from opium warlord status.

opium field in Burma
After creating four successful series for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (two other potential series didn't make the I'd-like-to-buy-it list), I was searching for something new to write. My first acceptance with AHMM ("Once, Twice, Dead")  had been set in the Golden Triangle at a time when the magazine's previous editor was looking for stories with an exotic background. This one was written as a standalone  with the protagonist not being a good candidate to start a series, however, the Golden Triangle was an intriguing background for a series. I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68 (in-country in the highlands), so I had a feel for the area, plus reports on the mountain opium smugglers had crossed my desk over the years during my main career, and I now had a Chinese historian living next door at my current residence. True, his English isn't always the best, but his wife who speaks five languages, to include Mandarin and English, makes for an excellent translator when he looks up internet facts for the Chinese version of history's events, which are not always the same as the English version of the same happening.

#2 "Elder Brother"
AHMM Jan/Feb 2015
Then, I began brainstorming to come up with characters and story lines conducive to the Golden Triangle. With such a background location already rife with treachery, corruption and violence, it was easy to implement our frequently used writing technique of What If?  Since he real opium warlord supposedly came from a mixed race family, what if my White Nationalist Chinese (KMT) story warlord had two sons, one half-Chinese/half-Shan hill tribe and the second son was pure-blood Chinese. In oriental culture, the elder brother tends to have dominance, but a pure-blood considers himself as better than a mongrel half-breed. It now becomes a conflict between Elder Brother (the half-Chinese/half-Shan) and the younger pure-blood Chinese.

poppy dripping opium sap
from cut during harvest
Naturally, the elder brother is raised in the jungle and is comfortable in those surroundings, while the younger brother has grown up in the British school system in Hong Kong. The younger brother, our protagonist for this series, has studied Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, yet has no knowledge of jungle survival. After his mother died in Hong Kong, the younger son (as a young adult) finds himself taken out of the civilized world and transplanted to a jungle camp in the mountains of Southeast Asia. As his opium warlord father says, it is time he learned the family business and made his own way in the world.

#3 "On the Edge"
AHMM Oct 2015
Elder Brother has the position of Staff Captain and is in command of some Shan Army troops, part of his father's army. The younger brother has the rank of Sub-lieutenant and is in command of some of his father's Kuomintang troops (KMT), the old White Nationalist Chinese soldiers originally under Chiang Kai-Shek that went south out of Yunnan Province after Mao's Red Army chased them out of China during their civil war. And, as the KMT generals said after being stranded in Burma, an army needs an income and opium was handy.

Woman of the Mon tribe
Thus, we are presented with two half-brothers from different backgrounds, who have no love for each other, not to mention that only one of the brothers can inherit the position of opium warlord upon their father's demise. The competition begins and the reader has a front row seat on the safety of the sidelines to see every move made by the warring brothers, though sometimes the reader should look below the surface of what appears to be happening. Not all the enemies are within the family; other organizations and opposing opium warlords are also seeking any advantage they can take.
#4 "Making Merit"
AHMM July/Aug 2017

So far, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan has purchased five stories in the Shan Army series with #5 being "The Chinese Box", while one more manuscript, #6 "Reckoning with Your Host," is soon to be submitted to her e-slush pile.

To add spice to each story, old Chinese proverbs are often quoted in dialogue by our protagonist. Sometimes these sayings can be taken at face value, other times the wording may be twisted to fit the circumstances. Any way you look at it, the ride should be a new adventure for readers into a world that once truly existed. Root for whichever side you like, they are still people you wouldn't want to marry your sister or daughter. And if you should be unwise enough to take one home for supper, be aware that the pain between your shoulder blades could be the steak knife missing from your silverware.

Sleep well, and be glad these real life characters are on the other side of the world.


  1. Fascinating post here, R.T.--both the history itself and then the fiction you've built from it. Congratulations on the series and the latest story and good luck with the next one too!

  2. Excellent series of character driven stories strong on setting. Yes, an exotic locale. Look forward to the next story and you collecting them into book of short stories.

  3. A classic concept, R.T., of the brothers with different backgrounds and the younger brother finding himself the "fish out of water" in the jungle. Congratulations on the series, and I think O'Neil's hit it: it would be great to them as a collection in a book.

  4. Did you know that the cross-dressing warlord & Burmese opium trafficker, "Uncle" Olive Yang, just died? Here is the obituary:


    It's a pay site but you can go in using the private browsing feature of Firefox & read stuff like obituaries without being asked to pay. I don't think that's true of the rest of the material on washingtonpost.com ... anyway, congratulations on the stories!!

  5. I have really been enjoying these stories, R.T.!

  6. Fascinating stories, R.T.! And I too hope you'll eventually put them together in a collection.

  7. Art, glad you enjoyed the story and the history. It's been a fun series and an interesting history since decades ago when reports of the Golden Triangle used to cross my desk.

  8. O'Neil and Paul, I appreciate your comments. As for putting a story collection together, I do plan on doing that when I get a total of nine stories in that series. Then, they will go on Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords for other e-readers, like I did with some of the other series. I just need to write faster.

  9. Liz, I wasn't aware of Olive Yang until your post. From reading a quick history of her life, it appears that she operated in an area next to Khun Sa and was in her prime as an opium warlord about a decade before him, however, it was due to her efforts after she got out of prison the last time, and the efforts of her deputy Lo Hsing Han in making peace between the various rebel opium armies and the Burmese government that brought down Khun Sa. He couldn't fight a war on two fronts after the other armies made deals with the government.

    She definitely sounds like a colorful character and not at all the stereotype of an opium warlord. Thanks.

  10. Eve and John, I'm pleased you enjoyed the story and post. For me to write this series, it's like sitting in a bar with friends and other agents and telling stories about on-going situations of various criminals we're following along after. Watching the machinations of those guys is intriguing.

  11. I’ve followed at least two of your series and enjoyed both, RT. I like how you casually say, “I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68, in-country in the highlands…” R-i-i-i-ght.

  12. I'm a bit behind on commenting, R.T., but I'd like to echo what Paul said about the tension between older and younger brothers--that can be a powerful source of conflict. I bet the most recent story won't stay in the slush pile!


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