“They like to carry the 9mm handgun,” Officer Roy moody says. He's talking about Lao and Cambodian gang kids. “And, of course, they do like the semi automatic rifles like AK-47s, even though we haven't seen an AK-47 in a while."
He looks like a big kid, an enlarged, robust four- or five year-old kid ready for some fun. He looks like Bob the Big Boy, in front of Bob's Big Boy coffee shop, with a flattop. He goes out of his may to make you feel he's not as big and dangerous as he really is. He talks with the tone and rhythm of a dog handler talking a strange, ugly dog out of a corner.
“You know, we get threats on police officers. Some definitely wouldn’t hesitate shooting anybody, anybody now. So it’s definitely changed. The things that have happened to these communities didn’t have to happen. In the 1970s, early ’80s, our whole system just wasn’t prepared for that mass influx of refugees. And the police department definitely didn’t know how to deal with them.”
I glance around the framed photos and citations on the office wall and learn Roy Moody’s father is a retired San Diego cop. Roy’s 35. He’s married. “As a matter of fact, I’m married to a Southeast Asian lady.”
He answers every question in even, whole, and complete sentences, in words you know he’s deliberated over before letting me hear them. He also weighs me, in a glance, and measures me, and gives me a complete physical, frisks me for weapons, and knows more about me than I know about him.
On his desk, among Polaroids of guns confiscated from gang kids, is a nasty little Mac 11. From the back end of the receiver to the end of the muzzle, it’s only 11 inches long.
“Basically, with Southeast Asian gangs, I started in 1989. I was working a beat that had a very large Lao population. So through a period of 1989 to approximately 1992, patrol. And then over here as Indochinese community relations officer.
“Cambodian gangs tend to copy the Hispanics in dress and tattoos. The Lao gangs are a little bit more upscale. They like to get dressed up a little bit more. They’ve been known to wear jacket and tie.
“When I first started working with Southeast Asian gang members, I’d pull them over. I was very polite. They said yes, sir; no, sir — did exactly what you wanted ’em to do, and you go away feeling, ‘What a nice kid!’ But this guy could have been the worst kid in the world. And so they play that game.
“You know, they try to come across, especially to policemen, as, ‘Well, I stay at home. I’m a hard-working student,’ when in fact he hasn’t been in school in two years. A lot of times you can’t identify them by their dress. You’ve got to know this person is a gang member by being out there all the time.
“Most people don’t know the difference between an immigrant and a refugee. An immigrant was mentally prepared to come to this country, where a refugee didn’t have any choice. And a lot of these refugees that came didn’t think that they would be making the United States a permanent home. They were always thinking they were going to go back. But the reality is, there’s not much to go back to now. So most of them are here for good.
“Basically, Southeast Asian gangs were first documented in the early ’80s, but the violence didn’t really get started until about 1989, between Lao and Cambodian gang members. The shootings started in the beach area. Shootings attract attention.
“Maybe I should go back to the very beginning. What happened was, when they first came over here, they were put in lower economic neighborhoods where there were already established gangs. African-American and Hispanic gangs. And so as they’re going to school, because they were different, they were constantly being teased and picked on. And so they came together. And they found that by coming together that they were stronger. And then they started fighting.”
Who did they fight?
“Pretty much everybody. When they were at school, you know, they were Asian, they identified with each other. There wasn’t a lot of problems amongst themselves. And so they started coming together to protect themselves.
“They went to Crawford, Horace Mann, Gompers, Lincoln, Kearny High School, Linda Vista. We’re talking about three main areas in the early ’80s. And recently we’re talking about a fourth area. In the early ’80s we’re talking City Heights, Southeast Division in San Diego, and Linda Vista. And then lately, Mira Mesa has been getting a lot of Asian gang activity.
“When they came together, they found that they were stronger, to protect themselves. But one of the things that occurred then was, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go look for So-and-So, because he used to pick on us.’ And so they’d go out after school or on the weekend. And a lot of these guys [they’re looking for] were gang members, and all of a sudden they’re starting to get shot at. And [the Asian kids are] thinking, ‘Oh, man! We’d better get guns to protect ourselves.’ And so there was a slow progression.
“School officials did what they could. Police did what they could. But actually, because of a very serious lack of communications and resources, they were pretty much just left alone.
“And back in 1989 what happened was, between Cambodian and Lao gang members, they were at the beach. They were partying like they did every week. And some Cambodian gang members came down from Long Beach. They were friends with the Cambodians that were there. And evidently they tried to pick up one of the Lao’s girlfriends. There was a fight, and before you know it, they were shooting at each other, which ended up as a double homicide in the Sports Arena area. And then there were several homicides after that.
“About a year later some Lao gang members, they did a drive-by shooting where a 15-year-old girl was shot and killed. She was sitting in the back seat of the car, and it was just a bullet, a stray bullet that went through the car. Hit her in the back of the head. She was from Long Beach also.
“You have never had such a mobile group of kids as you do with Southeast Asian kids. You could be talking to ’em in the daytime here, and then eight hours later they’re in San Francisco or they’re in Long Beach or they’re in Fresno or they’re in Las Vegas. Or they’re in Texas. So they’re very, very mobile.
“A couple of years back, I stopped a 13-year-old girl, and she was a runaway from San Diego. She’d come back to San Diego, but in the course of a year, she had gang pictures from Florida, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Michigan. And this was a 13-year-old girl. There’s kind of like a built-in circuit, and they make the rounds. We get gang members that come in from Boston to San Diego for a week. If they commit a crime, they’re back in Boston. It’s so difficult to solve these crimes.
“You’ve gotta remember, for Southeast Asian gangs this.is new. This is something that’s only been around for 13, 14 years, at the most. In San Diego they weren’t fully fledged gang members till 6 or 7 years ago, when they actually became a gang under the attorney general’s guidelines, which say you have got to have two or more members who associate on a regular basis, who claim an area, who are engaged in criminal activity. And that they claim to be a gang.
“We’re starting to see kids as young as 10 years old, up to the early 20s, saying that they’re Oriental Killer Boys or Oriental Boy Soldiers. It’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen next. We don’t have a history to go by like we do with the other, more traditional gangs.”
Are we talking about real crime or kid stuff?
“Crime,” Roy Moody says, and gets specific. “Mainly, for Lao and Cambodian, it’s auto thefts. Their bread and butter. They love their Honda Preludes and Toyota Supras. Back when I was in patrol, almost once a week I was arresting ’em for stolen cars. Kids.
“Stolen car parts. Stereos. With the Vietnamese you can get into more of an organized-crime-type aspect. [Other Asian gangs] haven’t really reached [the level] of organized crime as we know it. They’re between street gangs and organized crime.
“In Southeast Division, there used to be a Lao pool hall. And we heard stories about older Vietnamese males going into the pool hall there, saying, ‘I need a....’ — placing their order. And the first one that gets it gets two or three hundred dollars. And so there’s definitely a correlation between....”
He doesn’t say the words “gangs,” “auto theft,” and “Asian fix-it shops.” He’s a cop used to talking to people and the press.
“And then from a period of 1989 to 1992, Southeast Asian gang membership grew at least 300 to 400 percent. Tremendous growth.”
“Unfortunately I’m not allowed to give out those numbers. But it’s tremendous. Just to give you an example, and I won’t identify which group, but one group of Southeast Asians have 100-something kids, just a little over 100-something kids. Two are in college. Their gang membership is over 200 citywide.
“It’s real popular to say these kids are gang members so they must come from dysfunctional families. But a lot of these kids come from very, very good families. And some of these families are very well educated. I think it’s a combination of a lack of communication on the parents’ part, maybe because they don’t speak English too well, and geography. Where these kids grew up. One of the things that we see is that geography plays a very important role.
“If these kids grew up where gang members are, there’s a better chance of them becoming gang members. But not all the kids that grew up in those particular neighborhoods became gang members. So there’s other reasons for it.”
Bounhong Khommarath agrees about the gang kids’ favorite crime. “Auto theft is their number one. They say that Toyota is a lot easier to get in, so any sport-looking Toyota and late model, that’s their preference. For joy riding, they just take any car that is available [until] there’s no gas. They just use the vehicle as an escape tool.”
Bounhong Khommarath is project director, UPAC, the Union of Pan Asian Communities, Pan Asian Youth Project. UPAC is a storefront office started in 1973, and the youth project started in 1991. He counsels Cambodian and Lao kids and thinks up ways to keep them out of gangs.
Bounhong Khommarath continues the list of the favorite crimes of Lao and Cambodian gangs. “Then the next, would be home burglary. They keep on watching almost a week before they break in. The other type of break-in — let’s say that I have a kid that’s acting up. And he knows your son, your daughter, that’s also gangs. And then they rob their own parents when the parents not home. But this one is kind of minimal.
“The armed robbery. The kids from Orange County come in here and know a couple of gang kids in here that used to run away, and they associate, and they just go over and rip an armed robbery, but this is less number.
“For the home burglary, burglary, armed robbery, these, they target their own people. Their own Asian people. Especially the family that’s on welfare. They know that the family do not keep the money in the bank, they’re just hiding it at home. And if they’re on welfare, they tend not to report to the authorities.”
Where are the middle-class Asians?
“That probably be the Filipinos and Vietnamese. For the Vietnamese, they’re the ones that came in here in 1975, ’76, ’77. Those are the ones that are the elite group that escaped right at the fall. So we could see here lots of physicians, store owners. Residential areas would be in the Rancho Penasquitos, those areas. The lower ones, the late arrivals, the new arrivals here tend to live in the lower socioeconomic areas mixed with the other so-called poor.”
A French philosopher said, in the absence of myth, people will create myth. On the street, even in the storefront, where no stories of heroes of your own kind were told to you, you will create stories of heroes to tell your blood and kin. Though he tries to neutralize the heroic effect of the story of the founder of the Lao gang by avoiding using his name, Officer Moody’s omission is a form of respect and deepens the legend and mystery of Ith Chernivase, the first Oriental Killer Boy.
“One thing you gotta remember is that these were kids that started this,” Roy Moody says. “There was very little adult influence when they started these gangs. Take the Lao. They used to call themselves the 48th Street Crips. Most of the neighborhoods that they lived in, the African-American gangs were Crip sets. Crips were supposedly the biggest and the meanest.
“There was a kid that was a couple of years older than most of the other kids, and he was in high school. He came along and said, ‘Okay, no more. Nobody’s gonna protect you anymore. The school’s not going to protect you. The police aren’t going to help you. I’m going to help you.’ And anybody who said anything bad about them or picked on them, he would attack ’em. He would physically attack them. He was big. He was very aggressive. And so all the kids, they loved him. And he’s the one that formed the main Lao gang here in San Diego.
“So these kids said, ‘Well, we’re a Crip set, too.’ So the Lao in the Southeastern Division used to call themselves the 48th Street Crips. But then the leader, when he was arrested the first time, he went to jail. He was 18, came out at the end of 1988, and he told everybody, ‘We’re no longer the 48th Street Crips.’ So something happened in jail for him. He didn’t want to have any association with Crips. And he said, ‘We are now the Oriental Killer Boys.’
“And they would idolize this guy. They would do anything for him. They would break into cars. They’d break into homes. They would even do shootings for the guy. Because here was somebody that finally would stick up for them when they saw that nobody else would. And this person, incidentally, was shot and killed in a gang-related shooting in 1990.
“Ith [pronounced it] was one of the first nine of the OKBs. Ith made everyone feel like they were his best friend. Some boys remember Ith told them not to hang out with him, to stay in school, and stay home. Ith forbid his sister to go out with gangsters and kept gangsters away from her. He made sure she stayed in school. He took care of her,” Roy Moody says.
“She loved her brother very much, and it devastated her when he was shot dead by a rival gang. Young men cry when they speak of Ith’s death. If he were still alive, the OKBs would have continued to grow instead of splitting and fragmenting.
“I actually believe what kept everybody together were personalities, individuals, who said, ‘This is it!’ And of course, these kids maybe see the gang members driving a nice Honda Prelude, with all these stolen parts on it. A nice car. And he might have a few dollars in his pocket. Some girls are attracted to that element. And so they see the pretty girl on his arm. And so these young kids growing up think that’s success.
“Even though they’re used to traveling to other cities and whatnot, they go from one Lao or Cambodian community right into another. And so they’re very limited in knowing what opportunities are out there for them. So they see that as success. It’s very hard for them to picture themselves as a doctor, as a lawyer, as a police officer.”
In the early ’80s, I was telling Chinese and Japanese stories in Portland high schools. In one, an Asian kid walked up to me, smiled, opened his jacket, and showed me a gun. I looked him in the eye, smiled, and told him to get out of here, be a good boy, go home, and not come to school with that thing, and saw him out one of the big front doors.
Most of these kids have reached high school and are ready to graduate without ever having been told a kid story. Not just the Asians. White kids don’t know “Rumplestiltskin,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Tar Baby.”
In another school the teachers told me a couple of white kids jumped a couple of Asian kids talking their Asian language to each other at their lockers. The next day, before school, five or six Asian kids jumped the white kids and beat them up. At lunch time, the white kids jumped the Asian kids and beat them up. After school the yellows in numbers beat up the two white boys. It went on for weeks. The teachers wanted to know why.
“Because these kids are small and speak a language that’s funny nonsense to young white American ears. The white boys think the yellows are easy pickings,” I told them. “These kids were born in countries that have been in a continuous state of war for 400 years. To get here, they had to escape war, the Communists, pirates, small boats, and gang warfare in the detention camps in Hong Kong. They have seen or been a part of real war and murder, while these American kids were doing kindergarten. To the Asian kids, life is war. Unless you are willing to kill them, don’t mess with them. Beating up bullies is the easy part.”
But that was back in the ’80s. The Lao and Cambodian kids of today’s gangs never saw the war. They remember TV, not boats and camps. San Diego is another time. Another story. The Lao and the Cambodian and Hmong kids of today’s gangs are the children of the children who escaped Pol Pot, the Pathet Lao, the Khmer Rouge, the Cultural Revolution.
“You see, these kids,” Roy Moody says, “they were very, very young when the wars were on in their countries. And you know, Cambodians suffer very high post-traumatic stress. But you don’t see the violence attributed to post-traumatic stress in the adults. You see it in the kids that aren’t suffering from the post-traumatic stress.
“Why they tend to be so violent at times is because of their physical size. You know Asians tend to be smaller than Occidentals or Hispanics or African-Americans. And so what they do is they always take one more step of violence. They’re not going to go toe-to-toe with somebody. They might pick up a chair and hit the guy, but they’re not going to trade punches with somebody that’s physically bigger. There are a few that are exceptions to that rule. But usually, if someone they know is a gang member throws something at their car, they’re not going to get out of the car and confront them. They’ll go home, get the gun, and come back and do the shooting.”
How many Lao and Cambodian people are we talking about in San Diego? Where do the kids of gang action in town come from? Bounhong Khommarath answers, “For the Lao, easily count 15,000. But lots of people may say 18,000, 20,000, but I agree, 15,000 is an easy count for Lao people.
“And Cambodian, about 5000 to 8000. Mostly they have the big community in Long Beach. They coming down to the gang kids, children go to school, make friends, learning the American way of life. Many times they learn the bad side, they do not learn the good side. Of course, 1000 kids go to school, maybe 100, 120 learn the bad behavior. And that’s the number people really see.
“These are the wannabes, the associates, or the hard core, this kind of start anywhere from age nine, ten, and so on. They misbehave in classrooms and express themselves with antisocial behavior, talk back to the teacher, disrupt the class. The teacher maybe send them home for two, three days’ home suspension. Now kids enjoy freedom and get more acting-out at home. So parents don’t know what to do. This is how the problem started.
“The bad kids just band together with the bad kids. And they always have fights with the other ethnic group that already band together as a gang. So that’s what we seen, no matter whether we look at Hispanic, African-American, or Lao, or Cambodian. They just fight among so-called gang type. But they just do not go after any normal blacks or any normal Hispanic to fight.
“There’s the same thing with African-American gangs. They just do not go around and beat all the Lao kids. But they just have with the eye-contact. That triggers the conflict. And if you are gangs, the chance of fighting would be, like, 90 percent. But if you are decent black student and a decent Lao student, you could make friends easily. So trouble kids tend to have problem with other trouble kids. We see rarely that innocent, either black or Lao, have fight with another innocent.
“We do work here with drug and alcohol prevention. Our community, the parents do not see; it is invisible for them. But gang kids, runaways, truancy, misbehave, or acting up and do not obey parents — that’s a very visible problem for the parents. That’s how they refer their children to us.
“The kids that are referred here by police or probation to do community work, to do counseling, have some kind of activity and linkage among themselves. But speaking about the numbers of kids in gangs, the police they take record, they take pictures, they probably have a better sense of the numbers. But for us, when we talk to a kid, he says, ‘No, no, no! I not belong to a gang!’ But he knows friends that commit shooting or commit burglaries, auto theft, and so on. ‘So why you come here?’ ‘Oh, I just joy ride with my friends,’ you know.”
This is a very mixed neighborhood, City Heights,” says Roy Moody. “But this [San Diego Police Department] storefront, even though we’re located in City Heights, would be citywide services. It’s just that this is more the center of the city.
“The storefront was established in 1987 because the SDPD knew that there were crimes being committed in the Asian community, but the crimes weren’t being reported. And so it was designed to be away from the traditional image of police stations so we could get more people in.
“We have our community service officers that come from the community here in San Diego. We go to all the events, all the activities. We’ve gone out and built a relationship between the community and the police department. And people come here, they can report crimes. This acts pretty much as a central referral system for the Southeast Asian community. They can’t go to a phone book if they don’t read and speak English. If they need help, they come here and we’ll find the answer for them. We don’t turn anybody away. We try to find the answer for ’em.
“They come with problems with their kids. Husband-wife problems. The landlord. Crime. They ask us to mediate neighborhood disputes. It could be a host of things. There’s a lot of fraud within the community, so when they get ripped off, they come in and say, ‘Hey, what happened?’
“You got real-estate frauds going on. You have new arrivals, so [someone] says [to them], ‘Look, put the house in our name, because you can collect AFDC or some other help, or put it in our name and we’ll share it with you.’ And they give them an extra four months, like a quit-claim deed. And so these people are basically being ripped off all the time.
“Or the cars. All the time we get people coming in here that buy cars. And they’re thinking they’re legitimate in buying a car. But the person that sold it to them then reports it stolen. And because they don’t really know the system, about pink slips and registration, then, of course, you’ve got a problem here.
“All the transactions are in cash, so there’s no paper trail. Usually the person gets the car back after getting the cash. And it’s very difficult to prove otherwise. So this storefront is pretty much a catchall for anything and everything that can go wrong in the community. Currently we have 9 community service officers. We’re budgeted for 13. We’re in the process of hiring. And the breakdown will be 5 Vietnamese, 3 Cambodian, 2 Lao, 2 Hmong, and 1 Ethiopian, who serves the Ethiopian community out of here.
“Back in the early ’80s we had extortion here. A lot of communities were afraid. But the last few times that we had extortion groups that came into San Diego, the police department was notified. They were arrested and they were convicted. So we’ve gotten a very good reputation in Asian communities across the United States that San Diego’s not the place to come to try to set up an extortion ring.
“Most of the extortion that occurs now with the shopkeepers is under-$5-type of extortion. You have a gang member who walks in and says, ‘Hey, I don’t have any money. I just want a pack of cigarettes. I’ll pay you back next week.’ ‘Well, you didn’t pay me back for the last 20 packs of cigarettes.’ ‘Well, yeah, I know, but I’ll pay ya back. And besides it’s better that you lose a pack of cigarettes today than you pay $500 for that broken plate glass window tonight.’
“And the shop owner’s thinking to himself, ‘If I call the police on the $2 pack of cigarettes, first of all, will the police really arrest this guy?’ Yes, we will arrest him. But he’s also thinking about, ‘My window’s gonna get broken by his friends. That’s $500 that I gotta pay out right away. And if I arrest this guy, I’m going to have to spend a whole day in court, probably several days in court. Who’s going to take my place here in the store?’
“So, you know, before they call us, it’s gotta be something that’s worth their while to call. It’s very difficult to get them to call on shoplifts. Most of the extortions are under $5.
“One time we had some Cambodian gang members that were doing door-to-door extortion. ‘Hi, So-and-So. Do you have $5 I can borrow? Oh, it’s better to lose $5 now than for somebody to break out your car windows.’
“You even have cases of kids extorting their parents. We had a 13-year-old gang member kid who admitted to his mom, yeah, I need money for rock cocaine. And she told him no. He wanted eight bucks, and he broke all the windows in the house. He was arrested.
“Our residential robberies have gone way down. We’ve been very aggressive here, attacking the Asian gang problem. We have our detectives who know who the players are. This storefront has definitely opened the doors of communication between the Asian groups. So the communication’s going back and forth both ways. Asian gang members can no longer operate in San Diego like they did in the past without being identified. We know who they are. And if they commit a crime, we will arrest them.’’
To understand the community, the officer says, “You gotta understand Theravada Buddhism, where conflict is something that’s to be avoided at all times.
“Here in America there’s always conflict. Everybody’s in conflict, it seems. And [the parents] don’t know how to deal with the kids who aren’t minding, because, where they come from, there are no street gangs. When the parents sent kids to school, they went to school, they learned! But here, kids go to school, but they don’t learn. They ditch. They do what they want to. And their parents are having a very hard time coping with that.
“This thing with the gangs is a transference of power between parents and the kids. Parents who might not speak English, who can’t read English, they have to depend on their kids to get ’em through everyday life here in America. So there’s a shift of power. All of a sudden these young kids have all this power. And pretty soon, it’s like, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do, because you don’t know.’ ”
Bounhong Khommarath sees Buddhist avoidance of conflict as a strategy instead of an inhibiting dogma, an advantage and not a handicap that has helped the Lao and Cambodians settle in San Diego. “Because that’s the way guide me to respect other people, no matter what they believe, and accept another way of life. Also I have the sense, because I have these kids, that’s why they give me reward that my kids doing well, so that urge me to help more people, in my line of work. America is the land of opportunity and is a materialized world and a lots of TV automobile. And then if 1 don’t have the sense of Buddhism to refrain me, I would maybe try to get a Mercedes or BMW or whatever. So if people have that, that’s the opportunity, that’s what they should get. So I just happy what I have here.
“I think the young couple that maintains traditional ways and then try to also adopt the new ways would be manageable to continue their lifestyle here. So the traditional way have a lot to play in their lives. They cannot be American totally. They cannot be Asian totally, but maybe have a sense of awareness of both worlds and then try to guide them through.
“Personally, I’m 46, going to be 47. I’m a refugee from Laos. Came to this country in ’78, June ’78, and with the agency ten years, shuffled from project to project, depending on the funding and the program design.”
About his childhood, he says, “My grandma. Father’s mother. I recall my grandma. I have less interact with my mom and dad. They’re real busy. Grandma is always there at home. She’s just give nurturing arid guidance. Mostly the story that she told us is like the Bible story in the Buddhist Bible, let’s say. The good manners is always the winner, but at first the bad, the evil, win. But at the end, the good manner is the one that the winner. [The stories] teach us about how to behave. Teach us about to pay the gratitude. Respect the elderly, respect the teacher, respect to the boss, to feel proud of your job or whatever you have. Do not have jealousy if other people have more than what you got. So that I think that’s applied to my life now. Because my family is not in the upper level. We are in the upper level of the low class, let’s say. We were not even the lower level of the middle class.
“Father, he is a office clerk in the government office. Mother, she buy foodstuff and cook, just like the fast food, and pre-cook and sell at the market. So every brother and sister help put in the ingredient and help prepare, and when it’s cooked, she go to the market And then when people get off from work, they just buy this already cooked food to go home.”
Eight in the family. Four boys, four girls. “Mom’s always mad and talk when children misbehave. Dad come and then give the punishment. He don’t talk much. He would tell one time. If you do not remember, you got the stick. He hang the stick on the wall. And then, even he’s not there, Mom says, ‘You watch out for the stick!’
“In Laos, after high school, I have two years in economics, like a business school. And I even do not finish four years college there, but there’s an opening, so I quit school and start working. I work my way up with the American firm to do the international transportation, to do packing, crating, shipping, both by sea and air. So at the time, at the height of the Indochinese War, so many serviceman from the U.S. and the other free-world countries coming out of Laos. That’s our line of work with those clientele. And sometimes you have to ship bodies of GIs in bags to Thailand and to have an airplane transport it back to the U.S.
“When Saigon fall, Phnom Penh fall two weeks later. The high-ranking, they escaped. And the Communist force just take over Laos easily. At first I said, ‘I'm not going.’ But when there is no high-ranking, they take middle-class ranking out for the reeducation camps.
“Reeducation means not just educate on the new doctrine, on the new propaganda. It’s also a hard-labor camp. You have to cut the wood yourself, among your group, to build a hut, to build a house. You have to build a pig pen. You have to raise cattle. So for someone who’s been teaching all of his life, that’s very difficult to transfer to be a farmer right away. When you get sick, there’s no medicine available. When they only give very sparse food, just like prisoner of war. That’s in ’75 to ’80.
“So I escaped to Thailand with my family. At that time I had four children. Now I have five. The fifth one born in France. In Thailand, and the camp is so boring. And children and adult get sick constantly. Then I ask the dispensary run by the Red Cross, said I’m not from the medical field, but I like to help.
“At that time, they change from Ford to Carter. Okay. Carter has to do his job first, and then they freeze the program for refugees. Well, in the camp, life is so difficult, hardship, and you have depend on the food rationing. And then kid get no education. But in France they still take applications. So by volunteer in the camp — they have allocation when people work so long for the camp. They say, ‘Okay, give the credit to apply.’
“And I was lucky to be on the list and apply to France. Even though my line of work all the time was with the American firm. Let’s get out of camp first so we have a chance to admit to France. For three days that I was in the receiving home, I run to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, submit my application, along with other Eastern Bloc colleagues. So I tell them, ‘Look, I worked for American firm. I shipped GI dead boy, and so on, and now I want to come to U.S.’
“Well, there is no quota for East European refugees. So he sneak me in with them 14 months later. And we could get grant to come to the U.S. as refugees.
“I have three boys, two girls. And the youngest now is in the 11th grade. One work full-time. Three work half-time and then go to school.
“Luckily, luckily, very luckily none were involved in gangs. We live in the neighborhood that are local gangs already there, and kids tend to act out — like, among ducks, want to be a duck. And also because working with this agency I see a lot of what happened. And then my job also to go out and teach all the parent. So I’m equipped with a material resource to teach my own kids. That’s why I say lucky. If I’m working in, let’s say, in auto mechanic field or sales, I’d probably look at money, money, money, and I’d have no time to interact with my own family.
“Everywhere that I have time to mingling with the group that my staff bring here, I told them a story. There’s a story of a boy that’s in the poor family, and Mom and Dad just go out gathering the food. Mom and Dad try to get rid of him. And but he managed to stick with the family. But somehow parent finally manage to leave him in the woods.
“Later on, parents kind of becoming stable economically and want to get the boy back. When they reach to the jungle now, the boy all grow hair, becoming like the monkey. The story end that way. The boy is a monkey. And they say that because the parents have sinned in the previous life, then they’re so poor. [The story] teach kid to behave well, so when you have your own child he will not become like a monkey in the jungle.
“And at the same time we tell kids, because your parents probably do good in the previous life, they could raise you, becoming stronger in yourself. And you’ll get older, just go back and take care of them. If you do not take care of them, your next life will become having poor parents, and then your kids will be in the jungle.
“Those are the sort of stories that we were taught.”
We had a meeting here at our storefront with Cambodian gang members,” Roy Moody says, “then we had a meeting of the Lao gang members at the Lao temple. First they say that they came together for self-protection. But the biggest thing they say is, ‘Hey, it’s fun! I’m having fun! I’m having a good time. I like the freedom. I like excitement. I’m having a good time.’
“You know, a lot of kids don’t ever associate with gang members. They stay at home. They go to school. Nobody comes along and forces you to join a gang.
“You know, we’ve heard stories that people are pressured. Like we had one, where a father’s oldest son, who was about 13 or 14, was claiming a Cambodian gang. His father told him not to, and he still was. And one day the father saw him hanging out with the boys, and when he came home, the father asked, ‘Why? Why’re you doing this?’ And his son says, ‘Well, if I don’t hang out with them, they’ll beat me up.’
“So the Cambodian father, what he’s thinking is, ‘Are you going to be more afraid of them, or are you going to be more afraid of me?’ And so the father beat him, and beat him real bad. And [Child Protective Services] came, and they took all the kids out. The father wasn’t beating this poor child because he liked it. He saw that as his only option to save his son.
“We’re getting calls all the time from parents who ask, ‘What can I do to get my kids to quit hanging out with gangs?’ And the reality is, there aren’t any systems set up to help parents in this situation. We gotta wait for the kids to break the law to get ’em in the criminal justice system. Or if you beat ’em up, then we can have CPS come in and take the kids away. There’s nothing in between to force these kids into counseling or any type of program that will help ’em. So it’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for these parents.”
Vitou Reat and his older brother saw their father taken away to be killed by the Khmer Rouge. The boy was 11 and his brother 12. Vitou is 26 now, working as a Cambodian counselor at the Southeast Asian Project. Occasionally he works at the Old Temple Cambodian language school as a substitute teacher. He thumbs through a book of Cambodian folktales, points to the pictures, and tells me his favorite, “The Snake and the Mongoose.”
“The crane lives near the snake, and every time the crane has children, the snake eats the children. So the cranes get together and have a meeting, and one of the cranes has an idea. ‘I know the mongoose. The mongoose can eat the snake.’ The problem is how to bring him here to eat the snake. One of the cranes says, ‘Just leave a trail of fish leading to the snake’s den.’ The cranes drop a trail of fish, and the mongoose comes along eating the fish, finds the snake, and eats the snake, and sees the baby cranes, and eats them too.”
He’s a kid again and laughs, sees I don’t quite get it, and explains the story. “They like to warn the children that if you thinking, you have to think all the way. Like what’s going to happen next? The cranes didn’t think what the mongoose would do after it ate the snake. They want the children to think long, not short.
“My English is so young. I hardly able to tell you the story. From Cambodia. No just me. I got married, a chemist San Diego State. I speak Russian. In Moscow six years. I just go to college there. I don’t learn English before I came here.” He’s been here a year and a half.
“When Pol Pot there, nobody left the country. The border closed. My father Pol Pot killed, just like that. My mother in Cambodia still. One younger sister, and one older sister, and one brother older than me.
“Yeah, Pol Pot kill my father—just, like, come to the house and tied him up with his arms behind him, right in front of us, and take him just like that. So we can’t do anything. I don’t want to talk about that story.” He turns away, holds back tears. But more of the story comes.
“They want to kill all the men, you know. That was their plan. But I was too young. After my dad run away, I run after them. And they want to take us too, and they have gun on us and everything, so we just run away.”
Outside the temple, Pematokyryrasmey Chuun, an SDPD community service officer, offers me a can of soda. The women who come to the temple with food for the monks got soda for us. It’s Saturday morning, and children from 6 to 18 years old come into the temple yard for Cambodian school. The boys wear white shirts and khaki pants. The girls wear white blouses and blue skirts. The morning is cold and rainy. No one complains when the kids show up with all kinds and colors of sweaters and jackets over their uniforms.
“I do not know psychology,” Chuun says, “but the psychologists say the kids go into gangs and shoot and violence because they saw nothing but violence and murder from Pol Pot. Look at these kids here. They are all born in America. What do they remember from Pol Pot? The oldest ones, they are two-, three-, four-year-old babies when they escape. What do they remember?
“I remember,” Chuun says. “I am not doing violence. I am not gang. I hate gangs.” This guy hurts. All the Cambodians 25 and over hurt bad. They all have bad memories that won’t let them go. Memories about Pol Pot taking Daddy away and shooting him dead. When Prince Sihanouk began giving away chunks of Cambodia in the hope of not being drawn into war, he enraged the intellectuals and middle class. They cranked the mandate of heaven, dumped the prince and the monarchy, and established a republic in Cambodia in 1970, and Chuun’s father was elected to congress.
Chuun looks at the children hunched over their books, pencils in hand, and the memories come back to get him. Cambodian grammars are hard to find because Pol Pot killed all the teachers and killed all the books, all the writers, all the artists and intellectuals and lawyers, and college-educated and with them, effectively destroyed the culture, the very language of Cambodia. In San Diego, at this Old Temple, for these girls in blue skirts and white blouses, and boys in khaki pants and white shirts, and odd sweaters and jackets — the death of all the teachers and artists, writers, intellectuals, and college-educated means the books of grammar, the book of folktales, the book of proverbs, the books of manners and history were all written here, in San Diego, from memory, by hand and photocopied hundreds of times by those who had the memory and the hands.
“We escape Pol Pot, we cross the minefields, cross the border, we cross the river, come to America to save the children, and still we lose them. They become Americanized and go with the gangs. The violence, the gangs are American, not Cambodian. The psychologists are American. I don’t care what they say. The psychologists don’t know.”
The first grade has a mix of little kids and not-so-little pubescent girls and boys. They take their seats under a plastic awning. The first grade seems to be meeting in an open carport. And the second grade meets in a garage, with the garage door open.
The kid teaching first grade looks 13. He's 19 1/2. His name is Sophea Ross. He uses the nickname Tommy. He says the police regularly stop him and refuse to believe he’s not 13 and too young to drive his car.
Escaped Cambodia at two. In a camp in Thailand for four and a half years. Ten years in the U.S. Three younger brothers. Two younger sisters. He learned Cambodian here, in this school, with these homemade books. He was a monk here at the Old Temple for six months in 1990. Shaved all his hair, his eyebrows, and wore the robes.
Now he’s in San Diego Community College and is the editor-writer of Cambodian Now, a Cambodian-language monthly magazine with a print run of 2000. They print 5000 for the month of Cambodian New Year. Tommy Ross’s friend Woody Mean is the publisher of Cambodian Now; he’s also the printer and owns the print shop. Tommy hates gangs, has never been a part of gangs. But he dresses like gangs. “Style,” he says. It’s style, not content.
The enrollment at the weekend language school is increasing. Parents and teachers and the temple are talking of expanding, building more classrooms. For some of the young, the adventure of rescuing Cambodian civilization, language, and literature from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot out of the memories of old learned men in America and Xerox machines is more attractive than drugs, gangs, and guns.
The Union of Pan Asian Communities serves the Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Lao, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino, and Hmong communities and all the ethnic groups from the pan-Asian community.
Bounhong Khommarath says, “This program I’m in charge of, High Risk Youth, got funded from the county of San Diego, from the Alcohol and Drug Prevention Services. And we focus to serve children 9 to 13 and their family members for drug and alcohol education and prevention.
“We organize an after-school program, recruit students from the schools, and we talk to the counselor, district counselors, and principal, so they open a classroom for us, for kids to come in, with the parents’ authorization, to participate in the 12-week session for controlled competency training curriculum, for the students to learn about their own home culture. So students would have a better understanding of their parents’ culture. And we teach them life skills like communication, problem solving, anger management, and include a big piece of alcohol and drug education, so when they grow up, they should be equipped with these knowledges.
“To me as the counselor or somebody that provide advice, they do not identify themselves — ‘I am here from the Dragons or Crips or whatever.’ ”
The numbers of gang kids, up or down?
“It’s kind of grow up and rising. Then six months ago stable. And three months now, I do not hear anything that increase. Seems to be a quiet moment. But kids are kids, and always they are just like a time bomb. If something clicks, they would gather friends, and then another fight, another shooting occur.
“But here, if a Cambodian gang’s in here and they see Lao kids come in and out, no problem. The same thing if a Lao gang’s in here and they seeing Cambodian walk in and out, talking in Cambodian. They just do not bother each other.”
Did this Lao-Cambodian rivalry exist in Asia?
“No, no. Just happened here. In 1980, ’82, they’re still good friends. But somehow with the girls coming in, the violence, and afterwards retaliation come forth and back, forth and back. Even exploding to the level of drive-by shooting.”
Roy Moody drives with his nice Smith & Wesson tucked into his belt and his walkie-talkie by his side. Blocks of slab-sided stucco boxes with little yards. “The Laos refer to it as the Market Street Area. It’s in the Southeastern Division. You can see it’s not too far from where we came from. City Heights is just a couple of miles.”
We rubber past a group of boys slouching home from school. “Market Street gang members. They’re Hispanics,” Roy Moody says.
“Do they mess with Asian gangs?” I ask. “Every once in a while there’s some conflict between the two. But it has more to do with machismo for Hispanics. Machismo for Asians is saving face. You know, words are exchanged. The main gang in this area is Lao.” He points to graffiti spray-painted on a garage door. “OKB, Oriental Killer Boys,” he reads off the doors as we pass.
We are driving the streets of OKB turf, looking for gang kids hanging out and kicking back after school, and the streets are bare. “We might be out just a little bit early,” Roy Moody says. “And it’s a little bit cold.
“See the Neighborhood Watch signs? I’m very proud of it. In the Lao community, we’ve got 16 Lao Neighborhood Watch groups. And I was told that this would be impossible to do, given the history of setting up Neighborhood Watches in the community. It doesn’t sound like a big deal. You gotta understand with the Southeast Asian countries, when their countries fell to communism, they set up a series of neighborhood watches, out the purpose of those neighborhood watches was to report political indiscretions. So just the mere idea of that kind of system here, of course, they’re going to be resistant to it.
“We meet, we try to set up two meetings a month. To try to get across the city. Then we have a Lao advisory board to the storefront. We meet once a month to discuss neighborhood issues and problems with kids.
“We definitely stress that what the kids do, it will come back to haunt the parents. That’s why it’s so important to know what their kids are doing at all times.
“And we’ve gotten, in our storefront, in a year, a year and half or so we’ve gotten about 28 firearms turned in. And they range from .22s to 9mm handguns to shotguns. We tell parents where to look. Look in the vents. Look in the fenders of the cars. Look under the engine. Look behind the heaters. Look under the beds. They find ’em. They call us and they turn ’em in.”
We drive by a high school. Girls are on the field for cheerleading practice. “There’s been an increase in reporting, and there’s been an increase in the willingness to become involved with the police. It’s very, very difficult. It took me over five years before I could get ’em started.
“Crime only flourishes where it’s tolerated. Somebody on the Neighborhood Watch reported Lao gang members were putting a stolen car into one of the garages, and so we went out there. I called for units, and units went out there. And the car was, in fact, stolen. Nobody was around the car, but at least we have ’em watching. And so I think the community is getting the idea, that if they don’t tolerate it, it won’t happen.
“This area here is Gompers Park. At 2:00 this should start filling up. But it’s cold right now, so it’s going to be hard to find people hanging out.”
He nods toward a row of garage doors and reads the graffiti. “See ‘OKB Jr.’ ‘LOK’ means Little Oriental Killer Boys. ‘Laos Pride.’ And then the rest of this stuff is just tags.
“And then you have your Market Street gangs. ‘LOK. Little Oriental Killer. Gekko. Rascal. Bull.’ Nicknames. Lao. Someone wrote ‘OBS’ and crossed it out. And T2 15 11,’ the 12th, 15th and 11th letters of the alphabet, L-O-K. They crossed them out. ‘OKB Jr. LOK. Remember Little Oriental Killer Boy. OKB Jr. OKB. Laos Pride. Oakland Crips. Laos Pride. Fuck all them. OBS,’ crossed out. ‘OKB. Laos Oriental Killer.’ “Now see, you got ‘TOC,’ Tiny Oriental Crips, which is from the Linda Vista area. ‘TOC #1.’ A lot of TOC and OKB, they’re relatives from Linda Vista and Chollas View area. ‘Penguin Jr. Lorrie. Blue. T-Fu Jr. T-Dog. LOK. OKB. TOC. OMC,’ Oriental Mob Crip. LOC, technically they’re just smaller OKB. ‘OB,’ crossed out. ‘Oriental Boys,’ crossed out, ‘187’ in its place, the penal code number for homicide. ‘Orange Seals. Orange C. TOC. Asian Pride. OSD.’ I don’t know what OSD is. ‘BM,’ for Barrio Market, Barrio Logan.
“Back in 1989, I had this beat. I was the only officer up here. Me and a partner. One patrol car.”
It looks like a fight and doesn’t look like a fight. People of all ages and roughly the same height watch on the sidewalk in front of their yards. Family groups watch the blur of bare arms and baggy pants from their doorways. Officer Moody stops the car. He talks to the ones who’ve stopped fighting. I walk down the street and talk to a 16-year-old Lao kid in baggy shirt and baggy pants.
“Whaddaya wanta know?” Drippy asks with his hands in his pockets.
“You in a gang?” I ask.
“No,” Drippy says. “I used to be in OKB for about a year and a half, like, hang around for a long time. So they just jump me in. But now I just goin’ to school. Stop all that stuff.” “Did you enjoy being in the gang? Was it fun?”
“Yeah, it was fun, a little while.”
“So how do you get out of the gangs?” “Stop playing with them. Stay home. Go to school. That’s it. When you see them, we just talk to them and just go home.”
Roy Moody is a short walk down the street talking with the fighters. People, Lao and Mexican, recognize him. He keeps himself on a short leash and works hard to consider everything he says and communicate respect for his listeners when he says it. Everybody knows he has a nice Smith & Wesson 9mm tucked under his belt. But everybody on this block, at least, likes talking to the big guy, being gentle and patient and polite.
“They don’t beat you up before letting you leave the gang?” I ask with an eye to the action around Moody.
“No, they never do that,” Drippy says. “So is it hard to stay out of the gang?” “It’s not hard, just walk away.”
“You got brothers and sisters?”
“Yeah, I got three sisters.”
“They hang out with gang kids?”
“How old are your sisters?”
“Oh, one is juvie for being a gang. And one graduate already, preparing for College.”
“How old is your sister in juvie?” “Fourteen.”
“Did you talk to her about being in a gang?”
“Yeah. I told her. I told her a lot of things. Why do you want to join a gang? Just going dying or going to jail.”
“And what did she say?”
“She just go and play outside, you know. Hang around with the wrong crowd.”
“Your parents work?”
“Yeah. My dad’s a security guard, and my mom makes clothes.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Go to school, graduate. Be somebody.” “Do these gangs have leaders?”
“Not no more. The leader died.”
“Who was the leader?”
“Ith. I stopped all that when he died. He was the big leader. A little guy.”
Back in the car, Roy Moody completes the legend of Ith, “Ith Chernivase,” Moody says. “He got shot and killed up in Colina Park by another Lao gang member from Anaheim. But you know, the funny thing is, they knew each other from a long time ago.
“He was the one that actually formed OKB. He was the one that would stick up for all the Lao kids against anybody. And so they loved him, and they would just do anything in the world for him.
“Did you see the girl I was talking to out there? She?s a pretty good student. She graduated. She’s never been involved. You were talking to her brother, who was involved. There’s even a little sister who’s been nothing but problems. I think her sister said something about drugs. Fourteen years old. Run away numerous times. See the contrasts? Her parents are good parents. Both parents work. The oldest has turned out great. The middle one is right on that borderline. He can go either way. And the youngest one is totally out of control. You know, that’s not a dysfunctional family.
“With the Lao and the Cambodian gangs, most of them are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism. Your destiny’s mapped out. And if something happens, it happened. It was mapped out. There’s nothing you can do to change it. With Theravada Buddhism, what you do in this life determines what you’re going to be in your next life.
“And so even though they are gang members, they’re very loyal to each other. And most of the older ones are very loyal to their families. And they’re more than willing to share. I’ve seen them share money.”
So the kids are good, nonviolent practitioners of Theravada Buddhism?
No, Roy Moody is not saying that. “See, these kids tend to believe, to take part in what they want to believe.”
He picks his words carefully, even as they flow. “I mean, we do have our drive-bys, but we have so many that are willing to walk up [and shoot], because their Buddha will protect them. They definitely feel that Buddha will protect them. That’s why we’ve had so many fatal homicides with Southeast Asians. They will walk right up to their adversary, vastly outnumbered, and shoot at point-blank range.
“See, they hear stories about their fathers and their uncles back in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. ‘Aw, I was shot, but nothing happened. The bullet bounced off of me.’ Or ‘The bullet went right in and right out, because Buddha protected me.’ Maybe he was shot; maybe the bullet did pass through him and didn’t hit any , vital parts. But they hear enough of these stories — especially with some of the original gang members in their late teens, early 20s — they actually do believe that their Buddha will protect. So you definitely have to look at the religion aspect of it.”
The survivors of the trauma of the war suffer or enjoy stress of the post-war years differently. At least one old soldier who escaped Pol Pot made the violence and thievery of gang kids work for him. He was a warrant officer in the Cambodian army. Here he became a Fagin to the Cambodian kids of the OBS, the Oriental Boy Soldiers.
I sit on an old couch in what looks like a garage from the street. The place wasn’t a garage. Garages aren’t carpeted. The place is another world, another time. This may have been a driveway at one time. The walls and the roof are made of what look like gray driftwood and scraps of lumber and pieces, very small pieces, of razed houses carried back here in a shopping cart. It was tied together with wire and string. Layers of carpet were laid over lumps.
There is a couch and a few chairs. Bamboo shades give a little light and the flimsy illusion of a wall behind the couch. Just behind the couch is a pond where Wolf raises fighting fish. Pematokyryrasmey Chuun, from the SDPD storefront, stands apart and looks disgusted. He uses subtle movements to direct my attention to the letters “OBS” scribed on the arms and legs of all the tables and chairs.
Wolf tells me the sad story of his life in a drowsy, wheedling whimper. He holds his little son on his lap, and his second wife and mother-in-law and two children by his wife’s last successful marriage all sit or stand out here, not so much watching me talking to Wolf as hiding from the old man throwing a fit of delirium tremens inside the house. While things go smash inside, the Fagin says he was with gangs. He was bad. But now he’s good.
“Just out of jail. No names,” he says softly, sweetly. “My wife, she’s deaf. She’s a second wife. I have ex-wife in San Diego. I used to be a machinist. Work at General Dynamics for 13 years. I lost my job. Been laid off. I been on drugs. True story. All kinds of drugs. Marijuana. Cocaine. True story. Not lies.
“I lost my family good,” he smiles. Bashful of the Seven Dwarfs doing his shy dwarf act. He’s hustling me, fingering me for buttons to push. This is the “We are all victims” button.
“My life is sad. Before, is all right. I really enjoy with the American. I went to school a month and a half, and I find a job.”
How old were you when you came over?
“About 29. July 13,1976. Me and my wife and my daughter. I find a job because I couldn’t got enough money from welfare to support the family. So I look for a job. And later on I got a better job. I went to training. Machine shop. After that I got a job better and better. Then 1990 I been lay off. So far it’s been four years. I been lost my family about four and a half years so far.
“I mean, they kick me out because I’m been do the bad things. Hang out with friends. Forget the family. Bad things. Go around at nighttime,” and he whimpers into a laugh and leer.
“Do something wrong. Not hurt people. Been on drugs. That clear?” Of course he’s quit drugs. Yeah, sure. “So far, so good. I been quit for a little while. The time I miss them, I need something to forget. Only drugs can forget my family. When I have drugs in my body, I forget about it. Say, fuck it!
“I live on welfare. Welfare supports me because the kids still young. I can’t go nowhere. I have no friends no more. I don’t hang around with anybody. Just with the family right there.
“I hope when my kids grow up, I’m going to start a job the same experience I have before. I have experience from machinist. Sixteen years in the United States. I’m 47. I been in jail for three times. I got out of jail. I got probation. In a prison for seven months. That’s why I learn. I already know what’s going on in there. Now I don’t want to go back. That’s the truth!
“I been at war for five years, from ’70 to ’75. So I got a lot of enemies back Cambodia. I love to be here. I wouldn’t go back to my country.
“I don’t got friend no more. Before, I got a lot of friend because I got money. I got job. Got a nice family. Now I live like, you know, you see how look like. I don’t care. I don’t be used to be live like that. But I have to learn.
“I [used to have] a lot of friends in San Diego. They respect me. I’m their brother, uncle, you know. ‘Come on, please sit down.’ Now, they won’t let me. I ask them, they won’t answer me. I call them, they won’t turn around. I’m down the hill. That’s why I say I don’t need friends.
“I try to give up [drugs] by myself. Nobody can tell me, ‘Hey, stop doing this, doing that.’ Don’t have to. Do by myself.
“I look to my two kids right there, what’s why I give up good. But I still miss my ex-family. They still live close here. But I got no time go to see. When I see, might be, my heart go crazy or something. My daughter go to college. Another two kids in high school. They grow big. Boy and girl, twin children. They good kids. They follow the Mormon. My daughter, the big one, is a counselor of the Mormon. And my wife the same thing, she translator to a Cambodian by the Mormon.
“Last time I went to church, and later on I lost my family. I don’t believe no more, because I’m a Buddhist. I got tattoo. I believe Buddha. I believe my master, you know. About the church I don’t believe because is not show. I been at war. I believe my master, in my body, you know, tattoos. You can get away with a gun.”
“He means he’s bulletproof,” Chuun says.
Chuun can’t stand this guy. Wolf knows it and plays it. “One time I carried a gun. That’s why I been in jail for 30 days. That gun I picked from the dumpster. Go into store and walk out. And the customer, he see I have gun. And that owner that store they know me, and they know I have gun. Just play gun, you know. It can’t be shoot. Just like I scare people. I been on drug. Lost mind. Cocaine.”
Chuun doesn’t believe a word Wolf says. What was Wolf doing looking in a dumpster?
He’s an environmentalist, a recycler, an entrepreneur. “Nighttime, you pick up the can, you know,” Wolf says. “In the morning I sell. Then I have breakfast. I know a lot of people in San Diego, but I’m not going to ask, ‘Hey, give me breakfast.’ Not me. I do my way. I got four or five dollars. Better than you steal, you know.”
He no longer goes out looking into dumpsters. He’s not looking for school or any retraining for a job. “I got no time. Some time I sleep two hour, three hour at night, because of the kid. My wife can’t hear the kid cry. The kid cry, I’m the one up. The time I up, I gotta change diapers, feed them, something like that.”
“Why don’t you tell him about you used to hang out with OBS guys?” Chuun mutters across the room, almost too low to hear.
“I never hang out OBS,” Wolf snarls. The bashful song is gone. “I’m not a gangster. The kids just come around like this, like that, ask me, ‘How’re you doing?’ I can’t say, ‘Hey, man, stay away from me.’
“But I’m not go out with them. I stay home. I can’t go, because my age, 47 years old. I can’t hang around with a 10-, 11-year-old, you know. I say I’m not; you say, ‘Yeah, you are!’ Nothing I can say, because I’m Cambodian. Police officer Cambodian; is he OBS too?
“See, everybody Cambodian have to be OBS. The police put me like that.”
What about the tattoos around his neck?
, “Just protect for the gun, that’s all. I’m a soldier. Gun protection.”
Chuun speaks up, “In Cambodia, during the war, the people that have tattoos on, they believe in a superstition. They said that it’s bulletproof. In the Cambodian army, when they go to the battlefield, they have tattoos on them. The letters are Indian, Hinduism, but they have nothing to do with Buddhism.”
Wolf says, “Yeah, some people say it’s bullshit. But I don’t care what they say.”
Life is Letter here than in Cambodia?
“Oh, yeah. But I hate just a little bit. I hate drugs. In my country nobody go crazy this way, like here. This is crazy drugs. You know, make kids go out and get killed, steal, robbery, whatever, because of drugs.”
What about his kids?
“They have to go school when they grow up. I don’t know. When they grow up, they go to school, I die already. I’m 47. Maybe I live another three years. Maybe I make it 50. You know, disease, whatever. Or somebody hate you, you get killed from somebody, I don’t know. Nobody knows the life. Sometimes you walk on the street at the curb, run fast, bang! Gone!”
Who wrote all the OBS stuff all over the furniture?
“The kid come to play around, six, seven years old. They already know. From six years old. Because the big ones train already. They know. They going to stick together.”
What if his kids start hanging with the OBS, is he going to move?
First he says no, then he says yes, fishing for what I want to hear. “I’m not going to move. I’m going to teach him. When he understand, you know the talk. You know, he’s [Wolf] Junior. If I’m a gang, he’s supposed to be OG, you know. Old Gang. But I’m not. This is for temporary around here. When I got a little money, I’m go somewhere, quiet area.”
When in doubt keep hitting the pity-me button.
“My father-in-law about 55, 56 years old. Young man. I call him Dad. I’m supposed to call him Uncle or Brother, but you know. I got no, no family in the United States, after my wife kicked me out, I got nobody. He picked me on the street. He say, ‘You used to work nice job, good money. Why you hang around on the street for nothing? Come to live in my house.’ Better than homeless, you know. My mom support me. Buy cigarettes. Give me food, whatever. So I respect them. I do whatever they have, you know, need help. I build everything. I build this.”
Sirens. A paramedic wagon. Fire department. What’s going on? Wolf had called 911, said an old man was throwing a fit. The paramedics come out of the house with an old man strapped to a gurney who doesn’t look that old. DTs. The paramedics are disgusted. Only 12 teams are up for the whole city, and right now all of them are screaming. Busy all day. The paramedics are fast, efficient. Wolf and his family watch from another world, another time. Whatever they did to get the old man out of the house seems to have worked.
Vitou grins at a section on the meaning of dreams in Cambodian folklore. If you dream you lose a tooth and it is clean, not bloody, it means someone close to you is dead. If you dream you lose a tooth and the tooth is bloody, it means a relative is dead. If you dream you are fat, it is a bad omen.
He points to a picture of a boy showing his hands to another boy across the table, whose hands are on the table. “One student lazy. One student not,” Vitou says. “This not a story, but just like an article to teach the children not to leave the food out or the flies can come. And flies not good because the legs carry disease.
“This talk about your hands. It say your hand is your friend. Your hand help you to understand. He say that he gets smart because his hands help him. So this one,” he points to the boy not using his hands, “doesn’t know how to write. So it say, ‘Your hand is your friend, use it, don’t keep it lazy.’ So you learn to read it, and the idea is good too. My teacher used to say that too. Use your eyes, you know, read! Don’t be sorry for your eyes, use it all the time.”
Rabbit is a 21-year-old baby with maybe a ninth-grade education and two kids. She looks 13, maybe 15. She was born in Cambodia, came to the U.S. when she was 7, doesn’t remember Cambodia. She speaks and reads three languages, English, Lao, and Cambodian. In none of these languages does she have the words to say the father of her kids is doing life for murder. He killed a boy. Bunny was a father and a murderer at 19.
Rabbit didn’t think much of it then. But now Bunny Jr. is about to start school. She tells him not to join a gang. And she tells him stories. The only stories of the only history she knows are stories of Bunny Jr.’s father, a Cambodian gangbanger since 14. The romance of the endless gangs are the myths and fairy tales she was never told. She doesn’t want Bunny Jr. to be jumped into a gang. But what else does the kid of the gang kids know but gang kids? “Are you a gang kid?” I ask her.
“Well, I hang around with them,” she says. “It’s just that when I was young, I was 14, I ran away, and then I have nowhere to go, so I hang around with them because they stay up all night.” Her life changed forever at 14 because she wanted to stay up all night.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t even think my mother loved me, because I have a stepdad, and she pays more attention to her other kids than to me. I ran away, and I live with a friend. She used to know me when I was real young, and she saw me, and she took me in. She’s on welfare too.”
“ ‘Hanging out’ means...”
“You kick back at the beach, drink, do whatever. Sometimes the girls have money. And sometimes it’s the guys. I never have money though. But the guys have the money for us and they take us out.” Rabbit likes to go to Chinese restaurants and video arcades. Family Fun Center. “We went and have fun and come back to where we kickback.”
There’s no furniture. There’s a mattress on the floor. An old motel couch she must have found dumped on the street. The gray, milky light of a cold afternoon, threatening rain, intrudes through the window. There’s a triptych with an Asian theme in red on the wall. Something else junked from an old motel. That’s it. The rest is a few battery-run electronic gadgets, a boom box. There’s nothing in the next room. Nothing on the walls. Nothing over the windows. Nothing on the floor. Nothing. A nothing kitchen. A nothing bathroom. No electricity.
“The last time I ran away we kick back at 4-7, the 47 OBS.” “Four-seven” for 47th Street. “That’s where I hang with them that time. They’ll be smoking and everything. Some of them would be having guns.
“They were in some kind of trouble, right? With some other gang? And some other gang drive by, and everybody was in each corner! They were hiding in back of the wall. There was some up a tree just ready to shoot ’em. And instead, it didn’t happen. The cops came. And they took everybody. They got almost all the guns. Between 10 and 20. And the next day, the gang that they have a problem with came by and shot my cousin. He was walking, and they came by and shot him. He was bleeding everywhere. Now my cousin’s 22. That happened six years ago.”
On the couch, under the long front window, a 15-year-old girl nicknamed Baboon boasts of running away at 11 and belonging to a gang, the Asian Crips.
“How long have you been living here?” I ask Rabbit.
“Five months now,” says Rabbit. “At first when I got my place, I get to stay there for only a month, because the gangsters, they got me in trouble. They were making noise and everything. The neighbors complained, and then they would be cussing at my neighbors. And then my neighbors would tell my landlord, you know. There was nothing I could do.
“And then I moved in at 49th, and I get to stay there for, like, three months. And they raided the place, I think, for drugs and people they were looking for and everything. Well, they find some runaways. I tell them not to come, but still they come. Then, you know, they took ’em away, that’s all. And some was on drugs, they took ’em in. And some that was on probation, took ’em in.
“The other place was at Auburn Drive, right there. And I get to stay there for, like, a year because the landlord knows my dad. For, like, a whole year nothing happened. But then after I’m about to move out, SWAT team came over and everything. I don’t know why. I was walking out of the house, and the SWAT team came. They were carrying guns. A big one too! I got scared!
“I’ve seen gangs, like, jump people, you know. And I’ve been in a car when they drive-by. A lot of things they do is bad. I see a lot. That time it doesn’t scare me because it doesn’t happen to me. The people that they were hurting, I didn’t feel sorry for them at all. I know the people they were hurting.
“To me when I hang around with them, it’s not my business, you know. I just keep out. But I can’t disagree, because they won’t like me. They would let me alone, you know. Wherever they go, they wouldn’t take me around anymore. I don’t like to tell them anything they were doing was bad. They would diss me.
“I don’t go out with them now,” she says. “Now, it’s like they would just wave, hi. I don’t want to get involved in anything, because if I have them here, they’re just bringing problems to my family.
“My first boyfriend that was in OBS was Bunny. Ever since then I haven’t gone out with them, and I have his kid. It’s like they give respect to Bunny. He even told them to keep an eye on us. He told them, and they say yes, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t, you know.” “What do you want to do in the next ten years?”
Baboon can’t think ten minutes down the block. Ten years makes her show her tattoo. A Janus. The masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Under the masks, “Laugh Now. Cry Later.”
“I want to have a family,” Rabbit says. “You know, someone who’s going to care about me and my kids. I want to start working. I want to get my kids to go to school. I’m going to wait until they’re five years old and both of them go to school and then start to go to school.”
“Are you a good mom?” I ask.
“I don’t think so.”
“What can you do better?”
“Nothing, right now. I can take care of my kids, give them a bath every day. Make sure they eat.”
“Is this OBS territory?” I ask.
“It’s separated. It’s not together,” Baboon says. “This side is all 5-0, and that side is all 47th. I don’t get along with OBS. I hang out with OKB.
“My problems started ever since I was born! You know, rebelling? Stopped going to school four years ago.” Baboon is 15 now. She was 11 when she faded from the school system.
“How do you survive?”
“I just sell dope and stuff.”
“So what do you want?” I ask Rabbit. “What’s your future?”
She’s not ready for that question. “Or do you think about it?” There’s a wordless whimper. “You obviously like the gangs, what do you like about the gangs?”
“I don’t! I don’t like them,” Rabbit says. “Now, I don’t! Before I do. But now I don’t like them. Before, they took care of me. Just because I was going out with one of the homeboys, they watch out for me. And you know, I go on out wherever they go.
“But now that I have my own kids, I know what it feel like for a mother. Now, I know how it feels like for my mother, for me doing that to my mother.”
“My mom don’t care about me,” Baboon says proudly. “She knows I go and sell out there to make money and stuff. She didn’t help me all through that time, she knows what I was going through. She didn’t help. So, I don’t care.”
Rabbit says, “I don’t want my son to be in a gang. I’m not proud of it either. I’m not proud that my boyfriend’s in a gang. A lot of things he do I’m not proud of.”
“But you still love him?”
“No, not anymore.”
Officer Moody comes by. He glances into the open doorway and asks if Rabbit has any food in the house. No. He fishes ten bucks out of his wallet and hands it to her. About an hour later we see her and her two kids and her friend walking back from a restaurant. “I’m glad she really went out and got some food,” Roy Moody says.
The next day Rabbit comes into the storefront. It’s a step. Roy Moody calls her caseworker and gives her leads on help finding Rabbit money for food, daycare for her kids, and three schools that might accept her.
Kenji Ima, 20 years on the sociology faculty at San Diego State, is a paper activist, “not a street person,” out to turn kids away from gangs. Dead kids get to him. He writes the grant applications for UPAC. He connects with the San Diego Police Department on Asian gangs.
“The Black Jacket Boys used to dominate Madison High. Chinese Viet. Low profile and retired,” Kenji Ima says. The bad boys grew up and entered the middle class.
He feels funny about that because “they were involved in an unsolved homicide. People knew who did it. But no one would testify. The gang retired, and they have jobs now and are just living their lives. You know, it’s water under the bridge to them. As one kid told me, well, they really didn’t mean to kill him. It just happened.”
Kenji Ima believes there’s something in the culture, a certain ruthlessness common among Asians from the continent. He doesn’t know the source. It wouldn’t hurt the good sociologist to read a few comic books. The culture comes to the kids in the stories that shaped their childhood — Sun Tzu, the strategist; or the comic book versions of The Book of 36 Stratagems, published in Korea and Hong Kong; or Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Outlaws of The Water Margin. The Chinese and Vietnamese gang kids read them.
Back in the depths of the Cultural Revolution in China and the Vietnam War and the Great Society, George Woo, a photographer for Sunset magazine, became the Big Brother of the dreaded gangs of Hong Kong kids known as Wah Ching by telling people there were some who looked on him as the reincarnation of Kwan Kung, a hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, God of War, Plunder, * and Literature, and one of the brothers of the oath. Just the right god to tolerate no magic or other bullshit in his presence.
He reminded everyone that all Chinese organizations, the associations for men from specific counties of Kwangtung Province, the wooey goon, the tongs were all simply gangs once, and all were modeled on the oath the three men from three different walks of life took to become blood brothers in the peach garden, told about in Three Kingdoms.
Nobody else in Chinatown looked as much like Kwan Kung as George Woo. And nobody messed with him. He turned the Black Panthers on to Mao’s Little Red Book as a book of military strategy based on Sun Tzu’s Art of War. George Woo tried to tell the patronizing American-born Chinese Americans running for office and running Great Society and War on Poverty programs in Chinatown that Sun Tzu was a shortcut to understanding how the immigrants, the gangs of Wah Ching, the Chinese born and raised in a Chinese childhood, see the world.
The Black Panthers listened and made a bundle selling copies of the Little Red Book just outside the student union building in Berkeley. The Chinese Americans, full of sociology and contempt for anything Chinese, didn’t listen, and the kids scammed up the grant money and scholarships and broke the Chinese Americans’ hearts and killed a few.
A gang kid in New York introduced me to the Outlaws of the Water Margin by pointing to a poster on the wall over his bed. It showed the 108 outlaw chiefs standing on the Golden Shores of Mt. Liangshan. “Know them?” he asked. It was a test and I’d flunked. The kid was surprised and offended that I didn’t know what every kid knew.
Mao Zedong tells the world that his favorite books are Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Monkey’s Journey to the West, not to impose his will on the masses but to identify himself as one of the people.
These are the works that have dominated the Asian childhood and Asian folk art and opera since the Ming. All the works of the heroic tradition, feature Kwan Kung, the God of War, ora fictional descendant of Kwan Kung as a blood brother. Three Kingdoms is comparable to The Iliad, Water Margin to Robin Hood, Monkey's Journey to the West to The Odyssey.
How deep and how common is this stuff among the Chinese? The tongs were once gangs. Some tongs were for legitimate businessmen, some were for criminal business. When the tong wars between the criminals threatened to bring in the National Guard to end Chinese control of Chinatown, the good tongs banded together and formed the Choong Wah Wooey Goon to drive the criminals out of Chinatown, the way the 108 outlaw chiefs and their gangs in Water Margin banded together in their marshland stronghold to resist the corrupt Song court.
The Choong Wah Wooey Goon and its member organizations are now the establishment in Chinatowns from Panama to Alaska. They own land. They own businesses. They own banks. They recruit members. They attract members by appealing to a common culture and common values: folk lit.
A tong historian, writing in a recruiting pamphlet from the ’50s, sounds the way gangs sound today. “From China, one of the oldest of civilizations, beginning in 1848 there came to America an outpouring of Chinese who sought to better their personal fortunes, as men everywhere seek to do. Their first port of entry was San Francisco, which eventually became the capital city of Chinese America. The Gold Rush and then the building of the transcontinental railroad swelled the Chinese population. By 1851, with a Chinese population of 12,000 in the city, a need was felt for some type of social organization for mutual help and protection, and thus was born the formal Chinese association.”
The connection with childhood lit is not subtle or hidden.
“One of the most stirring periods of the Chinese people — a time of brave men, brutal warfare, and court intrigue — woven in the tapestry of Chinese history as the Era of the Three Kingdoms is preserved for posterity by the Lung Kong Associations. Lung Kong is a confraternity of the members of the Four Families of the surnames Lew, Quan, Chang, and Chew. Among the Chinese people, this tale, told countless thousands upon thousands of times, is stories of historic facts of four men whose spirit, sense of sacrifice for the people and their bravery made them bigger than life and therefore legendary.
“The elders of the Four Families erected a Lung Kong temple at Brooklyn Alley, off Sacramento Street [in 1876].... Spiritually it duplicated the original Dragon Hill temple, for here too were consecrated statues of the Four Ancestors of the Four Families.
“While serving the ritual and spiritual needs of the members of the Four Families, the Lung Kong temple in the United States functioned also as a fraternal organization... [and] fulfilled the social welfare needs of its people.
“From this period through WWII, the Chinese in America were subject to highly unreasonable legal restrictions, social pressures, an absence of civil rights and unequal employment opportunities. In the oppressive atmosphere of those times they had to turn to themselves. They had to care for themselves. These conditions foster the social associations.
“These associations, like the Four Families, cared for their own sick, fed and housed their own unfortunate, buried their own dead. They banded to fight discriminatory legislation against the Chinese. They arbitrated in legal questions. All of these organizations, in spirit and practice, were akin to the pattern of the Four Families blood brothers in helping each other and the Chinese people.”
How organized, how legit can a gang get in a hundred years? The bylaws of the association are in the California attorney general’s office. And what do the bylaws say about culture and the god of war?
“The bylaws of the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association: 1. The name of the association shall be Lung Kong Tin Yee Association of the Americas. 2. The association shall abide by the spirit of the ‘Confraternity of the Peach Garden’ and the ‘Old City Meeting’ of the Four Ancestors of Lew, Quan, Chang and Chew; and by the ‘Rules of Conducts’ bequeathed by Emperor Lew Pei, such as loyalty, righteousness, fraternity, charity, sincerity, solidarity, cooperation, mutual assistance, and a unified effort for the promotion of the general welfare.”
Now the criminal tongs are back. They’re properly known as triads and also known among the gang kids as the Chinese Mafia. America is their Swiss bank. America is their laundry. The triads send their dirty dollars to farms in Texas, to Chinese restaurants supplied by these farms, to Chinese games played at casinos on Indian reservations to be washed, fluff dried, and folded. Gang kids dream of taking the oath of a triad before Kwan Kung, the God of War, and sipping a tea of the blood of the brothers, and becoming a legend.
How does a gang become so organized and legit or criminal? It’s happening now. Money. In the family association or the district association or the tong, a brother says, “Brothers, I have $6000 here I’m willing to loan out. What am I bid?” And Joe who wants to start a laundry, and Jake who wants to buy a car, and Jimmy who wants who-knows-what, and any brother who wants the money bids on it. “One percent.” “Three percent.” Making the loan is an oath. Your word is your bond.
Bounhong Khommarath nods, “This still happen in Lao community,” he says. “But very small scale, among brother and sister, among relative, uncle, but it’s not on a large scale because of the issue of trust. Especially want to help out a young couple to buy a car or something.
“We have like original association, like, the people from this province get together, try to support each other. Especially when somebody dies. Everybody pitch in to help. Because we are now, after five, ten years, we’re still in survival stage. So we’re not really that sophisticated.”
Why should people trying to stamp out the gangs or modulate the gangs into normal and still enjoyable childhoods know the childhood stuff of Asian culture? Why should adults dip into the myth, lit, operas, and comic books of “Life is war. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial. Love is two warriors back to back, fighting off the universe”?
One might learn that there is a sense of honor and nobility in these kids that can be appealed to. One might devise a way to tell the kids the gangs are bad strategy. One might quote Sun Tzu and Br’er Rabbit, “The acme of military skill is in winning without taking a life or losing a life and taking the state intact.” One might find a way of saying there are better, less lethal, less offensive, still very thrilling and macho ways for boys to show off for girls, make an intimidating presence, compete with the strong, get money, and still be a good soldier, be heroic, make history.
Roy Moody says, “They don’t really want to continue on with crime, but they have no options at all. The thing about it, with these gangs, a lot of gang members, they want to get out. But a lot of their cousins are gang members or their brothers. They try to get out but they’re sucked right back in. Especially when they can’t find a job.
“A lot of Asian gang members do tend to get married at an early age. And that seems to take them out. The sense of responsibility. A lot of things that we see with Asian gang members, too, is that sense of family. Especially with the original Southeast Asian gang members. They seem to be more accepting of their cultures than the 12- and 13-year-olds.”
Bounhong Khommarath adds, “And a few kid that been shot dead at age 15 and 16, that gives us a lot of leverage to deliver the message, either you end like that one still in a wheelchair and blind or the other two that died.
“Some of them who’s overwhelmed with problems, their parents ship them out. We tell parents, ‘Look, father, if you do not do something, your son will end up in jail or paralyzed or been shot dead.’ I see many kids that get out of the gangs get married and have two jobs. One full-time and one part-time job. So I seen it’s very productive work that we outreach to the ones that wanna be gangs or acting out, somebody that work with them, give them guidance.”
Roy Moody calls. He’s upbeat, hopeful, enthusiastic. Parents have been turning in guns to the storefront, no questions asked, since December. “In exchange for guns, the first 35 didn’t get anything, since they didn’t have any incentive. But now, drop into the storefront and turn in a gun and get free medical services at Paradise Valley Hospital or a U.S. savings bond from First National Bank or a month of free cable TV from Cox and free pay-per-view movies.”
And they’ve started a youth program. First meeting, 30 kids from Southeast to Mira Mesa. Junior high to high school. Mixed races. Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese, all kinds of Asians. Even two Filipino kids. Second meeting, 63 kids. Third meeting tomorrow, storefront, 1:00 p.m.
Tomorrow comes and the air is full of the bullets of the Kurosawa rain from Seven Samurai. A million cars splash through the downpour like hysterical villagers and galloping bandits. The rain hits the streets of San Diego so hard they seem to spark flames.
The girls arrive first, in pairs and small groups, dropped off by their parents. They shuck their coats for baggy T-shirts and baggy jeans or overalls of many colors. Then the boys in cars of their own. Baseball hats, jackets. Kids drift into the storefront for about an hour. The girls take up most of the seats around the big conference table. The boys sit in groups against the window and the wall. A few boy-girl couples sit at the back on unused desks and wave and do eye jazz to their friends. It’s not the 100 kids Roy Moody had expected, but 80 is a lot of kids. No teacher would want 80 kids from 13 to 19 years old for two hours in a classroom.
“We probably would have had a lot more if it wasn’t for the heavy rain,” Roy Moody says. “Part of the problem is parents said they were very afraid of letting their kids out of sight. But even the good kids need something to do. They just can’t stay home, go to school, stay home, go to school.
“A lot of times those kids that are on the borderline could be pushed [the wrong way] because their parents are so strict. But when we went out and talked to these parents, they said they would like some sort of Asian youth organization that was involved with the San Diego Police Department, because then the parents feel safer.
“I got this idea from the Oakland Police Department. I’ve traveled all over the United States, and they had what I thought was the most successful Asian youth program that I’ve ever seen.
It’s 100 percent supported by the Oakland Police Department. They only have one advisory committee, and the Asian Americans who sit in on it are from the establishment, the elite.
“In San Diego, the Lao and Cambodian and different Asian advisory committees conduct business in English and their own languages, and members are from all walks of life. That makes our advisory committees unique,” Roy Moody says.
Roy Moody’s opposite number in Oakland “does a lot of fundraising,” Roy Moody says with a certain distaste. “I’m prohibited from going out and doing any fundraising on my own. That’s why I have to rely on the Asian advisory committees. I can understand why we can’t do it. I just couldn’t do it, go into an Asian restaurant and ask for money. A policeman asking for money to support a good cause? People are going to give it to me whether they want to or not, just out of the fear alone. There’s no way I could do that.
“What I really liked about this was that the kids, they pretty much do everything. They decide what activities they’re going to do. They come up with their own budget. They run their meetings. And, of course, it’s just adult supervision over the top.
“The money’s going to have to come from the kids. I’ve already told the kids we don’t have any money. They understand that. And in the meantime we’ll look for what grants we can apply for. There are several people who’ve already expressed interest in donating money. There’s a lot of different associations that have said this is a great idea, and they’d be willing to help out any way that they can. This is just getting off the ground, we’ll find the money.
“And this was also a way of preventing some violence that’s been occurring between different Southeast Asian groups, because, like I was saying before, a lot of Southeast Asian kids only interact in their own communities. And so you don’t have Cambodian kids from Mira Mesa interacting with Lao kids from Chollas View area and the Vietnamese kids from City Heights. This is a way of bringing the kids together so that they can say, ‘Hey! You know, these guys aren’t any different than I am.’
“The [cultural] mix was very much reflected in the elections we just had. For president it was a Cambodian, vice president Lao, secretary Vietnamese, treasurer it was Vietnamese, sergeant at arms Vietnamese. [And] it was definitely females that wanted to be more involved with the group. So on the youth executive board we’ve got four females and one male. So the females were definitely a lot more aggressive.”
The races of Asian kids are gathering at the storefront around Officer Roy Moody, San Diego Police Department, just as the 108 gangs of wrongfully outlawed men from all parts of China gathered at the stronghold on Mt. Liangshan around the humble clerk known as the “Timely Rain.” It’s a strange thing to say about a white man.
Two weeks later, at the next meeting, I see Roy Moody has taught the youth organization’s officers enough Robert’s Rules of Order to run the meeting. The kids talk about raising $500 at a car wash in Mira Mesa and selling food at a booth at a Cambodian and Lao New Year’s festival at Colina Park and starting a basketball league. They decide on a design for their emblem, their logo, using elements from many of the designs offered by the kids. People from other agencies and community service organizations have shown up with their own kids to see if these kids can keep it together. Do they have the discipline? Can they keep their word?
I don’t see Rabbit or Baboon here. Rabbit’s too old, maybe too far gone. A kid who had to take a course on how to heat a bottle to feed her kid, it’s too late for Rabbit to have a childhood. And Baboon is “Laugh Now, Cry Later.” Happy face. Sad face.
A 12-year-old girl hears I’m a writer. When I speak to her, I find out the 12-year-old is 21 and the San Diego Police Department has just hired her as a Cambodian community service officer. She writes too, she says. “I write fairy tales,” she says.
Sophea “Tommy” Ross gives me a copy of Cambodian Now. I ask the two of them if someone told them stories when they were kids. Oh, yes. They both remember the fairy tales. I ask them if they’ve heard of the story of the parents who purposely take their little boy into the jungle and lose him and, when they want him back, are forced to leave the jungle alone and live in sadness for the rest of their lives.
Yes, they’ve heard that story. Why do I like that story?
“I have come to San Diego with lots of money in my pocket. I will pay $ 1 million for each and every Cambodian and Lao and Hmong kid from newborn to 18 years old.”
“My parents love me too much to sell me,” they say.
“Three million dollars each. Your folks will have the good life. And if they won’t sell, I’ll raise my offer. And five years from now, I’m coming back with more money in my pockets to buy more Cambodian and Lao and Hmong and Vietnamese kids. And five years after that. And five years after that. What’s going to happen to Cambodian and the Lao and the Hmong and the Vietnamese in San Diego?”
They look at me.
Do they remember Pol Pot? Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Gang of Four in China, and gangs in San Diego rewrote the story. Here it’s not “Parents, please don’t sell your children to monsters for the good life.” Instead it’s “Kids, do not sell your parents for the life of laugh now, cry later.” The result is the same. There will be no more. Not a soul, not a story, not a kid. I think they understand the story better than I do.
Officer Roy is on the detective’s list. He hopes to be assigned to Asian gangs and be stationed at the storefront. “But there are no guarantees.” What happens in one’s life may well all be written, but the good officer has not read it yet. He’s also on the sergeant’s list. The engines of gang prevention and control he’s built, the Neighborhood Watch groups, the advisory councils, the gun exchange, and now the Asian Youth Organization are not self-maintaining, though he says they are.
Everything in the Southeast Asian communities works by personal example. If Roy Moody is promoted out of the storefront, what he built over the last six years might sputter out. It’s a delicate time.
But right now, it’s Saturday morning. The sun is out. The Marines fly pairs of pretty twin-tailed F-18s out over the road, loop around over the blue water, and sleek back the way they came. People drive their Miatas topless. The 16 Neighborhood Watch groups are working. Gang leaders are off the street and gang activity down. Sophea’s teaching first grade at the Old Temple this morning, then writing for the special New Year’s issue of his magazine. Twenty kids actually show up ready to wash cars at $3 a pop. Officer Roy tells the girl holding the money to button her pocket and then towels off a Jeep.
They make a little more than their $500 goal. About $3 more. I have my car washed and drive into downtown San Diego to show it off.