Lost in America

When the feds busted the "Black String Gang," they scratched the surface of the Vietnamese youth problem in South St. Louis. But no one's bothered to dig deeper into how it started.

Across the nation, many of the Vietnamese immigrants now said to be gang members had come to this country in the late '80s and early '90s. Most were teenagers — too young to confront the challenge with stoic maturity, too old to be distracted by Mickey Mouse. Pressured to assimilate and make money, fast — trapped between the expectations of naive, tradition-bound parents and the chaotic freedom of the new culture — some decided they couldn't win. So they forged their own culture, constructed a family of friends, found enterprises that didn't require credentials.

The first generation wore classic black pants; high-collared, tieless shirts; linen jackets; black shades. Then came shaved haircuts, a little funk. Today, "they sound exactly the same as black gangs, listen to the same music, wear the same clothes," notes a 25-year-old Vietnamese St. Louisan, speaking of the "little brothers" now trying to follow in their elders' footsteps. There are at least two levels of "gang" — young punks and shrewd adult criminals — but the slide from "bad boy" to bad man is as fast and slick as a log flume.

The first wave of VCA (Vietnamese criminal activity, in FBI parlance) started in the 1980s. By 1993, the FBI was reporting Vietnamese crime "in a state of accelerated networking, the precursor to organization." The emerging gangs were said to be unusually mobile, cooperating frequently with Vietnamese gangs in other cities and moving back and forth fluidly. (According to the court file, dragon-tattooed Ut Nguyen, a St. Louis defendant, is out on bond in San Jose, where he lives with his wife and baby and holds down a full-time job making $1,500 a month. An informer told the FBI that several men who used to live here had returned to practice credit-card and bank fraud.)

Jennifer Silverberg
"Iím sorry to tell you, there are a lot of kids who are not wild about living here," says Rudy Wilkinson, a Catholic priest who works as a teacherís aide at Roosevelt High School. "They see themselves as outsiders, as people who are not allowed to be who they are."
Jennifer Silverberg
Trinh Dang, chair of Roosevelt High Schoolís bilingual program: "In my time, the Vietnamese people considered going to school as a privilege, and they cherished it. Over here, in my opinion, public school has been considered a daycare center. Students come to school to socialize or get a lunch ticket."

Vietnamese gangs are said to prefer the name of a particular leader to a generic gang name, and they're said to exist independent of any particular turf. But, as one St. Louis police officer points out, the "Midwest flavor" changes things. Hieu's Group, however sophisticated or random it really was, certainly had at least a financial interest in the South Grand territory. Furthermore, these men weren't horribly violent — at least not compared to crimes in Orange County, Calif., where a choirboy was killed in crossfire in 1993; or San Francisco, where a police sergeant told an AP reporter about "people with their fingers burned to the bone ... infants thrown against the wall until the family gives up the gold ... children dipped in boiling water."

Experts credit the lack of lurid violence in the Midwest to the absence of drug dealing. "Some use," notes one law-enforcement officer, "and if a kilo of cocaine comes their way, they won't ignore it. But mainly they're too smart to risk the snitches and the chance of increased scrutiny."

Still, the guns pointed during the Grand Trading Co. robbery weren't water pistols, and the home invasions weren't sleep-overs with fudge. "The potential for ruthlessness is something they want known," observes one law-enforcement officer.

According to William L. Cassidy — a former intelligence officer who's advised the CIA, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Customs Service, the President's Commission on Organized Crime and the International Association of Chiefs of Police about Vietnamese crime — this ruthlessness is a twisted outgrowth of tradition. Great wealth, in Vietnam, was considered antisocial, a sign of selfishness. "Victims are spoken of scornfully, with anger, as if they had somehow violated an ancient compact to share and share alike. This anger is not the false anger of rationalization one usually finds in common thieves. With Vietnamese, something much deeper is at work." (From the article "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Color of Authority and the Rise of Vietnamese Street Gangs in Orange County," 1995.)

AnhTuan Nguyen, the respected 26-year-old general manager of Blueberry Hill's wait staff, thumps his mug down on the wooden table and slides into the booth. It's early, 9 a.m., and his quiet voice creates a small, vibrating circle of energy in the empty restaurant.

Nguyen, it turns out, used to bowl with the group of friends the indictment places at the alleged gang's core — Hieu Vo, Ut Ngo and Phuong Doan. Nguyen pulled back when "this thing got out of hand," he says, and his life curved in a different trajectory. Now he lives next door to the family of Hieu Vo — the man law-enforcement officials consider too dangerous to release on bond but whom Nguyen describes as "lanky and kind of goofy, with a major overbite."

Nguyen is the uncle of Vo's girlfriend and the godfather of their baby. "When he finally settled down with my niece and had a family, he pretty much changed his life around," says Nguyen. "I was laughing at the newscasts — in many ways I think they are trying to make themselves look good, make it a big dramatic thing. These weren't big badasses."

People weren't scared?

"They did intimidate, but it wasn't so much through fear of being beaten up as fear that they'd ruin an event," Nguyen says. "They used to show up at Vietnamese parties, demand drinks. People just didn't want any problem." Nguyen's sister and brother-in-law operate the restaurant Pho Grand, and although they're named in the indictment as extortion victims, Nguyen says his sister denies any financial losses. "We'd have just called the police," he explains. "The main restaurants they messed with were small ones off the main strip, run by recent immigrants who are still accustomed to the corruption in Vietnam."

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