By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
Sudden color: a woman seated at the cash register, obviously pregnant, a toddler clambering onto her lap.
Black-and-white again, a side doorway. A man entering, face concealed by a white cloth tied in back.
Out of the security cameras' reach, two customers are idly browsing through red-and-gold party favors. One feels a hand grab her neck from behind and looks up to see a gun pressed to her friend's temple. They're shoved to the floor. Back on the color camera, a robber in a brown leather jacket, blue bandanna over the face, knocks a man off a stool to the ground.
The video is eerily silent, but by now there's a lot of harsh yelling in Vietnamese. The American-born customer will later swear she heard one of the robbers say, "I'm sorry, ma'am" ó in English ó as he put the gun to her head. "We were so obviously not the targets," she remarks. "I was lying face-down on the ground, my wallet in my hand, and they never took it."
The Vietnamese robbers of the Grand Trading Co. focused on the store's Vietnamese proprietors, seizing their money, jewelry, purses. To this day, the Oct. 30, 1996, robbery remains unsolved. But law-enforcement officials feel sure it was the act of what they call the Black String Gang.
The name has plenty of Asian mystique but, as it turns out, the cops made it up themselves. Five years ago, they seized upon their first clue: a black string worn like a bolo around the neck. Now, someone close to one of the defendants swears he never wore a black string and adds that the ties were simply a fashion fad at the time. Someone else remembers teenagers roaming South Grand with black cords around their wrists. A young Vietnamese woman says she always figured "Black String" referred to their tattoos, because many Vietnamese favor single-color tattoos that cost less than a rainbow of ink.
Investigating a Vietnamese gang is not hard science.
Still, this March, after years of work, federal agents and police arrested 21 of these alleged gang members in a single swoop. For the indictment, they trotted out a new name: Hieu's Group. An Amerasian immigrant named Hieu Vo, they said, had been leading a highly sophisticated, organized, violent street gang. The 23-count federal indictment cited crimes ranging from simple bookmaking to armed home invasions and conspiracy to murder.
At first glance, the indictment's long list of Vietnamese names and overlapping crimes looks seamlessly sinister. With a little more data, it rips into patchwork. The defendants range in age from 22-48. Some went to college and had full-time jobs; others never finished high school. Some are indicted for a long list of crimes involving threats of violence; some for credit-card fraud; others only for bookmaking. (As Truong Nguyen, a veteran of the South Vietnamese army, told his lawyer, "Who you think teach me to gamble? American soldiers teach me to gamble!")
Back in 1994, when word of a Vietnamese gang first filtered into the local media, it was presented dismissively as a group of five youths with maybe 10 hangers-on. Their crime? Intimidating South Grand Vietnamese restaurant owners (or what one openhearted Vietnamese clergyman describes as "staying too long over coffee and maybe asking to borrow some money").
By 1999, about 600 FBI wiretaps and video-surveillance transcripts had the U.S. attorney's office convinced that the gang was doing far more damage than just tough-punk extortion and that it stretched even further than the 21 men arrested on March 24, with links to Boston; San Jose, Calif.; and Columbia, S. Carolina. Federal racketeering statutes allowed U.S. prosecutor David Rosen to reach back, citing the early crimes and then adding more recent robberies and credit-card, mail and bank fraud.
For some members of St. Louis' Vietnamese community, the announcement broke a long, tense silence. They'd been terrified of trusting the police, terrified of reprisals from criminals, terrified that outsiders would begin to associate their orderly, self-sacrificing, elaborately coded Vietnamese culture with organized crime. The Vietnamese population had exploded in the past five years from 3,200 to 14,000 in the St. Louis metropolitan area, counting babies born here and their lives were finally beginning to take root; about 60 percent lived and worked in South St. Louis, where the South Grand commercial district was thriving.
For those outside the Vietnamese community, the indictment and attendant hoopla provided a sense of closure, a sense that the guys on white horses had ridden through town and cleaned up. What they'd cleaned up, nobody seemed quite sure. How it started, nobody bothered to ask.
Most St. Louisans think "Vietnamese" begins and ends with a couple of restaurants in the six blocks between Arsenal and Iowa on South Grand. But if you continue south on Grand, you reach the frayed edges of "Little Vietnam." There, teenage boys played billiards in an empty building, above the soaped windows of the defunct Pizza-a-Go-Go, and rumors flew about a police raid that had kids dropping from the windows. Up Gravois, past the tiny Truc Lam restaurant listed as one of the extortion targets, was an apartment where young boys allegedly gathered to smoke dope. West on Chippewa, the scrubby-Dutch border was studded with a nail shop and the black-lit Karaoke Club, another alleged extortion target and a popular gathering place for Vietnamese young people.
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.)
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."
Nguyen is one of many in the Vietnamese community who believe that Hieu's Group is an FBI construct, a merging of several different gangs or groups into a dramatic single entity. "Hieu's name is easy to remember," he points out, pronouncing the Vietnamese suffix friends added as a funny nickname. It sounds like "Hieu-gah." "Whenever something happened, people would say his name, whether he was involved or not."
The clincher for others is Vo's age: 26. In the Vietnamese culture, kids live in multigenerational families and grow up more slowly; they're not even considered ready to babysit until age 18 or 19, and youth can extend to the early 30s. The real leader of the gang, people whisper, "is a man in his 50s with lots of property, connections and business interests."
All officials will say is, "The investigation is ongoing."
In the 1992 Rough Rider one of the few Roosevelt High School yearbooks whose last copy hasn't been stolen from the school library somebody goofed. Ut Ngo's name appears beneath a photo of an African-American girl who's twice his weight and looks about 30. But there he is, an inch away from his proper name and history, grinning eagerly, his denim jacket leaving a moat of air around his long, skinny neck. Maybe it's just the cowlick, or the lopsided smile, but there's a sweetness about him that's hard to trace, seven years later, in accounts of armed home-invasion robberies.
Back when that picture was taken, Ngo was just a freshman and hadn't had much time to get involved in the life of the school. Yet virtually none of the other 111 Roosevelt students with Vietnamese names had done so, either. The '92 yearbook has almost triple the number of Vietnamese students as the '89 yearbook, yet they still don't show up in the casual "party pix," or the big sports teams, or the clubs (except the National Honor Society). Roosevelt's 1992 homecoming court was all African-American. So was is the school's prevailing culture.
The difference between a place like Roosevelt High and a school in Vietnam is the difference between swimming laps in a lane and diving into a tidal wave. In Vietnam, students were expected to be silent and obedient. At Roosevelt, teachers have been heard to cuss students out, and playing around in class is so pervasive, Vietnamese students mention it spontaneously.
By 1993, the St. Louis Public Schools showed no record of any student named Ut Ngo. He and Phuong Doan, who also dropped out of Roosevelt High, were hanging out with the man who's now alleged to be their gang leader. Four years their senior, Hieu Vo had arrived in the U.S. too late for school. So the three young men spent a lot of time singing at the Karaoke Club, or resting their elbows on vinyl gingham at Pho Saigon Restaurant. Soon, older men without wives were hanging out with them, drinking.
"Vietnamese kids just walk out of school," remarks one teacher. "They trade on the fact that Americans can't recognize Asian kids very easily. Parents don't know to come get a printout of their attendance. And the Vietnamese tend to be very susceptible to their peer group" they've come, after all, from a society in which the group's interrelationships matter far more than the individual "so if they get involved with a friend who's in trouble, it's only a matter of time before they're cutting classes, too.
"The school rewards the students who are very successful, very driven," she sighs. "That's the stereotype of the Asian student. But they don't all fit that."
You'd never know it to talk to Steve Warmack, principal of Roosevelt High School. "They are academic, they are polite, they've got a good work ethic, they blend right in," he says of his Vietnamese students. "Their attendance is probably better than the rest of our children." What about the dropout rate? "This is an area I really don't want to get into, because the way the rate is figured and the reality of what we have does not always line up. We have a really transient population, and it's extremely hard to keep tabs on some of those kids."
And those who do get into trouble? "I think a big factor is the lack of parental and home involvement in setting education as a priority of the household. Consequently" ah, he admits it "we have an attendance rate that is not where it needs to be."
As for friction in the student body, he swears there's only been one fight since he arrived. Maybe that's true within the school boundaries, retorts Anne-Elise Price, a public defender in the city's juvenile unit. "The problem my clients have is on the way to and from school. The fights happen a block away. I don't think they have dealt at all with the problem of the cultural clashes in that school. When the kids tell you that they get beat up at Roosevelt and then they drop out, they are telling you the truth."
Nabila Salib, director of the St. Louis Public Schools' bilingual and world-languages program, hotly defends the progress of the 1,000-or-so Vietnamese students in the public schools, about 550 of whom are in the English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program, half at Roosevelt and half at Soldan. "They are doing very, very well," she says. "They do attend school; they don't drop; they graduate about 98 percent. And in math and science, they are the first."
It's true that Vietnamese students filled almost 32 percent of Roosevelt's 1999 upper-class honor roll. But given the number of dropouts you can meet just by walking down Grand Boulevard, Salib's 98 percent seems optimistic. What about the few she admits drop out why does it happen? "It depends on the situation at home," she replies. "The few who drop out may need to work and support the family something like that."
A former ESL teacher with years of experience in the public schools offers a sharply different assessment. "There is a significant dropout rate," she maintains. "And some who do graduate are not literate. I found (Vietnamese students) graduating with A's and B's who couldn't write a sentence in English."
Some ESL students hadn't been schooled enough to be literate in Vietnamese, the former teacher adds: "If you cannot read and write in your first language, and someone tries to teach you to read and write in English, you get unraveled."
Learning to order a burger and a malt might be a breeze, but the academic language necessary for schoolwork can take five to seven years to develop, she points out. "If you're a high-school teacher, you don't have five to seven years." What often happens is that teachers notice interpersonal skills a kid is charming, charismatic, capable and say, "Let's move him out of ESL into the regular curriculum." The student spends the rest of high school cheating to hide the fact that he can't read and write well enough. "It's hard on their self-esteem," says the teacher, "and it's a moral violation of them, to force them to cheat to survive."
One boy was put into freshman English: "He couldn't even follow directions to turn the page. And when I tried to get him moved, they refused. There was no chance for individual instruction we used to have total workloads of 150 students apiece, with maybe one aide. Eventually the boy withdrew emotionally, and then he dropped out. Last we heard, he'd joined a gang."
Phuong Doan is 22, the youngest alleged gang member charged in the indictment. He, too, had trouble reading and writing English, so he found a girlfriend and dropped out of Roosevelt, probably in 1994. The criminal charges against him date back to the same year.
It's a Thursday afternoon in a parched, overbright stretch of July, and Vietnamese dropouts (the ones authorities claim don't exist) fringe the sidewalk in front of the public library on South Grand. Two, chain-smoking, talk about their jobs doing nails. Sam is cleaning offices. "Too many bad people at school," he explains. "They play around; they don't respect teachers. And they sometimes hurt you. Sometimes it's not only blacks; sometimes it's Bosnians and other Asians."
The kids resume the seesaw inflections of their native language. Then one drops into English with a jolt: "Man, I gotta go get my money."
He turns and nearly runs smack into Rudy Wilkinson, an independent Catholic priest who's made it his business to stand amid these kids. At Roosevelt, where Wilkinson's been working as a teacher's aide, the early-'90s surge in immigration made them "the new underdogs," he explains. "Kids called them "chink' and wanted to fight them because they thought they all knew karate. One Vietnamese boy now calls himself "Ching Chong Chinaman,' because that's what the other kids used to call him."
Wilkinson has "adopted" several of these boys, including one young teenager who's "very aggressive, a fighter, a very angry boy." Another protégé is 20 and just out of jail, "so gracious, you could never imagine how much damage he could do. I've always wondered how they can hurt people," confesses Wilkinson, "but they have no remorse. They just see it as them against someone else."
The 20-year-old's father is still in Vietnam, and the boy talks often irrationally about going back. "I'm sorry to tell you, there are a lot of kids who are not wild about living here," says Wilkinson. "They see themselves as outsiders, as people who are not allowed to be who they are. And they're too busy translating to deal with other emotions. There's trauma that's never been taken care of, and there's anger they don't always recognize, because it's so deep-rooted." (Clues lie in the names of Asian youth gangs elsewhere: Asian Bad Boys, Born to Kill, Born to Violence, Cheap Boyz, Death on Arrival, Fuck the World, Lonely Boyz Only, Scar Boys.)
Wilkinson would like to see something as simple as a youth center, maybe in the old grocery store on South Grand. "There is nothing to prevent problems, nothing for them to do," he says, "and when you see a kid starting to get in trouble, there is no one in the Vietnamese community to take him under their wing. They are working, or it is not their responsibility, or they are busy gossiping that he is a "bad boy.' Bullshit."
Inside the library, Tommy a playful young man, full of charming banter and dressed in quintessentially American sports gear waits to talk to his friend "Mr. Rudy" (Wilkinson). Tommy's back in St. Louis after an exile to a school in Mississippi. His parents, who own the Tan My restaurant, saw him getting involved with gangs and forced some distance. At first he missed his friends terribly, but now he seems to agree it was the only solution: "Get them out of state. When I came back, my life totally changed. I don't hang out with Asian guys anymore. I only know one, he lives right by my house, who's a straight guy, don't do nothing."
Seated at the very next table is one of the kids Tommy so rarely encounters, a Vietnamese boy who's so serious and thoughtful, wild impulse can't get a foot in the door. "I think all of those bad kids have been once good," he offers. "They play too much, or have a girlfriend. That can divide a youngster's mind away from working good in school. We never have that happen in Vietnam. And since a youngster does not have a good knowledge of how to deal with a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship that love stuff they have nothing to stop themselves from sexuality."
Add sex, then, to the list of juvenile starter crimes: drinking, drugs, gambling, stealing, truancy, violence, joyriding. Now, go find these kids.
"There was a Vietnamese boy here a few months ago," Sister Mary Anne Dooling, chaplain until last month at the St. Louis juvenile-detention center, recalls slowly. "He actually seemed very responsible he was working very hard and worried that his boss would know what had happened. He was in some ways the parent, because his mom can't speak enough English to function. And you know, even for adults, seeing a parent become somewhat childlike is very hard. If I were a 16-year-old making all the decisions because this adult I'm supposed to respect can't communicate or operate, I would be so angry."
That boy was one of only a handful of Vietnamese that Dooling saw in her years at the detention center, yet she heard countless stories of other Vietnamese kids in trouble. Her experience matches family-court statistics: Only one or two Vietnamese offenders a year are assigned to a juvenile caseworker, come to trial or go to detention.
Barry LaLumandier, spokesman for the St. Louis Police Department, says sometimes the kids fall or dive deliberately into the crack between East and West. "If they run a stop sign and police pull them over and they sit there and speak Vietnamese, that's frustrating. Either they get a ticket without much explanation, or the officer throws up his hands and walks away."
What if kids enter the system at a lower level say, for a "status" offense that's illegal only because of the offender's age? "They are referred to the intake delinquency unit for counseling," explains a professional in the system. "But the DJOs (deputy juvenile officers) don't have degrees in counseling, so mainly they tell the kid, "Look, you're going to be in big trouble if you don't straighten up.'" At the next level, they're placed on probation and given a set of rules to follow (go to school, meet curfew, avoid wild kids, report in once a week). "So the kids get on Bi-State, show up at the office and maybe the DJO's on a home visit or in court, so they sign in and leave. On other occasions, it's a five-minute meeting."
Other than arrests, the usual entry points into the juvenile system are truancy reports from schools and "incorrigibility" petitions filed by parents. Many Vietnamese students are already 16 and cannot be labeled truant. Often, Vietnamese parents are working too hard to notice "incorrigibility" or can't bear to admit it in a child whose culture values filial piety, respect and obedience above all else.
Keith Hulsey, who teaches ESL at St. Pius V Catholic Church on South Grand, remembers a Vietnamese boy who blew off school to take a job in Louisiana, Mo., joining a van pool to do light-industrial work. "He had to pay for his Tommy Hilfiger shirts and baggy pants," Hulsey says dryly. "His parents were worried sick. So when he came home, they were so relieved they didn't make him go to school. He's now 15, and working full time.
"In most cases, the Vietnamese hold education very highly," adds Hulsey, "but some get caught up in making ends meet." College isn't an automatic goal in Vietnam, university was pretty much reserved for geniuses and members of the Communist Party. Even secondary school sometimes took more money than the family had.
Enrolling in this country's genuinely free public education felt like grabbing the gold ring. And then they saw that it could tarnish.
Phuong Doan, a handsome, sleepy-eyed 22-year-old whose English comes out with African-American inflections, is playing patty-cake with his chubby, solemn year-old daughter through the glass visiting booth at the Franklin County Detention Center. He's been denied bond since his arrest on March 24 with the Black String Gang.
His girlfriend (who, along with Doan's parents, refused to be interviewed for this story) has a graceful long neck, a round face and high cheekbones. "Me, too," she murmurs into the booth's phone, alternating between Vietnamese and English. "Yes, she is" hugging the baby. And then, more sharply, "I'm busy at home," tacitly reminding him that she's working overtime, doing businesswomen's nails six days a week to pay for a lawyer and support their child.
The woman in the next booth starts raving about a Garth Brooks special. Doan's parents, who've been hovering in the background, decide to wait outside, give the little family some privacy. Their son's been different these past two years, working hard, in love with his baby girl. The girlfriend insisted that he move to Florissant, away from trouble. In recent times, when he saw his old friends Vo and Ngo both of whom have babies, too it was while taking their wives and girlfriends shopping, or going to movies.
"I work, I come home, and they come and get me," says Doan, alarmed by the resurrection of his past and terrified that he'll be sent back to Vietnam. (He doesn't seem to realize that's not even possible; we don't have diplomatic arrangements to deport criminals to Vietnam. If these defendants are convicted, they will go to prison and then, if their crime falls within new, stringent, retroactive categories such as "aggravated felony," they will be theoretically deported. In actuality, they will be released into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and will remain incarcerated in this country. Indefinitely.)
Even if he's acquitted, Doan may qualify for deportation retroactively: Back in 1994, he was convicted of second-degree assault after what sounds like a youth-gang fight in a South Grand restaurant that's since closed. He spent two years on probation. As best he can figure, that conviction has now resurfaced as "Nov. 18, 1994: conspiracy to murder Nham Le." Both Phuong Doan (a.k.a. Thom) and his friend Hieu Vo (a.k.a. Hieu Co) are charged.
All friends recall is a fight between two Asian groups and a bullet zinging through a window; they also mention a Romeo and Juliet theme, with Doan's older sister marrying into the restaurant owner's family, as had Nham Le. After the fight erupted, Doan was arrested. Then his father lost his temper and got himself arrested, too. He was eventually released with a stern injunction to leave witnesses alone, or else. Meanwhile, friends say Doan's mom had gone, in Vietnamese tradition, to offer to make right whatever her son had done. She was arrested for attempted bribery.
These days, the Doans work long factory hours and then stay home watching movies, afraid to talk to anyone. Their son is also being charged with conspiracy to rob and actual armed robbery: According to the indictment, he and three other men "entered the home of Nguyen T. Pham and, while armed with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument, confronted and bound Trag T. Phan and Nguyen T. Muoi and demanded the cash in the house." Next, Doan is charged with unlawfully transporting $40,000 in stolen goods from St. Louis to San Jose. And he's charged with extorting money from Pho Grand and Truc Lam.
Friends remember how, when Truc Lam put a camera above their doorway, Doan and his friends hammed it up, acting even tougher for the camera.
It's all turned very, very serious.
The Rev. Minh Chou Vo, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church on Kingshighway, is a kind and irrepressibly cheerful man who despite being mired in social work and interpreting responsibilities for his refugee church will spend 15 minutes making silly faces to coax a smile from a shy toddler or drive for hours visiting alleged gang members scattered in detention facilities around the state.
Chou Vo has become "unofficial pastor to the gangs," in the wry phrase of his American wife, Kari Vo. Several times that has meant conducting funerals for young people shot to death, or spotting the trademark cigarette burns that sometimes mean gang involvement. Other times, it's meant taking a group of kids to camp and finding them all huddled in one cabin because they've never been alone. Explaining to naive parents that their kids are bluffing, that people do still get married in America. Helping a teased kid on the edge of trouble switch schools, learn better English and stop wanting to bash and kill people.
"The church can forgive, but the people cannot," Chou says angrily, referring to the three friends Phuong Doan, Ut Ngo, Hieu Vo he watched fall into trouble and climb back out. Now they have babies and full-time jobs; one even had a church wedding. "In the last two years, these young men changed a lot," he insists. "I am very proud of them. Everybody saw the change. But now they deny it."
Shortly after the March 24 arrests, Chou went to Truc Lam for lunch and felt his stomach go sour. On the wall was an official posting "in very, very mean language in Vietnamese, telling people to stay away from them. And they are not even found guilty yet! I don't think that is legal," he says firmly, "so I took it down. I left my phone number in case the FBI wanted to call me."
In English, the language wasn't so mean, he adds; it just said they were looking for evidence. In Vietnamese, the words burned shame. And Chou is convinced that the interpreter's emphasis was deliberate.
Chou's wife, Kari, worries more about inadvertent mistranslations. As an American married to a Vietnamese man, she knows just how complex the language can be, and how easily misunderstood. Vietnamese has no formal past tense, so as she leaves a parishioner's house, she's telling the family how much she's enjoying seeing their house. The language has no consistent personal pronoun for "I"; she's learned to refer to herself with different words, depending on her relationship to the person she's addressing. Vietnamese has no direct "no": "It's a softened yes-no," a courtesy Kari is afraid could be misunderstood by impatient officials who register only the first half.
"When a Vietnamese man says, "Yeah, yeah,' it's no guarantee that he agrees, admits or even understands," she continues. ""Yeah' is only a mark of attention; all it means is that he's listening." Refusing to make eye contact doesn't necessarily mean he's lying, either; it might simply be a show of respect. Conversely, grinning at a question does not indicate disrespect, just nervousness or confusion.
Kari also worries about the misidentification of criminals. Names are often identical (there are only about 200 Vietnamese family names, all told) and witnesses unfamiliar with American ways can be too readily acquiescent. "You get handed a list of names," she explains, "and you've been trained to say yes to people in authority, and you have in fact been a victim of crime, but not by every last person on that sheet. If you're lacking in English, it's easier just to say yes."
At 9 a.m. on June 9, 1998,FBI agents glided into the parking lot of the Burger King at Grand and Keokuk. Approaching 26-year-old Tam Nguyen, they invited him to sit in their car and listen to a composite tape, hoping he'd cooperate and bring them more information. Nervous, he said he had to get to work at Hunan Yu by 10 a.m. Unmoved, agents played a conversation about Hung Van Pham, one of the alleged gang members, saying he "has a lot of crazy young boys that hang around with him, smoke dope and steal."
Hung Van Pham, a.k.a. Hung Den, is 28, and he is listed in the court file as having a fourth-grade education. According to Tam Nguyen, he hung out with the younger boys in order to be "strong."
What was in it for them?
Oddly enough, probably just simple old-fashioned reassurance. Social order, hierarchy. A group-defined, family-structured identity. In New York's infamous Born to Kill gang, the leader was the anh hai, the Vietnamese term for the elder brother deemed wisest. The underbosses, to use the popular Mafia analogy, were dai low, regular big brothers. The initiates were sai low, eagerly obedient little brothers.
"We speculate that this started off because there is a lack of solidarity in the Vietnamese community, a lack of discipline in the families," says a local law-enforcement officer. Deadpan as Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, he fails to note the great irony: By dint of the proud hard work this country adores in its immigrants, the Vietnamese, who value family above all else, have become absentee parents. Six days a week, their children go unsupervised for at least eight hours a day, 16 if they skip school. When parents do come home, they're often too naive to guide teenagers who've soaked up the culture and language so much faster than the adults, upsetting the family's balance of power.
"In Vietnam, you can spank your kid," mutters one father. "Here, if you hit him, someone in the neighborhood might call to report you. Children listen to their parents more in Vietnam. When you say, "Sit down, stand up,' they do. But not now, not here. Here, they can decide if they are going to school or not. My son left home, and when he came back here to visit, him never see me."
Americanized kids say, "Hel-lo, Bye-bye," mimics another father, flapping his hand furiously. "It looks normal, but in Vietnam, that is impolite."
As much as adults bemoan the loss of tradition and manners, they know their own powerlessness has played a role. To be blunt: When a rural parent's washing her hands in the toilet's reservoir, it's hard for an Americanized child to continue to bow.
It's also hard for a parent to know how to parent. In Vietnam, "family values" came straight from Confucius' model of an orderly society. Parents were to provide authority, not explanation, and children were to stifle any anger, frustration or contempt. Punishment could include shaming, physical slaps and withdrawal of love not to mention kneeling for hours in a corner holding soup cans above your head. Children remained dependent on the family, which made decisions for them, until they married and then sometimes only moved next door. Media was tightly controlled; social behavior followed unbending rules; multigenerational families provided constant, vigilant supervision. Family was the only real security.
Here, families disperse easily. There is something called "child abuse," and children quickly familiarize themselves with its entitlements. They also learn "self-expression." They move out of the family home at age 18. They draw behavior and identity from sources outside the family. They learn that it can be thrilling to break rules. They learn a way of life where speed and impulse rule, and respect is a foreign concept.
"I've seen too many family structures broken apart," sighs one Vietnamese teenager, the exemplary kind, with a 4.0 grade-point average and a curtain of politeness that rarely parts. "Many Vietnamese women, when they come to America, they think they are lady first. They always think ladies the best here. So, because of money, they follow another American man and divorce the old husband. Also, families have to work very hard in order to have a stable economy in the family, and by being so busy, they forget the kids."
His own parents, who were middle-class in Vietnam but arrived here with nothing, work long hours, too, "but afterward, they don't do anything else except come home and talk with us. Cook good food and eat and chat, talk about what career we want. Though they cannot understand English, my dad read a whole book 50 times in Vietnamese about American colleges."
Slowly the acculturation takes place, the new generation makes good and the value systems blend or at least lie down next to each other. But it's easier for some than for others.
"Initially about 500 families arrived in St. Louis in 1975," recalls Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, charged with resettling more recent refugees. She's referring to the First Wave, mainly educated, highly placed families who'd worked with the U.S. government during the war or had relatives here. Often they were settled, in the county, by church groups, and the transition was fairly smooth.
They were followed by the Second Wave, "boat people" who were usually ethnic Chinese. Then, in 1983, some resettlement of Amerasians began, climaxing after the passage of the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act. Amerasian children had already survived a decade of harsh postwar discrimination in Vietnam denied education, sometimes separated from their families, often exiled to rural outposts where their faces wouldn't haunt the government. The stigma bled onto Vietnamese parents (the mothers who'd been raped or steered into prostitution during the war; the fathers who'd married them afterward) and siblings, too.
When the U.S. opened its doors, older Amerasians with families of their own had to choose: Bring your spouse and children, or bring your parents and siblings. Some did what an American would never do: chose their parents and left their own husbands and wives behind. Others came with spouses who simply wanted to be American and divorced them soon after arrival. Many in established marriages divorced, too, the glue of Vietnamese custom dissolved by American feminism and freedom (or chaos and moral anarchy).
Usually the single parents were mothers. But if the children were boys, that doubled the challenge, because in traditional Vietnamese society, it's fathers who shape their sons' identities. Women often aren't perceived as powerful enough to control adolescent males, especially without the old supports of extended family and a cohesive culture.
Stack single parenthood on top of poverty, a language barrier and a lack of education. Add Vietnamese society's hatred of Amerasians. Then add disillusionment.
"The Amerasians had always thought, if they could just come to America, they'd be OK," notes Crosslin. "They came because they thought this was their homeland. Then they got here and didn't fit any better. So the American dream may be more elusive for them than it is for other refugees, because their dream has been different from the beginning."
More than 400 families with Amerasian members settled in St. Louis during the '80s and '90s, including the families of Hieu Vo, Ut Ngo and Phuong Doan. Today, the final wave of Vietnamese immigration people sent to re-education camps after the war is trickling to a halt. The youngest Amerasians are now 25, the oldest in their late 30s. Most have adjusted beautifully. But the Vietnamese call those who haven't bui doi, the dust of life. It's a phrase used both for Amerasians (who thought that coming to this country would be the gold of life) and for gang members, or kids gone wild.
On Feb. 8, 1996, a Saturday morning far colder than any they'd felt in Vietnam, 300 people marched slowly down Grand Avenue, their steps as heavy as the coffin they bore. Thanh Tan Le had been a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army, and when he brought his family to this country, he'd become one of the International Institute's most beloved caseworkers. Then he was shot by an armed robber, early on a weekday morning, while getting ready to drive his wife to work.
For the Vietnamese community, the procession was a public mourning, tribute and protest but it was also a way to remind the rest of St. Louis that there were gangs and criminals hurting them. "Maybe a month before he died, Channel 5 did a story about the Asian gang," recalls Ngoc Doan, senior caseworker at the International Institute, "so we needed to present the gang who killed him, not the Asian gang. We want to live in peace."
For police officer Barry LaLumandier, whose official title would later become South Patrol Liaison-New Americans, the request to hold a funeral procession wasn't just strategic PR, it was "a breakthrough. We lined up a little detail, helped them get permits, shut down intersections. I got there that morning and there they all were, hundreds more than anyone expected, all lined up perfectly orderly. When it was over, we shook hands and I thought, "We're there. We've finally done it. If they need anything, they'll come to us.'"
But they didn't.
"It was still not enough to win their trust," he reports sadly. "We knew there were difficulties; we were finding out things. We asked about meeting with a couple Vietnamese leaders, but it never materialized primarily because of the number of hours people work." Usually it's 16 hours a day, every day but Sunday. Yet LaLumandier's new full-time assignment, working with immigrant communities in South St. Louis, is 9-5, weekdays.
"After the funeral, there were isolated incidents," he resumes, "but we had no idea the Vietnamese community was being victimized by their own people." Sister Paulette Weindel, who works with refugees at St. Pius V Catholic Church, set up a meeting ("Once again on a Sunday," LaLumandier sighs) with some people who'd been victimized. The offenders were an organized group of street thugs, kids who lived in the neighborhood. They were not Vietnamese, but 80 percent of their victims were.
"Simultaneous to this, our detectives jumped a bunch of young Vietnamese kids, younger than the Black String Gang, and we start cleaning up burglary after burglary, and all of the victims are Vietnamese. We began to see that there were just a ton of incidents."
LaLumandier sped up distribution of bilingual police-report forms and laminated picture-books for interviewing non-English-speaking victims. Soon, joint projects with the International Institute built trust, and he started receiving fresh reports for incidents dating back as far as 1994. Meanwhile, he'd heard that something was going to happen on South Grand. "We had no idea the magnitude of it," he says. "I was talking to some guys from Intelligence, and it was hysterical: "We've got some "intell" on this, and we've been talking to the "Eye" (the FBI).'"
LaLumandier is equally frank about the fear, mistrust, confusion and cultural clashes that have plagued the local police.
"In some instances the bad guys would get phone numbers and call the victims back and say, "Don't even think about calling the police.' Now, it's happened only twice in my almost 30 years that the bad guys went back. But now we get to the Vietnamese people, and life's taught them that if someone threatens to come and get them, they do it.
"Sadly, we are finding things out by trial-and-error," he continues. "When you go into a Vietnamese household, you address the oldest person. It's just respect. But we are trying to be resourceful, so if the eldest does not speak English, we look for the youngest person! We've just insulted the entire household. In Vietnam, you can just give the police officer some money and everything is OK. "No, no, no,' we tell them. But then try to explain the bond system. You can pay and get out of jail!"
The Third District captain has an excellent reputation for understanding the challenges of a dramatically diverse neighborhood but some of his officers do not. For years now, the department has been saying how hard it's trying to recruit Vietnamese officers.
LaLumandier proudly announces that now there are six, two of whom actually speak Vietnamese.
A department official later corrects the information: They have six officers of Asian descent, one of whom speaks Cantonese.
Upstairs at the Mekong Restaurant, one of the longest-established on South Grand, there's a room with huge shaggy dark-green trees, a ceiling fan and '50s-style booths. In one, a Vietnamese math professor visiting Washington University from New Zealand is conversing with an award-winning scientist, while the highly educated Trinh Dang, chair of Roosevelt's bilingual program, speaks French to an observer. Across the room, six high-school girls are lined up on a low sofa, leaning forward eagerly in spite of the awkward angle. A presentation of the Vietnamese-American Education Society is about to begin. Compliments fly, the scholars filling in the gaps of each other's modesty with elaborate praise, and you begin to see why it's so hard for Vietnamese to preserve self-esteem in this casually rude culture.
"When I came here in 1975, I didn't have a counselor," confides Lam Pham, a successful engineer who now lives in Chesterfield. "I couldn't speak much English, and I chose which area to make money first engineer. Technical, quick money. I wasted 18 years. I chose wrong. It's been ... a performance. So we try to help the new generation discover their goals and values, put them in the right direction. Their parents are busy and don't have the opportunity to have more knowledge like we do."
Slides begin to flash, announcing scientific breakthroughs, cellular clocks, cosmic motion, genomics, biochips. Dang rises. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I prefer to talk to you in English, because I believe all of you are outstanding students." He lectures them about the importance of motivation: "Why? Because you need to succeed in your life, to pay homage, eternal gratitude, to your parents."
The biggest obstacle, whispers student Ronald Nguyen, is "peer pressure. They think if they do well, their peers will call them nerds and they will be separated from society which is actually just a false perception. As you learn how to get through school, you learn how to get along with people, do your work and keep a low profile."
More speakers enjoin the young people, and the litany is repeated: connection, connection, connection; study, study, study; Wash. U., Wash. U., Wash. U. "Always do more than you are asked to do," urges Dang. "Look for ways to improve. Read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie."
After the kids file out, Dang sinks into a chair and waves away a beer, too distressed to enjoy it. "In my time, the Vietnamese people considered going to school as a privilege, and they cherished it," he says. "Over here, in my opinion, public school has been considered a daycare center. Students come to school to socialize or get a lunch ticket. Over there, when the bell rang, they were already in the classroom, and when the teacher came in, they had to stand.
"What can I do if a student ignores what I tell him?" he asks plaintively. "In Vietnam, I could force him to do it. Here, when a conflict arises between teacher and student, the policy sides with the student, because the schools need money, so they need the presence of many students. That is mad.
"Nowhere in school is a moral code taught," he concludes with disgust. In this country, that's considered the parents' job. But by the time they've scraped the day's living, parents working 16-hour days are exhausted. "If you don't have time to talk to your child," Dang says sadly, "how can you expect him to do what you wish him to do? They are bombarded with the media and the movies, and now we attribute their mistakes to them and send them to prison. We are unfair. It is our fault."