Vietnamese Gangs


Before 1975, Asian gangs were largely limited to disaffected Chinese youth living in the “Chinatown” of larger cities. Such youth, alienated from the greater community, were also largely marginalized within the Chinese community itself due to a variety of social and economic conditions. Prior to the departure of American forces from Viet Nam in 1975, the stereotypical American concept of Asian gangs derived largely from the image of San Francisco tongs or triads of an earlier era. Since that time, the image of Asian gangs has changed to include new immigrant groups, such as Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Chinese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong gangs, which can now be found in communities across the nation where recent Southeast Asian immigrants have settled. 
The fall of Saigon and the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975 caused a massive exodus of Vietnamese to the United States. Among these refugees were numerous criminals who had operated in Vietnam prior to and during the war. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese underworld, however, there is little evidence of traditional organized criminal groups in Vietnam. 


The path toward development and evolution of youth gangs within Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian cultures and to a lesser extent, some current Vietnamese and Chinese independent youth gangs closely parallels the development of ethnic gangs of an earlier era. Early Italian, Jewish and Irish ethnic gangs in America, to cite a few, were born of the same isolating forces now experienced by this latest immigrant group. Racial and language isolation are common for recent immigrant groups, both for reasons of self selection and rejection by the community in which they settle. Some adults dream of a return to their homeland, and intentionally limit their acculturation. Language isolated immigrant adults who do not learn the predominant language and customs of their new homeland often find themselves estranged from their own English-speaking children and separated from the greater community. Thus, a generation gap often expands within a single family and between the immigrant and the greater community as well. Other immigrant adults develop a true bicultural orientation. A few totally adopt the language and mores of their new country. In any case, although their elders may not quickly assimilate, most youthful immigrants do. They learn English, adapt to the common youth culture, and generally respond to their parents’ cultural orientation in positive and productive ways. Relatively few such youth develop such maladaptive social responses, which may include joining a youth gang. Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize the negative influence of the racial and linguistic isolation that many Asian youth face in school.

Gang membership for school age youth is usually limited to only a small percentage of age eligible youth, regardless of prevailing social conditions. While in some highly isolated neighbourhoods or in particular schools gang membership may be high, it is estimated that typically less than 1 percent and rarely more than 3 percent of age eligible Asian youth in a given community are involved in gangs. Gang involved youth tend to be those who feel only marginally related to their own community and to the greater community. Some gang involved youth come from reasonably stable homes, are good students, and are generally respectful and well-behaved in supervised settings. Such youth often hide gang membership from their parents. More commonly, however, gang involved youth are often poorly supervised, frequently truant or tardy students who are in conflict at home, at school, and in the community. Younger gang members may be only marginally gang-affiliated, and thus are highly amenable to retrieval from gang life. Others may participate in delinquent gang activity and move inexorably into a life of crime and participation in organized, gang-directed criminal activity.

Asian youth can be influenced to engage in criminal and gang activity if gang generating and maintaining forces exist in the communities where the youth live. Despite the historically low levels of Asian youths’ criminal involvement, recent trends in several American cities suggest dramatically rising arrest levels for some youth, primarily due to gang-related criminal activity. The presence of divisive forces, such as social, economic and racial sequestration in a context of misunderstanding and intolerance of other cultures is as sure to support gang presence in gang communities as it is in other communities.

The social group to which the gang belongs may determine gang structure and significance. Gangs may arise and form their structure either as an accepted or as an unofficial subset of established community groups. For example, youth who join soccer teams, community associations or church groups may form gangs within such groups with or without the knowledge of supervising adults. In some instances, criminally involved adults affiliated with a generally legitimate social organization may influence and provide support for youth gang development within the structure of the organization. Though generally not sanctioned by the community elders, such gangs may nonetheless derive some support from acceptance or tolerance within the sponsoring group. Therefore, legitimate social structures may provide the converging and cohesive forces necessary to allow a gang to form.

For other Asian gangs, formations may be independent of any recognized social structure in the community, and may even be formally rejected by the community. Gang members may be viewed as outcasts or “lost boys” within both the immediate and the greater communities. As with other ethnic gangs that are an illicit part of their larger community, so are some gangs within the greater Chinese American community. The number of these illicit gangs escalated in the 1960s. While some Chinese youth gangs are largely independent street gangs, others are associated with influential members of criminally involved tongs, especially those involved with illegal gambling enterprises. The role of tongs or of individual members of the tongs in maintaining youth gangs varies. (Most tongs are legitimate business and social enterprises, long established in Chinese communities across North America). Some Chinese gangs are involved with Hong Kong-based criminal triads. It is estimated that several thousand high school youth are recruited into the triad youth contingents each year in Hong Kong. In some cities, youth gangs maintain a formal but variable relationship with criminally influenced tongs or Hong Kong-based triads. These gangs may engage in both tong-related and independent criminal activity, especially extortion and robbery. Responding to stepped-up law enforcement pressure, Chinese youth gangs in other cities are increasingly separate and independent of tong influence or shelter.

Ethnic Vietnamese or ethnic Chinese Vietnamese gangs are also a known, recent illicit subculture within their greater communities. Vietnamese youth gangs may develop independently of adult influence, or may arise when adults within the community develop influence over youth gang members, introducing them to more organized criminal activity. For example, within Vietnamese communities, a new form of gang is becoming well known. It is called the “hasty gang” a loose, quickly formed, mobile, nomadic gang that forms and disbands following a brief crime spree such as home invasions or burglaries of occupied dwellings. These gangs commonly lack adult leadership or organization.

Conversely, ethnic Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian gangs were largely unknown in their homelands prior to such ethnic groups’ relocation in the United States following the Vietnam War. No history of development or maintenance of modern youth gangs in these cultures has yet been documented.

Many Asian gangs originally formed in American cities as protection or fighting gangs. The reasons for their formation in the absence of any historical or cultural basis include racial, geographic, economic and linguistic isolation as well as direct rejection by established community groups where the recent immigrants settled. Simple imitation of gang behaviour present in other ethnic communities is the most likely explanation for the visible identifiers of gang life which have been adopted by Southeast Asian youth.  For example, Cambodian and Hmong gang members in several American cities have adopted the dress, slang, nicknames, hand signs and names of Black and Hispanic gangs of the West Coast and Midwest. Many Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian gang members tell of forming self-defence groups following assaults or intimidation by other ethnic gang members.  Groups have clashed when competing for space and status in public housing complexes in several American cities. Other Southeast Asian gang youth report joining protective gangs to allow safe travel to community areas where they might be victimized.  Still others who live in locations remote from urban centres elect to join ethnic affinity groups or form gangs or "proto-gangs."  They then may choose common identifiers initially for no other reason than to be together with friends having similar backgrounds and experience

Even in 1996, it is common for educators to assume that all gangs, including Asian gangs, are basically the same.  However, Asian gang structure, activities, status in the ethnic community and greater community, relationships with other ethnic gangs and roles in the schools vary according to several factors.  These variables include the following: Degree of social isolation, such as living in public housing, in "Chinatowns" or in newly formed "Asia Towns". Rejection and mistreatment of Asians by proximate populations. Acceptance or rejection in schools. Exposure to gang organizing forces. Lack of access to culturally appropriate social and recreational opportunities. Employment policies discriminatory against Asians; and the presence of other gangs in the neighbourhoods surrounding Asian enclaves.

A general American stereotype is that all Asian youth and communities are the same.  Unfortunately, this invalid assumption is widely held and is extremely detrimental to understanding and interacting with Asian youth and their families. Other common stereotypes of Asian gangs are that their gang members are more "vicious" than other ethnic gang members, or that Asians are "all the same" and that they "do not have the respect for life" which Westerners have. These concepts are inaccurate and demeaning.  Such beliefs communicate an extremely pejorative view of Asians in general.  The fact that Asian family roles, values and religious beliefs often differ from some Western archetype of acceptability does not justify making such generalizations and judgments.  In addition, available information suggests that an extremely small number of gang members commit most of the conspicuous violent acts attributed to Asian gangs. The perception that frequent, extreme violence among Asian gang members is the norm may be due to the publicizing of some of the more violent episodes.  These highly publicized violent crimes committed by some Asian gang members present a marked contrast to another public perception, that of Asian youth as quiet, respectful, academically high-achieving students.  It is perceived that the strong family bonds within the Asian community provide a protective factor which largely inhibits marginal gang affiliation among Asian youth.  Thus, age eligible youth are seen as either avoiding gangs completely or as characteristically making a break with the traditional family structure and establishing a primary affiliation with a gang.

Many influences, including positive and negative stereotypes, have contributed to the rise of Asian youth gangs in the United States, not the least of which is the numbing of emotional responsiveness which can be seen in many recent immigrant youth.  This dulling of personal affect may result in part from childhoods spent in border camps in Thailand or from horrific experiences in escaping Laos, Cambodia, China or Viet Nam.  Such trauma can have significant and long-lasting effects for the youth and their families.  Even children born of immigrants in America who have not personally experienced the effects of war or life in relocation and refugee camps nonetheless may suffer indirectly from the effects of such events upon their parents, older siblings, and other relatives.  The experiential and cultural complexities underlying the observable behaviour of ethnic youth within a given school district must be discovered and understood in order to respond effectively to the needs of such youth.

As with virtually every racial/ethnic/cultural community, there are elements of that community that make its members very proud. Conversely, there can also be many elements that represent shame, embarrassment, and fear. Crime, specifically in the form of Asian gangs and organized crime, is one such cultural element that continues to plague many Asian communities. Actually, their origins are not unique. Like many immigrant or "minority" groups before them, many Asians struggle to adapt to a new country, a new social environment, new norms, and new challenges of making a living. Like their Italian, Irish, and Jewish counterparts who came to the U.S. earlier this century, it's very common for many Asian immigrants to feel overwhelmed, lost, frustrated, depressed, and even angry as they try to adjust to living in the U.S. Many times they don't have enough job skills or English fluency to find steady and meaningful work. This is especially common among many Vietnamese, Amerasian Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian immigrants.

Many younger Asian immigrants may also feel alienated from their parents, family, schools, and ethnic community. They may feel misunderstood, under appreciated, or they may be asserting their new sense of American-style individualism and personal independence. They may also feel that they are victims of racial/ethnic prejudice and discrimination on the part of the larger American society, similar to what many in the Black and Latino communities feel. That is, they fatalistically accept that despite their best efforts, there are just too many institutional barriers that prevent them from achieving the "American dream" at least through conventional methods. In this situation, it's almost inevitable that someone will try to find some kind of social group that includes many who are in the same position and that will give him/her mutual support and understanding. In other words, s/he finds a new "family" where s/he feels accepted and comfortable. Unfortunately, many of these groups are based on the belief that the only way for them to achieve "respect" or "success" in American society is to accomplish those goals through unconventional methods i.e. crime. Asian street gangs may start out as just a social group of friends and acquaintances. But more commonly, larger and more established gangs actively recruit new members into their ranks. Once the new member finds a sense of belonging and acceptance, not to mention sex, drugs, and other "perks" of gang life, it's often very hard for him/her to give it up. It's also common for many Asian gangs to have connections to, or even be controlled by larger and more formal Asian organized crime groups who themselves manage elaborate prostitution, gambling, extortion, and other gang activities around the world (i.e., Chinese "triads").

Most Asian gangs also engage in drug trafficking, prostitution, and extortion. It's also common for Asian gangs to compete with Black and Latino gangs for turf. But their speciality, for which they've received a lot of media and law enforcement attention, is a type of robbery called a "home invasion." Home invasions occur when the gang breaks into the home of a family when they are at home or family-owned business, tie up all the family members, and terrorize them until the family produces valuables or money. Common tactics include beatings, torture, and the raping of female family members. Asian gangs almost always target Asian families because they are much less likely to report such crimes to the police. This is because many recent immigrant families come from Asian countries where the police were seen either as completely corrupt and ineffective or even working in conjunction with gangs. Such publicity would also bring "shame" to their community, which goes against the families' social conditioning. The family may also fear retaliation and even worse repercussions from the gang if they report it to the authorities. Second, recent Asian immigrants are more likely to keep their valuables and money hidden somewhere in their house or business instead of keeping them in a bank. Again, they may not be knowledgeable about the concept of banking and trusting your money to strangers or because of past experiences with corrupt financial institutions in their home country. Either way, Asian gangs exploit these cultural elements to victimize their own community

In response to these crimes, law enforcement authorities have implemented some very effective and ineffective strategies. Many police departments in cities that have large Asian communities have actively recruited more bilingual police officers from the community and have stepped up their efforts to educate the community about American law enforcement and the legal system. This greater understanding can lead to less fear of enlisting the help of the police and also makes it easier for the police to get leads and tips from the Asian community about future gang activities. Nonetheless, many elements within the law enforcement community are still virtually clueless about Asian gangs and the Asian American community. For example, many police stereotypically believe that "all Asians are the same" and that Asian gangs are especially viscous and have absolutely no respect for life. While Asian gangs can indeed be very violent and certainly need to be stopped, it's very easy for these extreme beliefs about Asian gangs to be transferred onto the entire Asian community. Specifically, several years ago, many police departments in southern California began harassing any group of young Asian Americans who they thought might be affiliated with gangs. These police departments would also take "mugshot" photographs of these Asian Americans, without their consent, as if they were in a police lineup and keep these photos on file as "possible" gang members. The police justified these actions by claiming that it was very hard to differentiate and distinguish between Asians itself a very ignorant and blatantly racist statement.

This was racial profiling at its worst and completely dehumanizing and humiliating for these young Asian Americans who were being harassed. The actions of a few individuals were again being projected onto an entire community and innocent Asian Americans were again being judged and discriminated against just because they happened to be Asian. Fortunately, these activities led to a storm of protest, several lawsuits, and criminal investigations for civil rights violations against these police departments. These tactics have since been ruled unconstitutional and thankfully have been stopped. As with everything else, there needs to be a balance in regard to dealing with Asian gangs. In terms of prevention, there needs to be much more outreach to young Asian Americans who may be inclined to join a gang. These efforts need to be culturally competent that is, they need to recognize the unique ethnic and cultural issues that these Asian Americans face, not just subject them to the usual regiment of programs that were designed for another group entirely. There also needs to be efforts to help Asian families interact more effectively with their children to bridge the generation gap that almost magnifies and escalates other challenges and tensions. Regarding intervention and law enforcement, authorities need to work with the Asian community, not against it. That starts with a better understanding of Asian culture and history in order to gain the trust and respect of Asian families. And I wouldn't be a true liberal if I didn't urge the legal system to also work with young offenders with understanding and compassion to try to change their life around rather than punitively placing them in institutions where their physical safety and self esteem take a further beating and where they learn the skills to become hardened career criminals


The Vietnamese language and culture has been greatly influenced by Chinese values and traditions. In fact, many Vietnamese criminal refugees are ethnically Chinese and have been assimilated into existing Chinese criminal organizations. An example is the Flying Dragons in New York City, a Chinese street gang that has a Vietnamese contingent, also known as the Viet-Ching, headed by Mink Chee Phu. The group's primary criminal activities include extortion, armed robbery, prostitution, auto theft, arson and gambling. 
The Vietnamese are the most vicious and ruthless of the Asian criminal groups. The gangs are highly mobile and travel across the nation to commit criminal acts. They often move from one Vietnamese community to another, using safe houses shared by members of other gangs. The majority of gang members are engaged in armed home invasion robberies, auto theft and extortion of Chinese-owned businesses. They are more violent than the Chinese gangs. Like those gangs, however, the Vietnamese cause property damage and threaten merchants who refuse to pay. 
Both Philadelphia and New York City have several Vietnamese gangs. There is also documented Vietnamese gang activity in Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., cities with large Vietnamese populations. 
The Vietnamese are the predominant of the Asian criminal groups who live in New Jersey. Hudson and Essex Counties have the largest Vietnamese populations in the state. Local police departments in both counties are actively engaged in gathering information on Vietnamese criminal activity. In one case, which occurred in July, 1986, the Englewood Cliffs Police Department recovered several thousand dollars worth of stolen car radios, and charged three Vietnamese from Jersey City with possession of stolen property and possession of burglary tools. 
In South Philadelphia, there is a Vietnamese street gang operating in the vicinity of the Italian Market. This loosely knit group has some 25 members between the ages of 16 and 28 and is engaged in extortion and auto theft. In March, 1986, three Vietnamese minors from Philadelphia, and another from Arlington, Virginia, were apprehended in Mercer County, New Jersey, operating a vehicle stolen from Baltimore, Maryland. They were also charged with the illegal possession of two pistols. The Philadelphia group were all members of this street gang from South Philadelphia. 
There is another Philadelphia group known as the West Philly Woo Boys in the area of the University of Pennsylvania that is involved in extortion, residential robberies and auto theft, and is comprised of 20 to 25 members. 
Jersey City has New Jersey's largest Vietnamese community. Many young gang members picked up in New York City have been traced to Jersey City. Cuong Quoc Pham, a member of the New York City-based BTK – Born To Kill – street gang, was arrested on December 21, 1989, along with two other Vietnamese from Jersey City, for a home invasion robbery in Scotch Plains. Cuong was previously arrested in Washington, D.C., for possession of an incendiary device when he threatened to bomb an Asian brothel. BTK gang members have also been involved in three recent murders in New York City. 
In July, 1990, seven persons were wounded at a cemetery in Linden (Union County) at the funeral of Born To Kill gang member Vinh Vuu when gunmen posing as mourners opened fire with automatic weapons during the burial. Vuu had been gunned down on Canal Street in New York City's Chinatown. Intelligence information indicates that Vuu's murder and the shooting at the cemetery stemmed from an ongoing feud between the BTK gang and other Asian street gangs for control of rackets among the Chinese community in New York. 
Jersey City has experienced several recent invasion robberies at the homes of Vietnamese residents during which family members are forced to reveal, under threats of beatings, rape and murder, where jewellery and currency are kept in the home. Many Oriental businessmen have a distrust of American financial institutions and keep large amounts of cash in their homes rather than deposit it in banks, a fact that is common knowledge among Asian gang members. 

Vietnamese youth gangs are mainly involved in property crimes such as theft, robbery of homes, and extortion; their usual targets are other Vietnamese. They steal anything but specialise in cars and dispose of them through chop shops. They are known for their incredible viciousness and violence. High calibre handguns are the weapons of choice. Unlike other gangs they are willing to enter into armed conflict with law enforcement officials.


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