The Other Side Story
Born to Kill: America's Most Notorious Vietnamese Gang,
and the Changing Face of Organized Crime
by T.J. English
William Morrow, $22 hard
I had just finished readingBorn to Kill, a novel chronicling the rise and fall of the most feared gang ever to stalk the streets of New York's Chinatown, when I decided to give my buddy John a call. You see, John lives in New York, and is, like myself, an avid fan of Chinese films, thus requiring that he make many trips into his local Chinatown. After I inquired about his knowledge of the local gangs, our conversation went something like this: "John, I just finished reading a book about gang activity in New York's Chinatown..." I began carefully. "Green Dragons, right?" he replied quickly, cutting me off.
"No... well, they were in the book," I stammered. "But the focus was on the Born to Kill gang..."
"Ooooohhhhh...," he sighed knowingly, "you mean BTK..."
Even today, people mention the "BTK" with fear upon their lips, for their sheer ballsiness and the audacity of their random violence, extortion, and generally preying upon their community was unmatched by any other gang in Chinatown. They are the torrid and fascinating subject of T.J. English's latest work of non-fiction, Born to Kill: America's Most Notorious Vietnamese Gang, and the Changing Face of Organized Crime, a gripping investigation of gang lifestyle, as well as a careful examination of the lasting effects of the Vietnam War. English, whose last book was a study of the Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen called The Westies (later made into the Sean Penn vehicle State of Grace), has many cultural, ethical, and criminal aspects to explore - and he pulls it all off rather well. From war-torn Vietnam, on to a horrific two-year journey to America, the book follows the misadventures of Tihn "Timmy" Ngo, a young boy sent away from his homeland by his parents in hopes that he would find a "better life" in the United States. After a whirlwind of foster homes and lousy jobs for low pay, Tihn finally found his place in America - with the up-and-coming Born to Kill gang. Led by the charismatic and coldly manipulative David Thai, the BTK was to signal the arrival of a new breed of organized crime, an unruly, chaotic, anything-goes style that ignored the traditional "ethics" and "rules" that, no matter how twisted, had made Chinatown an acceptable place to live and work for Asian-Americans who wanted to be among their own. Dealing with the Chinese gangsters like the "Tongs" or "Triads" had simply become a way of life for the citizens living in New York's Chinatown, and the areas shop owners had settled into a comfortable routine of paying protection money and showing respect in order to avoid the cruel consequences that were to befall those who did not cooperate. But no one, neither the citizens nor the rival gangs, was prepared for the impact that the BTK would have upon their community. The moniker of the gang, made up entirely of both pure and mixed-blood Vietnamese youngsters, was taken from the intimidating slogan scrawled by American GIs while in Vietnam. The irony is not lost on the gang members, nor on author English, or for that matter, anyone reading the book. Faced with resentment from the Chinatown community, to which the Vietnamese immigrants were relatively new, and outright hostility from the mainstream society outside the Asian community, it was easy for David Thai to lure in and control much of the young Vietnamese kids living in the area with money, power, and, most important, a sense of identity and brotherhood. "Think of this as a business," Thai tells the gang members at their very first meeting, "not a gang." Earlier he had told Tihn, upon joining the gang, the BTK crime policy: "We rob and steal only from other Asians. They don't know anything about U.S. law. They're afraid... to even report the crime."
During the first section of the book, English details the daily rituals of gang life with a hard-hitting, vaguely cinematic style, but always maintains an understanding sensitivity towards the plights of both the gang members and their victims - a tightrope act he walks quite well. The scenes of violence, crimes, and robberies are vividly handled and do a solid job of placing the reader right smack-dab in the center of the mayhem - one particularly incredible passage, the bloody shooting of two rival gang members only a couple of minutes after offending Thai by spitting on his sidewalk (!), is startling and written with a frightening urgency that comes out of nowhere, lingering in the reader's mind long after a number of pages have been turned.
The second half of the book marks a turning point as Tihn Ngo begins to regret his gang lifestyle after participating in a particularly brutal jewelry store robbery in Georgia (an event made even more horrifying due to the graphic crime photos included in the book's midsection), the beginning of Thai's plans to expand the BTK's criminal activities outward across the country. Tihn, feeling desperately guilty and looking for a way out, gets his chance when he is arrested by the police, who bargain to not charge him with any crimes if he wears a wire and acts as an undercover operative. He grudgingly agrees in order to avoid arrest, and a complex cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Tihn trying to coax as much information out of the gang and, in particular, Thai, without giving himself away.
This leads to several hair-raising sequences. Tihn first wears the wire and it burns a little hole in his shirt, revealing a flashing red light which one of his gangland buddies notices.... But Tihn and the cops always manage to stay one step ahead, no matter how ludicrous the situation (a series of conveniently botched robberies almost becomes a comic running gag) or how high the stakes rise, as the evidence and suspense mount, leading towards the inevitable, powerful conclusion.
Born to Kill is a fine piece of work, an involving read about an important subject: What chances do immigrants have in this country? Are they given a chance at the so-called American Dream? Have they been shut out by prejudice? Or have they shut themselves out? And finally, if a young person living in America can only find solace for the future in the arms of crime and murder, who is really to blame? So where does English come down on his controversial subject? Does he wind up painting the BTK as a group of cold-blooded hoodlums without conscience, or as tragic youth forced into this brutal lifestyle by poverty, racism, and a general lack of opportunity?
Well, the answer is neither and both. English seems so torn between sympathizing with the BTK and despising them that he, like the rest of us, just seems to be trying to make sense of all the craziness.