They are children of the Vietnam War. Born and raised in the wasteland left by American bombs and napalm, these young men know a particular brand of cruelty—which they are about to export to the United States. When the Vietnamese gangs come to Chinatown, they adopt a name remembered from GI’s helmets: “Born to Kill.” And kill they do, in a frenzy of violence that shocks even the old-school Chinese gangsters who once ran Canal Street. Killing brings them turf, money, and power, but also draws the government’s eye. Even as Born to Kill reaches its height, it is marked for destruction. This story is told from the perspective of Tinh Ngo, a young gang member who eventually grows disenchanted with murder and death. When he decides to inform on his brothers to the police, he enters a shadow world far more dangerous than any gangland.
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Born to Kill
The Rise and Fall of America's Bloodiest Asian Gang
By T. J. English
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1995 T. J. English
All rights reserved.
The group of five young males stood in the dingy second-floor hallway of an old industrial building, banging on a door.
"Who's there?" asked a middle-aged woman on the other side.
"It's me, Tommy. Tommy Vu," answered one of them. Behind him, the others waited anxiously, puffing on cigarettes, staring at the floor.
The woman looked through a peephole, then slid back the latch on the door's cast-iron, dead-bolt lock. When she opened the door, a pale golden light from the hallway streamed into the front room of her small, unadorned massage parlor.
Tommy Vu entered, followed by the other youths. All were in their late teens or early twenties. Dressed mostly in black, with assorted punk hairstyles and glaring tattoos, they swaggered and blew streams of cigarette smoke in the air, exhibiting the general demeanor of bad boys on the prowl. Normally, the woman—an experienced madam—would have been worried at opening the door to a handful of such raffish youths. It was one o'clock in the morning, and it wouldn't have been the first time her establishment—located at 59 Chrystie Street on the outskirts of Chinatown—was robbed by gangsters. But the woman recognized Tommy. Many times he had come to her massage parlor as a customer and enjoyed the ministrations of her stable of young females.
Seated around the room on an upholstered sofa and matching chair, a half dozen smooth-skinned Korean and Malaysian ladies looked expectantly toward the young men. A few of the women straightened their tight-fitting dresses and sought to catch the boys' attention with shy smiles and coquettish glances. Tommy and his companions seemed preoccupied, and they avoided eye contact.
A security person stepped forward—a Chinese male in his thirties. "Hey, these guys look kind of young." Turning to Tommy, he asked, "You got some ID?"
Tommy sniffled. "Yeah. This my ID." He pulled a 9mm from inside his jacket and stuck it in the guy's face.
With that, all hell broke loose.
"Get down! Everybody! On the floor!" shouted Blackeyes, the tallest of the group, immediately assuming the role of leader.
"Cooperate!" commanded Kenny Vu, Tommy Vu's brother. "Cooperate or we will kill you." All five of the young hoodlums waved handguns in the air.
The girls immediately dropped to the floor. The security guy also lay flat on his belly. Blackeyes instructed Tommy Vu, Kenny Vu, and a member of the crew named Andy to check the back rooms. Then he turned to Tinh Ngo, who seemed to be almost cowering in the background. "Timmy, you check basement. See who down there," he ordered.
Holding a .22-caliber pistol, his face moist with perspiration, Tinh didn't even try to hide his nervousness. This was his first armed robbery, and as the others began rounding up the employees and customers, he froze in his tracks.
"Go!" barked Blackeyes.
Tinh headed out the front door and down the hallway to the rear of the building. He descended a set of steep, rickety stairs, not knowing what to expect, his gun pointed straight ahead.
He had already convinced himself that if the occasion arose, he would try not to shoot anybody. Tinh hadn't had much experience with guns. In recent months, he had carried a weapon during numerous muggings of people in subway stations, but mostly just for show. Often the gun wasn't even loaded. In his apartment, he would stand in front of a mirror, whip out a gun, and pull the trigger, just like in the old movie Westerns. But he had never actually fired a loaded weapon, much less into the body of a living human being.
He was told not to worry. Blackeyes and the others had robbed many massage parlors before. "We just go in, take the money, say bye-bye," Blackeyes explained.
Robbing a massage parlor wasn't like robbing a legitimate establishment. Thinly veiled houses of prostitution, the parlors were big juicy chickens just waiting to be plucked. There was always plenty of loose cash on the premises. And since it was an illegal business, the owners weren't likely to call the police and file a report. About the only thing you needed to worry about was the possibility that the parlor was under the protection of a rival gang, in which case there were likely to be armed security guys hidden somewhere on the premises.
Tinh crept slowly down the dank basement hallway. From somewhere, he could hear the sound of a television playing a Chinese-language program. He came to an open doorway and peered inside. A man stood facing the TV. At roughly six feet tall, he looked like a giant to Tinh, who was short and small-boned and had a blank, wide-eyed face that made him look about fourteen, though he was actually three years older than that.
Sensing trouble, the man's head turned; his and Tinh's eyes met.
Without hesitation, Tinh ran, darting down the hallway, up the stairs, and back into the massage parlor. "Blackeyes," he gasped, still winded from the run, "somebody down there. Big Chinese guy."
"Yeah?" said Blackeyes. "Okay, I take care of it. You help the others."
Tommy, Kenny, and Andy had already gathered the employees and patrons in the front room. With Tinh's assistance, they began taking the girls one by one to the small massage rooms that lined a back hallway, forcing them to produce cash, jewelry, and other hidden valuables. Tinh noticed his companions were waving their guns around, cursing and treating the girls roughly.
"Move, bitch!" Tinh shouted, imitating the others. "Give us the money!" He saw the fear in the girls' faces and felt the pure adrenaline rush of doing something dangerous, something he knew was wrong. It reminded him of the terror that had been wrought by robbers and rapists on the refugee boats during his long, horrific voyage out of Vietnam. Tinh's heart beat fast and the hair on the back of his neck tingled. For a change, he knew what it felt like to be the one instilling fear rather than recoiling in its wake.
Blackeyes brought the Chinese guy up from the basement and made him lie down with the others. The money and jewelry had been dumped on a coffee table in the front room. Kenny Vu stashed the loot into a pillow case and shouted, "Let's go!"
Abruptly, Tommy Vu ripped the telephone off the wall; chips of paint and plaster rained down on the terrified employees spread out on the floor.
The boys scurried down the stairs and out into the night, where a car and driver were waiting—not a getaway car or even a driver they knew. These young gangsters had merely called a car service. The driver, an oblivious Hispanic male, had driven them to the massage parlor and waited, just like they requested.
Blackeyes directed the driver to a hotel far in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, where the boys checked into a room and immediately dumped the loot out on a bed. There wasn't much jewelry, but they counted more cash than they expected, approximately $30,000, mostly in small bills. "Just think," Blackeyes remarked, "I work five years and couldn't even save five hundred dollars. Here only fifteen minutes we make thirty thousand."
The others smiled knowingly.
To Tinh, the robbery seemed so incredibly easy. If he hadn't known better, he might have thought everyone was in on it—the madam, the girls, everyone. It was almost as if it were a preset scheme with rules that had been agreed on beforehand. Later, the others explained it to Tinh. "That's just Chinatown," said Kenny. Robberies happened all the time; store owners and businesspeople knew the routine.
As a newcomer to the underworld, there was a lot Tinh didn't know. He often relied on Kenny, Blackeyes, and the others to fill him in, not just about life as a gangster, but about life in general in New York City.
It was late May 1989, and the others had been committing crimes for months. Most of the time, Blackeyes would choose the target. Sometimes Kenny, Tommy, or a handful of others would venture out on their own, but only after clearing things with their bosses.
Tinh was only vaguely aware of the hierarchy. He knew there was a collection of slightly older gangsters who called the shots for a vast coterie of young Vietnamese males spread throughout much of the city. He was told this gang of criminals called themselves Born to Kill, or BTK for short, and they were fast becoming one of the most feared gangs in the city's Asian community. Some of the gang's members had criminal experience, but many did not. Like Tinh, they were expected to watch and learn as they went along.
In the days following the massage-parlor robbery on Chrystie Street, Tinh's companions often poked fun at him. "Timmy, we thought maybe you piss your pants," joked Blackeyes, referring to the fear in Tinh's eyes when he encountered the Chinese security guy in the basement. Really, though, they were pleased. Tinh had not panicked or done anything stupid, and the robbery had netted a better than average take. As a result, Tinh's stature within the group grew; he could now consider himself one of a legion of young gangsters who committed crimes under the BTK banner. Most likely, he would be invited along on future undertakings.
They would not all be so easy, he was warned. Ripping off massage parlors was one thing, but robbing jewelry stores, restaurants, and people's homes often brought unexpected results. "Sometimes things go bad," said Kenny Vu. "Sometimes, people—they get shot."
The prospect of danger was both frightening and exciting to Tinh. With his small, delicate frame, no one had ever mistaken Tinh for a tough guy. Like most refugees, he had learned to communicate mostly through his eyes, doelike brown orbs that opened wide with fear, wonder, and amazement. Even to the other gang members, most of whom were barely out of adolescence, Tinh seemed innocent and naive. But underneath this facade of unformed virginal acquiescence, Tinh Ngo possessed the soul of a survivor. Already, as a child of war and an exile, he had weathered more than his fill of terror and trauma—an inheritance he shared in common with Blackeyes, Tommy Vu, and all the rest.
In fact, given all that he and his companions had endured, Tinh couldn't help but feel that his arrival as a budding member of the Born to Kill gang was a product of fate. What else could it be but the natural consequence of a grand, cataclysmic journey. A journey that began long ago, before the camps, before the refugee boats, in the bombed-out rice paddies and bamboo groves of his home country of Vietnam.
In 1972, the year Tinh Ngo left his mother's womb, the war in Indochina had reached its most crucial phase. After eight years of unremitting horror, North Vietnamese and U.S. negotiators had finally been forced to the bargaining table. President Richard M. Nixon had reduced the number of soldiers in Vietnam, but he had also increased the frequency of bombing raids, especially in the North. Around Hanoi and Haiphong, napalm rained down from the heavens, tracers lit up the night sky, and the rumble of approaching B-52s was more common than the rooster's call at dawn.
Tinh was born in the South, in the province of Hau Giang, on April 7. The tenth of eleven children, he was fortunate to have been born too late to have any firsthand experience of the war that raged around him. Others in his village were not so lucky. At the time of Tinh's birth, Communist forces from the North had made great inroads into the Mekong Delta, the bountiful agricultural region that encompassed much of Hau Giang. On the outskirts of Can Tho, where Tinh's family lived, soldiers from the North patrolled dusty streets with the arrogance of a conquering army, which they were soon to become.
Tinh's parents were Chinese-born merchants who owned a small pharmacy, which put them in a better financial position than many in Hau Giang. Mostly, the province was inhabited by rural peasants whose dependence on the land for their livelihood meant they would pay the highest price of all. From 1962 to 1970, U.S. forces periodically strafed the delta with Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant known to be injurious to humans. By the time of the American evacuation of Saigon and the official end to the war in April 1975, much of the Mekong Delta had been blasted and burned beyond recognition.
As a young boy growing up in South Vietnam in the late 1970s, Tinh was cheerfully oblivious to the war's legacy of violence and devastation. At the time, it seemed perfectly normal to swim in huge bomb craters filled with rainwater. There was nothing odd to Tinh about seeing the carcasses of charred U.S. helicopters and trucks dotting the landscape, or sandbags piled high along the roads. These were the everyday sights of postwar Vietnam, the only world young Tinh knew.
For his parents, however, the turmoil and uncertainty of life under the country's new regime made it seem as if the war had never ended. Drunk with victory, the government had proclaimed Vietnam "the outpost of socialism in Southeast Asia" and rigidly aligned itself with the Soviet Union. American aid, which had artificially bolstered the South Vietnamese economy since the early 1950s, ceased overnight. Inflation skyrocketed, and stores were bereft of basic consumer items. Rice, once the most plentiful commodity in all of Vietnam, was now rationed monthly at state-run rice shops.
Along with the collapse of the country's economy, Vietnam could not escape the continuing ravages of war. In 1978, in reaction to the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam invaded neighboring Cambodia. In response, China invaded Vietnam from the North. For a time, the country had two wars raging at once, with thousands of young males being conscripted into the military, where they were slaughtered at a terrifying rate.
By 1983, Tinh Ngo's parents surveyed the situation in their homeland and reached an indisputable conclusion: Vietnam was no place to raise a child. They had a family friend who had made his way to California and sent back photographs, glorious full-color snapshots of enormous homes and golden landscapes. If they could get Tinh to a refugee camp in a border country, there was a reasonable chance he would be sponsored by a resettlement agency and sent to the States, where he too might experience the magnificence of American prosperity.
Even with the country's seemingly intractable problems, the decision to cast off their child was a torturous one for Tinh's parents. The Confucian ethic and Vietnamese tradition say that offspring must look after parents when they grow old, and the only real social security that anyone had in Vietnam was the family. But Tinh's parents were both in their sixties. Realistically, they knew there was no future for them in Vietnam—nor would there be for their son if he remained.
On the drive to the refugee boats in Cau Mau, eleven-year-old Tinh cried and cried. As a young schoolboy living through the prime of his childhood, Tinh could not understand the concerns that led his parents to conclude he would be better off someplace else. There had always been rice on the table, a bamboo bed to sleep on, and clothing passed down from one sibling to the next. What could be the problem? he asked. His parent's response that there was no future in Vietnam had not satisfied young Tinh, and he felt cruelly abandoned.
At Cau Mau, on the southern peninsula of the delta, the banks of the Ganh Hao River were packed with refugees. In recent years, Cau Mau had become the favored embarkation point for ethnic Chinese, a minority whom the Vietnamese government had never trusted, fearing they might become a fifth column for Beijing. Many Viet-Ching had been expelled in the late 1970s as "boat people" and perished at sea. Now they paid gold to underworld figures to help them flee by arranging illegal shipments of human cargo.
Tinh's parents had made arrangements for him to travel with his oldest sister's husband, whom Tinh knew as Kha Manh. Kha Manh had just spent eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp for the sole offense of having served as an interpreter for the American military during the war. He was thirty-eight years old, spoke good English, and it was believed he would be a wise, able-bodied protector for his young nephew.
As Tinh and Kha Manh prepared to embark, the Ngo family was startled to hear that young Tinh, in fact, would be traveling separately from his brother-in-law. Apparently, the plans had been altered at the last minute. Now, two small vessels, each packed with some thirty people, were to follow a large mother ship through the delta and out to sea. Tinh would be on one vessel, Kha Manh on the other. Both ships were destined for Malaysia, where the castaways planned to throw themselves on the mercy of the refugee camps.
As a surly navigator hollered instructions and rounded up the refugees, Tinh's mother wept and embraced her son. "My child," she explained, "I know you do not understand. But someday you will. And you will realize that what we have done is for the best."
Excerpted from Born to Kill by T. J. English. Copyright © 1995 T. J. English. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“A great read; an exciting, frightening account of organized crime today. …This book is must reading for anyone with an interest in the enduring effects of the Vietnam War, the subject of crime in our streets, and the issue of personal responsibility in a harsh, chaotic world.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you like True Crime and I mean True crime than this is a must read. From beginning to end Tj English takes you not only on a tour of New York City and beyond but from beginninbg to end it non-stop action.