The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000


The gang star

Saroeum Phoung may have been the hardest Cambodian gangster in Revere. Now he's pulling kids out of gang life. And 25 years after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, a culture has the chance to grow again.

by Lisa Birk

REVERE -- On a raw April evening, Saroeum Phoung, wearing chinos, fleece, and a baseball cap, spies a Cambodian teenager slouching against a car on Shirley Avenue. It's hard to tell the kid's age because his face is hard, opaque. He wears a jacket, a T-shirt, and a bandanna around his neck, all one color, signaling membership in a gang. Phoung walks right up to him and looks at the bandanna.

"You wearing a rag now?"

The teenager's face softens. He doesn't blush, but he looks as if he might. Saroeum zips up the jacket and pulls the kid's collar erect, hiding the bandanna.

"That's good," Phoung says, walking away.

The kid unzips his jacket, flattens the collar, rotates the bandanna until the knot rests in the hollow of his throat. Saroeum looks back, raises an eyebrow. The kid grins.

What Phoung did just now is what he does all day, every day. Phoung, 28, is the director of a gang-intervention program called Roca Revere. In this neighborhood, for these teenagers, Phoung acts as a mix of older brother and concerned dad. He'll walk straight up to scary kids and treat them with humanity and humor. He greets everyone with a firm handshake every time they meet, which might be three times in one day.

Revere's gang problems began in the '80s; by the early '90s, says Lieutenant Terence Reardon, a 14-year veteran of the Revere Police Department, gangsters "were doing drive-bys, carrying around the AKs. They were real guys."

Most of the "guys" were, like Phoung, recent Cambodian refugees living on or around Shirley Avenue. They fought white kids, they fought other Cambodian gangsters, they robbed struggling Cambodian families.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of people like Phoung and Reardon, Revere is tamer in 2000. "There's still a lot of heavy artillery out there," says Phoung, "but they're not using it much." The last drive-by was in 1994, and the last gang murder in 1996, four years after Roca rented the storefront on the corner of Shirley and Walnut.

But two weeks ago a Revere kid knifed a Lowell kid to death; they were members of rival Cambodian gangs. So during the time I follow him, Phoung is hypervigilant. In two weeks Roca will host Revere's Cambodian New Year festival. New Year is a major Cambodian holiday, a celebration that draws the entire community. Gangs rub up against each other. Twice now at the Cambodian New Year celebration in Lowell, Rikkie Phom, one of Roca Revere's three adult staffers, has been stabbed with a screwdriver, once in the thigh and once in the knee. Occasionally someone is murdered. This year, rumors are flying of a New Year's rumble.

Phoung's job is to stop this violence, one gangster at a time. Rewards are a long time coming. The kid whose jacket he zipped up does not take off his rag or quit the gang. Not today, anyway. "It takes 'em four years to get into some stuff," he says. "It'll take at least four years to get out of some stuff."

He speaks from experience, and with hard-earned empathy. Like the Cambodian young people he talks to, the gang leaders and the aspiring gangbangers, he's from a refugee family. Like them, his world was blown apart by the Khmer Rouge.

And like them, he knows the appeal of gang life. Before he was the director of Roca, Saroeum Phoung founded a gang. Actually, he founded two.

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Lisa Birk's last article for the Phoenix was on the weird, weird world of home shopping. She can be reached at