The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000


The gang star, continued

by Lisa Birk

Gangsters aren't born. Gangsters are made.

That's part of Roca's philosophy, and Phoung's. Staffer Rikkie Phom explains it like this: a gang member is a kid bereft of adult support, who then learns to define himself as being outside the community. Which is exactly how Phoung looks back on his gangster life -- as a life without adults in charge. "There was no guidance, no support," he says. "It was just like Lord of the Flies. They're all stuck on an island and start killing each other."

In other words, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village turning away to raise a gangster.

A photo taken of Saroeum Phoung in the early '90s shows the consummate outsider, the kid outside the village: a slit-eyed man you wouldn't want to meet on a lit boulevard.

This probably isn't what his family imagined when he was born in 1972. Saroeum was the third of five boys in a middle-class family, a smart kid and a natural leader. If Cambodia had escaped civil war, he might have grown up to occupy a position of respect and learning: he might have been a teacher, perhaps, or a monk.

Those possibilities ended when Saroeum was three, on April 17, 1975 -- New Year's Day -- when the Khmer Rouge captured Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. They declared it year zero, symbolically wiping out history. Then they wiped out culture. Within 24 hours they forced all one million of the city's inhabitants to abandon the city for communal farms. Every monk, every teacher, everyone who looked intellectual -- if he were pale-skinned, if he wore glasses, if his hands were soft, if he could read and write -- was a candidate for execution. This was not Nazi Germany. Executions were done by hammer, hoe, plastic bag. By 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for 1.5 million deaths -- roughly one-seventh of the population -- according to Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie.

Life under the Khmer Rouge was horrific. Once, Phoung recalls, his father and a friend took him into the jungle to forage for food. The friend climbed a coconut tree and scrambled down. "Hide!" he said. "Khmer Rouge."

"All of us hide together," says Phoung. "We see 15 tied together -- wives, children, sisters -- everybody skinny. They stop not so far from us, maybe 30, 40 feet. The [soldiers] beat them with bamboo stick[s]. Then they buried them alive.

"My father hold my mouth. I was kind of numb by then. Killing was normal. Feeling numb was very normal. Your body is all sore. You're so skinny. It's very painful. To add more pain is like you don't give a shit anymore."

Phoung was four years old.

In traditional Cambodia, he says, "elders are the wisdom. They say, 'Go left,' we go left." But under the Khmer Rouge, that basic stability broke down. Elders were sadistic, or -- afraid for their own lives -- silent.

Then the Khmer Rouge accused Saroeum's older brother of swearing at a leader, and they put the Phoungs on trial. The family was sentenced to hang. But a friend with connections intervened, and the Phoungs fled to another village. It would be three more years before they could escape the country.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge fought the invaders, leaving the farms poorly guarded. The Phoungs, and everyone else who could, fled Cambodia. But no one ran; no one had the stamina. The soldiers walked and fired; the Phoungs walked and ducked. When the soldiers sat down and ate, the Phoungs sat down too. Only they didn't eat -- they hadn't eaten in days. Saroeum's worst fear wasn't that he would die, but that he would die hungry.

The family finally crossed the land-mined border into Thailand, where the lawless refugee camps weren't much better. "We always stuck together," says Phoung of his family. "We take care of each other. We say, 'It's your time to rest now. It's my time to go fishing.' "

Five years later, when word came that they would emigrate to America, they thought their troubles were over. In America, Saroeum learned from his teachers in re-education camp, people were very, very polite and clean. Anyone caught littering would be fined and thrown in jail. "America," he thought, "was the goodest of glories."

They arrived in East Boston in 1984, when Saroeum was 12, joining four other Cambodian families in Eastie. They were at the crest of a wave. The peak years for Cambodian emigration, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement spokesman Michael Kharfen, were 1984 and 1985, with 20,000 refugees arriving on the shores of America each year. By the early '90s, 5700 Cambodian refugees would be resettled in the Bay State -- the second-largest concentration in the country.

A decade after America lost the Vietnam War, racism was rampant. Americans -- kids and adults --called Saroeum "gook" and beat him up. His brothers got beaten. So did his father. Under the Khmer Rouge, says Saroeum, "we were not allowed to fight back." That strategy did not serve him well in the States.

Still, the boys went to school. Saroeum maintained a straight-A average. Everybody worked. The younger boys collected cans. Summers, Saroeum moved industrial sewing machines and trees, getting paid under the table. "We fight hard for ourselves," he says. "Our refrigerator is always full with food, with meats, with vegetables. We're working together to support our family." The family pooled their wages in one bank account. After two years, they prepared to buy a house and a car.

But Saroeum's father began drinking and gambling. He gambled the bulk of their money, and then Saroeum's two oldest brothers gambled the rest. "When you got a snake with no head, the tail is weaving," he says. "We [were] just lost."

If a therapist had seen a Cambodian family like the Phoungs, he might have diagnosed them with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- common enough among vets and war refugees. In World War I, they called it shell shock. PTSD -- especially untreated PTSD -- has a way of playing havoc with people's lives.

By 1987, his parents had filed for divorce, and his two older brothers had moved out. Whenever the scrawny 15-year-old came home bruised from a schoolyard beating, his mother berated him with Cambodian proverbs: "If you don't look for trouble, trouble doesn't find you."

Phoung was reeling. He'd lost his culture, his country, and now his family. On top of everything, his mother criticized him for not helping with his younger brothers. "If you don't like to live here," she said, "you can live somewhere else."

So Phoung ran away to his brother's house in Attleboro.

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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