The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000


The gang star, continued

by Lisa Birk

Eight friends, all Cambodian refugees from troubled families, followed him. They moved in with Saroeum and his brother in Attleboro. "We drink, we play, we laugh, we fight. We go to the park and barbecue," he says. "We weren't into trouble. We were just like a human family. We were big brothers and younger brothers together."

The "brothers" attended parties in Providence, Rhode Island. So did skinheads, whom Phoung describes as "the KKK of the Asians." Fights broke out. This time he and his friends fought back. Mostly they lost. But it felt good to defend their race.

One night they rumbled with 60 kids. A skinhead yelled, "I'll kill all you gooks."

"We come home. We're drinking. We're bruised," he remembers. Suddenly it dawned on them: why not be a gang? "We listen to music. We were drinking. We come up with a name. Now, after this whole slum of shit I went through, I got this new purpose."

Phoung never does anything halfway. He became an exemplary outlaw. He applied the lessons he'd learned under the Khmer Rouge and the Thai militia: to be numb, to be brutal, and that the lawless make the laws.

"I was a gang star," he says. "Because when a guy would point a gun, I wouldn't run, I'd pull out my knife and walk right up to him."

Phoung would say: "That's not loaded. Now what you going to do?"

The guy would sweat for long seconds before Phoung would say, "I'll let you go. But next time . . . " Phoung pauses for a moment, thinking back. "People were afraid of me because I don't twitch." It was a lesson he'd learned when he was four, watching 15 people buried alive.

For a time, the gang replaced Phoung's family. It provided rules, loyalties, rights, responsibilities. And "the street gives [us] a place to express the feelings of a lot of frustration, angers, and confusion. And fear. A lot of fear. And hey, we can walk down the street now."

When Phoung works with young people, he remembers the attraction of the gang: camaraderie, catharsis, protection, and structure. He remembers that a kid newly out of a gang is a kid who's just left his second family.

He also remembers the danger. "We would rumble with [the skinheads] all the time. First it was fist and fist, then it was ax. Machete. Bats. We get more and more vicious," he says. "I went all out. Life doesn't really matter to me. I went all out."

Still, Phoung held to certain principles. He had founded the gang for race protection, and had expressly forbidden drugs. But in 1989, some "brothers" became users. Disgusted, Phoung moved back to East Boston to go straight.

Not long after, Phoung was playing hoop in Revere. A kid walked up, "Are you Tommy?" Saroeum's nickname was Tommy -- short for tomahawk, because holstered under his arm he carried an ax. "Can I be in your gang?"

So he founded a second branch of the gang.

IN 1989, when Phoung began hanging out in Revere, it was rife with gangs. "Home invasions" were common. Cambodians distrusted banks. They bought jewelry instead, which made them fat targets for robberies. For the next few years, stabbings, shootings, murders, and drive-bys were endemic. In 1992, there were three drive-bys in three days. Phoung, according to reliable sources, was not involved in the worst of the violence, but he was around it.

Besides, he had his own specialty: the chop-by. Ever the teacher, Phoung mentored his gangsters. He taught them to holster knives, pile into a van, drive over to a rival gang's turf, jump out with knives raised, and chop. No one died, but gashes in the legs, arms, and chest were common. In no time at all, his gang captured the most prestigious corner at the top of the hill, the corner of Shirley and Walnut Avenues, where Roca Revere is now.

And that's when Molly Baldwin, Roca's executive director, turned up. Baldwin does not look like a do-gooder. Her hair is cut in a modified '70s shag that sticks close to her head. Her shirt is rarely tucked in. But she is effective: she founded Roca Chelsea in 1988 with a grant of $134,000 and four staffers to help her; four years later, after Revere's rash of drive-bys, the mayor called Molly and begged her to start a second Roca in Revere. Within days she had. Today, Roca Chelsea and Roca Revere combined have a budget of $2.7 million and employ 39 full-time adults and 60 young people.

By the time the mayor called, Baldwin had had a head start. She knew whom to recruit: Saroeum Phoung. Two years earlier, she had been to the Revere basketball court where Phoung played. She introduced herself. Right away, she could tell Phoung was a leader.

Phoung was not impressed.

"I didn't like her," he says. "I didn't like her a lot."

He tried ignoring her. Saroeum would be at a party, see Molly coming, and hide. She'd bang on the door and ask to be let in the house, ask why he hadn't invited her to the party.

"I don't know what to do with a woman who gets in your face," Phoung says. He let her in.

"We have an up-and-down relationship," he recalls. "We constantly battle each other. I'd say, 'You don't understand my culture.' She'd say, 'You can shove your culture up your Asian ass.' I really cussed her."

"The thing that's very profound," says Phoung, "is that she's persistent, not just on the street. She knows my teachers. She'd say, 'I saw your teacher and she says you're very smart, but you're having a hard time."

"I'd say, 'Who's my teacher?' She'd mention names." When Phoung finally graduated from high school, two years late, his parents didn't attend his graduation. Baldwin did.

The turning point came the first year, when they were walking on Revere Beach. "Do you want to live, or do you want to die?" she asked. The question stunned him into tears.

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next

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