Most gangster movies suggest a moral imperative:  no one who receives ill-gotten gains will prosper.  Witness Bob Hoskins’ decline in The Long Good Friday:  despite his high-rolling lifestyle (yacht! champagne! a young Helen Mirren!), his and his compatriots’ lives seem to be shorter, more nasty and more brutish than most.  But few people watch gangster films for moral instruction (at least, I hope not).  They go to see a pre-Remington Steele Pierce Brosnan.  Wet!  In a Speedo!

My own gang knowledge remains thankfully non-existent.  During the mid-90s, I heard about Vietnamese gangs terrorizing Little Saigons around the nation, but I never suspected Denver had a problem.  Asian gangs were, after all, a California phenomenon.  I remember my parents talking about a brazen robbery during a Catholic Mass:  the gang members made everyone lie on the floor and went through the congregation’s pockets, one by one.  No one was killed, but Vietnamese communities coast-to-coast were on high alert:  these could be your neighbor’s gelled and spiky-headed sons! Not your own, of course.  Never yours.

Before I went to high school, my family faithfully attended Tết (New Year) and Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn) festivals sponsored by the local Buddhist temple.  After dutifully bowing to my parents’ friends and acquaintances — arms crossed, back sore from the repetitive stress injury, I got to mill about with the other bored kids.  The smell of spent firecrackers hung in a colloidal suspension with oil spritzing off the egg roll frying vats.  You could hear dice rattling and cheers of excitement and disappointment as people played bầu cua cá cọp.

There were always handful of white people at these events — befuddled but patient spouses, hip-before-their-time Buddhists — and one tall guy who always stood out.  He wore a polo shirt tucked into his acid-washed jeans with no belt.  Armed with a few halting words of Vietnamese, he circulated, courteous but watchful, like a guard dog looking for scraps.  My sister, who, at the time, went to the University of Colorado–Denver, a hotbed of Vietnamese pow-wows, told me, That’s JamesHe’s a cop.  The liaison for the Vietnamese community — gang patrol.

James was personable, good-looking.  A trustworthy face, as my mother might say.  He would have had a hell of a time going undercover, but engaging the community was the next best thing.  He tempered his easygoing camaraderie with a firm handshake and steely voice, as if suggesting, You know what I am, I know what you are, let’s all play nice.  I always wondered if he was packing.  But it seemed excessive:  Colorado was not California.  No one had inducted me into a gang.

But chalk this up to my lack of gang-desirable qualities.  As I’ve since learned, the Viet Pride Gangsters (VPG, not to be confused with their nemeses, Asian Pride) have operated in Denver since the 90s.  In 2003, they took a major hit when the police arrested 23 gang members (including one white boy).  Ironic:  they call themselves “Viet Pride” but victimize primarily other Vietnamese.  I suppose nothing says pride like burglarizing neighbors, friends, family.  But not your own, of course.  Never yours.