It was a scorching hot afternoon here in California when I picked up my cellphone and dialed the unfamiliar number. On the other end, a gruff but friendly voice answered, his Hmong accent thick but still had a touch of central-California mixed in, a throw-back to the state where he’d grown up. He’d been expecting my call, and though this was the first time we’d ever talked, he was warm and easily opened up. Under any other circumstances, this would have been a normal conversation, reliving experiences of his childhood past and detailing for me the journey of his life, but this was no ordinary man. On the other end of the phone was none other than one of the founding members of Menace Of Destruction (MOD).
John (not his real name) is a retired OG (original gangster) of the most fearsome and infamous Hmong gang to have ever existed in the United States. Still to this day, they are the only officially recognized Hmong gang by the US government.
I’d contacted him because as a historian and a writer, I wanted to know his story and the reasons why MOD came to be. Regardless of how uncomfortable it might make the Hmong Community, Hmong gangs and the MOD were a part of our American story and thus, a part of us. It is important to understand how and why they came to be and to understand the world in which young Hmong boys banded together if we are to better understand our community now.
I’d read the Wikipedia page and watched the Gangland episode on the MOD, but nothing I found on the internet would come close to the truths he shared about the rise of Hmong gangs in California and of his childhood experiences that would shape the foundations of the MOD.
In the late 70’s, his family had been resettled from the Thai refugee camps to Portland, Oregon, along with a handful of other Hmong families. The community was small and close-knit. He recalled the first Hmong New Years celebrations there, how it was potluck style and each family would bring a dish for all to share. This idyllic picture though wasn’t without its trials. Outside of the community, racist attacks — whether verbal or physical — were fairly regular from both their white and black neighbors; but it was the story of two missing Hmong children that would rock the Portland Hmong Community on its axis and change the path of John’s life for good.
In September of 1981, two Hmong kids went missing from the parking lot of a picnic area at the Columbia River. They were later found in the river bed, drowned. This is the official story in the newspapers, however the real story was not so straightforward.
Story of missing children from The Oregonian, September 1981. During that time, all Hmong were referred to as “Laotian refugees.”
In the Hmong community, the story was that the kids had been kidnapped and thrown into the river. Their bodies had been discovered tied together. The speculation among the Hmong was that this was a hate crime committed by the white men who had also been at the river that day. However, the official report would not reflect this and the coroner had not proceeded with an autopsy. Instead, he had proclaimed it an accidental drowning and closed the case. For the main American populace, life moved on; but within the Hmong community, this became the embodiment of every family’s fear.
And for John, who was just a bit younger than the boy who’d drowned, it was the first loss of childhood innocence and the first glimpse at just how dark the world could be.
Racial tension and aggression had become customary to daily life for the Hmong as soon as they set foot on American soil, however this case brought home a nightmare every Hmong parent feared. In the next few years, there would be a mass exodus of Hmong families from Portland, migrating across the US to places where there would be larger populations of Hmong people in hopes that there would be greater safety in numbers. John’s family found their way to Fresno, California, where they settled into Summerset Village Apartments. This would later become the birthplace for the MOD.
The day after our call, I drove to Fresno, finding my way to his old neighborhood. I doubt he’d recognize it now. Fancy new multi-story apartment buildings surrounded the block. The houses on the other side of the street were small but tidy with neat green lawns and older model cars in the driveways. Summerset Village Apartments was still there, and it was still distinctly Southeast Asian with its multitude of front yard herb gardens and tall canna lilies guarding the doorways. The large complex of single story apartments was crowded with cars; and on this particular day, young children were weaving in and out, chasing a football. I could smell the smoke from someone’s BBQ grill as the sun began to sink behind the buildings. Though rundown, it was hard to tell that this had ever been a central location for gang activity.
Photo of Summerset Village Apartments with its distinctly Southeast Asian front yard gardens.
For better or worse, Fresno was now home for John and his family. What they’d left behind John would soon learn was mild compared to what he’d find in the Central Valley. In Portland, majority of the racism came from white and black people, but California was a melting pot and a beacon for immigrants. Along with black and white people, there were now also Mexican and Lao.
John recalls one of his earliest memories of Fresno. He was ten. He and his uncle were at the Hmong volleyball tournament held every year at Kearny Park. “These four Lao guys came into the park and they started staring really hard at one of the Hmong players,” John tells me. “Then one of the Lao guys finishes his beer and cracked the bottle over the Hmong guy’s head. They started laughing and nobody did anything to help. All the Hmong just stood around and stared.”
It wasn’t until the victim’s brother showed up and chased the Lao guys that other people jumped in to help. A huge fight broke out, with the Hmong pummeling the Lao men, but it was within the stillness in between, when everyone stood around and watched as the victim bled that sealed a hardness into John. In his heart, he vowed, “Some day when I’m older, I’m not going to let this happen.”
Back then, when resettlement was still fresh in the US, many of the attitudes of the old world were carried into the new. In Laos, the Hmong were seen as scum. An open genocide was currently raging against them, with an order to hunt down and kill what the Laotian government considered to be traitors. An air of superiority took hold amongst the Lao immigrants over the Hmong refugees. At the time, Summerset Village was a mix of both Lao and Hmong families and there was already the presence of some Lao gangs with some Hmong members. Constantly, John would see the Hmong boys be treated as lackeys and errand boys, bossed around by the Lao gang leaders.
“‘Go get me a beer. Go get me this or that,’ the Lao would say and the Hmong boys would just go fetch for them. It made me mad to see that,” he says, the old anger and disgust tinging his voice.
By the seventh grade, John was old enough to be responsible for his younger siblings, walking them to and from school to keep them safe, and ensuring that they stayed out of trouble. Even with the responsibility of caring for his siblings, he was still able to maintain good grades.
“Mostly A’s,” he tells me with a touch of pride at the memory. “Because I was so good, my parents bought me a bike. It was a GT Freestyle. It cost $600.”
One day, he and his three cousins were riding around and stopped at Manchester Mall to rest. Three black men surrounded the boys. One of the men grabbed John’s handlebars and said, “This is my bike. You stole it.”
Being twelve, John tried arguing back. “No, it’s not yours. My parents bought me this bike.”
Then out of nowhere, the man on the left swings and sucker punches John. Even as blood poured from his face, John was not willing to lose his bike. He and his cousins jump into the fray and fight the much older and larger men, eventually getting to the point where they’re able to jump on their bikes and peddle away.
“Your nose is crooked,” said one of his cousins, “I think it’s broken.”
“I hadn’t realized my nose was broken until then,” John tells me. “And when I got home, my older brother saw me and asked what happened.”
That night, some older Hmong boys who’d heard about the incident would cruise Blackstone Avenue, the major thoroughfare of Fresno, looking for any group of three black men to exact street vengeance. It made the local news that Asian men were randomly beating up black men, but in truth, the fury was a long time coming. “It wasn’t right,” John says to me, “but there was a lot of anger.”
They were tired of being bullied, he says, telling me of how a group of black teens had broken a twelve-year-old relative’s arm in school and about other incidences of daily bullying.
“The teachers never believed us. If we fought back and defended ourselves, the white or the black kid would be let off the hook and we would be in trouble. We were getting bullied and beaten up so much that we’d wear belts every day. Because we were smaller than them, we needed to use the belts to protect ourselves. I never wanted to be a gangster but I had to. There was no other way.”
When he was thirteen, he and his cousins were walking to the local convenience store to play video games.
“I was eating an apple and I had a small foldable pocket knife on me. You know, the kind you use to peel fruit with. I had put the knife in my pocket. When we were walking home, these three white men started following us. They were throwing rocks at us and calling us names and taunting us.
“We were short, only as tall as the white men’s chest, but they surrounded us. At that point, I thought fuck it and I said to my cousins in Hmong, ‘If I fight, will you help me?’
“And my cousins said yes and we fought them. The man I was fighting had a necklace with a 30/30 bullet shell on it and he punched my head with it. It was long and sharp and sunk into my skull. Then he pulled out a switchblade and I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’
Photo of 30/30 style bullets.
“I’d forgotten I had the fruit knife in my pocket, but as he was fighting me, I felt it against my body and I reached for it. I stabbed him seven or eight times in the stomach and then seven or eight times in the back.
“We were next to their house and their white family started chasing us. We were surrounded by angry white people. If the cops hadn’t shown up when they did and broke it up, I think I’d be dead. I got arrested. The white guy got off because he was the ‘victim’.
“The Public Defender kept pushing me to accept a plea deal, even though it was self defense and both knives were found. They wanted me to go to jail and pay all of the guy’s medical bills.
“I don’t know what made me do it, but when the judge called me up, I said I wanted a new lawyer because this one wasn’t doing his job. The judge assigned me a new Public Defender who also just wanted me to take the plea deal. They were not interested in defending me. They just wanted to process me.
“I asked for another lawyer and finally I got one who was not like the other two. He was older and not American. He had an European accent. He said I had a very good chance of winning because I was just thirteen and the man was twenty-one. The man is the adult here and bears the responsibility of knowing right from wrong. Also, he was the one who started the fight. This lawyer got me off. Clean record.”
Tired of the constant attacks, it wouldn’t be long after this that MOD would come together. Other smaller gangs already existed. There were the Laotian gangs like Si Kan Bow (SKB) and the Hmong gangs like Cool Lover Boys (CLB).
“Cool Lover Boys were more about chasing the girls though,” John says. “It was Peace MOD that was the first legit Hmong gang.”
When Peace MOD broke apart, MOD took over the “MOD” in the name, and retitled themselves Masters Of Destruction, which would later become Menace Of Destruction. Within Summerset Village, a group of 29 boys would start the most feared Asian street gang in California. Their recruitment would spread from Merced to Sacramento to San Diego. A strict set of rules would be outlined, with harsh punishments dealt to any member who broke them:
- Protect and help each other and other Hmong civilians.
- Don’t do drugs.
- No robbing the elderly or helpless.
- No raping or molesting.
- No flirting with or cheating with your brother’s wife/girlfriend.
Respect and family was above all else.
“If they broke the rules, they would be punished,” John says. “They would be put in the middle of four or five guys and for a full minute, they would be beat up. We would go hard, make sure they felt it. They would be near death.”
There were constant enemies though. The larger the gang became, the more enemies they’d have to fight. Eventually, they successfully drove out the Lao gangs from Summerset Village and then out of Fresno, but there was one particular event that fueled MOD to truly expand their territory — the death of Fuji Moua.
Unfortunately, it would be an attack from another Hmong gang, the Fang Boys. Fuji would be shot down at the Summerset Village Apartments.
“I still think about it today. I still think what if I had asked him to stay at my place a little longer, maybe he’d still be alive,” John says. “The worst part is he was killed by his own cousin. His mom was a Fang.”
Fuji had been John’s best friend. They’d grown up together, but the Fang Boys were an enemy of MOD and Fuji was the first ever Hmong gang member to be killed in Fresno. The shooting not only tore up the Fang/Moua family, it was also the gas thrown on MOD’s fire, pushing them to reinforce their recruitment efforts and grow their gang.
In 1992, MOD also suffered another great loss. Three of their members were killed in the same month.
“I had to raise money to help with their funerals. I pulled money from my own savings. I always had a day job. I always worked. I had to go around to the other members and ask for donations also.”
These three deaths were also a turning point for MOD, pushing their west coast claim to expand all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“I never wanted to be a gangster,” John says again, “but I don’t regret it. We were a family. They were some of the hardest times in my life, but also some of the best.”
I ask him what he thinks separates MOD from other gangs, and he’s quiet for a moment before saying, “We still had a way of love and of caring for one another. It was never about the money. Never about fame. Never about drugs. Or women. It was always about protecting family.”
I asked him what his parents thought about him being a gangster. “Oh, they hated it at first,” he says, “but then they came around. They saw that we weren’t just making trouble. When black people would bully the elders, or rob the elders, or break into their cars, they’d call us and we’d show up with knives and guns and protect them. That changed their minds a lot about us.”
I asked what he thinks happened between when MOD first started to how it turned into violence against their own Hmong people. He explained that things started shifting in the early 90’s. Whether it was fights over girls or retaliation from other gangs or ex-members or from homies who didn’t back you up, the fights started to become Hmong on Hmong. Then there was competition as well, constantly other gangs trying to be on top. Drugs began to be trafficked for cash for a fast come up. He says that selling drugs was never part of MOD, but that as they grew, others who sold drugs would throw around the MOD name for protection.
“Do you think the Hmong gang era is over? We barely hear about them any more,” I say to him.
“Yeah,” he replies. “I don’t think they’ll really be around in the next ten years. Times are different. They’re not needed so much any more. We did all the hard fighting so they don’t have to fight now.”
I ask him if he had anything he wanted to say to the young gangsters still out there now. He takes a pause before saying, “I want them to remember their roots and their people. Uphold traditions and be there for your community. It’s time to come together and stop hurting each other. We had to fight back in the days because that’s how it was, but it’s not like that any more. Let go of the petty things.”
All of the originals are retired, he tells me. The pillars that held up the core of MOD in its days are now family men with respectable jobs. They own homes and raise their kids quietly. As the Hmong Community collectively pushed to better themselves and remove their families from the ghettos and low-income neighborhoods, so did the MOD. While gang-banging at night, many worked jobs during the day to ensure that their children would not have to follow in their footsteps. I couldn’t help but notice that this was a very Hmong heritage, a sort of parallel to the things our mothers and fathers had done for us as well — fighting a war and dragging us through the jungle to safety so that we wouldn’t have to suffer as they had.
In many ways, the American resettlement system and the racial issues already existing before the Hmong arrived on American shores were to blame for the birth of Hmong gangs. In observing the resettlement practices for the Hmong in other countries like Germany and France, it was clear to see that America had thrown its newest members into the middle of another battle field, pulling the Hmong from the ravages of the Secret War in Laos and thrusting them into the race wars in the concrete jungles of its urban neighborhoods.
It’s been thirty years now since the MOD’s humble beginnings under the burning California sun. Many things have changed. John has since long been retired, quietly bowing out on his fortieth birthday to focus on his children and to give back to the Hmong community. The face of Hmong gangs, just like their founders, had also changed with time too. In California, he tells me, two gangs can’t be in the same place together. It’s an automatic fight. But in Minnesota and other places, nowadays, as long as no one starts trouble and everyone keeps to themselves, there’s a sort of coexistence truce between groups.
There were many similarities to his story compared to other resettlement stories I’d been told. It’d been a fate born of necessity, a product of his environment where toughness was needed to survive the racial brutalities of the streets of America in the eighties and nineties. It was the same fire that I’d often felt myself in my search for justice, in my struggle to rise against my own oppressors. Our paths may have led us down very different roads because of our different opportunities and happenstances, but that will to survive was the same.
Perhaps had there been more support, understanding, and advocacy for the first Hmong refugees, Hmong gangs would have never came to be, but that was not the world we lived in. The 80’s were more than just Don Johnson, big hair, and shoulder pads. It was also a time of great disparities and open racism. For newcomers like the Hmong, we survived however we could; and for some, that road was more dangerous than for others.
At the end of our conversation, I asked him if he had any words for the Hmong community. “Yes,” he says. “Just that it’s time to come together, to be one people again.”
Original Source: This article is from the website “Medium”. You can check out this article and more like it on the link below.
Link to Original Article: https://medium.com/@yseavue/inside-the-rise-of-the-hmong-gang-menace-of-destruction-mod-d057a4b31c0a