Once here, Southeast Asians developed their own crime problems. Fraud involving welfare, state-paid medical benefits and auto insurance is widespread, along with gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking and thefts of computer microchips. Police say stolen and hijacked goods upon which no duty or tax has been paid repeatedly make their way into groceries and restaurants.
Highly mobile street gangs extort and steal, but their main contribution to criminal techniques appears to be the home invasion, a well-planned, often violent armed robbery at the victim's house.
Less obvious is an undercurrent of political terrorism that has occasionally surfaced against journalists or those perceived to be sympathetic to the Communist regime in Vietnam. In a decade, nine Vietnamese publishers and newsmen have been attacked. Four were killed, including a Garden Grove publisher who died in an arson fire in 1987.
Southeast Asians say crime is a tremendous concern. According to a 1989 Los Angeles Times poll, 41% of 400 Vietnamese surveyed in Orange County said crime and gangs were their top concerns, while 87% thought they were serious problems. Countywide, only 10% of the general population cited crime as the No. 1 concern.
Although Southeast Asians don't necessarily have a higher crime rate than the general population, police across the nation estimate that 60% to 90% of the crimes committed in their communities, including serious offenses, are never reported. Although no accurate statistics are available, authorities say that level is substantially greater than under-reporting for the general public.
Consider the experience of Detective Phil G. Hannum, a Falls Church, Va., police officer who co-founded the International Assn. of Asian Crime Investigators. A few years ago, a Vietnamese merchant tipped him to a daytime home invasion in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Gang members stole gold and cash, then pistol-whipped several family members.
"None of them had called the police," Hannum said, "I did it for them."
The family told him that it was their third home invasion. None of the previous attacks had been reported.
Police and Southeast Asian social workers say that in many cases, the lack of cooperation results from ignorance about American police, cultural differences and a value system that conflicts with the American criminal justice system.
The Vietnamese even have a saying, \o7 "Vo Phuc Dao Tung Dinh\f7 ." Literally translated, it means, "No happiness in going to court."
In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the determination of guilt or innocence rests with a judge or community leader, not a jury. Bail is either unheard of or almost never granted. It is common practice for citizens to give information about a crime to police, who then present it in court.
Culturally, historians say, Southeast Asians are influenced by philosophies and religious teachings that stress harmony and the peaceful settlement of disputes. As a result, they say, Southeast Asians sometimes shy away from direct confrontations and try to handle problems themselves to avoid any embarrassment or "loss of face" to them or their families.
"They think, 'If I have a problem with a gang member, I should talk to my brothers and relatives for advice and protection, or ask my friends for help to guard the business,' " said Nhu Hao Duong, a refugee coordinator for the Orange County Social Services Agency. "Only in extreme cases do they go to the police."
But even if they understand the American system and can put aside their values, language barriers often preclude any effective cooperation with law enforcement.
"There are constant breakdowns in communication," said Detective Norm Sorenson, the only Long Beach investigator who specializes in the city's Cambodian community. "They are ashamed because they can't speak the language and they get flustered when talking to your average blue-suiter. Sometimes I think they fear the bad guys less than calling the police."
Southeast Asians also have a hard time understanding probation or bail, a situation exploited by suspects and gang members. Criminals spread rumors in the community that they have bribed authorities to get out of jail, making witnesses and victims feel particularly vulnerable, police say.
"I'm afraid to follow gang members out and take down license numbers," said the manager of a Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove. "If I do, they shoot, they throw rocks, they turn over tables. I call the police, I get more damage and nothing happens. I can't blame police. They just are not in here."
The proprietor, who requested anonymity, pointed out three bullet holes in the back wall of the restaurant and scores of unpaid dinner receipts from gang members pinned to a display case and the wall of his office.
Two people have been shot in the parking lot outside his cafe during the last three years. He says his customers and waiters are now protected by bullet-proof windows and handguns placed under countertops.