The Night It All Changed

I’ve talked in the past about being a promoter in Dallas in the late 90s and early 00s. It was a pretty incredible time and I’ll cherish all of those memories because they made me who I am today. One of the defining times of my life was operating our warehouse space, Decibel, with my friends. However, one gang-related incident on Christmas 1999 forever marred an otherwise amazing experience…

Decibel used to be a trucking warehouse in a crime-ridden, post-apocalyptic section of downtown Dallas at the corner of Corinth and Cockrell Avenue. It wasn’t really a place you walked around by yourself at night and if you did, you hoped you didn’t run into anyone else. The entire block was owned by a complete dickhead with a myriad of businesses including remodeling supply warehouses, restaurants, and truck repair depots. He used the building for parade float storage during the holidays, but most of the year it sat empty. When, my partner, James and I, first toured the building there were gigantic paper mache heads sitting on the floor waiting to be attached to floats for some random parade in God-knows-where. After walking the space, we instantly saw its potential, and signed a lease. About 48 hours later we started DIYing a new party space.

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In a few months we had the best spot in town. We could cram a 1000+ people in on a Saturday night with room to spare. We routinely booked the biggest DJs, other promoters hated us (the mark of real success!), and had enough money to buy some questionable Chinese food at ‘Chicken n Things’ across the street. We could also sock away a little cash for improvements, like larger AC units and plumbing in the women’s bathroom that could withstand the incredible amount of abuse it was put under every weekend. Life was good. We felt like we were getting “there,” but we could do better…

We were always looking for a way to supplement our income during off-nights, so we partnered with a promoter that specialized in a specific segment of the market. Tony and his guys were Vietnamese club promoters who catered to the Asian club-goer community exclusively. In those days (and maybe now, I don’t know) the Asian population partied together. They promoted their shows in their own communities, they had their own DJs, and they had their own circuit of nightclubs. They were, generally, welcoming of others if not a little standoffish. If you didn’t care about a language barrier, were into the latest Armani gear, and dancing your ass off to big-room trance then you’d have a blast. Just like anyone else a large majority of them were trying to fit in and have a good time.

Unbeknownst to us though, there were issues bubbling under the surface. Just as these events were almost exclusively Asian, each nationality/ethnicity had its own clique inside the party. The Koreans hung with the Koreans, the Vietnamese hung with the Vietnamese, and so on. Then some of these cliques had disputes within their own peer groups. Tony did his best to keep us clued into ongoing issues and problems by keeping his ear to the ground. Often times if he ID’ed a troublemaker, we would deny them entry or ask the off-duty police officers to escort them away. One night, when I asked someone to step out of line I got a punch in the nose for the effort. That instantly escalated into an all out brawl between 40+ people. Another night, some poor kid was stabbed with a screwdriver that a girl had shoved in her panties (really?!). Yet, we were told, and believed, these were isolated incidents.

In retrospect, we should’ve put a stop to the events and realized that we were entering a danger zone. I also don’t think we fully understood, or ignored, that the “cliques” weren’t cliques at all. These were full on gangs tooling up over perceived beefs. Yet, after the stabbing we had assurances from Tony’s crew that everything was cool. I got the impression that maybe some people talked to people and that no one wanted to lose another party space. There would be no need to cancel the Christmas night event.

We were told later that things unfolded elsewhere that shaped the course of the night and there was nothing we could’ve really done to prevent it, but it didn’t make it feel any better.

At some point that evening, a Vietnamese gang got into an altercation with a Cambodian gang at another club roughly ten miles away. The Viet group left the first club, but were followed to Decibel by the group of Cambodians. The Vietnamese crowd made it inside the club to party, meanwhile the group of Cambodians stayed outside.

Inside, the party was kicking along just fine, the dance floor was packed, and there was no hint of trouble. There were some people milling around outside talking, laughing, and waiting to get in. In retrospect, I dont remember feeling like the security team was on edge and I remember joking around like any other night. Things felt pretty jovial…it was Christmas.

At some point, hours later, one of the Vietnamese crowd named Vu Kieu, came outside for a smoke or a breather. He was likely recognized by the waiting Cambodians and confronted. The official account says he attempted to play the peacemaker and approached the Cambodians with his hands raised. It didn’t matter. The assailants immediately opened fire, killing him and then indiscriminately firing on everyone standing outside, severely injuring Thieu Nguyen as he dove for the ground. Our off-duty police officers quickly took control of the scene and ended it before even more people were hurt. I was told later that there was an AK-47 loaded with armor-piercing rounds in the trunk of their car. If it had been fired it would have shredded the walls of the club and many more people would’ve been hurt.

Here’s a portion of the Dallas Morning News article about the shooting:

A 19-year-old Grand Prairie man was killed and a 17-year-old man critically injured in a gunbattle in the crowded parking lot of a nightclub early Sunday morning. Police said Vu Hoang Kieu was trying to mediate a dispute when he was shot outside Club Decibel in the 2100 block of Cockrell Avenue. He was pronounced dead at Baylor University Medical Center at 3:35 a.m. The 17-year-old, Thieu Nguyen of Mesquite, was shot in the head…

While digging for more information, I came across this archived post on a Google Group from 2001. It details the aftermath of the shooting on the hopes and dreams of the three immigrant families involved. It’s a poignant reminder of how pointless and stupid the entire thing was and how it completely destroyed so many lives over some perceived slight.

How one violent crime in Dallas snuffed Asian immigrants’ dreams

03/09/2001

The three fathers who had endured the ravages of postwar Vietnam or the killing fields of Cambodia were intent on carving out new lives for themselves and their families in a new American homeland.

But as Christmas 1999 slipped away outside a Deep Ellum rave club, the hopes and dreams of Bay Kieu, Chi Nguyen and Phorn Chin unraveled amid a hail of bullets in a gang shootout.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Mr. Kieu’s son was dead, Mr. Nguyen’s only son was maimed – and Mr. Chin’s teenage son was facing 20 years in prison.

The young men, police and prosecutors say, were a part of a generation of young Southeast Asian refugees – pulled between two vastly different cultures and seeking full membership in both – who are experiencing the kind of terror that their parents fled so far and suffered so much to avoid.

The second of two young men who opened fire on a crowd of teenagers, killing Vu Kieu and leaving Thieu Nguyen paralyzed, was convicted of murder in January and sentenced to 20 years in prison. An accomplice received a life prison term last fall.

For the fathers of the victims, the convictions offered little solace for what they had lost. For outsiders, the concern is that the bloodletting is far from over.

“It is the greatest American tragedy, these unfulfilled dreams,” said Ron Cowart, a former Dallas police officer who has worked with immigrant families in East Dallas for 15 years.

“These kids have adopted Western traits that clash with the Asian culture, and many of them just don’t know how to balance the two worlds, and their parents know nothing of how to help them through it.”

The Dallas police crime intelligence unit has monitored Asian gang activity for seven years, and its data show that the ranks of gang members are growing and spreading out as immigrant families move away from urban enclaves where they first settled, such as Dallas’ Little Asia.

Officer Danny Nguyen has tracked about 15 loosely organized Asian gangs that operate in the Dallas area. During testimony at the trial of Mr. Chin’s son last month, he said the gangs mimic some traits of well-established and well-armed street gangs, but he said Asian gangs are more interested in making money by stealing cars than claiming a small piece of turf.

They “stick together for self-defense from established African-American and Hispanic gangs in the neighborhoods,” said Officer Nguyen, whose family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975. “But they prey on their own, since their victims are less likely to report crimes against them.”

The stories of the immigrant families go beyond crime and punishment, said prosecutor Nancy Mulder.

“We’re a country that can be hard on its immigrants,” she said. “We’re not accepting of differences, and these kids just want to fit in.

“To be frank, the ones that are weak of character will get sucked in and do whatever the other gang members are doing, despite what they’ve been taught at home.”

For the fathers of Vu Kieu, Thieu Nguyen and Sopheap Chin, the chain of events that led to Dec. 25, 1999, started more than 9,000 miles west of Dallas.

The Kieu family

Bay Kieu sat quietly in the courtroom last fall during the trial of a young Cambodian man who killed his 19-year-old son, Vu.

Unable to speak English, he waited patiently for his daughter-in-law to summarize testimony in Vietnamese during breaks in the trial. The leathery crags in his face barely shifted as the story was retold, his eyes giving the only clue to the numbness inside.

“I lost my right hand … my hope, my dreams, my future,” he said. “It’s all gone now.”

Mr. Kieu slipped out of Ho Chi Minh City in 1988 when a sympathetic boat captain made room for him and 8-year-old Vu for an eight-day voyage through the South China Sea to Malaysia.

Two years and three refugee camps later, he and Vu gained refugee visas and passage to the United States. Mr. Kieu’s plan was to
bring his wife and three daughters over as money became available.

Mr. Kieu, whose only skill was as a fisherman, became a cook.

In 1995, he moved to Dallas from Southern California and took a restaurant job in Garland. His teenage son joined a street
gang.

At 17, however, Vu walked away from the gang, got married and went to work. Two years later, he became a father.

On Christmas 1999, Vu and his wife, Thao Tran, found a baby sitter for a rare evening out of the house.

The $25 cover charge at Deep Ellum’s Decibel Club was beyond their budget. They were about to leave, Ms. Tran said, when a young man asked her husband to make peace between two rival gangs who were about to face off down the street.

She said the last thing she remembered him saying was, “I’m cool….”

When the chaos from more than 40 shots subsided, Vu lay between parked cars, bleeding to death from four gunshot wounds. Witnesses said the only thing he did to provoke Ros Pin to open fire from 5 feet away was raise his hands to show he was unarmed.

Mr. Pin’s life prison sentence brought little comfort to Mr. Kieu, who is still grieving.

“He’ll call us now and then to check up on his granddaughter,” Ms. Tran said. “But if he hears her voice, it reminds him of Vu, and he’ll get quiet and then hang up.”

Mr. Kieu moved back to California and shares a house with a dozen other Vietnamese immigrants. He doesn’t want to go home, and he doesn’t want to bring the rest of his family to the United States.

“I see no benefit as to what any of that would do,” he said.

The Chin family

Phorn Chin wouldn’t talk about his life after his 19-year-old son’s trial in February, humiliated by the grief caused from the
shootout and upset at his son’s 20-year prison sentence.

But his testimony on behalf of his son told the price he paid before he crossed the Cambodian border to freedom in 1979.

He was a schoolteacher in Cambodia until 1970, when the Khmer Rouge began a systematic slaughter of anyone suspected of opposing its agrarian Communist government. Mr. Chin said he pretended to be illiterate to avoid the attention of dictator Pol Pot’s henchmen during the nine-year reign of terror.

During that time, his first wife starved to
death.

“It was a hard life under the Communist regime, and I wanted to be free from it,” he told jurors.

While living in a Thai refugee camp, he remarried, and Sopheap was born in 1981. Within months of being accepted into a refugee program, the Chins arrived in Texas.

By 1995, the Chin family had grown to five children, and the former schoolteacher and his wife worked as custodians in the
Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district.

Sopheap joined a street gang of Cambodians while his parents worked long hours to make ends meet.

“Since I came to the United States I haven’t had any time to improve myself,” Mr. Chin told jurors through an interpreter. “It’s taken too much time to make a living.”

Mr. Chin said he first learned from a police officer that Sopheap was running with a gang. He didn’t know what to do or say to his son.

“I have to think he knows right from wrong, but sometimes he goes his own way,” he said.

After struggling to speak his mind, Mr. Chin made one last statement to jurors.

“I am his father,” he said, measuring each word carefully. “It’s my fault what he did. I didn’t hold him close enough. I am responsible.”

Those simple words were the only ones in the trial that drew a reaction from his son, whose eyes welled with tears as his chin sank to his chest.

As his family filed out of the courtroom, Mr. Chin stood and watched bailiffs lead his son back to jail, a goodbye spoken only with a longing glance at his boy.

The Nguyen family

Chi Nguyen was left behind as Communist forces closed in on Saigon in April 1975 and an airport bus never showed.

While his sisters made it out of the country that day and eventually settled in Dallas, he waited 17 years before leaving Vietnam.

The new regime shut down schools just before his senior year, and Mr. Nguyen abandoned his dream of going to college and becoming an architect. His family’s home was partitioned to make room for more families, and Mr. Nguyen married and got a job selling bulk tobacco for a state-run company. Their only son, Thieu, was born in 1982.

“The government took over people’s houses and lands, then kicked the owners out,” he said. “A lot of people committed suicide because they would rather die than live with the Communists.”

His family didn’t suffer direct retribution from the Communist regime, so Mr. Nguyen waited patiently for word from the West, as Vietnam’s economy stumbled and fell to the point that 25 percent of the people were jobless.

“We lost everything,” he said. “Our future, our money, our occupations, our lives.”

When the Nguyen family received visas to the United States, they arrived in North Texas and returned to the middle-class lifestyle that had been cut short so many years earlier.

Family members had worked for years to get things ready. The Nguyens soon found jobs and moved into an immaculate home in Mesquite.

By Christmas 1999, Thieu was 17 and earning A’s and B’s in the classroom and a spot on the varsity tennis team when he decided to tag along with a friend to the Decibel Club.

He knew there were Asian gangs in Dallas but had never run across any members because, he said, he was “the only Vietnamese guy in my school.”

The smoke drove him out into the crisp night air about 20 minutes after he went inside the noisy underage club. He was too shy to ask any of the girls inside to dance, anyway. Shots rang down the sidewalk as he talked to others waiting to get in.

As people dived to the sidewalk, Thieu looked on. As a friend pulled him to the ground for protection, a bullet hit him in the
head.

“All I remember is, my friend kept telling me not to close my eyes,” he said. “Then I passed out.”

He awoke from a coma three weeks later, and his family told him that the bullet that was still lodged under the top of his skull had badly damaged his ability to control movement in his arms and legs.

By summer, insurance coverage for physical rehabilitation ended just as he was able to gain control of his right hand to drive a motorized wheelchair. Mr. Nguyen had to help his lanky son bathe and dress, and the irony was not lost on him that his son’s future was more clouded than his own had been 25 years ago.

The dining room became Thieu’s bedroom because doors in the Nguyen home weren’t wide enough for his wheelchair. When the family went out, Thieu slipped into a collapsible wheelchair that could be stuffed in the trunk of the car.

After a summer of home schooling, Thieu rolled into the doors of Poteet High School in August to begin his senior year.

“I’d forget where my classes were or I’d go to the wrong one and then get lost,” he said. “Still, sometimes I can’t seem to remember a thing.”

When it came his turn to testify in the trials, however, Thieu charmed the juries and showed no signs of anger or bitterness at his
plight.

“When you’re angry, you’re just hurting yourself,” he said. “Why be angry? I think only the gang-bangers are angry and hate themselves.”

Little by little, hope is returning to the Nguyen family. Thieu passed all his classes last semester and works feverishly to learn how to walk again. He wants his driver’s license, and he’s considering going to college to study physical therapy.

Ms. Mulder, the prosecutor who asked for maximum sentences for the two gang members, expects that she will have to prosecute more gang-related shootings like the one in Deep Ellum that scarred three families.

“My heart goes out to the parents of these kids, the hardships they’ve undergone just to get here and the loss they’ve had to suffer in so many ways,” she said. “But there are a lot of Asian teenagers who came here and, despite all the difficulties, chose not to join a street gang.”

Nothing was ever really the same and within a month Decibel was shut down permanently. We still had a lease, so we were able to run a few more parties in the back but the clock was ticking. 32 Degrees dissolved within a year and most of us went onto other projects.

The owner of the building lost it in ’08 and it was demolished in 2010. The 32 Degrees logo remained on the door for the remainder of the building’s life. Miraculously, even when the rest of the building was tagged from top to bottom, that sticker was left alone. There’s something poignant in that…

Decibel 2007, Google Street View
decibel2007

Decibel 2014, Google Street View
decibeltoday

7 Comments

  1. Wow. Thanks for filling in the blanks. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it’s a shame things ended the way they did. Those articles were a tough read.

    You guys hosted some epic parties. We drove hours for the talent you guys would bring. Always had an amazing time. Hold tight 32 Degrees. Thanks for the memories

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  2. excellent recap, Wes. I’m sorry things unwound the way they did. You guys left a mark, inspired a bunch of dreamers to do the same. That’s the outsider’s view, as I was never the dnb connoisseur that your stalwart crew was. Sounds like I might have dug the hell out of some of those asian parties tho……

    anyway, great read. a better bunch of folks than you guys has yet to surface.

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  3. That was a great read. Thanks for putting that together. I remember my first party was at Dallas Music Complex, and my second was Decibel. Thanks for everything you and your crew pulled off, it inspired me and to this day I still help throw parties in SF and dj. You rocked it. =)

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  4. I was there that night, one of a handful of non-Asians in attendance. I vividly remember having a blast one minute and then suddenly the music stopped and they turned on the lights inside the club, announcing the shooting at the same time. It was surreal. They marched everyone outside, past the scene of the killing. I will never forget the blood on the sidewalk, the clump of dark hair floating in it. Some of the hair had blonde highlights in it. A tiny suspect, clad in expensive designer clothes, probably AI, as you said. I’m 36 now and I’ve often thought back to that night. After all the wild times between now and back then, it’s crazy to see that I remembered everything pretty much just like it happened.

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