To the uninitiated, love and gang life would seem incompatible. How could something as benevolent as love fit into the common perception of gangs as dangerously violent and criminal? It’s surprising, then, to witness members of the largest Asian gang in America proclaim that they have love for each other as brothers—a family of choice as powerful or even more so than any biological one. This is a central revelation in “Raskal Love,” director Byron Q’s documentary (shown as part of the The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival) tracing the personal history of Vanna Fut, better known as “Lazy,” a pioneering figure within TRG, the Tiny Raskal Gang.
Through a series of interviews as well as narration overlaid onto grainy home videos and vivid re-enactments, viewers learn that Lazy spent his early childhood in the southern California city of Pomona, where the racial tensions and lack of family role models led to him joining TRG as a boy. He was not eager to join, in fact being apprehensive and thinking that gangs were made up of spike-covered motorcyclists. But for camaraderie and safety in numbers from the dangers of the streets, Lazy was jumped into TRG. This happened just before a gang-related threat to his father’s life caused the family to flee to Seattle, where Lazy dropped out of seventh grade. Instead of school, he turned to a creative outlet from his Pomona days: break-dancing or b-boying, which had been a strong cultural phenomenon in his old neighborhood but was only emerging in the Pacific Northwest, just as TRG was a fledgling presence there at the time.
Present-day testimonials from friends and more old footage reveal that Lazy was an athletic performer, winning competitions as part of a team and individually. He remembered a feeling of accomplishment—he had never been congratulated for anything before. Yet he was drawn back into the politics of the street and rival factions. Competing loyalties, both within various TRG groups as well as between his gang associates and his dance teammates, made it difficult for Lazy to find balance.
A nondescript living room, dimly lit, is the setting for some of the most confessional scenes in the documentary. As the TRG members stand around or sit together, they joke, reminisce, and even philosophize (gun in hand, at one point) about the nature of their bond. The fraternal pride they feel seems to trump all. However, it has come at the cost of some of their friends’ lives. Blood ties were also neglected in favor of gang participation, much to Lazy’s regret once he suddenly loses a close family member to illness. As a result of the challenges he surpassed, Lazy is clearly seen as an inspiration to many of the younger men. He has encouraged them to finish school, find jobs, and not to go around looking for trouble. In other words, he has stepped in as a fatherly influence, just as he once looked up to older gang members as his uncles.
Joining a gang “doesn’t make you a bad person,” one TRG member says in a memorable moment in the living room. Instead, he asserts, the actions taken after that are what determine a person’s character, whether he shows love to his confederates or is eventually judged unfit.
Although Lazy’s Cambodian heritage is not foregrounded, his story is certainly a part of the Cambodian American experience, in some ways a legacy of the upheaval from the Khmer Rouge era. Similarly, the documentary’s editing is not always fluid, but the spliced interviews are a subtle reflection of the ups and downs in the subject matter itself. The broader question of why many children of Southeast Asian immigrants have identified so closely with street/urban culture (whether musical genres such as hip-hop and rap or activities like gangs and other forms of “hustling“) is not addressed by the film. Instead, it focuses on Lazy as a man with a difficult past but gradually reaching new heights in his personal/professional life.
This allows “Raskal Love” to serve as a record of the memories that he fears may one day be lost, pending some unexpected news about his own health. Wise gangster, fierce dancer, unconventional movie star; heedless son, cherished brother and parent. Which of these labels or pieces of identity, if any, is most accurate for Lazy? The mosaic is incomplete, still shifting, but suggests TRG’s symbolic gray is the true color of love.