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Gangster Value System in Vietnam and Lessons from Hong Kong

Updated on April 5, 2019
Tuan Leminh profile image

An enthusiast for economic development and political issues in Vietnam.

Kha Banh (above, left), Duong Minh Tuyen (top, right) and the staging movie character "People in dark society 4"
Kha Banh (above, left), Duong Minh Tuyen (top, right) and the staging movie character "People in dark society 4"

The new trend in Vietnam society

Ngo Ba Kha (Kha Banh) emerged as a phenomenon of entertainment and model among young people in Vietnam these days. "Swearing hallow" Duong Minh Tuyen "takes actions knightly" to help the girl's family, who was beaten collectively, and become a hero. These phenomena show that the Vietnamese society has started to have interesting developments related to gangsters and dark societies.

There will be people who think that this is the degradation in moral and cultural awareness of young people. Some argue that these are temporary entertainment phenomena, they will disappear soon. However, the writer found in it a young community that gradually entered the trail of Hong Kong society in the late 1980s and lasted throughout the 1990s, when the values โ€‹โ€‹of democracy, rule of law and representatives institutions were rotten. At that time, "gangster morale" become a more attractive, respectable and effective value system.

The way Hong Kong deals with the shaking of the mainstream system, mainly through the anti-corruption pathway, improving the efficiency and connection of public authorities to the people is worth watching for Vietnam in the current social trend.

A scene from the movie "A Better Tomorrow"  with Chow YunFat (right) as the main actor, debuted in 1986.
A scene from the movie "A Better Tomorrow" with Chow YunFat (right) as the main actor, debuted in 1986.

Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s and gangster illusion

Hong Kong in the 1990s were a paradise of criminals, Hollywood robberies and an entertainment industry was said to be sympathetic to the gangs (or being forced to feel sympathetic to the gangster world).

In 1993, the most famous image in Hong Kong was a man standing on the sidewalk full of old gum pieces. He was dressed neatly, with white sneakers, blue jeans, a black leather jacket and a hooded hoodie. The only notable point is that he held an AK gun and was discharging the gun.

It was a robbery.

The image was extracted from a surveillance camera in the first week of January 1993. A masked armed group attacked a jewelry store on Nathan's central street, robbed them all of what they could, escaped through the front door and fought the polices with guns.

The bandits discharged a total of 30 bullets, killing a woman who accidentally passed by. An accomplice was shot down by the police when the group crossed the road to a prepared vehicle to escape. The "comrades" left their accomplice's body on the road when moving to another vehicle to run away.

Barry Smith, the sheriff of the Hong Kong Police Department at the time, flinched: "AK47, 7.62 mm pistol and hand grenade are used regularly by Hong Kong gangs. Hong Kong patrol polices were aware that they may have to intervene in an armed robbery at any time. I believe they were very scared and tired when called for support in such cases. Hong Kong police were only armed with 0.38 mm revolvers and we forced them to face AK47.โ€

"A lot of pressure was put on our shoulders as we faced real bandits, as well as the entertainment media system honoring gang violence", he said.

Beginning in the 1980s, the gangs of the Triads in Hong Kong emerged by receiving abundance of contraband weapons from the Chinese mainland military officials and the connection to emerging economic zones in mainland, such as Shenzhen. The power of these groups quickly spread to the entertainment industry and became the inspiration for many films set in the activities of the Triads.

Hong Kong gangster film officially became a cultural phenomenon after the hit movie "A Better Tomorrow", directed by John Woo with the stars Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat, was released. The film was released on August 2, 1986, telling a story about a big boss who made the fake money, Tong Tu Hao, played by Chow Yun-fat. He was a full-hearted person, joined life-or-death missions with his teammates. He decided to renounce violence and make peace with his younger brother Tong Tu Kiet after his father's death.

The film was so successful that it transformed the public's perception of gangs and transplants into it the romance and talent factors. People see the characters in the movie as idols and even start dressed like gangsters in the movie. The genre of Triads groups officially formed and dominated the Hong Kong film market for a long time.

The formula of this film series is to use sparkling stars to play the main hero - the great gangster, who is attractive, wealthy, very kind and always help the weak. It builds a virtual value system that is extremely popular with the public.

By the 1990s, the Hong Kong film market expanded across Asia, and films related to gangsters continued to have their land. Among them, the most influential gangster series in Hong Kong cinema history (and also most familiar to Vietnamese audiences) is "Young and Dangerous", released in the period of 1996 - 1998. The film consists of up to six parts, focusing on a group of good gangs, with activities such as scrambling for areas, purging, dealing with other groups and rotten public officials, to promote the "brotherhood", "humanity" and "gang principle". The film quickly became a phenomenon in Hong Kong, thus causing fever throughout Asia.

Triads groups play a prominent role in Hong Kong society.
Triads groups play a prominent role in Hong Kong society.

Why this happens and how to find a good solution?

Corruption and degeneration of public officials are the cause of public interest in the activities of the black society on the island. They provide a rich source of nutrients for the Triads and their images to flourish.

That was the conclusion of Professor Roderic Broadhurst (Australian National University) and Dr. Lee King Wa (Hong Kong University) in their study of the transition of the black society in relation to the change of administration forces, economic and political environment in Hong Kong.

Simply put, when the system of orthodox social power (ie the state, the rule of law, and personal freedoms) suffers from manipulating, harassing and degrading factors, people will automatically attracted by other informal social power systems that they think have a higher moral background, higher standards of conduct and more respectable. Dark society is one of them.

Failure to improve its depraved and corrupt image, the pursuit and eradication of Triads cultural roots even further harm the legitimacy of Hong Kong police and boost the "morale" of the gang. The two professors Harold Traver and Jon Vagg (University of Hong Kong) in "Crime and Justice in Hong Kong" affirmed that the polices here were so stubborn that they must accept that the business of this local criminal gangs was actually a business. And peace makes profit, everyone has a part, so there is no need to prevent criminal activities.

There are positive changes only in the early 1990s, when the British protectorate in Hong Kong began to intervene with the expectation of building three pillars for Hong Kong governance: the rule of law, personal freedom, and effective and corrupt-free civil services.

First, an increasing annual budget was poured into the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (ICAC) to enforce the Bribery Prevention Ordinance. This agency has an independent organizational model, with personnel directly appointed by the Governor-General and responsible to the Governor-General. This makes it almost separate from the political system of Hong Kong territory. The agency has broad authority and is allowed to take tough measures, including investigation and questioning of any public employee when they find that he or she has suspect property or public acts.

New legal documents during and after the 1990s, such as the Organized Crime Act, the Drug Trafficking Ordinance, and the Witness Protection Ordinance, quickly replenishes and supports law enforcement forces in Hong Kong to eliminate gang criminals and traditional Triads groups.

A clean and efficient apparatus quickly causes sympathy from the public and Hong Kong entertainment industry. In the late 1990s, a series of police-related films came to balance the previous wave of firms that honor the gangster. The movies "Integrity Investigation Team" (about ICAC investigators), "Crime Investigator", "Witness protection team", etc. became popular entertainment shows of Hong Kong people.

This day, Hong Kong has transformed from a paradise of gangs to become one of the cleanest, least corrupt places in the world, according to the investigation of many prestigious organizations, such as World Bank, World Heritage or Transparency International. And the people's view on gangs has also turned to hate and exclusion.

***

Obviously, the writer recognizes a certain lame when comparing a widespread cultural phenomenon of Hong Kong gangs in the 1990s with a few young YouTube players and social networks in Vietnam. But the response of Vietnamese youth to these value systems is not hard to see. Arresting and prosecuting some characters like Kha Banh is not difficult, but as in Hong Kong, it is important that Vietnam's public authorities are able to challenge the value systems that Vietnamese gangsters are coming up with.

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