In the 1990s Sydney’s heroin centre moved from Kings Cross to the suburb of Cabramatta with its large Vietnamese population. For about a decade the suburb also became the city’s murder centre as very young, first-generation immigrant gangsters went to war. The results were shocking and yet they were transient: unlike some ethnic groups, the Vietnamese lost their reputation for criminality almost as quickly as they gained it.
The most powerful of the gangs was the 5T, many of whose members had arrived in Australia as unaccompanied refugee children. Tri Minh Tran grew up in an intact and financially stable family, but was still attracted to gang life. He was leader of 5T by the age of 13, and was accused, but not convicted, of murder in that year and the next. The gang members lived together in units and houses, and were in effect a big family, a malevolent version of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. The five T’s in their name stood for tinh (love), tien (money), tu (prison), tu (die), and toi (conviction).
There were about 40 core members, with another 100 hanging around. They grew wealthy by robbing money from the terrified local Vietnamese community and selling high-grade heroin bought from Chinese importers. Soon addicts from all over Sydney were flocking to Cabramatta – eventually up to 1,000 a day. The train from the city to Cabramatta station became known as the “Smack Express”.
The 5T were extremely violent, attacking their foes in a pack with guns and machetes. Witnesses – in the case of one murder, 200 people –refused to talk with police. By the end of 1994 the 5T had destroyed or assimilated all other gangs and ran the streets of Cabramatta. They were rarely arrested.
Tri’s career as leader lasted seven years. In 1994 he was approached by strong man Phuong Ngo, who was looking for someone to kill the local Labor state MP, John Newman, who had defeated Ngo in the last election. Tri refused on the grounds the proposed hit was too dangerous. Ngo found someone else to do the job, and in September Newman was shot dead outside his home. At a bail application before Ngo’s first trial for organising the murder, almost 300 local Vietnamese delivered a petition to the court requesting that bail not be granted because Ngo was a danger to the community. In their book Smack Express, Clive Small and Tom Gilling note, “So far as it is known, this is the only occasion such a petition has been presented to a court in New South Wales.”
In 1995 Tri was shot dead by one or more 5T members after a dispute that had seen him break the legs of a lieutenant. He was 20.
Vietnamese gang activity continued to flourish, the police reaction hampered by corruption, incompetence, a loss of morale due to the police royal commission, and later a lack of resources during the Sydney Olympics. In the end, Strike Force Portville and its successor Scottsville, in an operation lasting two and half years, destroyed the gangs. At the end of 2001 they were gone from Cabramatta, after a reign that had lasted some 15 years. In that period the teenage gangs had killed more than 60 people.
MAIN SOURCES: articles in Sydney Morning Herald by Philip Cornford; Smack Express by Clive Small and Tom Gilling.