La grew up confrontational by nature. Raised in a Vietnamese-American household just outside of Washington, D.C. during the ‘80s, he was, in his own telling, a bad boy. Loved the Redskins, Guns n’ Roses, Bon Jovi—stuff Asian kids of his generation tended to shy away from. He was a competitive athlete and played tennis and football. While his sister was active in her school’s Asian American club, La resented the label, and rejected what it meant to be Asian American altogether.
Still, he felt a lot of pressure to be what he says was a “good Asian son” and the strangeness of attempting to live up to that idea was the central tension of his youth. His upbringing wasn’t so different from Asian Americans growing up in suburban enclaves: During the school week La was typically one of the only Asian people in his classes. An outsider. Weekends were spent entrenched in his Vietnamese-American community, where he was surrounded by gambling: mahjong, poker, dice games like bầu cua cá cọp. “That’s just Vietnamese culture,” he says.
This, he suspects, led him down a path toward becoming a bookie. There was one time when he was around 17 that his mother confronted him in his bedroom. It was a Sunday, game day, and his cell, this old Motorola flip phone, was ringing nonstop. “And she was like, ‘What are you doing?’” he remembers.
His mother confiscated the phone, which caused La’s clientele to start calling his home line to place bets. “It was NFL and it was like $50, $100 a game,” La says. “But that was a lot of money [back then].”
There was, he remembers, a persistent sense that this path could lead to dark places. “It’s always the dread of breaking legs, always that fear of baseball bat coming around,” La says of those days. “Because not everybody pays on time, and you have to operate with instilling fear. So yes, me and my homies would jump in the car and scare others when we had to.”