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The New Animal Houses

Asian fraternities have created their own brutal hazing rituals based on physical punishment rather than alcohol abuse—with some tragic consequences. Dan Haley reports on Hell Night.

03.22.09 4:04 PM ET

Kenny Luong died trying to start a Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter at California State Polytechnical University in Pomona, Calif. He and several other Cal Poly students approached the University of California at Irvine chapter of the nation’s largest Asian fraternity for permission to start a Lambda chapter at their own school. To do so, they were required to field a team of pledges to play football against the Irvine Lambdas.

The 10 pledges who showed up for the August 2005 game were, according to a later report in New University, the Irvine student newspaper, “significantly smaller and less physically fit than the bigger, more numerous Lambdas,” and “played without helmets or pads.”

Luong was tackled again and again. The last time, he didn’t get up. According to the student paper, Luong was left unattended for 10 minutes. When the brothers checked on him, they found his eyes were rolling into the back of his head. He was having a seizure.

"They claim they're teaching you life lessons," said one former pledge. "It's like the army. They're teaching you how to survive."

Lambda Phi Epsilon is one of a growing number of predominantly Asian college fraternities that eschew the alcohol-based hazing of the traditional—and traditionally white—Greek houses. Instead, they have developed their own traditions of violent physical hazing. New University reported that, as part of the pledge process, Luong was forced to jump into the air and land on his chest without using his hands to break his fall. He was also allegedly forced to rapidly drink two gallons of water, putting him at serious risk for death by water poisoning.

Though the Irvine chapter of the fraternity was suspended following the tragic football game, Lambda chapters across the country continued to haze pledges. At the University of Texas, the parents of a pledge named Jack Phoummarath, who died in a hazing incident, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Lambda in 2006 that was settled before it went to trial, for $4.2 million. During discovery in that case, it was revealed that the fraternity had been locking its pledges in a small, unlit room for days at time, forcing them to perform calisthenics while loud techno music blared.

Then, last July, Lambda was suspended at Northwestern University for a period of four years following an exposé of its hazing practices in the campus newspaper, the Daily Northwestern.

“With predominantly white fraternities, the hazing is generally alcohol-based,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College and author of several books about ethnic fraternities, But with Asian, Black or Latino fraternities, “most of the hazing is physical.”

“Lambda’s way to lure you in was to tell you all this stuff about brotherhood and alumni connections,” said Mike, an alumnus of a northeastern university chapter of the fraternity who asked that his real name not be used. "Non-white frats are all about sticking together, overcoming racial barriers, and getting stronger as a racial group—basically, overcoming these white guys."

To do this, Mike said they have to "posse up, get into this gang mentality." But Mike maintained that the hazing also transcends racial politics, aiming to make the pledges stronger men. "They claim they're teaching you life lessons," Mike said. "It's like the army. They're teaching you how to survive."

As Peter Jackson, the Northwestern student who reported on Lambda discovered, the fraternity’s website provides no means to contact its national board, and it is unclear whether there is any significant central authority overseeing local chapters. “The North American Interfraternity Conference, which regulates Lambda and all but one of NU’s national fraternities, has no address or telephone number for Lambda’s national headquarters,” Jackson wrote. “When students want to start a new Lambda chapter, they learn the rules from a nearby campus.” This bottom-up growth is also typical of ethnic fraternities, according to Kimbrough.

The first Lambda chapter was created at UCLA in 1981 and today there are at least 48 active chapters. Just as Latino fraternities exploded in the 1970s, Asian fraternities experienced a period of exponential growth during the 1990s. In this period, Alpha Sigma Lambda, Pi Delta Psi, Lambda Phi Epsilon, and several other Asian-interest fraternities spread across the country, often through the bottom-up expansion model that prompted Kenny Luong at Cal Poly to petition Lambda at Irvine.

“A lot of these smaller, ethnically based groups don’t have field staff or national office representatives,” Kimbrough said. “If something happens, there isn’t really a national headquarters you can call to handle the problem. In many cases, they function like local organizations. So the institution has to play a much bigger role in those organizations than in predominantly white organizations.” It was difficult to locate anyone who would speak for the national organization for this story, and when someone representing fraternity was eventually reached via email, he said Lambda officers declined to comment.

While Kimbrough calls for greater oversight, Jackson says he believes Northwestern actually paid less attention to the activities of its ethnic fraternities than it did to the white Greek organizations. “The administration was not paying attention to what non-white students were doing,” Jackson said.

Mike provided a detailed description of his own pledging process, which culminated in a Hell Night, although it actually lasted longer than one night. For a week before this ordeal, the pledges weren’t allowed to shower or leave their dorms for any reason other than class or pledge events. They had to perform calisthenics every night and managed only a few hours of sleep.

“Throughout the pledge process, you get completely brainwashed,” Mike said. “You’re basically completely submissive to these guys.”

Mike was in this state when he and his fellow pledges were blindfolded, taken to an unheated cabin in the middle of the woods and put through more than 24 hours of strenuous exercises and endurance tests while clad only in hoodies and sweatpants. The brothers were wearing parkas.

Bryan, a Lambda from Rutgers University, said he believes he benefited from the pledge process. “The pledge process was definitely a great experience for me,” he said. “It helped me build my confidence. Before with my friends, what we did when we hung out was a spur of the moment thing. But afterward they started seeing me take control, started seeing me as the leader of the group.”

Mike doesn’t share Bryan’s opinion. “I didn’t like being a brother,” he said. “After pledging, I realized brotherhood wasn’t what the bros promised. There was a lot of politics and backstabbing. But still we were sucked into the concept of brotherhood. ”

Dan Haley is an associate editor at IvyGateblog.com and has written for Current magazine, Hustler magazine and several New York newspapers. He lives in Brooklyn.