He flips, spins, turns his life around


His arms and chest coated with gangland-style tattoos, his eyebrow pierced, Tuy “K.K.” Sobil sits in a cafe in Phnom Penh beside his 5-year-old son, Unique, adopted from drug dealer parents who couldn’t cope.

“I’m trying to get him to eat his vegetables,” he said. “He gets his bad habits from me.”

K.K., short for “Krazy Kat,” knows all about bad habits: The onetime member of the Long Beach Crips served eight years in prison for armed robbery before being deported in 2004 to Cambodia, his parents’ homeland.

Now, six years after he found himself abandoned, impoverished and largely unwelcome in an ancestral land he’d never seen, the 32-year-old has tapped into long-forgotten break-dancing skills to become one of Cambodia’s unlikeliest role models.

His goal: to keep thousands of street children from making the same mistakes he did.

K.K.’s life was upended by a U.S. law that authorized deportations of noncitizens with any criminal conviction, from murder to shoplifting. Although he was born in a Thai refugee camp, never visited Cambodia and lived in the United States since he was 4, neither K.K. nor his illiterate parents formally applied for citizenship after he turned 18.

But K.K. reckons the deportation pulled him out of a life that probably would have led him back to prison, or possibly to his death by now. “Doper, may he rest in peace, Doper passed away,” he said of one former gang member.

When K.K. landed, shellshocked, in Phnom Penh and looked around at the impoverished, war-torn country, the last thing he envisioned was a return to break dancing, which he hadn’t done since he was 13. But after another deportee who knew of his reputation spread the word of his skills, street urchins badgered him until he finally agreed to give lessons in his living room.

“There were 40 kids in the room every night,” said Michael Otto, K.K.’s best man at his wedding to a Cambodian woman. “It was like a sauna.”

Working with youngsters left little room for self-pity. Sure, he’d had it tough. But at least the United States had public schools and welfare departments, both sorely lacking here.

“I realized I needed to help out,” he said.

Before long, he left his job at Korsang, a nonprofit drug treatment center, to start the Tiny Toones youth center, housed in a run-down building with surging electricity, rats and leaking walls. Poverty, gangs, drugs and family abuse, a legacy of decades of war and dysfunctional government, left thousands of orphans and street children badly in need of help.

Although rapping, break dancing, beat boxing, and deejaying — and K.K. — are the center’s trademark, its real mission is to empower youngsters, help them kick drugs, and teach basic language, arts and computer skills.

“K.K.’s my hero,” said Sun Makara, 19, who grew up on the street scrounging garbage, stealing and doing drugs.

Makara, who sports a pierced left eyebrow and wears exposed underwear over low-hanging pants, has turned his life around and is teaching break dancing to troubled youths at Korsang and Tiny Toones.

At the center’s large outdoor dance floor, young wannabe hip-hop stars do headstands, back flips, one-hand hops and windmills to a pounding boombox, while around back, new tracks are being cut in a makeshift recording studio.

The center is partly funded by grants from charitable foundations, individual donations and money earned selling T-shirts, hats, stickers and a short Tiny Toones album mixed on aging equipment. Funders say the group needs to get more organized to help more youngsters, and hire more support staff. K.K. acknowledges that administration isn’t necessarily his strong suit.

“K.K.’s story is very inspirational at many levels: himself, the children and Cambodia trying to come back,” said Hoa Tu Duong, a program officer at the charity Global Fund for Children. “We see enormous potential, but we also see there’s lots of work to do.”

Many of the songs coming out of the center have a social message; one, “Huff Gow,” is about sniffing glue. They often integrate modern vocals and beats with 1960s Cambodian oldies, which took their inspiration from Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and big band music.

Break dancing, which started in the 1970s in the U.S., has expanded worldwide, especially in Asia, with a global Battle of the Year dance competition featuring top contestants from around the world.

As Tiny Toones’ reputation has grown, other doors have opened. American hip-hop group Jurassic 5 has stopped by, and six top dancers whom K.K. taught toured the U.S. last year.

As a deportee, K.K. couldn’t accompany them. But he followed them on YouTube as they showed off their moves and out-danced competitors in formal and informal matchups in Madison, Wis., New York, Philadelphia, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Seeing them perform without him by their side was bittersweet.

“It made me sad, but also proud,” he said.

Tiny Toones dancers will represent Cambodia at the regional Battle of the Year in Singapore this summer. (In a strange coincidence, during a previous performance overseas, in Hong Kong in 2008, K.K. ended up sitting beside former President Clinton, who had signed the deportation law.)

Tiny Toones’ success is a reflection of K.K.’s charisma and his connection with youngsters, said Holly Bradford, an American who was his employer at Korsang.

“He has a magic to him that continues to amaze me. He’s done right, he’s proven himself. It’s America’s loss in my book.”

K.K., the oldest child of impoverished onetime farmers, started hanging out on the streets of Long Beach early and drifted into break dancing when he was 8.

Over the next few years, he developed a reputation for his hip-hop moves as far south as San Diego.

“We had no fear,” he said.

At 13, he joined the Crips, drifted into crack and dropped break dancing, leading to his armed robbery conviction at 18.

He insists that he wasn’t guilty, but he’s not making excuses.

“What I didn’t do, I got caught for,” he said. “Everything I did do, I didn’t get caught. What comes around goes around.”

He was deported in 2004, a few weeks after his release in 2004, leaving behind his estranged former partner and son Kayshawn — now 10 or 11, he’s not sure — with whom he stays in periodic phone contact.

Gang life in Phnom Penh and the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is similar, he said, but Cambodia is more violent. Police here often respond slowly or not at all, and it’s more a knife than gun culture.

Although he understands the code of the street among gang members, K.K. said he’s become increasingly worried about getting caught in the middle when he’s called to break up a fight.

“You try to be a role model, but it gets scary,” he said. “Over here, there’s no insurance, no benefits. And I have a family now.”

His growing fame has attracted critics. Some Cambodians assume from his looks that he must be a drug dealer. Others accuse him of undermining Khmer culture.

His response: “Everywhere in the world you have hip-hop. Don’t forget your culture, but you got to learn new things.”

He’s made peace with the move here and now considers Phnom Penh home, though he misses his parents and three siblings.

During his proteges’ U.S. tour, someone put his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since 2004, on the phone without warning. Although he’s talked to her often, emotion overwhelmed him and the tough street guy broke down.

“She cried,” he said. “Then I cried. Everyone started crying.”

As he looks back, his biggest regret is not being a better father to his American son.

“Every day I ask forgiveness; I made big mistakes,” he said. “But I’ve fallen in love with what I’m doing: Tiny Toones is now my life, my family. Let these kids have a chance.”