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Chinese take-out owners say Philly late-night law is used against them

The law was designed to curb stop-and-go beer joints and other shops from becoming a "nuisance" for "drug activity and crime."

"At 11 o'clock, I live in fear," said Ling Lin, owner and operator of Good Luck Chinese Restaurant, on 60th Street near 'near Cedar Avenue, West Philadelphia.

It's not the neighbors — "we're on good terms." A lot of them work late, she says through a translator: "Mercy Hospital, University of Pennsylvania Hospital, Children's Hospital, the airport." By 11 p.m. some are heading home, and ready for take-out.

She's afraid the police will come back. On 31 evenings since the start of 2014, Lin says, an officer has walked into her place, ordered everyone out — "even if they've paid for their food already" — shut her down and written her a ticket for violation of a 2005 law, commonly called the 11 p.m. Ordinance.

That law was designed to curb stop-and-go beer joints and other shops from becoming a "nuisance" for "drug activity and crime." A block is subject to the 11 p.m. law if it is at least 80 percent homes.

Good Luck sits between a hair salon and a vacant lot. The block has three occupied houses, a laundromat, and a doughnut shop. Across the street is William Cullen Bryant Promise Academy.

Lin takes her tickets downtown, in batches. Each time, she says, "the judge checks the map and sees we are in a commercial area." Dismissed.

So when the officer shuts her down another evening, she tries to explain. "But he says the judge should have called him." She has gone to the officer's captain. "He said the same thing. He disregarded it." More tickets.

"Chinese immigrants are very hardworking. We're not asking for any special treatment or benefits," Lin told me. "But there are pizza stores and other stores that are open very late. We just want to be treated equally."

On another mixed block, on East Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond, Zing Zheng says his Ming Moon House take-out was slapped with more than 100 open-late tickets, also starting in 2014. "I'd never gotten tickets before. It's very unpleasant. They force all the customers out of the store, even if they paid for their food," he told me through a translator.

Zheng says neighbors question the officers: " 'I like this restaurant. Why won't you let me buy food?' The officer says, 'That's the law.' They ask, 'Why can the pizza and the grocery stay open?' The officer says, 'Mind your own business.'

"My son tried to interpret for me. The officer told him, 'If you don't ask your parents to close the restaurant, I will arrest your whole family.' "

Last year, Zheng said, the unsettled fines forced him to sell the take-out to another operator (he still owns the property), who's also getting fined.

I met Zheng and Lin through City Councilman David Oh and his aide Lois Kang, who fielded so many complaints from Chinese take-out owners that they ran a review of police code-violation records.

There was a pattern: Officers issued 583 code-violation notices under the ordinance last fiscal year; 562 were to Chinese restaurants — more than 95 percent. Many businesses had multiple tickets. Of the 158 ticketed, 142 were Chinese — 90 percent.

"If you enforce it against the laundromat, against the market, that's nondiscriminatory. But this looks like you're picking on a group of poor, non-English-speaking people who are not in a position to push back," Oh told me.

He doesn't blame the cops. Oh expects the ordinance is being exploited by "connected people. Some ward leader, church member, Council staffer, civic-association president who can reach into the Police Department, is getting them to go out and have a Chinese take-out shut down," even if the block's not mostly residential. That can be hard to measure, and shouldn't be left to police to have to judge, Oh said.

Oh has met with Police Commissioner Richard Ross, City Solicitor Sozi Tulante, and aides to Mayor Kenney. "The Police Department is comfortable that it is enforcing the ordinance in a nondiscriminatory manner," but "discussions are ongoing," city spokesman Mike Dunn told me.

Meanwhile, Oh and Council President Darrell Clarke have drafted a proposal to reduce the fines, from a maximum $2,000, to $300.

Correction: An earlier version of this item wrongly stated a block had to be more than 70% residential to be included under the "11 o'clock ordinance." It's 80%.