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Immigrant owners of Chinese shops often vulnerable to crime as they struggle to get by, fit in

JICUN WU lay in his hospital bed, an emaciated frame of bones and skin, his teeth gritted in pain. His wife, Qinhui Chen, pulled the white hospital blanket up to his neck, as one would tuck in a young child.

Jicun Wu, with wife Qinhui Chen, was assaulted in June. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Jicun Wu, with wife Qinhui Chen, was assaulted in June. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

JICUN WU lay in his hospital bed, an emaciated frame of bones and skin, his teeth gritted in pain.

His wife, Qinhui Chen, pulled the white hospital blanket up to his neck, as one would tuck in a young child.

On this early-October day, Wu had been at Albert Einstein Medical Center for about four months, after an attacker came up behind him outside his West Oak Lane Chinese takeout and hit him in the back of the head and in his torso, severely injuring his pancreas.

"Now, his pain is too much," his wife said in Mandarin Chinese, explaining why her husband was curled in a fetal position, groaning.

"He just says, 'It hurts a lot,' " she said as she stood over his frail body, before he was moved to one of Einstein's rehabilitative facilities, where he remains. "He has no energy to say anything else."

His legs were frail and appeared wasted, looking much older than normal for his 43 years. Even now, Wu still can't eat solid foods. And he hasn't been able to walk on his own yet.

"He's like a skeleton," his wife, 34, said. "Aya! He's like a little child."

Now, she feels scared when she opens the takeout on her own. She has trouble sleeping and worries constantly about her husband's health.

Their plight is a stark example of how difficult life can be for immigrant Chinese who run the ubiquitous takeouts, some in crime-ridden areas where the owners can be perceived as outsiders. They work long, tiring hours behind bulletproof or plastic windows. Some don't speak English well, learning just enough basics to conduct their business.

"It's more easy to run a Chinese restaurant" than to work other kinds of jobs, Chen said. "We don't know how to make a living with other skills."

Not an isolated incident

LiFeng Liao, the Mandarin bilingual victim advocate at Center City Crime Victim Services, has been helping Chen get financial assistance through the Victims Compensation Assistance Program to defray her husband's medical and other expenses.

Liao said she has 17 clients, all Chinese owners of restaurants or stores, who are victims of assault or armed robberies.

The Police Department does not keep statistics of the number of violent-crime incidents that happen near or in a Chinese takeout. But the takeouts are often in the news, either because a worker there becomes the victim of violence or a resident hanging around the takeout gets shot or attacked.

The takeouts are sometimes the only stores open at night on certain blocks, and can become hangouts or targets.

The owner of a takeout on Kensington Avenue was robbed twice this year. About 10 p.m. Feb. 20, he was delivering food when two men accosted him and demanded money. One man punched him in the face. Then, about 4 p.m. June 28, the owner was making a delivery when two thugs robbed him at gunpoint, stealing $180 and his cell phone.

And about 2 a.m. Sept. 21, the husband-and-wife owners of another Chinese takeout, on Haines Street in East Germantown, were the victims of an attempted carjacking and robbery. A thug got into their SUV, which was parked outside the takeout with the motor running, and demanded money from the wife.

Police Officer Chris Lai, who works in the 17th District, in Point Breeze, helps translate in some cases in which police need assistance with a Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking victim.

He said some criminals "tend to pick on Asians because they know they don't speak English" and may not call 9-1-1. If they do, he said, they may not be able to clearly say what happened. Compounding the problem, "sometimes it's hard to get victims, especially Chinese victims, to come to court," he said.

Steven Zhu, executive vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association, estimates that about 400 to 430 Chinese takeouts are scattered throughout the city.

The immigrant takeout owners "try to settle in part of the community, not just to make money, but to settle, to become part of the neighborhood," Zhu said.

"It doesn't matter if it's a good area or bad area," he said. "We need more people in the city to know that Chinese people want to settle, to work with the neighborhood; that's their goal."

Trying to live decent lives

Residents in the predominantly African-American neighborhood surrounding Wu and Chen's takeout - called Bo Shing, at 66th Avenue and Uber Street - say that the area is generally safe. The takeout provides a service to neighbors, but there's no denying that racial tension sometimes hovers in the air.

Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson, who has written extensively about the black-urban community in Philadelphia, does not know what happened in Wu's attack. But he said that hard economic times, combined with a history of having faced racial prejudice, have contributed to a minority of people in the black community who "belong to the criminal element" to "look at an outsider as vulnerable" and declare "open season" on them.

He said he doesn't think that the victim's being a Chinese immigrant made him a target, but rather his role as a business owner.

It's important to note, Anderson said, that most people in the black community are decent people trying to live decent lives who would protect and be accepting of outsiders, but that a few may see Wu "as owning something in the community and think that he's not deserving of that because he's an outsider."

But there's room for hope.

Yingzhang Lin, vice president of the restaurant association, said that, to his knowledge, the number of seriously violent incidents against Chinese-takeout workers has decreased in recent years.

The last homicide of a Chinese-takeout worker at his place of business that Lin could recall was that of Zong Xiang Wang, 44, who died in 2006 after being shot behind his takeout at 5th Street and Lehigh Avenue, in North Philly.

Lin attributes the decline to the formation of the restaurant association in 2004, its reaching out to takeout owners and its close relationship with the Police Department, especially with recently retired Chief Inspector James Tiano, who served as a liaison to the Asian community and other groups.

"Because this group [recent immigrants] just came from China and they don't know anything, they only know how to cook," Lin said. "They are put in an unfamiliar environment. They don't know how to talk to people. So education is the key."

Tiano recalled recently how crime-prevention seminars held for takeout owners helped teach them how to call police. They were also told to clean outside during the day, not at night, and about the importance of proper lighting and video cameras.

Lives turned tragic

Chen's husband came to the U.S. from the Fujian Province countryside in southeastern China about 10 years ago. She followed a year later.

After spending some time in other states, they moved three or four years ago to Philadelphia, where they have relatives, then opened their takeout last year.

Before the attack, they "didn't realize something like this would happen," Chen said.

Then came June 8, when their lives were turned upside down.

About 11 a.m., Wu returned to the takeout after buying groceries in Chinatown.

Chen heard her husband calling for her to open the door, then found him lying on his side, his hands clutching his abdomen.

"[He] just called out, 'It hurts,' " she said.

Mark Kaplan, an Einstein surgeon and chief of trauma and critical care, said recently that Wu's pancreas was severely injured. It's a "very rare organ" to have damaged, indicating that significant force was used, possibly with an object like a baseball bat, he said.

Wu also was hit in the back of the head, causing him to suffer a concussion, Kaplan said. Wu's duodenum and part of his pancreas and right colon had to be removed, and his gastrointestinal tract had to be reconnected.

Wu was moved to one of Einstein's rehab facilities a few weeks ago, and already his face appears flusher, more alive and hopeful. He can even move around in a wheelchair.

He still needs to undergo one or two more surgeries, but doctors can't operate until he gets stronger, which could be a few more months, Kaplan said.

In the meantime, Chen and her husband still owe money to relatives in China who helped them open their takeout, she said. Plus, there's rent, electricity and other bills. That's why she still opens the store alone.

She stressed that most customers don't cause problems. "Just one or two are bad," she said.

Some have yelled at her when they didn't have enough money and she wouldn't let them go short, calling her "crazy," "stupid" or shouting "f---!" she said.

In some cases, she said, she's learned to talk back to them, or she just walks away behind the glassed-in counter area.

Asked if they would move back to China, where they left behind two sons, now ages 12 and 15, who are being taken care of by her mother, Chen tearfully said they would rather stay in the U.S., but hopes her sons can come here soon.

"We've gotten accustomed to it very much, we like to live here," she said, but she noted that they may move after her husband gets out of the hospital.

In China, it's hard to find work, she said. "It doesn't compare to America. America, every day you go find work, you can find it. In China, no."

Her husband's attacker?

On Oct. 7 police arrested Malik Niblack, 21, of Uber Street, half a block from the takeout. He was charged with aggravated assault and related offenses, and faces a preliminary hearing on Nov. 29.

Officer Jillian Russell, a police spokeswoman, said police could not comment on how Niblack had become the suspect in Wu's case, citing the ongoing investigation.

Chen said she believes that Niblack was the man who assaulted her husband. She didn't know him by name but recognized him when she was shown a copy of his police-arrest photo.

Sometime before the attack, Niblack accused her of charging him a quarter too much for something he had bought the night before, she said. He then spit through and kicked the black metal-grate door that separates the lobby from the kitchen area, and she told him to get out, she said. After that, she covered the opening with plastic.

After her husband was attacked, Chen said, Niblack no longer came into the takeout, though he would hang around outside it before he was arrested.

"I believe it is that man because if not him, who?" she said.