Takeout story: Behind bulletproof glass and out on a bike for a Chinese restaurant in Mott Haven

Mr. Lin in the back of Lok Hin. (Kevin Heldman)
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You live in Manhattan below 125th Street, or gentrified Brooklyn, or a quiet part of Queens. You want Chinese food. You’re not following some recommendation from an old Sam Sifton column or a food blog, though. You just want some chicken lo mein, sweet and sour chicken, egg drop soup and fortune cookies.

You go to that drawer full of menus with dragons or pandas or bamboo on them, and the random Chinese characters, and the obligatory promise of fast and free delivery. And in 25 minutes or so a Chinese man on a bike will come to your door and you’ll maybe drop him a xie xie with your tip and he’ll give you a bye bye and he’s gone. End of story.

But there’s a different version of that story that goes on in many parts of this city. And that version is about money, class, race, and education. And in that version people are robbed, assaulted and killed, and people live in fear, constantly on guard and under threat over Chinese food.

Nancy Lin, 30, and her family own and run Lok Hin, a Chinese takeout restaurant on Brook Avenue in the Mott Haven of the Bronx. Just recently, in August, Nancy’s younger sister, Lynn, was assaulted on a delivery. She was screaming on the streets while two men punched her and stole her food. The men were about to get her money, too, but she was saved when someone in the neighborhood opened their door and got her inside. The same thing almost happened again to Lynn even more recently, but her brother showed up and scared her attackers off.

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Nancy has also been attacked. An armed robber came into their kitchen at lunchtime, pulled a gun on her father and cousin and called out, “Don’t move.”

Nancy, who was making fried rice, ran to the phone to call 911. The robber grabbed her by the hair with one hand as she was screaming into the receiver and with his other, free hand looted the register.

After the robbery, Nancy rode with the police around the neighborhood in a patrol car, but didn’t see him. She said she was so scared she couldn’t remember much anyway.

She’s been to the precinct more than once to look at mug-shot books. Her mother has had a gun and bat pulled on her, her father has been beaten, and her brother has been robbed.

For Chinese restaurants in many parts of the city, this is the normal course of doing business. It's been going on for years and it's going on right now. I know about it because I have some familiarity with this world, through personal connections. And I know about it because Nancy Lin let me in, behind the bulletproof glass.

Over the course of several days, I talked to the people who work there, rode their bikes to deliver their food, walked up the project stairs with their customers’ orders, ate with them at the end of the night sitting around in the back of the kitchen on MSG barrels, talked to their customers and to the teenagers whose friends rob them.

Stories about these incidents make the papers sometimes, in the form of a few quotes, a crime statistic, and maybe a follow-up on story on an emergency visa application for a heart-broken relative in China. The incidents are written about in the ethnic press—World Journal, Sing Tao Daily—and maybe those stories contain a few more quotes than the usual American-paper specimen because the reporter speaks the same language as the victim and the victim’s colleagues.

If you look through recent press reports and legal records in New York you’ll find the names Huang, Fengwang, Shi-Yi, Fahua, Chun-Lin, Ng-Cheung, Jin-Sheng, Xun-Zheng, Xing-Wu, Lisheng, Ji, all robbed and shot or stabbed or beaten. In Ji’s case, he was also handcuffed, blindfolded and thrown in the back of a car that he threw himself out of while it was being driven by the robbers.

Few of the accounts are particularly detailed, and most of the incidents, to the extent that they are noticed by the news-consuming public, blend into one another.

Mott Haven has a rich tradition of these incidents. In 2005, Fahua Chen, a 52-year-old Chinese deliveryman, was shot and killed during a robbery in the area. When reporters showed up to cover the story they found out that the owner himself had been assaulted during a delivery the year before, and that same month his wife was attacked inside the restaurant. Earlier in the year, they also found out, another of the restaurant’s deliverymen had both his eyes blackened during an assault and robbery.

In 2010, two employees of New Wok, a Chinese restaurant also in Mott Haven, were shot during a robbery. A customer was actually shot there the next day. Just last month, in September, a Chinese deliveryman from that same restaurant was reportedly robbed and repeatedly hit in the face with a baseball bat.

There’s a news clip of that deliveryman, looking dazed, blood dripping on his face as he stands there that night, an FDNY ambulance in the background.

I ordered food from New Wok (at their request), had a Chinese interpreter talk to them and practically begged them to talk to me, but they refused. When I asked about the deliveryman, all I was told was, “He doesn’t work here anymore,” and “He stays home.”

The manager at New Wok told my interpreter angrily, “If the police can’t do anything what can he do?”

At the time of Fahua Chen's killing, then-councilman John Liu said, “There’s an undercurrent to these brutal attacks on immigrant workers, because they are sometimes not considered to be real people by the perpetrators.”

That’s certainly what the victims believe. They also seem to believe that they are sometimes not considered to be real people by the media, either.

It wasn’t easy, then, getting behind that bulletproof glass and into that kitchen.

I didn’t pick Nancy Lin’s restaurant because I knew it was a particularly representative story. And she wasn’t handed to me by any organization that’s helping her or working for any cause. I walked the streets and went into many Chinese takeout restaurants in Mott Haven and in other areas of the city. In each restaurant I explained who I was, gave them my card and took their menus for contact information. Later I arranged for a Chinese-speaker to call all these places to follow up and explain what I was trying to do.

Most people said no, that they were too busy.

One said, “There is no benefit to talk.”

Another said, “Is there money for an interview? Then why would I do it?”

Some of the people were hostile, some were merely suspicious and some were completely nice. But they all said no, until I got to Nancy Lin, who told my interpreter that yes, what’s going on in her life, and how she and her family are living, “It should be known.”

THE MOTT HAVEN SECTION OF THE BRONX IS STATISTICALLY the poorest neighborhood in New York City. Census figures have it as 97 percent black and Latino. Walk the streets there and you’ll pass an inordinate number of housing projects, a boxing gym, the Masjid Ebun Abass Islamic Culture center, Horizon Juvenile Detention Center (pre-trial lock up for under-16 murderers and petty probation violators; I once worked there as a teacher), Latino pastors giving out boxes of free food in an empty lot, young girls riding mini-bikes, old ladies pushing shopping carts filled with cans to recycle.

It’s a high-crime neighborhood. Last year, four men were shot, and one killed, on 143rd Street. In May, a 15-year-old was shot to death outside of the Patterson Houses. On Oct. 15, a 24-year-old was stabbed to death near Brook Avenue. On Oct. 17, a 16-year-old was shot to death on 146th Street.

Lok Hin is in the middle of all this, between 140th and 141st Streets on Brook Avenue, just six blocks from New Wok, where the double-shooting and the bat attack occurred last month. I found out about it because Nancy’s brother, Jian, had been enlisted to translate for the police when the shooting happened, and he told me the story. (He was the only person around when they showed up who could speak Chinese and English.)

He told me the man who owned New Wok during that last shooting sold the place, and that it’s under new management. The establishment dropped its disability and workers compensation coverage soon after the 2010 shootings, according to state records.

Nancy’s father—she said to call him Mr. Lin—bought Lok Hin 10 years ago. The name of the restaurant is the name of the previous owner’s son. Mr. Lin is in his fifties. He doesn’t speak English.

He handles a wok with amazing skill, moving it over high shooting flames, dipping his utensil at lightning speed back and forth between the cooking food and a small can of grease, turning the gas on and off with his knee.

He also does delivery. When he’s on break, he typically reads Sing Tao Daily in the back, eating, leaning back on an MSG barrel. On his days off he goes into Manhattan’s Chinatown and gambles a bit, plays a little mahjongg, and sometimes sings oldies karaoke. He laughs easily and seems averse to the very idea of complaining.

Six members of the family work in the restaurant: three sisters and one brother, along with Mr. Lin and his wife. One of the sisters is married and her husband, Luis, also works in the restaurant as a cook. He has a dragon-head tattoo on his neck that he got in Chinatown. They live in a house in Elmhurst, Queens, and drive to work each day. Their car sits on the street right in front of their store.

Next door is a barber shop, blasting music, with a pool table in the back.

Talking to me one night about the neighborhood, the owner said, “Last summer it was really bad.”

I asked him where in the neighborhood it was particularly dangerous.

“Everywhere, Papi,” he said. “It’s hot all over here.”

There was a guy with a pit-bull on the corner.

In a bodega I went into to ask questions, they acted like there was a war going on: Let’s talk outside; you got to be careful; let me see your credentials. Somebody told me if I walked down the street to the subway from where we were I would certainly get robbed.

The two tabletops with booth-like plastic chairs in Lok Hin are completely covered with scratched-in scribblings: Blood (with arrows pointing up on the L and the D); Gun Man; hate me now; Gunz; Flaco.

There’s an iron-gate door to get into the kitchen, bullet-proof glass in front of the counter, a lucky cat-with-paw-up statue and what looks like a working camera up in the corner near the ceiling.

The family members won’t go on deliveries past certain streets and won't go upstairs in certain nearby Housing Authority buildings because it's too much of a security risk.

MR. LIN CAME TO AMERICA IN 1990. HE LEFT THE REST of his family back in the Fujian province, the Changle area, a main source of immigrant restaurant workers in the city. A restaurant worker in another Mott Haven restaurant I was in, No.1 Wok, said he thinks about 80 percent of the Chinese restaurant workers in New York are from Fujian.

Nancy’s hometown got called out in a 2007 New York magazine feature article about a heated dispute between management and workers at Saigon Grill, an Upper West Side restaurant with two locations. The owner was quoted as saying, “Everybody in Chinatown knows these men from the Fujian province, the people are very no good. The people are very, very no good.”

That owner and his wife were arrested in 2008 on more than 400 criminal charges for cheating workers. The employees won back wages: a Manhattan federal court awarded $4.6 million to 36 delivery workers.

Today, under new management, Saigon Grill is still being picketed for treating its workers unfairly. The protests are organized by Justice Will Be Served, a coalition of three organizations: Chinese Staff and Workers Association, 318 Restaurant Workers Union, and National Mobilization Against Sweatshops.

I know some of the people in those organizations. Organizers often work 13-hour days, burning out and then coming back; they pull together rallies, using whatever resources are at their disposal, and deal with flaky volunteers who show up and say they want to help and then quickly disappear. These workers are sometimes just a notch above the economic level of the people they’re trying to help, and often work long hours in restaurants themselves.

I’ve lugged items for some of those picket lines, and I’ve been that flaky volunteer. I’ve sat in Chinatown offices packed with Chinese restaurant workers making plans to protest.

I know the director of Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Wing Lam, who has been doing this work since 1979 and has helped so many people he should be up for sainthood, though he’d scoff at that and say it’s not about him. (Mother Jones magazine did a lengthy profile of him and the organization in 2001. It was sympathetic to him and his politics, notwithstanding the description of his “broad face” and “prominent front teeth,” but it contained no evidence that anyone involved in writing it had gone into a single workplace or talked to any actual Chinese workers. The “real people” problem, again.)

Nancy Lin knew a bit about this world. She worked in restaurants in Manhattan earlier in her life, including one that was actually protested against.

But who is there to protest against for her family’s working conditions? Who cares if the delivery-man down the block who got hit in the face with a bat is getting medical care or workers compensation? (The headline in the New York Post after the 2010 shooting there was “KUNG-PAO POW, POW.”) Who wants to take responsibility for Nancy’s sister, just coming off an assault and another near-assault, still hopping on the bike and pedaling out of the restaurant into the neighborhood for deliveries?

Nancy slipped through the cracks when she dropped out of school in tenth grade, when she was new to America and nobody cared. It’s as if she and her family have slipped through the cracks all over again, out of the view of any immigrant-help organization, and beyond even the protection of law enforcement.

Nancy said that back in Fujian province her father used to be a salesman, a fisherman, and in the spring, a farmer. When he got to New York he worked at restaurant jobs and practically starved himself. (“He ate only apples,” Nancy said.) He saved money and sent some back home, where his remittances, according to Nancy, supported ten people. She respects him tremendously.

In 1996, the rest of the family came over.

Nancy was 16 when she got to New York, and she knew practically no English. Now her English is fluent, and she’ll drop a Papi and a gracias into her exchanges with her customers.

The family lived in the East Village area when they first arrived— junior high school on the Lower East Side, high school at Murray Bergtraum High (where Asians were about 10 percent of the school population), then moved to Queens.

Nancy told me the restaurant is open 7 days a week, 364 days a year. They’re only closed on Thanksgiving. The heat is terrible in the summer. In the winter the danger level increases because everybody is hooded up and the Lins can’t bike, so they have to do deliveries on foot, making them easy targets.

They’re all tired all the time and they talk regularly about maybe closing up after another year.

Their mother, who I'm told is the best cook in the family, has carpal tunnel syndrome and back problems, from a lifetime of chopping chicken and vegetables. Now, Nancy does that all night, running around the kitchen in her Crocs, working quickly and skillfully, dropping pounds of meat into the deep-fat fryer (she said her back kills her when she comes home at night), and insisting to me she doesn’t know how to cook. She said she never saw a fortune cookie until she came to America. She said she now eats chicken wings every day, and eats the fortune cookies too, although she doesn’t believe them.