Community Reflections

South Philly Asian Fear Factor

Taken from Philadelphia Daily News




Asian community ‘scared every day’ since store slaying

By S
imone Weichselbaum

It is a different world on the other side of the bulletproof glass.

The thick plastic barrier that divides customers from the meager kitchen in the Jade Express is the only thing that makes Le Heng feel safe.

The clear wall is a nuisance to customers who have to yell to give their order and reach through a small window for their take-out Chinese food.

But if it wasn’t for the glass wall, Heng, 47, thinks she would have been dead by now.

“I get scared every day,” said Heng, speaking through a partially opened side door separating the kitchen from the customer’s entrance. “You don’t know who to trust.”

Heng, a Cambodian immigrant who came to this country 20 years ago, rented the corner take-out on Wharton Street near 16th after its former manager, Dayu “Mike” Yee, was shot dead during a robbery in July in the same spot Heng now works.

She said she coped with what happened to Yee, but the fear of violence got too much for her last week when her best friend’s son, Luckily Ky, was shot while trying to fight off two armed robbers sticking up the Ky family’s grocery on 17th Street near Moore.

“After I saw what happened, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I had to close my store.”

Despite the two killings and the yearning to leave the restaurant for a more secure work environment, Heng said she’s stuck.

“I cannot read English,” she quietly confessed. “But I want to take care of my family. I don’t want to ask the government for money. I want to work.”

Heng doesn’t like to talk about her disadvantages in adjusting to life in this country, and she doesn’t know who will take advantage of her weaknesses.

Her wariness is not uncommon. Police in South Philadelphia said they have had numerous incidents were Asians have been the victims of crime.

Sgt. Stephen Biello of South Detectives, a 14-year veteran, spent his entire law enforcement career in South Philly and said armed robberies of take-outs and grocery stores is nothing new in that area.

“It is known in the criminal community that since Asians have a language barrier, they won’t go to the police that quickly,” he said.

Stereotyping also drive muggers to attack Asians, Biello added.

“They say they don’t use banks and wear a lot of yellow [more expensive] gold,” said Biello.

About two weeks after the fatal shooting in the Jade Express, Xui Jiang Chen, 35, and Chao Yan Lin, 32, were shot dead during an armed robbery in Lin’s China Wok take-out restaurant on Rising Sun Avenue near Gilham Street in Lawncrest.

The three summer shootings prompted Police Commissioner Syl-vester Johnson and Chief Inspector James Tiano to meet with about 150 representatives, mainly from the Chinese community, at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Aug. 7.

Out of that discussion, Tiano’s office of Community Affairs, along with other police divisions, are now working toward educating the Asian community how to better protect themselves, and also to educate police how to handle the non-English speaking population of the city.

The Police Department is improving its 911 system to better accommodate non-English speakers. The program would require callers to submit forms listing their name, address and language. The form will then be passed on to the department’s communication office, said Sgt. Joseph Spera, who is helping to spearhead the new operation.

Spera said that callers can obtain the forms by phoning 215-685-3940. He said that once residents who are registered in the system call 911, they will be quickly connected to a translator rather than waiting up to 10 minutes for one to be found.

“When I help immigrants, I always think of my grandfather who came from Italy and no one would help him,” Tiano said.

Despite police efforts, Quyen Ngo, vice president of the Asian-American Business Association of Greater Philadelphia, said it will be hard for immigrants to let go of their mistrust of the American government due to their experiences in their home countries.

Their difficulties are compounded by their illiteracy and the fact that many live in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“We have to live in the rotten areas because that is affordable,” Ngo said. “We have no skills, no education so we have to open a business.”

The first step toward the American dream is to become a vendor on the street, explained Ngo. Then open a lunch cart, proceeded by a take-out or a grocery store.

Ngo once owned a store in Southwest Philly, but sold it seven years ago. He now has a master’s degree from St. Joseph’s University and a house in Cherry Hill.

While Ngo is now a proud suburbanite, Heng’s dream of success in embodied in her 3-year-old grandniece, who is always by her side behind the bullet-proof glass in the Jade Express.

The giggling toddler is unaware of the fear her aunt tries to mask from her as the take-out fills with six men waiting for food, all of whom could fit the description of the killer of Luckily Ky.

“I am going to stop selling Chinese food,” Heng vowed while looking at her grandniece.