Chinese family's slaughter in Brooklyn exposes community's lives of toil

For Fujian immigrant and father of four Yilin Zhuo, the American dream ended in a nightmare

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 2:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 2:37am

Yilin Zhuo's younger daughter was the last to go into the ground. Before her had gone her sister, her younger brother and the baby, William. Too small for his own coffin, he lay nestled beside their mother.

After American soil had covered his family's coffins, Zhuo had nothing left to stay for. In early December, he abandoned his adopted home, Brooklyn, for the Chinese village he had come from two decades ago.

"A father just wants to see his children grow up," he said, hours before his flight back to China. "Now my children are gone. My wife is gone. Can I ever be happy again?"

Linda was nine; Amy, seven; Kevin, five; and William just one. They and their mother, Qiaozhen Li, 37, were found stabbed to death in late October in their Brooklyn, New York, apartment. A cousin who had been staying with the family was arrested after the police found him there, his clothes spattered with blood, a large kitchen knife nearby.

It was family violence on a scale rarely seen in New York, set in motion, the cousin told the police, by his sense of failure to find the security, stability and family all newcomers to Brooklyn's Chinatown seek.

Until that Saturday night, the household had been one more poor immigrant family among the thousands who have emptied the towns and villages around Fuzhou , in Fujian province, for the United States.

Once in New York, the men board buses for jobs in the Chinese takeaway shops and buffets that sprout improbably along neon-lit highways and inside small-town strip malls: west to Michigan, north to Maine, south to Georgia.

America's Chinese restaurants are a diaspora of the Fuzhounese, nearly half a million of them hoping, like generations of immigrants before them, that long hours and low wages will someday make their uprooting worth it.

Zhuo, 41, was one such worker. His cousin Mingdong Chen, 25, was another. Their divergent paths - one on the way up, the other now charged with murder - lay bare the reality of life in this Chinese community: crushing burdens and relentless poverty, permanent for all but a few. Chen's troubles were there for all to see in his postings on Qzone, a Chinese social-media service. "Why is the pressure now so great?" he wrote. "The path has been so difficult."

Little has been told beyond the Chinese press about the people who died and about Zhuo, the father left behind, and Chen, the cousin. He is awaiting a hearing on whether he is mentally competent to stand trial for murder.

Both cousins had come to New York the same way, as young men sent away from home to grind away as dishwashers and assistant waiters in restaurants, with only the faintest hope of a better life. But Zhuo built his chance into a humble career, home and family.

What little he had, his cousin - struggling, envious, desperate - is accused of shattering in one night.

Fired from yet another job and on the verge of deportation, Chen came to stay in the family's apartment in October. He gambled. He smoked. He did not act right, Li told relatives. Days before the stabbings, Chen had argued with the children.

On the night of October 26, Li, in a call with her mother-in-law in China, told her that Chen had a knife. By the time concerned relatives came to her door and Zhuo rushed home from work, it was too late.

Soon after his arrest, Chen told detectives that "everyone seems to be doing better than him" since he arrived in the United States in 2004, according to the police.

His family, and Zhuo's, had borrowed tens of thousands of US dollars from relatives and friends for Chinese smuggling rings, known as snakeheads, to sneak their sons into New York.

They would speak no English, have few prospects. But there was still a chance - to support their families, repay their smuggling debts, sponsor emigrating relatives and start families.

The restaurant workers live by two dark jokes. One plays on the Chinese words for snakehead, stove burner and pillow, which all end in the suffix meaning "head".

"We Fujianese have three heads - snakehead, stove burner, pillow," they say. They arrive by boat or plane, cook, sleep, wake to cook again. Jobs last between a few weeks and a few years.

The other saying, ka che dian, or "card, car, store", refers to the green card - which gives US immigrants permanent resident status - property and business that young men must possess before they are considered eligible to marry. But before saving for the future, they must toil for years to repay their snakehead debts, which can top US$80,000.

"Work is our entire life. We don't have any choice," says James Zheng, 31, who bounced between more than 10 different restaurants across the country before opening an employment agency in the heart of Brooklyn's Chinatown.

"They think if they keep working so hard, they can own a restaurant or own a house."

"What they're pursuing and what they're living are completely different," he adds. "This is the American dream: there's nothing to it."

Zhuo's father died when he was 12. When he was 21, he was smuggled out of China for the equivalent of US$40,000.

By 2006, he had secured a long-term position as a stir-fry cook at Best Wok, a takeaway shop in the New York borough of Queens, preparing dish after dish of chicken and broccoli. After he struggled to find a wife in New York, his mother set him up with a friend's daughter in China, Li.

As his family grew, Zhuo worked harder. Knowing he could not afford cigarettes, he never smoked. He declined invitations for nights out. He saved up to help a brother pay his smuggling debts.

To avoid the lengthy commute from eastern Queens, Zhuo lived like an out-of-town worker, sharing a room provided by his boss with the other staff members. He went home on Sundays. After 12-hour shifts ended at midnight, he and the others watched Chinese TV or had video chats with their families before going to bed.

Over time, the couple found some security. They paid off their snakehead debts two years ago. Both gained legal status. While others sent their children to be raised in China, Li stayed at home with their four children. They rented part of their apartment to relatives, crowding into the remaining two rooms.

When Chen knocked on their door this autumn, he had just been fired from a job in Chicago. They offered him a meal, then a bed.

Since arriving in the US as a 16-year-old, Chen had trouble holding down work. Between jobs, he gambled and smoked marijuana in illegal slot machine parlours, said his friend of several years, Tony Chen. Often agitated, he would pound his hand against the machines when he lost.

He was usually broke, earning little but his family's disapproval. His father, Chen Yixiang, had paid nearly US$100,000 to his son's smugglers, and still owes half that to lenders, he said. "I will never be able to see my son again," Chen Yixiang says, speaking from China. "I am worse off than my son is now. My head is a mess."

The stream of Fujianese immigrants has slowed in recent years. But New York still exerts a powerful pull for those who might earn US$2,000 a year at home, compared with US$1,500 or US$3,000 a month in a restaurant, says Kenneth Guest, a Baruch College anthropologist who studies the city's Fujianese population.

In the employment agencies, men study grids of yellow Post-it notes fluttering on the walls. Each announces a job, monthly pay and a three-digit number, the restaurant's telephone area code. For many, the names of the cities and states where they work mean little. What they know are numbers: highway exits, area codes and the time it takes to ride back to Chinatown.

On days off, or between jobs, they return to New York. Some keep small rooms in subdivided apartments, sharing them with as many as six roommates. Others stay with relatives. The less fortunate pay a few US dollars to spend the night in internet cafes, playing computer games until they fall asleep.

Although Mingdong Chen did not have much money or a green card, he got engaged a few years ago, Tony Chen said. But after he paid the customary bride-price - a prerequisite that can top US$50,000 among the Brooklyn Fujianese - the woman disappeared, a not-uncommon type of marriage fraud, but one that left Mingdong Chen devastated.

"Looking at one couple after the next. Why do I feel so lonely?" he wrote on Qzone in August 2012. "I want to shout out loud: I love you."

In this environment, anxiety and depression run rampant. But mental illness is both stigmatised and not well understood in the community, says Paul Mak, the president of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, who recently organised a series of mental health workshops at the Zhuo children's school.

Mingdong Chen has undergone psychiatric evaluation, says his lawyer, Danielle Eaddy.

A hearing on whether he is fit to stand trial is scheduled for January.