Earlier this year, 18-year-old Huang Chen was beaten and stabbed to death while making deliveries for his family’s Chinese restaurant in South Jamaica, Queens. The two teenagers who are accused of killing him, then stuffing his body into a box and dumping it in a pond, did so because, according to police, having robbed him of $49, they did not want to be identified.
The gruesome and seemingly capricious nature of Chen’s murder was only the latest in what seems to be a pattern of violent attacks on Chinese deliverymen working in the city. At least five Chinese deliverymen have been killed on the job in the past five years.
Officer Michael Lau of the New York Police Department's community affairs office, however, downplays the racial element in these crimes, pointing out that all deliverymen who work in high-crime areas are susceptible to violence regardless of race. "It’s not just crimes against Chinese delivery people," said Lau, "there are crimes against delivery people in general."
The police department, however, has begun conducting an ongoing series of outreach programs specifically designed for Chinese deliverymen, the latest of which took place in lower Manhattan at the end of March. During the program, which was attended by over 200 restaurant owners and workers, police gave a presentation in Mandarin and English on safety measures that deliverymen could take to protect themselves. In addition, flyers with safety tips were also distributed to command centers in each precinct, and from there to many Chinese restaurants.
Some advocates, however, wonder about the police department's ability to deal empathetically with deliverymen, many of whom are recent immigrants to the United States and who may be undocumented.
"In this day and age, the fact that you may be undocumented presents a problem," said Sin Yen Ling, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. She added that, undocumented or not, "many immigrants are fearful of the police. Many of them come from a homeland where police aren’t trustworthy."
Officer Lau said that the police have taken steps to address these concerns. An executive order prohibits officers from asking victims or witnesses about their immigration status, a protection that is supposed to continue throughout the entire investigation and prosecution of a criminal case.
In addition, the police department’s community affairs office has also developed a new immigrant outreach program that specifically addresses the fears of immigrants who have a distrust of government officials.
Joyce Stephens of the deputy commissioner’s office said that these outreach efforts have led to a flood of tips being phoned in by members of the immigrant community, albeit anonymously.
"The contact that we’re having is worthwhile in building trust," Stephens said, "Even anonymous tips didn’t happen before."
The police department encourages deliverymen to report robberies or assaults as quickly as possible so specific police action can be taken. In the past, the department has used undercover officers to apprehend suspects in areas that have a pattern of assault against deliverymen. Officers have also trailed deliverymen on their routes to see if anybody is waiting to rob or assault them.
Stevens, however, emphasizes the "common-sense" measures the deliverymen could take to protect themselves while on the job.
"Maybe you want to set up some boundaries, like after a certain hour you won’t go into buildings," Stevens said, "You have to feel safe and use instinct, and if you don’t feel safe about going into locations, then don’t go in."
Khairul Effendy, a deliveryman for a Malaysian restaurant in lower Manhattan, said that in his seven years on the job, he has had his bicycle stolen five times, but he has managed to avoid being personally assaulted.
"We’re open until 11:30 PM," Effendy said, "but I’ll only delivery until 11. The area around the
restaurant is okay, but I’m not so sure of the areas to the east and west.
Many deliverymen who work in high crime areas are recently arrived immigrants whose lack of language or job skills prevent them from taking a job in safer areas. In addition, their low profit margins may prompt them to take risks in the hopes of making a few extra dollars.
"Many deliverymen are just scraping by to make a living," said New York City Councilmember John Liu.
Deliverymen in Far Rockaway, Queens reportedly make an average of 60 runs per eight hour shift. Deliverymen often work longer shifts, however, and the frequency of their deliveries make them an easy target for robberies. In addition, deliverymen often venture alone into apartment buildings because they are more likely to get tipped if they deliver food to individual apartments instead of waiting in a lobby.
"The trouble is that there are no quick fixes," said Hyun Lee of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, "There are a number of things that need to be addressed, such as the lack of job opportunities for immigrants, as well as working conditions so these immigrants don’t always have to work around the clock."
In response to Chen’s murder, members of New York city council, including Liu, Hiram Monserrate and Charles Barron called for a one-day moratorium on restaurant deliveries, suggesting that customers pick up orders themselves. The event was supposed to honor Chen’s memory, and increase awareness among many New Yorkers who take for granted the risks involved in delivering a meal.
"We need to send a message," Liu said, "that it’s not going to be open season on deliverymen or immigrants."