Cultural Differences Render Chinese Immigrants in Brooklyn Vulnerable to Crimes

Stores on 61st Street in Chinatown, Brooklyn. Photo credit to Siyu Qian.

Stores on 61st Street in Chinatown, Brooklyn. (Siyu Qian)

Not all victims of crimes react to them in the same way.

A recent wave of robberies involving six Chinese women aging 21 to 43 in Brooklyn has sparked a wave of reflection on violence and discrimination toward Chinese immigrants in New York City—and how they respond when they’re victims.

Manuel Israel, a 20-year-old Manhattan man, was arrested on April 6, police said, after he attempted to rob a Chinese woman in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the sixth in a string of robberies aimed at Chinese women in the area of Fort Hamilton Parkway between 55th and 71th Streets. The Brooklyn District Attorney charged Israel with second-degree robbery as a hate crime, among other charges. Israel was held on $50,000 bail, following his criminal court arraignment.

According to the criminal complaint provided by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, Israel attacked a 23-year-old Chinese woman walking alone in the proximity of 55th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway on April 6, 2015 at approximately 12:20 a.m. Israel had repeatedly pulled on the victim’s bag, causing her to fall onto the ground, the complaint said. He then stood over the victim and said: “Give me all your money.”

A bystandersaw Israel with his arm around the victim’s neck and reported the crime, according to the complaint. Israel was apprehended about 20 minutes later six blocks away the crime scene.

“This defendant allegedly targeted Asian women walking alone because he believed he could overpower them. Such cowardly attacks—whether based on a person’s race, gender, sexuality or ethnicity, destroy the fabric of who we are as a community and won’t be tolerated,” according to a statement made by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson on April 21.

However, many in the Chinese community see more to these crimes than one man’s attempt to try to overpower his victims because of who they were. In other words, many in the community are asking if perhaps the man’s motives were driven more by entrenched stereotypes rather than hate. Specifically, they say, Chinese cultural norms and well-worn, if perhaps misguided, perceptions toward Chinese immigrants also played into the series of attacks.

“Traditionally, Chinese are taught to make concessions and compromise in violent circumstances to avoid future trouble,” said Guodong Zhang, a Chinese immigrant activist based at Long Island, New York. “The tolerance normally leads to more crimes being committed against Chinese descendants.”

Some Chinese immigrants disagreed with the prosecutor’s categorization of the attacks as hate crimes. Stereotypes, they say, also might explain why this man went after Chinese women. For example, a perception that Chinese immigrants carry large amounts of cash with them seems to exists in the community. And many residents of the area, who happen to be Chinese, speculated that this could also explain why all the victims were Chinese.

“The criminal was targeting vulnerable Chinese women, who are generally perceived as weak and carry lots of cash,” said a source in the neighborhood, who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of the topic.

She wasn’t the only one who believed money, and not discrimination toward Chinese, many have been a motivation for the recent robberies.

“They thought Chinese work hard and carry cash as a habit,” said Yang, a Chinese restaurant owner on Fort Hamilton Parkway. Yang is also uncomfortable given his first name over the sensitive matter.

People walking on 7th Avenue in Chinatown, Brooklyn. (Siyu Qian/NYCity Lens)

People walking on 7th Avenue in Chinatown, Brooklyn. (Siyu Qian)

Many residents, however, argue that many Chinese women, unfortunately, do make themselves enticing targets to thieves.

“Some Chinese women like to flaunt wealth by wearing jewelries to merely show off,” said Li Jing, an owner of a nail spa in the neighborhood.

But many also were troubled that it took six robberies to catch the thief—and speculated that the reason was that many Chinese are less likely to complain to authorities because of cultural differences. Many feel they don’t have the time to go through long questioning procedures so they avoid them; others give away their cash easily to avoid being beaten. And for some it might come down to language issues; they don’t speak English well enough to complain so they choose to remain silent.

“Chinese immigrants, especially newcomers normally lack English proficiency, which can lead to misinterpretation of the accidents from the police, therefore they are less willing to seek help from the police,” said immigrant activist Zhang.

In addition, Chinese are disinclined to report crimes to police for fear of self-exposure, as many of them are undocumented immigrants, said a worker at a nearby Chinese grocery store. A large number of immigrants from China are concentrated along the 8th Avenue, the majority of them come from Fujian, a province at the South coast of China.

Since the robberies, many residents have noticed a bigger police presence in the area.

“I have seen increasing number of police cars patrolling on 8th Avenue during the night for rising criminal activities,” said Dong, owner of a Chinese barbecue diner near 8th Avenue. Dong didn’t want to reveal her first name for safety reasons. Dong’s store is open until 3 a.m. to accommodate customers who return from work late. She worries about crime; she locks the door of the store after 8 p.m. and recently installed two surveillance cameras on top of the front of her store to prevent burglary, just to stay safe.

Many residents of the neighborhood seem to have reached a common ground that simply enduring crimes will only foster an environment that will encourage offenders to continue act recklessly toward Chinese. Many feel that Chinese residents need to fight back against such injustices.

“Chinese need to be united and stand up for ourselves,” said Yang, owner of a Chinese restaurant. “We need to prevent and dispelling injustice and discrimination.

Prosecutor Grace Brainard of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Civil Rights Bureau couldn’t comment as the case is still under investigation. Israel’s attorney, Jillian Modzeleski, a Brooklyn public defender, did not return repeated calls.