City Journal: Through the Plexiglas

Some see Philly's Asian-run delis as magnets for crime. Bill Chow sees his as a ticket to the American Dream (as long as he doesn't get shot)

“I’m sorry to make you go back,” the woman says. “But can you get her an orange mango?”

Mike gets the soda. I’d like to say this woman’s friendliness is the norm at ­Kenny’s Seafood and Steaks, but for whatever ­reason — the polite folks don’t frequent it, the very architecture of the place invites combativeness — most of the patrons I’ve seen are at best impatient.

A middle-aged man strides up to the glass. It’s hard to hear him. “A six-pack of … ”

“Excuse me?” Bill asks.


Bill obliges. The look on his face is the vacant, Asian-guy-behind-the-bulletproof-barrier expression you see in businesses like this all over the city. It says, You can’t hurt me. I might need you, but you can’t hurt me. The customer has an altogether different look. It’s a kind of satisfaction. It says, You might own this place, but I can still treat you like a bitch if I want to.

IN SOME WAYS, there’s nothing new about the tensions between Asian merchants and black customers. Replace “Asian” with “Jewish,” and you’re hearing the same arguments about “outsiders” exploiting the ghetto that have been going on since the 1940s. But there are important differences between Asian merchants and their predecessors. The white merchants of the 1940s did business in a city where getting shot by a teenager while taking out the garbage was unimaginable. The possibility of being gunned down by a 14-year-old for a few dollars just wasn’t on the table.

That began to change in the 1960s. That’s when the levels of street crime we’re familiar with today — the shootings, the muggings, the drug dealing — first hit the big cities. By the 1970s, elderly white business owners, not to mention members of the black middle class, were doing what pretty much everyone with resources in the most crime-ridden parts of the inner city has been doing ever since: moving out. The economy was in free fall, the riots of the 1960s were still discouraging what little private investment could have been on its way, the large industrial employers were shutting down or heading overseas, all of which brought about the conditions you’ll now find in places like the Hollow: concentrated unemployment, concentrated violence, concentrated misery. A place where nobody with good options would ever choose to open a business.

This brings us to families like the Chows. They’ve opened stop-’n’-go’s in the ghetto thanks to their peculiar combination of talents and limitations: entrepreneurial drive, business acumen, poor English skills, access to the important players in their community, and, above all, little opportunity to do anything else.

Consider Bill Chow’s father-in-law, Cuong Tran. In the early 1970s, he was a schoolteacher in rural Cambodia. As the Khmer Rouge began taking over the country in 1974, among the first victims of its genocidal campaign were intellectuals and “impure” ­Cambodians — those, for example, like Cuong, who was of Chinese descent. In 1975 he was imprisoned, and his family was sent to a farm labor camp. A bribe from a relative got him released in 1976, but the victory was a brief one: By 1978, Cuong and his wife and three children were incarcerated at a concentration camp, awaiting execution.

“We were deprived of everything,” Yen Tran, Cuong’s 37-year-old daughter, recently told me. “We had to dig out vegetables from the ground to eat. I was nine years old when I learned how to cook from scratch. I had to find the wood, start the fire, everything.”