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)

When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia soon after their imprisonment, shutting down concentration camps, the Tran family knew their future lay somewhere far away from the wars of Southeast Asia. Their only hope came from rumors that there were Red Cross refugee camps in Thailand. That’s where the family began heading, on foot, in 1980.

The Trans made it to Thailand in 1981. Several months later, thanks to the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, they were resettled at, of all places, 45th and Chestnut in West Philadelphia.

In the early 1980s, there was already an ethnic Chinese community of “boat people” in West Philly, and Cuong started making connections with them. Through word of mouth, he heard that the farmers of South Jersey were hiring workers, and he and his family spent their summers picking blueberries and depositing money in their bank account. Three years of this, followed by another two working as a dishwasher in a ­Korean-owned takeout at 60th and Chestnut, and Cuong had saved just enough to have the collateral to borrow money — from established Chinese businessmen, not, obviously, from a commercial bank, for which a credit history would be a prerequisite — to open his first takeout restaurant in West Philadelphia.

By then, the early 1990s, Koreans in Philadelphia had already begun to get out of the stop-’n’-go and takeout-Chinese-food businesses. Their kids had grown up speaking English, were going to college, and planned to make money anywhere but behind bulletproof barriers. Most of the present owners of stop-’n’-go’s are a step behind the Koreans. According to the Asian American Beverage Association, 70 percent of stop-’n’-go owners in Philly are ethnic Chinese from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. And when their kids have learned English and gone on to safer work, those owners will sell to whatever new group is ready to improve its lot by way of malt liquor.

Therein lies the curious position of Bill Chow. Bill’s father-in-law ran a stop-’n’-go because he had to. Bill’s eight-month-old daughter, Morgan, may never see the inside of a stop-’n’-go. Bill and his wife, Michelle, are the transitional generation. Their first language is Chinese, but they’re now fluent in English. Bill has an economics degree from the State University of New York. Michelle went to Penn. They’re renting the building from Bill’s father-in-law not only out of a sense of family obligation, but because it looked like a good opportunity — their goal is to save enough to buy their own house and open a business someplace safe.

Only that plan has been complicated by two factors. The first is competition. Across the street, a Dominican family has opened a grocery store. They may not be selling beer, but they’ve undercut Bill on everything else: cigars, aspirin, candy, cigarettes, chips, soda. “They came in here when they first opened,” Bill says, “and looked at all our prices. Then they made everything a few cents lower.”

The other reason is a brand-new state law known as Act 39. It requires all restaurants in the City of Philadelphia that sell beer for takeout to have a special license, starting in October of this year, that must be re-approved next year and every two years thereafter. In theory, this will allow a three-person panel to shutter a nuisance stop-’n’-go without much delay. Among the champions of the law is Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.