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Workers Under the Gun
Takeout men risk violence for meager tips

February 22, 2004, New York Daily News

Charlie Choy has been robbed at least 20 times in the six years he has delivered takeout Chinese food in Queens.

The ambush usually occurs after 10 p.m., when he is called to an apartment with a side entrance or in a dark hallway. A group of young people attack him from all directions, beat him and steal the food and money he has on him.

"I've been hit with a gun. I've been hit with a glass bottle on my head. I've had someone hold a gun on me," said Choy, 54, who works for Panda Restaurant in South Jamaica. "I've had everything happen."

Choy and the many Chinese men who deliver food in New York City face verbal abuse, beatings, robberies, slashing or worse. Last weekend's savage slaying of 18-year-old Huang Chen of Ming Garden restaurant for $49 - the third killing of a deliveryman in Queens and Brooklyn since 2000 - crystallizes how dangerous a job it can be.

Choy allowed the Daily News to accompany him on a night of deliveries last week. The orders of General Tso's chicken and house special lo mein ranged from $7 to $35. His biggest tip was $3.

He goes into the night in his blue Toyota Corolla, armed with only his street smarts, a cellular phone and his willingness to hand over any cash he is carrying - usually $50 to $100 - without any resistance.

"I really won't wait or hesitate," he said in Chinese. "I don't run away from people - I just give them the money and that's fine. They can keep the food, too."

He protects himself by keeping the doors of his car unlocked - just in case he has to run back. He calls new customers before stepping out of the car, asking them to come outside the house or building to fetch their food.

Choy will not go into high-rises except one: Kennedy Plaza on Rockaway Blvd., which has security guards, he said. For the rest, it's curbside pickup.

Sometimes, he gently presses on the horn and waits for a face to peek out a window or for someone to crack open a door before he gets out of his car.

"It's the new customer I check," Choy said. "Until they come out of the house, that's when I give it to them. Not before. If no one answers the phone, I leave."

His precautions seem to be working, he said. When he started delivering for Panda six years ago, he was often robbed. He has managed to avoid it the past three years.

Kenneth Cheng, executive vice president of the Fukien American Association, a group representing several takeout restaurants in the boroughs, said robberies are very common, yet most of them go unreported, with the thugs never caught.

Workers are usually too busy to bother with making police reports and instead just head back to the restaurant to make more deliveries, he said.

"The police call me for the lineup, but I don't ever go," said Choy, who lives in Richmond Hill. "I won't recognize them."

Just last Thursday, cops foiled an attempt to rob a deliveryman in the Bronx after a worker at the Chinese restaurant grew suspicious when she received four orders from a person with the same voice.

Choy, an immigrant from Guandong, China, and father of two, wishes he could get another job. He said he hasn't been able to because he doesn't speak any English, has only an elementary school education and is too old.

His days are long, usually 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. - later on Fridays and Saturdays. Half of what he makes comes from tips, but he said nearly half his customers don't tip at all.

On an average day, he can make $50 in tips. Sometimes, he is paid with counterfeit money and the loss comes out of his pay, he said.

But for all his precautions with strangers, he is warm with his regular customers, greeting them with, "Hi, friend!"

Customer Cecelia Cox, 50, who lives off the Van Wyck Expressway, paid for delivery of beef and broccoli, then told him to be careful.

"I was living here during the period we had no deliveries. So I'm thankful and grateful," she said. "I'm praying for you, Charlie."


Copyright 2004 Daily News, L.P.

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