Bleak House


After more than two years of bickering with a fellow tenant, Lin Senfeng finally got Yang Jinhua to shut up. At lunchtime on an October day, Mr. Lin burst into the lobby of the Sun Bright Hotel in Chinatown, the building where they lived, covered in blood. Some was his own, oozing from his slit palms. The rest was Mr. Yang’s, splattered across Mr. Lin’s face. “Call the police!” Mr. Lin screamed. “I don’t want him to die!”

When the police arrived, they followed a trail of blood that led up four flights of stairs to find the body of Mr. Yang, dressed in underwear and flip-flops. According to the written confession that Mr. Lin gave the police, he had been depressed about job woes and fed up with Mr. Yang and their spats; he took a four-inch knife that he used for peeling fruit and stabbed Mr. Yang in the neck, arms, face and chest. The medical examiner later determined that Mr. Yang’s heart had been slashed.

After the body was found, Mr. Lin, 28, stood somber and silent in the lobby and held out his arms to be handcuffed before he was taken to jail, where he awaits resolution of his case. As the scene unfolded at the hotel, the thoughts of other tenants might have turned to Yee Szegim, another Sun Bright tenant, who had lost his job as a cook and, on a rainy afternoon in April 2004, walked to the Manhattan Bridge and jumped to his death.

All three of these men worked in Chinese restaurants. They and people like them are largely unknown to most New Yorkers; contact typically involves no more than a brisk exchange over a table in a restaurant, or a brief glimpse through an open kitchen door. But occasionally, spasms of violence hint at the bleakness of their world, a bleakness brought on by factors like poverty, language barriers and shadowy immigrant status.

Here are snapshots of that world.

The Sun Bright Hotel, also known as the Sun, a meringue-colored building at Hester Street and the Bowery with a ground floor occupied by a string of jewelry shops, is one of the dormitory-style residences for restaurant workers that dot Chinatown. Before it was the Sun, the six-story structure, built in 1880, was the Union Hotel, one of the dozens of S.R.O.’s in the Bowery area in the 50’s and 60’s.

These days, the Sun is owned by a so-called da lao ban — big player — named Su Fanguang. Mr. Su, who also goes by the name William Su, was pictured in a Chinatown newspaper after sending $2,000 to Mr. Yang’s wife, daughter and mother after his killing.

Although Mr. Su would not discuss the stabbing, he did confirm that he had sent the money. He also said that he owned three other hotels in Chinatown, one for women. Their names sound impressive when translated into English: Grand Hotel, Fortune Hotel, Eternity Hotel.

To enter the Sun today, a visitor walks past a broken pay phone, then ascends a large red staircase flanked by what appear to be freshly painted white walls. At the top of the stairs are a few signs in Chinese declaring that tenants must be single men and stating a few housekeeping rules: no spitting on the floor, no smoking in the stairwells, please flush the toilets.

To the left of the signs is a locked metal door, the hotel entrance; to pass into the hotel lobby, the visitor must be buzzed in by the front-desk attendant. The lobby, a small, yellowed room, has no chairs.

Backpacks and Mah-Jongg

A constant stream of tenants trudge up and down the red staircase. Largely cleanshaven, they wear shiny leather wingtips, pressed pants and starched shirts, and carry collegiate-style backpacks outfitted with mesh water-bottle holders, or those small, wheeled suitcases favored by flight attendants. Some tenants’ baggage, however, is little more than a handful of plastic grocery and trash bags.

Tenants often subsist on meals of rice porridge, dried fruit and restaurant leftovers. Fights routinely break out at the hotel over noise — cellphones, DVD players — and over use of the bathroom, personal effects borrowed without permission, and the disposal of greasy food wrappers and other trash.

At night, young men chat on cellphones while older men drink and gamble on mah-jongg and card games like chor dai dee, a distant cousin to gin rummy. Because three dialects of Chinese — Cantonese, Fujianese and Mandarin — are spoken in Chinatown, none understandable to speakers of the others, it is during these games that fraternity forms. Winners’ gloating and losers’ whining need no translation.

For $15, Fresh Air

Officially, the Sun forbids visitors. But a few weeks after the stabbing, a tenant named Don took a visitor to his room on the fourth floor. The halls were rank, and the floors were caked in spots with a grimy residue.

Don, who would give only his first name because he is an illegal immigrant, as are many of the hotel’s residents, propped open his door. But he seemed surprised when the visitor popped his head inside. What was there to see?

It was a typical room for the hotel, six feet by six feet. Although it had front and back walls, the sides were formed by partitions about six feet high; above them was a ceiling made of metal grates that ensured that a tenant could not climb into another person’s space. Don’s hard, mustard-colored suitcase was tucked under his bed, a plank of wood covered by dirty quilts and sheets.

According to Mr. Su, the daily rate for these rooms is $10 to $15. The pricier ones are near a window — Mr. Lin had a $15 room — and offer fresh air that rolls through the ceiling grates.

Each floor is home to 80 tenants, who share a single bathroom (two showers, four toilets and a daily ration of eight rolls of toilet paper). Once or twice a day, a four-man crew cleans the bathrooms. Rats and mice are held at bay by several stray cats that have made the Sun a flophouse of their own.

A Frantic Father

Men may stay at the Sun off and on over many years, but few make it their permanent home. The hotel functions chiefly as a way station for men moving among restaurant jobs across the country. Many Chinese workers immigrate to New York, and many at times hold restaurant jobs in the city, but many also regularly travel by bus and van for work at Chinese restaurants across America.

The Sun men list the places they’ve been in a blur of cities and states: Ohio, Florida, Philadelphia, Atlanta, South Carolina. They do not say much more about them; it is as if there is little difference in their minds between Dallas and New Jersey. Many know only enough English to keep track of the area code of their destinations — 404 for Atlanta, say, or 214 for Dallas.

Exhausted after a few weeks or months of work, the Sun men return to the hotel for a few days before heading out again. Mr. Lin, for example, had gone through four jobs in a month; in his confession, he said he had stabbed Mr. Yang because he had just lost a fifth job, in Baltimore, and thought that Mr. Yang was somehow responsible.

In the hard immigrant world, travel and desperation often come together. A few weeks after the stabbing, a man pulled up to the Sun in a cab, carrying a small bag and a photo of his son smiling in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Frantically, he showed the photo to anyone who would look. A man wearing a beige jacket emblazoned with the words “Members Only,” who was standing on the street in front of the Sun smoking, took a look and shook his head.

The visitor bounded upstairs and began arguing with the clerk at the desk. He even showed the photo to a non-Chinese person, saying in a heavy accent one English word: “Please.”

Blackjack and a Bitter Life

A week and a half after the desperate father’s visit, two residents of the Sun could be found three blocks away at the Sincere Agency, a one-room employment office under the Manhattan Bridge. One of the men, a denim-clad 46-year-old, said he worked 13 hours a day, six days a week, and slept about five hours a night. Both spoke Mandarin.

As the two men waited for new jobs, the talk soon drifted to gambling, a popular way for Chinatown residents to try to supplement their income. Once the restaurants close for the night, workers flood buses bound for Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun in Connecticut or the Hilton in Atlantic City, where they stay until dawn.

“I like blackjack,” said the man in denim. “Only idiots play the slots.” Laughing, he pointed to his mustachioed friend, who is also 46.

While most Chinatown residents use some of their income to pay off debts incurred for being smuggled into the country, a cost that is currently about $68,000 per person, these two men came legally on travel visas. But they have overstayed.

“I can go back to China anytime,” the man in denim said. “But I can’t go back to America whenever I want.”

His friend added: “It’s just a bitter life here. The only thing that is here is the money. Otherwise, I’d go back home.”

“The truth is that we are slaves here,” the denim man said. “We are the new blacks. Just like that.”

“Chinese are smart,” the man with the mustache said. “Our brains work. But we don’t know English. All we can do here is cook Chinese food.”

Asked what they do for a living, the man in denim laughingly said, in broken English: “I make your chicken lo mein.”

Mr. Lin, the man who confessed to stabbing Mr. Yang, is at Rikers Island. His attorney, Jeff Traub of Traub & Traub, a firm in Lower Manhattan, said the basis of Mr. Lin’s defense would be a claim of “extreme emotional disturbance.”

For several weeks after his arrest, Mr. Lin sat in the detention center in Lower Manhattan known as the Tombs. Every day, he got three hot meals, a shower and time in the day room. His cell had a private bed, a sink, a toilet, a shelf for his personal effects, even a window. It measured more than 60 square feet, almost double the size of his room at the Sun Bright Hotel.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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