, Staff Writer
STANTONSBURG – Song Ni’s dream when he left New York five years ago was to open a restaurant and raise his family away from big city noise and crime.
Like many immigrants from China, Ni saw opportunity in small-town America. He knew that even a place as tiny as Stantonsburg, a Wilson County town of about 800 people, could support a hole-in-the-wall offering dumplings, General Tso’s chicken and “Happy Family.”
It’s this shared vision that has propelled thousands of Chinese restaurant workers — the vast majority from the southern coastal province of Fujian — into cities and towns across America. They go where fast food chains often don’t venture.
There are more than 43,000 Chinese restaurants across the country, according to the trade publication Chinese Restaurant News — more than all the McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.
But Ni’s dream came to an end July 28 when robbers shot him dead in his home, just across the street from the Jin Jin Chinese Restaurant he owned. He was 34.
Ni’s death has left his family devastated and many other Chinese restaurant workers questioning the security of operating in small towns.
Coming to America
Ni came to the United States in the early 1990s when he was about 19. He was following his father, who left Fujian about a decade earlier for New York. Chinatown had always been a good place to start for those with limited English.
Ni took a few English classes in Chinatown and worked in Chinese restaurants. In 2000, while he was working as a waiter at a Chinese buffet on Long Island, he met Mi Lin, a pretty young waitress from his home city of Fuzhou.
The two wed a year later. They never applied for a marriage license but took their vows in Chinatown before family and friends, almost all from the Chinese restaurant industry.
Shortly after the couple had their first child in 2002, they decided to move south.
“He wanted to open a small restaurant and make a little money so his loved ones could live together in a quiet environment,” said Lin, 28. “New York was too noisy.”
The family went first to Georgia, then to North Carolina. Ni’s older sister previously had settled in Rocky Mount. In the beginning, Ni worked as a cook in restaurants around Wilson County. But in his spare time, he looked for his own place. One day he discovered Stantonsburg — a town with no Chinese restaurant.
Ni leapt at the chance when a space opened in the town’s commercial center, which has a coin-operated laundry, diner and Piggly Wiggly.
He bought a red-brick, three-bedroom house across the street for about $70,000 in June 2004. Its backyard abuts acres of cotton. The modest 1,334-square-foot building was big enough for his family and two cooks to live in. And living close to the restaurant made it easier for Ni, his wife and the two cooks to put in long hours seven days a week.
Ni mowed his lawn. Lin hung the clothes outside. When Ni’s parents visited, they tended a small vegetable garden.
“The older father used to give us snow peas,” said next-door neighbor Tim Isler, a bottle factory worker.
To a town that recorded no residents of Asian descent in the 2000 U.S. Census, Ni’s restaurant added a new dimension of diversity.
Marguerite Whitley, 82, and her husband regularly ordered takeout from Ni and were fans of the generous portions.
Jin Jin’s menu is not highly representative of Ni’s home province. Fujianese cuisine more heavily favors seafood, such as fish, squid, shrimp, crab and lobster — some of which Ni cooked in his own style for his family during off hours.
Like so many Chinese-American restaurants, Jin Jin offers a mix of dishes, such as Mongolian beef, Hunan chicken and Szechuan shrimp, that have proven popular with Americans. The restaurant also sprinkles in fare such as chicken wings and french fries.
“A little bitty place like that went a long way,” Whitley said. “We have a short-order place, but you get tired of eating hamburgers all the time.”
Ni’s house is sparsely furnished. But its walls hold signs of the guiding compasses in his life: a Chinese calendar, a Buddhist altar and two black-and-white photos of Ni’s grandmother and grandfather.
The solemn countenances of Ni’s ancestors face the kitchen door where, authorities say, Stacey Devon Atkinson, 18, of Walstonburg and Reginald Lemonte Atkinson, 36, and Darryl Wilkes, 36, both of Farmville, barged in on Saturday night, July 28. After closing the restaurant, Lin’s visiting sister and a cook were entering from a carport when the three men shoved them inside, authorities say.
The robbers took about $700 — the restaurant’s earnings that day — from the woman’s skirt pocket while she and the cook crouched on the kitchen floor. Hearing the commotion, Ni, who had been at his computer in a nearby room, tried to shut his door.
But he was shot through the door, Wilson County sheriff’s officers say.
Lin was with her two daughters, ages 5 and 1, in another bedroom down the hall. She shut and locked the door.
One of the robbers tried kicking the door open. He struck the door with his gun, creating a hole, and menacingly waved the weapon. After Lin opened the door, the robber pointed his gun at the children’s heads.
Lin recalled his threat: “Yell, and I’ll kill you.”
She grabbed a blanket to cover her children’s mouths, she said, then got down on her knees.
“Don’t kill my children!” she begged.
Lin said she then heard one of the other men shout, “I got some.”
The robbers fled, authorities say, carrying the $700, plus a larger, though yet undisclosed amount from the room where Ni was shot.
A few days after the killing, friends of Ni converged upon Stantonsburg to mourn. More than 20 Chinese restaurant workers, mostly cooks, drove in from South Carolina, Georgia, Connecticut and New York. Most had known Ni in China or had become friends through restaurant work.
They peered through the dark windows of the temporarily closed restaurant. A poster of community condolences leaned by the door. Ni’s friends expressed fear, anger, sadness.
“Before, the small towns were more peaceful,” said Mac Lin, a Jacksonville restaurant worker. “People preferred small towns.”
Yet Chinese restaurants have been targeted before. In a six-week period in 2003, for instance, there was a string of robberies at Asian restaurants — two in Goldsboro, three in Kinston, four in Fayetteville and one each in Wilson, Farmville and Winterville. In one case, a woman was raped.
In 2001, Asian restaurants in at least 21 cities and towns in Eastern North Carolina were robbed over several months.
Wilson County Sheriff Wayne V. Gay thinks criminals might go after Asian restaurants because they see an opportunity.
Sometimes, language barriers can challenge getting suspect descriptions or building a case. Asian owners might also be more inclined to keep cash at home than deposit it at a bank, Gay said.
“In a small town like Stantonsburg, we recommend they call the sheriff or police department for an escort,” Gay said. “They’d do it for anybody who’d ask.”
Mei Shi “C.C” Chan, a Cary-based Allstate insurance agent, also hopes owners will take more precautions. Her own family has been robbed three times at its restaurant in Greenville and once at home. Chan, who insures a lot of Chinese restaurants in North Carolina, said many of her clients called her after Ni’s death.
Besides getting escorts, Chan said, she wishes more owners would install motion detectors around their homes and change the patterns of how they deposit money.
Hard road ahead
Ni’s widow, Lin, reopened the restaurant on Thursday. She faces difficulties ahead.
English has not been a problem when taking customer orders, but Lin typically relied on her husband to handle more complicated matters. She is moving out of the couple’s home and struggling to make sense of confusing legal documents. She plans to keep the restaurant open for now.
“I need to make a living, to raise my kids,” Lin said. “And I rely on this restaurant to survive.”
© Copyright 2007, The News & Observer