NYC Migrant Recalls Fleeting Romance, Brush with Chinatown Underworld
Happy new year from Chinarrative! We kick off 2019 with the first of what we hope will be many authorized translations from Truman Story, another leading nonfiction platform in China.
Founded by former journalist Lei Lei, Truman Story has an uncanny ability to source tales from the general public, from all walks of life and transform them into succinct, compelling reads with first-rate editing.
Lei said in an interview with The Paper published in September that some 30 of their stories are in the process of being adapted for TV or film, with at least seven projects expected to go into production by early 2019.
Zhao Zifu, the author of this week’s longread, first published in October, was a foreign student pursuing graduate studies in Queens in the late 1990s. To help with expenses, Zhao worked as an occasional translator for a local lawyer on his pro bono cases, many of which involved characters from the Chinese underworld.
It was in this capacity that he met and become romantically involved with Haiyan, an illegal immigrant from a small town near the coastal city of Wenzhou.
Memories of Haiyan: NYC Migrant Recalls Brief Romance, Brush with Chinatown Underworld
A snow-covered street corner in Flushing. Photo by author.
By Zhao Zifu
Time appears to be on an endless loop in Flushing. It was yet another Christmas. Without exception, heavy snowfall hits New York City that time of the year and every household is lit up and festively decorated.
Christmas carols played softly in the background on every street, striking a melancholic tone that defies description. Come evening, I had to shut my curtains airtight. I couldn’t bear the sight of snowflakes drifting under the dim, yellow street lights because they reminded me of the past, of her, the illegal immigrant.
It’s been 20 years now. In 1998, I was a graduate student at a university in Queens. It was early morning a few days before Christmas, just after a heavy round of snow. I got a call from my lawyer friend Brian. As was our routine, he identified our destination succinctly—a detention facility on 82nd Avenue in Queens. This time around the case involved armed assault, a felony.
As Brian’s translator, I had met all sorts of Chinese clients—cigarette smugglers, fake luxury bag vendors, snakeheads and Chinatown gangsters. There were quite a few prostitutes too. Asian economies were struggling at the time and many Asian university students were selling sex in Flushing and its vicinity.
Flushing is now a household name within the ethnic Chinese community in America. The area has seen an influx of Chinese immigrants in the past decade or so, especially from mainland China, for whom Flushing has become a foothold on the American east coast.
Some states are relatively lenient on illegal immigrants and thus have attracted them in large numbers and absorbed them into the underground workforce. Yet these undocumented migrants discover upon arrival that life isn’t all that rosy.
Flushing Chinatown is centered at the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Chinese signs are everywhere in this densely packed neighborhood filled with Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, bookstores and clinics. It’s a picture of prosperity.
Yet in the early 1990s, Flushing was dominated by Korean and Indian immigrants. The opening of the area’s first Chinese supermarket, A&N, led to an inflow of ethnic Chinese residents and the Korean community was gradually exiled to Flushing’s fringes, where Northern Boulevard extends into Long Island.
After the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, the old Chinatown in Manhattan suffered a downturn, which also drove many business owners to Flushing. Standing on the streets of Flushing, you wouldn’t have an inkling that you were in America. This is a safe haven for illegal immigrants.
After quickly downing a glass of milk for breakfast, I grabbed my backpack, which contained my laptop and recorder, and headed out. The ground was covered by a layer of pristine white snow. The piercing windshield howled and ruffled white powder from the ground. I instinctively broke into a brisk trot.
When I arrived at the detention center, I saw a tall, slim figure draped in a wool jacket from a distance. The man held a black briefcase under his armpit. Brian had already arrived. Brian was Jewish, in his early 30s and conscientious. He had a soft spot for the underdog. Besides his day job at a law firm, he also did pro bono work, representing clients in need.
After exchanging greetings, Brian gave me a quick briefing. “Jack Li is in trouble again. He threatened someone with a gun. You remember him. Oh, maybe you don’t. He’s the awkward-looking fella who was abused by his boss and sued for damages. The police say he tried to threaten the owner of a liquor store. What he told me when he called was that the owner owes him money and attacked him while he was trying to collect. He said he fired his gun in self-defense, purely as a deterrent.”
The first time I saw Jack Li was on an early spring morning at Brian’s office. Sunlight seeped through the window and illuminated half of his face. Add to that the shadow created by his lengthy hair and he looked like a grim sidekick in a Disney animated film.
Even though he looked very upset on that occasion, he spoke confidently. “Even though I am a regular worker, I have rights. I’ve made up my mind this time. There’s no going back. Please help me. I can’t afford to pay but I will remember your generosity.”
Contrary to what first impressions may have suggested, Jack Li laid out his case in an orderly manner, easily evoking our sympathy as he detailed his grievances.
Jack Li’s real name was Li Baofa. He came from a village just south of the coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou. He used to teach at the village primary school. He smuggled himself to New York City years ago.
Unlike most illegal immigrants who were employed at Chinese restaurants, Li Baofa worked under a fellow villager who was a contractor. He and two others lived in the basement of his boss’ home, only venturing out to work, effectively living as a prisoner. Food and lodging were covered by his paycheck, with the rest going toward repaying the cost of his journey to New York.
Li Baofa quickly became a target because he wasn’t physically up for the job. His boss regularly beat him up and withheld meals. He flashed his teeth and showed us a gap in his lower jaw. “Look—he did this.” He called the police out of desperation.
A verdict was handed down in Li Baofa’s case quickly. His boss was intimidated by the lawsuit, plus he was afraid of acquiring a criminal record. The whole case took less than four months. Li Baofa was awarded $180,000. Minus his legal fees, he came out $120,000 ahead.
The meeting room in the Queens detention center was bright and well-heated, unlike the dark rooms with a lone light bulb dangling above you see in movies. Yet the solid concrete walls and metal door served as a constant reminder that this wasn’t an ordinary room.
Li Baofa started proclaiming his innocence the moment he saw us. “Isn’t debt collection a God-given right? Who would have thought he would pull a fast one on me?”
Perhaps it was nerves or the heating—Li Baofa’s face was sweaty. The severity of the charges seemingly weighing on his mind, he was a bit incoherent. We had to keep interrupting him for clarification.
Li Baofa was convinced that his attacker was a member of a Chinese gang and claimed that his gun was for protection. He said the gun was registered and that he had a permit for it—although he wasn’t authorized to carry.
After taking notes on Li Baofa’s account and asking if there were any witnesses to the altercation or others privy to it, Brian said with a straight face: “I can’t promise a positive outcome, but I’ll do my best.” The usual defense attorney boilerplate.
“Wait, brother, I have a favor to ask.” When he noticed that we were gathering our things, Li Baofa grabbed my hand. “My niece is staying with me. She just arrived in the country. I’m going to be stuck here for a while. Can you check up on her for me? She doesn’t have any cash on her and doesn’t speak English. I’m worried that she’ll starve.”
I agreed and visited the address he provided.
The streets were empty shortly after 7 p.m. The sidewalks had been cleared of snow and sprinkled with salt, but a thin sheet of ice remained, which appeared to project white light under the street lights. It made for a spooky effect.
I located 231 Cherry Street. It was a white, two-story house, about 20 minutes by foot from Main Street. The influx of Chinese residents had driven out many Caucasians in the neighborhood. Most of these houses now had Chinese owners.
A heavily made-up woman in her early 30s opened the door. I explained the reason for my visit and she led me up the dimly lit staircase to the attic. Each floor of the house had three rooms. The house looked like it had been remodeled and repartitioned—a common sight in Flushing’s Chinese homes.
I learned from the woman that Li Baofa was the owner of the house. He and his “niece” lived in the attic and rented out the remaining rooms. The attic was narrow and had a low ceiling. It was poorly furnished. Apart from two beds, there were only a table, a few stools and a crooked lamp that hung from the ceiling.
Li Baofa’s “niece” was about 20. Back facing the bed, she avoided eye contact as I spoke. A short silence followed after I briefed her on Li Baofa’s situation. I uttered a few words of consolation and placed a printout on her table. “This is a list of organizations that provide help to the needy. Their addresses and phone numbers are included. If things get tough, maybe they can help you.”
The niece’s head remained lowered and she stayed silent.
I didn’t know what else to say, so I muttered: “This will all pass.”
The niece slowly raised her head and said with emphasis, “I’m not his niece.”
The young woman’s name was Haiyan. She came from a family of five that lived in a small county seat near Wenzhou. Her parents had been laid off and she had a young brother and a younger sister. She pulled all stops to make it to New York, casting her lot with Li Baofa, whom she was introduced to by a friend. She wanted to make a living here and send money home. That was the beginning of her nightmare. Li Baofa made her his slave.
I suggested calling the police, who might arrange for a government agency or a social service organization to take her in, but she begged me not to. Given her circumstances, coming in contact with the police was a no-go. I understood, so I backed down.
“Please take me with you,” Haiyan begged.
I don’t remember how I refused. All I remember is my mad dash out of Li Baofa’s house. I didn’t dare look back. I felt conflicted. I wanted to save her, but I was just a poor student fighting for his own survival. I was toiling in the trenches, barely able to take care of myself. How could I save her? It ended up being a frigid night. I barely slept.
The next day around 5 p.m., after I finished my shift for my part-time job on campus, I drove back to 231 Cherry Street. My conscience couldn’t rest easy. I decided to take Haiyan in.
I helped Haiyan pack her clothes and stow them in my trunk, then took her to dinner. By the time we left the restaurant, it was early evening. There was a light drizzle of snow again. I bought a calling card on the way to the parking lot.
Haiyan called home to report that she arrived safely. “Everything’s fine. It’s going well,” she kept saying. I had no idea what the person on the other end was saying, but Haiyan smiled. She looked innocent and adorable.
We didn’t speak on the way home. The lighting in the car fluctuated as traffic lights alternated with the falling snow, but I could see tears on Haiyan’s cheek.
Flushing Chinatown. Photo by author.
Before I knew it, Haiyan had been staying with me for two weeks. We never mentioned Li Baofa. He was a delicate scab that we avoided tampering with. I also remained discreet, never asking Haiyan about her past.
Haiyan was gorgeous, a standard southern Chinese beauty. Her pale skin, her nifty little nose—it was hard not to dote on her. It took a leap of imagination to associate her with the illegal immigrants who had endured so much hardship.
I was used to my room being messy. After Haiyan moved in, my tiny home became impeccably neat. I stuck to my busy schedule, heading out early and returning late. But whenever I got home Haiyan would always greet me with a smile and say, “Let’s eat then.” I was always welcomed home with a warm meal, which offered no small measure of comfort and love.
I enjoyed eating dinner and praising her looks and competence at the same time. She would always lower her head and respond, “Aiyo, stop it now.” Haiyan was extremely quiet, so I tried to make her laugh and make conversation, which became a major source of joy for me.
After living like a couple for some time, we naturally became an item. On weekends, we shopped for the next week’s groceries at A&N. Haiyan was fascinated by everything she saw. She envied people who had jobs, even street vendors and supermarket cashiers. “My goal is to support myself and bring my younger siblings to America,” she said.
The last stop of the No. 7 subway line is located at the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing. From Flushing, the service passes through traditionally Chinese, Latin American and black communities before arriving at Times Square. Passengers of a variety of ethnicities get on and off during the ride. It was the first time Haiyan was exposed to so many different skin colors. It was a major eye-opener.
I joked during one journey: “There are so many skin colors available. Just pick one, get married and get your green card while you’re at it.” Marriage was a frequent option for young female illegal immigrants—whatever it took to stay.
Amid the clatter of the moving train, she replied with a big laugh: “Sure. Why don’t you set me up?”
When we arrived at Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, it was packed with tourists from around the world. Fashionably dressed men and women seemingly in a relaxed mood passed by, raising their voices and laughing from time to time. Many storefronts had yet to remove their Christmas and New Year’s decorations. We were flanked by a deluge of luxury goods stores that displayed tasteful Christmas ornaments behind their shop windows.
Haiyan told me:
I want to live in this neighborhood eventually.
A week later, Haiyan landed a job as a saleslady at a Chinese-owned handbag store near Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. She canvassed the neighborhood, trying her luck whenever she saw a Chinese sign. I was a bit surprised when she told me the story. I suppose desperate circumstances breed courage.
The small shop was located at the heart of the wholesale district for Asian-made products in Manhattan, which was a rectangular area crowded with stores that mostly sold cheap goods from China.
There were tons of tourists and the shops were bustling every day. When things got busy, the stores needed all hands on deck. Back then was a golden period for the wholesale district. Ethnic Korean and Latin American businessmen also joined in the action.
I drove Haiyan to work on her first day, so I could also check out the store for myself. A couple owned the shop, which took up about 30 square meters. The name of the store was Wong and Wong Fashion. Handbags made up most of the inventory.
Haiyan’s hours were 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday. She returned home exhausted every evening, but I could tell she was excited about her job.
A week later, Haiyan received her first paycheck. I caved to her repeated offers and agreed to join her for a celebratory dinner after work one day. When I arrived at the store after I had finished my own work shift, Haiyan was busy organizing the dizzying array of handbags piled on the shelves.
By the time Haiyan’s shift had ended, it was already dark and Manhattan was lit up in its usual splendor. We walked along Fifth Avenue to our destination, a restaurant in Koreatown. She interrupted her stride to check out shop displays, flashing the occasional smile.
She was much more talkative than usual, offering anecdotes on her customers during the day—whether they were generous, stingy, kind or annoying—and describing how her male Mexican colleagues went out of their way to be nice to her.
By the time we emerged from the Korean restaurant, only half of Haiyan’s paycheck was left. We took the subway home. Haiyan was sound asleep before we reached the first stop.
Whenever I think back to that night, it strikes me how genuinely happy she was. The way she stared at each shop window was so adorable. It was the look that all young women should have on their faces.
Come March, it was unusually cold in New York City. There was no indication that the snow that had accumulated was going to melt. The bald branches in Flushing’s Kissena Park looked all the more glaring in the winter breeze.
One late afternoon, I got a call from Haiyan from NYPD’s Midtown Precinct South. She sounded utterly terrified and helpless, overcome by emotion. When her time was up, I still had no idea what had happened.
About an hour later, I rushed to the police station. I made my way down a corridor flanked by thick concrete walls and located the duty officer in a brightly lit reception area. After waiting agitatedly for about 15 minutes, the officer waved at me, his other hand clutching a few pieces of paper.
The case was hardly a novelty. An ethnic Chinese plainclothes officer surnamed Liu approached Wong and Wong posing as a wholesaler looking to buy handbags in bulk. After some haggling, Haiyan allegedly agreed to affix a fake Prada logo to each handbag for an additional cost of $5.
When she picked up her order, Officer Liu revealed her identity. She was joined by a team of colleagues who shut down the store and made three arrests.
“The case is pending before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. There are no visiting hours tonight. You can contact the presiding judge about bail proceedings,” the officer said.
The testimony of the couple who owned Wong and Wong didn’t bode well for Haiyan. They claimed to be ignorant of the agreement to add fake labels and that Haiyan had made the deal separately in private to earn some extra income.
I spent days shuttling between the precinct and the courthouse, but still failed to post bail for Haiyan. Utterly exhausted and at wit’s end, I lost my temper at the courthouse. I yelled:
How can you get away with such incompetence? How can you let a helpless young woman endure this alone?
The prosecutor assigned to the case later told me that I was downright scary. My eyes were bloodshot, as if I were about to burst into tears, and I looked like I was about to devour the next person in sight.
A week later, bail for Haiyan was set at $1,000. I picked her up from where she was being held. We didn’t exchange a single word during our journey home. The stench in the subway and the violent shaking made me nauseous. Haiyan kept her head lowered. Her hair was unkempt after a week in detention. She looked the same way she did when I met her for the first time.
The moment we set foot in our apartment and turned on the lights, Haiyan lost it.
She said in tears:
Why is life so hard?
In fact, cases like Haiyan’s were a dime a dozen in Manhattan. All you had to do was pay a fine of $5,000 two weeks later and you were spared a criminal record. But the fallout of the case was profound. Perhaps traumatized by her time in detention, Haiyan became very quiet again for some time. Her eyes were filled with fear.
We became quite cash-strapped after paying the fine, barely able to make rent and pay for food. I got a second part-time job. When I got home in the evening, a hot meal still awaited but the mood was strained. Haiyan served me dinner and we ate in silence. There was basically no eye contact. Neither of us knew how to break the ice.
Eventually, Haiyan started looking for a job again. This time her job search didn’t go as smoothly. She faced more competition. And like the many other illegal immigrants in the U.S., she was limited to positions within her own ethnic community because she lacked residency status and didn’t speak English. Even if you could put up with tough working conditions and meager pay, a stable job was hard to come by.
Haiyan ended up working as a helper at a Chinese supermarket and covered for street vendors hawking calling cards. I still remember the numb expression on her face standing in front of her stall.
With the end of spring came the beginning of summer, whose blue skies and lush trees are supposed to augur the best time of the year.
Yet I struggled to relax. I was two semesters away from graduation, but I was bogged down by uncertainty over my job prospects. I was very anxious. Plus my lease was about to expire and I had just received word of a rent hike. I decided to move.
My new apartment was located in Jamaica, a neighborhood dominated by African and Latin American immigrants. Crime was rampant but rent was cheap. At least I had new digs. Jamaica is quite far from my university and Flushing, so I returned home at an even later hour.
Besides downtown Jamaica, the rest of the area was rather rundown. At night, the streets seemed to be scattered with young men with too much time on their hands. Walking through the neighborhood in the evening was always an intimidating prospect.
Whenever the young men stared at me, I always felt they were up to no good. Even though I was exhausted from a day’s work, I had to be on guard during my journey home. I could only relax after I entered my front door.
My apartment was part of an old, two-story house split between four families. Haiyan and I shared the second floor with a family from El Salvador. We shared a kitchen and bathroom. The husband was a construction worker and the wife a homemaker who looked after their kids.
Initially, we and our neighbors exchanged friendly nods when we ran into each other in the kitchen. Otherwise, we kept to ourselves and got along. But gradually our neighbors’ habits got on our nerves and tensions brewed.
The weekend was party time for them. Loud, Latin American music boomed from their rooms round-the-clock from Friday evening until Sunday evening. They were rowdy and the whole floor reeked of beer. The activity wouldn’t die down until 2 or 3 in the morning each day.
In the beginning, we sucked it up but over time the commotion got to us. After a week of hard work, Haiyan and I just wanted to rest, but their non-stop partying left us nerve-wrecked. Our resentment grew.
Eventually I reached breaking point. One evening, I pounded on our neighbors’ door repeatedly and shouted: “You are seriously interrupting our rest. I’ve had enough. If you don’t stop immediately, I’m going to call the police.”
The party dispersed and the house finally saw some peace. But less than half an hour later, what sounded like a throng of El Salvadorans started pounding at our door and cursing. I wanted to confront them, but Haiyan held me back, worried that they might have gang connections. So all we did was trade insults in our own languages across our door.
The weekend partying stopped but the mood on the second floor turned sour. Our El Salvadoran neighbors glared at us whenever we ran into them. Soon, something happened that forced us to relocate, even though we had no idea whether it was a targeted threat.
Sept. 7, 1999, Brazilian National Day. Brazilian immigrants were partying in the streets. Cars equipped with blasting stereos and decorated with the Brazilian national flags sped by our apartment. By evening, firecrackers exploded in close succession.
Around 11 p.m., I heard a muffled boom. A shot was fired at our window. The police arrived and removed the casing lodged into the wall. They asked a few questions about what happened and left, parting with the token instruction to “take care.” Shootings were hardly a rarity in this neighborhood.
That night Haiyan and I lied flat on the floor. Maybe the shot was just a warning and the next shots would be aimed at our heads. All I could think about was getting shot and collapsing to the floor. I was terrified. Haiyan and I didn’t get any sleep that night. She cuddled up to me, shivering.
The next morning I called in sick at school and started looking for a new apartment. I wanted to find new shelter immediately. Staying alive was the top priority.
By early afternoon, I had agreed to rent a Chinese landlord’s “semi-basement,” a room that was half underground and half above ground. Its narrow windows exceeded ground level. Even though the room was close to a busy road, rent was slightly expensive and the unit smelled like damp mold, we couldn’t afford to be picky. The clock was ticking.
We paid our deposit and moved our belongings quietly over several trips. We tried our best not to alert anyone. The high stress level and speedy relocation over the 20-hour period left Haiyan and I depleted. When we finished moving, we breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into bed. At least we were out of harm’s way and could relax a bit.
The weird thing about relationships is that over time, you start taking your partner’s kindnesses for granted and clinging to grudges. The tone of my relationship with Haiyan started to change in subtle ways. We started fighting regularly over trivial matters.
Nothing went smoothly that year. One crisis followed another. I was fed up and took it out on her all the time. I’d give her a hard time when I returned home late to a cold dinner.
Once I yelled at her: “Pack your things and get out!”
I only calmed down after Haiyan broke into tears and asked for her forgiveness. But all she did was whisper, “I will go eventually. I know I’m a burden to you.”
Eventually, Haiyan got sick of my temper. We had major fights and ignored each other for extended periods. We ate separately and kept separate hours. Before I knew it, we were effectively strangers. Part of it was petulance, part of it wounded feelings.
By mid-, late-November in 1999, the weather had turned cold and the days were more often cloudy than not. I was scheduled to graduate in December and was busy working on my dissertation. I quit my part-time jobs temporarily and spent most of the time in the library, arriving home most evenings past midnight.
Haiyan started spending more and more time away from home as well. On many occasions, she was still out when I returned late at night. I had no idea what she was up to.
In mid-December, I successfully completely my oral defense. It felt like a huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. When I left campus that day, it was already past dinnertime. There was a light drizzle but the snow melted as soon as it fell on my face. I didn’t feel cold at all. Perhaps it had something to do with my good mood.
On my bus ride home, I passed a flurry of lights. Many shops were calling it a day. Workers and owners of various ethnicities were busy pulling down their store gates.
As I leaned on the bus window and took in the scenery, I resolved that it was time for a fresh start with Haiyan. I decided to take her out to dinner that night.
When the bus stopped at a red light when it hit Kissena Boulevard, I saw two familiar figures at a distance. My chest tightened. The couple standing under the pale, yellow street lights, one in front of another, were Li Baofa and Haiyan. I recognized Li Baofa’s cartoonish face under the lights instantly.
My brain froze, but instinctively turned and followed their silhouettes. But as the snow rained down and the bus stayed its course, their figures gradually blurred.
I went home in a daze. Haiyan’s things were gone. I rummaged through our apartment but didn’t find a note or word of any sort.
I collapsed into our bed. Pain turned into anger as I leapt up, trashed all of Haiyan’s pots and pans, emptied the aftermath into a black plastic bag and tossed the bag into the garbage bin outside.
I locked the door and calmed myself down. I told myself, “Let’s go our separate ways then. Farewell it is.”
It was a week before Christmas. It snowed heavily that winter. The next day my door was blocked. I lied in bed all day. It was already early evening by the time I woke up. My tiny basement felt so empty.
Return to Cherry Street
A residential neighborhood near Cherry Street. Photo by author.
Somehow I muddled my way through New Year’s Day 2000 holed up in my basement, when I started receiving calls about job interviews. Only then did I emerge above ground. But none of the interviews led anywhere. The pressure mounted and I started panicking.
In early February, with help from Brian and my dissertation adviser, I finally landed an interpretation job at Queens County Criminal Court.
With a job and steady income, I moved to an apartment building on a lush hill near the courthouse. My living conditions improved and I established a regular schedule of alternating between the courthouse and my apartment. I only thought of Haiyan in the evenings.
But I couldn’t forget about Haiyan. Flushing became forbidden territory for me. I avoided setting foot there, lest the trip stir memories of Haiyan. I was even more afraid of running into her.
That year I started a new relationship. My new girlfriend was a descendant of early Chinese immigrants from the city of Taishan in Guangdong Province, but she was effectively American. The relationship ended after a few months due to cultural differences and differences in lifestyle. I returned to my usual routine.
My life continued undisturbed until late 2000, when I saw Li Baofa’s name in a court document.
Li Baofa ended up getting away with a lesser charge over his run-in with the liquor store owner in 1998, serving just 10 months behind bars.
This time he had been prosecuted for running a prostitution ring. Many Asian women worked as masseuses/sex workers in Flushing and neighboring areas, hoping to make a living by exploiting this gray area.
Li Baofa allegedly used his property as a base for sex workers and solicited customers by placing small ads in local newspapers. Vice officers posing as customers arrested him after entering his premises and negotiating a price for sex. Three women were also arrested.
At his first court appearance, Li Baofa was granted bail at $10,000. His next court date was the 15th the following month.
My heart started racing when I saw the court document. I quickly skimmed the names of the three women who were arrested. Haiyan wasn’t among them. But I was still worried. What if she didn’t use her real name? It happened all the time. Many illegal immigrants gave false names when they ran into legal trouble.
I was distracted the whole day, making quite a few mistakes at work. I tried to calm down, telling myself, “It’s all in the past. What does it have to do with you?” I also tried to convince myself that Haiyan would never stoop to prostitution.
After work, I drove home, still quite absent-minded. I parked on what I thought was my street and walked toward what I thought was my front door. Only then did I realize that I had mistakenly driven to my old place, the basement apartment.
I took in the familiar scene. The trees near the house were just as bare. The landlord’s red Honda was parked in front of the garage. The steps leading toward ground level from the basement were still missing a tile. I could see a moving shadow under the light through the basement’s half-submerged window. It was the new tenant.
I turned around, dashed toward my car and sped toward 231 Cherry Street.
The same heavily made-up woman opened the door. She looked the same, just like the exterior of the house. The woman told me that Haiyan had returned to the house for six months, then left without saying goodbye in June 2000. She had no idea where Haiyan was.
I headed up to the attic. Li Baofa was sitting in the room. I found the mere sight of his face nauseating. He wasn’t surprised to see me. “I know why you’re here,” he said.
I stared at him, my disgust in full view. “In that case, let’s hear it.”
“I know what happened between you and her, but you don’t know what went down between the two of us.” Li Baofa paused and averted my gaze. He continued:
I’ve gone through hell because of that woman. The last time I went to jail was because of her.
Haiyan’s family struggled to make ends meet. After graduating from junior high school, she started working at a factory that made leather goods. But the pay was meager and she wanted to make more money, so she could help support her family and pay for her younger brother’s and younger sister’s tuition.
Working through a connection referred by a distant relative, she rolled the dice and smuggled herself to New York, thinking that she could earn decent money in the U.S.
The aftermath of the Golden Venture incident in 1993 saw a sharp reduction in human smuggling by sea. Carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, the Golden Venture ran aground in Queens on June 6. Ten people drowned in their attempt to flee the ship. The case made major headlines at the time.
In 1997, a snakehead shepherded Haiyan and a group of fellow illegal immigrants to eastern Europe by land and air. The group then crossed into a western European country and flew to Mexico, where they snuck across the American border and traveled to New York.
The journey took about six months. Haiyan arrived in New York City in May 1998. The cost of the trip was $20,000. The illegal immigrants paid off their debt by accepting job assignments from their snakehead.
Haiyan was assigned to a gangster nicknamed “Big Tail,” who had her working at his liquor store. “Big Tail” is a Fujian native and an illegal immigrant himself. He was a member of the Green Dragons at the time.
The Green Dragons was a gang active in Manhattan Chinatown in the 1990s. It comprised mainly young men who were illegal immigrants from Fujian. As the Chinese population in Queens and Brooklyn grew, the Green Dragons eventually expanded into Flushing and Brooklyn’s Eighth Avenue.
But the gang’s influence started to wane after an FBI crackdown on organized crime in the early 2000s, which saw the arrest and prosecution of Green Dragons’ key members.
In mid-August 1998, a tearful Haiyan called Li Baofa, who also hailed from Wenzhou, claiming that “Big Tail” had kicked her out. Li Baofa took her in at 231 Cherry Street.
Li Baofa paid for the house with the settlement money from the abuse case that Brian handled for him. He rented out his spare rooms.
Initially, he turned a blind eye when his tenants turned tricks, as long as they paid their rent on time. Eventually, unable to find employment elsewhere, he himself got involved and became a pimp. He said he entered the sex trade out of desperation.
Li Baofa was 38 at the time and wanted to start a family soon. When he met Haiyan, he saw in her a prospective wife. The couple moved in together quickly. “It was consensual. I treated her as a life partner. I would never let her get involved in prostitution.”
A few months later, “Big Tail” got word to Li Baofa that he wanted Haiyan back. Li Baofa had a hunch that Haiyan was hiding something from him. After repeated questioning, Haiyan finally confessed. Not only did Haiyan work for “Big Tail,” he also forced her to become his girlfriend.
“Big Tail” had promised Haiyan that he would give her $2,000 every month on top of her salary, which went toward covering her journey to New York, but he never kept his word, up until he kicked Haiyan out.
Li Baofa was outraged. He said:
I couldn’t bear seeing my woman get bullied like that.
That’s when he confronted “Big Tail,” gun in hand. Yet he ended up being prosecuted instead. “Big Tail,” a Green Dragon, already had a criminal record, so Li Baofa’s testimony carried more credibility in court. He got away with a relatively light sentence.
After his release from prison, Li Baofa got back in touch with Haiyan. She wanted to get back together. I pondered the timing and realized that was when she and I were estranged.
When he got to that part of the story, Li Baofa eyed me cautiously and said: “Haiyan always said you are a good person. I’m very grateful that you took her in.”
But as he continued his story Li Baofa’s expression changed. He turned angry.
“But that women has no sense of loyalty. Even though I treated her so well, she still wanted to break up in end. So be it. What’s mind-boggling is that she actually got back together with ‘Big Tail.’ If I wasn’t subject to a restraining order that bans me from approaching his store, I definitely would have confronted him again.”
Li Baofa’s story didn’t square with what Haiyan told me at all. His morals and actions also suggested I couldn’t trust his word entirely. But I had no idea which parts of his story were true and which were fabricated. I could only do my own due diligence.
After another restless night, I left for Big Tail’s store first thing in the morning. The shop was located in south Flushing, near the Whitestone Expressway, sandwiched between a convenience store and a dry cleaner’s. I found it easily.
The sign for the store was in English. A neon light shaped like a liquor bottle attached to the shop window flickered on even though it was broad daylight. The shop was no different from the mom-and-pop liquor stores in traditionally white neighborhoods.
I pushed the door and entered. After adjusting to the lighting, I noticed an employee arranging liquor bottles. A stoic woman in her 50s sat behind the counter.
I strolled through the store, desperate for any trace of Haiyan, but I saw nothing. So I tried my luck with the middle-aged woman. “Excuse me. Is the owner in today?”
“I’m the owner. And you are?”
“My apologies. I thought ‘Big Tail’ was the owner.”
“He used to be, but I’ve taken over.”
“I don’t mean to intrude, but do you happen to know where he is now?”
“He signed over the shop to me to cover his debts. He took off a long time ago, with his mistress.”
After leaving the store, it started snowing again. I walked 3 miles to a neighboring subway station on the No. 7 line before finding my composure. I had completely forgotten about my car, which was still parked at the liquor store.
Some six months later, Li Baofa was convicted of human trafficking and coercing women into prostitution and sentenced to a 7-year prison term.
Eventually, my life got back on track. I got married and had kids. I never saw Haiyan again.
Translator: Min Lee