By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The two recent armed robberies in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) have alarmed many community members because of their similarities.
First, the perpetrators targeted non-English-speaking Asian elderly who gathered to play mahjong as a social pastime in a club and a family association. In both incidents, the gunmen had resorted to violence, hitting the patrons. Secondly, the robberies weren’t committed in the dark when the facilities were empty like past attempts. Most disturbingly, the two incidents occurred 10 days apart. And both organizations’ victims said they were being watched before the attack.
“Robbery, robbery,” three gunmen shouted and walked through an unlocked door of Happy Together on Aug. 5 after 7 p.m., a mahjong club on South Weller Street.
“At first, those old men who didn’t speak English didn’t know it was a robbery, they were still playing (mahjong),” said a female customer who helped out at the club.
“The [suspects] shouted at him (the owner) and asked for money. I said, ‘You already got the money from the mahjong table.” A gunman hit the owner and some of the elderly.
“The elderly were beaten close to the brink of unconsciousness,” according to Tanya Woo on a CID Community Watch page.
The suspects were familiar with mahjong tables and had tiny pockets for chips or money.
The victims did not resist, according to the owner and the female customer.
This was the second time Happy Together was robbed. It was also robbed last September. The owner said the loss was small. But a source, who talked to a Seattle police detective familiar with the club’s robbery, said the loss was $30,000, tallying the total amount robbed.
A neighbor told the club owner afterwards that the suspects had been watching them for three days.
How did the suspects get in the club?
“One old guy who hadn’t visited us for a while, walked in without closing the door,” said the woman. The club has since installed double doors, and a large camera inside the club to see who’s outside. Seattle police confirmed to the Northwest Asian Weekly that one suspect has been arrested in case.
On Aug. 5, a second robbery took place at the Washington State Taishan Association, a family association on South Jackson Street, close to 1 p.m. The two organizations were only about 500 feet apart from each other.
The loss at the association is estimated to be over $10,000, according to its former president, Ken Chen.
“Three gunmen robbed 20-plus elderly at gunpoint, grabbing cash and jewelry worn by victims.” Two sources said the number was much larger, about 50-60.
Chen said it was unusual that the robbers struck in daylight. On Aug. 5, the association had just opened its door. The association members come and go all the time.
“We only lock it after 5 p.m. We are at a corner location. So, it’s easier for someone to hide in the corner watching us, and we can’t see them from inside.”
Yun Ehi Wu, who played chess at Tai Shan that day, told the Northwest Asian Weekly that the three armed robbers had shown their ruthlessness by first knocking their chairs on the floor. “They came in when the door was opened for one patron.
They locked the door. Then, they threw the chairs down on the floor. They slapped several men hard for not giving them enough money or if they were too slow.” He himself was hit for not giving money fast enough.
”One man who was playing cards, 87, was hit over 12 times. The last round he was kicked, slapped, and hit with a gun on his head. He fell on the floor, and blood was coming up through his ear,” said Wu. “I saw him the other day, his ear was still bruised black.”
The association has been a frequent target this year, but none of the robberies were reported to police. Chen said the association was also robbed a month ago, but didn’t file a police report. A member in charge of cleaning the place was robbed after cleaning up at 8 p.m.
“After he cleaned up, he walked out and tried to lock the door,” said Chen. “The robber pushed him inside and took over $100 from him. I told him to file a police report. He wasn’t hurt and he didn‘t want to contact the police.”
Another time, Ms. Ho, 89, was with two other women outside the association to get in to play mahjong. She and her friends, who came separately, were robbed.
“An unmasked gunman walked down from [South Jackson Street] and pointed a gun at us. I was so scared. I just gave him my whole purse. It had $600, my identification card, other I.D. including my vaccination card, apartment key, and other items which I don’t even remember.”
Nora Chan, founder of Seniors-in-Action Foundation, said two other seniors got robbed, one female carrying $900 and another $7,000 outside the association. None of these cases were reported.
What did these club and association robberies have in common? Police took surveillance videos from both sites. A source said that these suspects robbed several places in the city.
The witnesses for both organizations said the suspects were Black males and some of them were masked. The three robbers at Taishan were all unmasked, said Wu, they were there for half an hour until they heard a police siren outside.
“They thought it was out to get them.” The police car was not there to arrest them, it just happened to pass by for another emergency.
“After this incident, we don’t feel safe anymore,” said Chen. “This had never happened to us before in the past eight years we were here—robbery in bright daylight. We don’t know what we should do to protect ourselves.” Chen said the association plans to close for a month to discuss how to better protect themselves.
”Perhaps, the community can get together to discuss how we can improve public safety. What should be our next step? We have to work together. We can’t rely on the police.”
“We can’t blame the police all the time,” said Chong Wah Benevolent Association leader Mei-Jui Lin. “The community should work together. When you play mahjong, you should use chips, not cash” so as not to attract robberies.
“Chinese people should report all the crimes. But they have a language issue.”
Lin also said we shouldn’t buy stolen goods as it would encourage suspects to steal and rob.
Cameras should be installed at each business, she said, so they have evidence to show to police when crimes do occur. If the cameras are privately-owned by individual businesses, there wouldn’t be privacy issues. Some cameras have facial recognition features, she said.
Lin is working on funding for cameras and also language resources for the Chinese community.
While mahjong is permitted in many Asian countries, it is considered a form of gambling in Washington state.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.