At Asian restaurants, thieves taking money, peace of mind

Yee Tsoi demonstrates how a man put a gun to her head during a robbery at the China Palace IV restaurant in Summerville on Oct. 2. Police are trying to solve a rash of Asian-restaurant robberies that have taken place in the tri-county area in recent month

Imagine looking up from your phone and seeing a pistol aimed at your forehead. Or having masked men scream for cash while your 5-year-old child looks on in fear. Or running into the night for help while an armed stranger holds your husband hostage.

These are real experiences Asian-restaurant workers have endured in recent months as a team of robbers has preyed on their Lowcountry establishments.

At least 29 holdups have occurred at area Asian restaurants since April, sowing fear and concern from Ravenel to Holly Hill. A law enforcement task force is investigating and a $20,000 reward has been offered, but no arrests have been made.

Asian restaurants have been a perennial target for bandits here and across the country. Strings of Chinese restaurant robberies have been reported in Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; Brunswick, Ga.; Hartford, Ct.; and Toronto, Ont., in the past year.

And just this month, a 28-year-old worker was gunned down during a hold-up at a Chinese restaurant in Tampa.

Locally, at least four Asian robbery sprees have occurred since 2000. As to why, theories abound: The restaurants are perceived as cash businesses with money on hand; many workers speak English as a second language, making it hard for some to communicate with police; they work long hours and stay open late.

The robbers move quickly and get out fast. But the damage they leave behind can be long- lasting. They leave behind shaken victims and harrowing memories that some will never forget. Here are some of those stories.

A timely escape

Yee Tsoi glanced at the clock inside China Palace IV in Summerville. It was 9:10 p.m. Oct. 2, almost time to close. Tsoi turned toward the register and found herself staring down the barrel of a pistol.

A tall, slender man stood before her, dressed all in black. Every inch of him was covered. She couldn't even make out his eyes or the color of his skin. "Give me your money," he demanded in a deep voice.

Where had he come from? The restaurant had been empty. Tsoi suddenly recalled workers leaving the back door unlocked so a repairman could service a broken freezer earlier in the day. That's how he got in, she thought.

Another man stood in the kitchen, holding a gun on Tsoi's husband and their co-workers. This robber was shorter but also cloaked in black.

Tsoi handed some cash to the tall one. He didn't budge. "Too little. Not enough," he said, ramming the pistol into her side. "Give me your own money."

Is he going to kill me? Tsoi wondered.

The front door suddenly opened. The robber whirled as a customer stepped in. Tsoi took advantage of the distraction and bolted out a side door. She stayed low and she ran into the night. "Help! Help! Call 911!" she screamed.

Several cars passed by without stopping.

A few minutes later, her husband appeared, thankful that she was all right. The robbers had fled. They were safe.

Business has been off since the holdup, and Tsoi remains nervous as night approaches. They lock the doors after dark and keep watch on who approaches the building. The business was hit once before by robbers, in 2008, and the staff thinks the same men were responsible.

"It does make me kind of scared," she said. "You never know when they are coming for you."

Shaken security

The worker saw the two men as soon as he opened the back door to China Fun in West Ashley on Aug. 29. The pair stood by a bucket of cooking oil just a few feet from the door. They were slipping on masks.

The worker dashed back inside the Savannah Highway restaurant, shouting to his co-workers. They had been robbed two years ago and knew exactly what was about to happen.

The employees ran out the front door as the robbers rushed in from the rear.

"I don't know if they had guns or not," co-owner Kerr Chen said. "They didn't need to show guns because everyone was already outside."

The robbers rifled through the register and quickly took off. They took not only cash, but the employees' sense of security as well.

One worker left, never to return. Others remain scared to go outside alone after dark. China Fun now posts lookouts when they open the back door for floor cleaning. It slams shut at the first sign of trouble.

A gun to the head

Jennifer Zheng was sitting near the front counter, playing with her phone. She didn't hear the two men come through the back door of Dragon House until it was too late.

The men in black rushed in when the chef went to take the trash out at the Summerville restaurant around 9:45 p.m. Zheng heard the chef yell. Then she felt the barrel of a gun press against her head. It felt heavy, metallic.

She stared at the gunman's pants and shoes, too afraid to look up. "Get up and give me all the money now," he ordered. He was tall, thin, covered from head to toe in black. It looked like he had nylon panty hose pulled over his face. He towered over her as a shorter man with a gun kept watch over the chef in back.

Once Zheng handed him some cash, he forced her to the ground. Then, as quickly as it started, they were gone.

How did they know when to strike? How could they know no customers were inside? They must have been watching the business. Maybe they had an accomplice out front, Zheng thought.

Her thoughts raced back over the preceding weeks. She recalled an anxious customer -- a stranger -- who came in one day and kept changing seats, his eyes wandering to the security camera on the wall. Could it have been him?

Zheng, who manages the restaurant for her uncle, looks at everything a bit more suspiciously now. She keeps watch on cars in the parking lot and keeps the back door locked at night, even if it means suffering the sweltering heat of the kitchen.

"I get hot, but I don't care," she said. "You don't want to give them any chance."

Double trouble

Mei Qin Gao stared in stunned disbelief as two men in black marched through the front door of her Ravenel restaurant on Oct. 29. The same men -- one tall, one short -- had just robbed the place a few weeks earlier. Now they were back for more.

They had hit Lam's Garden on a good night, so Gao suspected they might one day return. But so soon?

They stood with guns drawn while Gao's 5-year-old daughter sat at a nearby table, watching in fear. Gao and her husband, who was in the back, work long hours at the restaurant, trying to build a new future for their family after immigrating from China.

Now she could do nothing but watch as the short man scooped the night's proceeds from the register.

"You remember me from the last time," the tall man said to her before the pair dashed into the night, taking the restaurant's cash and phone with them.

Frustrated, Gao's husband grabbed a large kitchen knife and ran out the door after them. They were already gone, as if swallowed by the night itself.

"It was not about the money," she said of her husband's act. "He just didn't want them to ever come back."