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Blessing scams in New York’s Chinatowns – Victims see their life savings spirited away

Organised groups of fraudsters are terrifying elderly victims with tales of superstitious horrors in order to gain access to their worldly possessions

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Wang Jing is so ashamed of what happened to her that, for the first hour of our conversation, at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office in New York, she makes no eye contact, as if doing so will break some spell and prevent her from completing her story.

She speaks haltingly in Mandarin, the only language we share; she would seem more comfortable in Cantonese or Taishanese, the dialect of the small city in China’s Guangdong province on whose rural outskirts she was born.

But, more than that, she seems unused to being listened to in any language. She asks me not to use her proper name and has brought along her son, who is in his late 20s. He sits impassive but watchful, accustomed – like many children of immigrants – to making sure that his mother is not taken advantage of.

Wang, who works as a health aide for elderly Chinese, is 61 and careworn. Since coming to the United States 32 years ago, she has been obeyond New York just once, and the only places she has lived in are the Manhattan Chinatown and the Brooklyn one, in Bensonhurst.

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One afternoon in late April of 2016, she was exiting a store in Bensonhurst when an agitated woman in her early 40s rushed up to her. “I’m looking for a doctor called Xu,” the woman said, in rapid-fire Cantonese. “It’s very urgent – for my daughter.”

Wang had been to plenty of traditional Chinese-medicine practitioners in the neighbourhood, but she had never heard of a Dr Xu. “He is very well known here,” the woman went continued. “I think he’s my daughter’s only chance.”

She said that the girl had begun her first menstrual bleeding two weeks earlier and nothing would staunch the flow. Friends spoke of Dr Xu as a miracle worker, but no one seems to know where to to find him.

A woman passing by overheard and interjected, “Are you talking about the Dr Xu? He’s a treasure. I have him to thank for my mother-in-law’s amazing recovery.”

When the first woman asked for more details, the newcomer shrugged. “He’s become a real recluse in recent years,” she said. “I don’t even know if he sees patients any more.”

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People striding past a shop on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Chinatown.

Wang was curious. She’d had her own share of ailments. A decade earlier, she had surgery to remove a tumour in one of her ovaries, and, several years before that, her husband had suffered a back injury that left him unable to work. She became responsible for supporting their two young children. “I would tell the kids, ‘Mama is not hungry today – you guys hurry up and eat,’” she told me. At the time, she made about US$130 a week, at a garment factory, and the physical demands of the work had ravaged her body.

As Wang and her new acquaintances talked, it turned out that the woman who had met Dr Xu was from a village not far from where Wang had grown up. She introduced herself as Liu, asked about Wang’s husband and children, and extended an open invitation to have tea at a bakery she owned with her husband.

Wang was touched by her solicitude. It reminded her of life back in Taishan, where one would constantly cross paths with acquaintances and there was a web of trust, woven over generations, from the reciprocal exchange of favours. If you had a not so familiar problem, you would seek out a shu ren, a “familiar person”, to help. In the US, however, Chinese people shared less about themselves. “Everything is business,” Wang says.

Wang was talking about her children when Liu called out to a woman with large sunglasses and a backpack who was walking towards them. “We were just looking for your grandfather,” Liu exclaimed. Dr Xu’s granddaughter said that he had been very sick and had stopped taking patients. He now devoted himself to good deeds, to build karma as his end neared.

Liu begged the granddaughter to make an exception, and she agreed to try to talk him round. “He will refuse your money,” she warned, as she left. “If he agrees to see you, it will be strictly as friends.”

“I’ve never had terribly good fortune,” Wang tells me. “It’s always been endurance – life lived on a boiling kettle.” But, for the first time in a long while, she felt as if her luck was about to change. She had heard about doctors who had amazing powers, but she had never encountered one. Now it seemed that she might get a free consultation.

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My grandfather sees a great white tiger, a very ill omen. If the spirit wants him, she can make the most harmless actions fatal, your son may choke on his next sip of water

The women waited on the street, and when the granddaughter returned, her face had darkened. She addressed Wang by name, although Wang could not recall having given her name. “It’s about your unmarried son,” the granddaughter said. Wang had not told her about her son, either.

The granddaughter said that Dr Xu had lit three sticks of incense at an altar, one for each woman. Liu’s stick burned brightly, because of the good deed she had done by referring the others, but the other two sticks immediately blew out.

The mother of the girl with menstrual problems was told that an offended spirit in the underworld was responsible. The news for Wang was even more dire: her son was in mortal danger. Because she had recently crossed a street in the exact spot where a pregnant woman had been killed two decades earlier, the spirit of the unborn child, a girl, had latched on to Wang, intent upon claiming her son for a husband.

“My grandfather sees a great white tiger, a very ill omen,” the woman warned. Wang asked if she could not just keep her son safe at home. The woman shook her head. “If the spirit wants him, she can make the most harmless actions fatal,” she said. “Your son might choke on his next sip of water.”

Wang was terrified. Everyone in China knew about ming hun, or ghost marriages. The mother of one of Wang’s classmates had lost a son at a young age and was plagued with ill health for years, until a local shaman found a suitable wife in the underworld, a girl in the village who had died in infancy. Now Wang listened, as Dr Xu’s granddaughter told her that, to avoid the curse, her valuables must be blessed immediately. She added a caveat: “You can’t contact anyone. You will spook the spirit into taking action faster.”

“It was my son’s life,” Wang tells me. “How could I have taken a chance?”

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Liu accompanied Wang to her apartment, to fetch her valuables. “Everything will be OK, sister,” she said. She had endured difficulties herself, she confided, and Dr Xu had always seen her through them. “He doesn’t take a cent,” she said. “And, of course, no funny business with your valuables.” She held up her hand to show Wang a gold band set with carved jade. “How else would I still have this ring?”

As they reached Wang’s apartment building, Liu offered a last admonition. “Just be careful. Dr Xu’s eyes are omnipresent,” she said. “If you try to collect only a portion of your valuables, the blessings won’t work and your son will remain in danger.”

Like many immigrants, Wang had never had much use for banks. Her life savings – about US$150,000 – were hidden in a box and in other places around her bedroom. Not even her family knew how much was in it.

She took the money and some wedding jewellery that she almost never wore, put everything into plastic bags and placed the bundle in a shopping bag.

The granddaughter was waiting for them on the street corner where they had met. She held out a large bag and told Wang to put her package inside. Then she spun Wang around and told her to join her palms together in prayer, bow and recite a chant: “Peace and safety to my child, may the bodhisattva protect him.”

Wang vaguely remembers the granddaughter tracing her fingers through the air, as if drawing calligraphy, and at one point holding both hands up to the grey sky. But, almost as soon as the ceremony had begun, it was over.

The bag was returned to Wang, along with two bottles of spring water. One was to be used to cook rice, and the other was for drinking: everyone in the family must take a sip. The bag should not be opened for 49 days or the blessing would be undone.

Liu took Wang’s hands. “It’s fate that we met,” she said, by way of farewell.

As Wang walked home, she felt that the bag had become oddly lighter than she remembered. She broke into a run, clutching the bag, and tore it open as soon as she was home. Inside, all she found was boxes of cornstarch and laundry detergent. That evening, her son took her to the police.

[My loss] sits, every second, like a cold stone in my chest, so much so that I can’t breathe
Wang Jing, blessing scam victim

The first reports of what have become known as blessing scams appeared in Chinese media at about the turn of the century. In 2002, there were more than 800 incidents in Hong Kong, leading police to establish a dedicated task force.

Investigators determined that the suspects were middle-aged women, working in crews of three or four, and that almost all of them came from coastal provinces of southern China, whose proximity to the wealth of Hong Kong and Taiwan creates tempting opportunities for criminals.

The scammers travelled first to Taiwan and other cities across Asia, and then to Chinese communities in the US, Canada and Australia. In the summer of 2012, in San Francisco, there were more than 50 incidents, which netted an estimated US$1.5 million in cash and goods.

Nine people have since stood trial and received prison sentences of up to four years. The prosecution said that the defendants were professionals who had been conning elderly Chinese women around the globe. The countries stamped on their passports included Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and Cambodia.

In New York currently, there are about 10 reported cases each year. Kevin Hui, a detective in the organised-crime unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD), worked on Wang’s case. He tells me that, after a spike in the number of cases in 2012, he and his colleagues contacted police in Hong Kong in an effort to better understand the phenomenon.

In 2014, after tracking the scammers intensively, the NYPD lodged sealed indictments against a number of suspects, but, before arrests could be made, they all disappeared, presumably escaping to China.

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In early 2016, police managed to arrest three scammers, who took felony pleas and served prison time. Hui says that his department is in the process of following two gangs at work in New York.

Policing blessing scams is made harder by the fact that victims are frequently too scared or humiliated to report the crimes. Last year, I spoke to the late Eddie Chiu, a Hong Kong native who for many years headed the Lin Sing Association in New York, one of the oldest Chinatown community organisations, and often advised elderly victims who were reluctant to involve authorities. Some feared that doing so would expose irregularities in their immigration or tax status.

“They are also afraid of losing face,” Chiu told me. “They are saving that money for their burial arrangements or to give to their grandchildren, but sometimes their own children don’t even know about it.”

The victims worried that their children would berate them for being credulous and for having kept the money secret in the first place. “They are fearful and embarrassed,” he said. “The scammers know it, and they exploit it.”

In 2014, the vulnerability of such communities led Kenneth P. Thompson, Brooklyn’s district attorney at the time, to set up the Immigrant Fraud Unit. Its work has since been expanded by his successor, Eric Gonzalez.

“One-third of the population here in Brooklyn are immigrants, and the Chinese community is the fastest-growing one,” Gonzalez tells me one afternoon in his office. A second-generation Puerto Rican, he spoke of witnessing the process of assimilation within his own family.

“There are many factors at work – cultural barriers, social isolation – that make these immigrants easy targets.”

In the months after Wang was defrauded, police received reports of several similar incidents across New York, and they closed in on eight suspects. One day, Hui, driving through Chinatown while off duty, saw a group of scammers in action. He called for backup, and another officer filmed everything and then made arrests. Officers caught four of the eight people they had been tracking.

As police and prosecutors reviewed the evidence, it became clear that one of the scammers had been involved in a number of incidents. It was the woman who had introduced herself to Wang as Liu. Her real name was Su Xuekun.

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Su Xuekun arrives at Brooklyn Supreme Court for her arraign­ment on charges relating to a Chinese blessing scam, on October 20, 2016. Picture: Alamy

At the district attorney’s office, I meet two prosecutors who were assigned to the case – Kin Ng, who was born in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese, and José Interiano, who is Honduran-American. They tell me that although Su had been in the country for only a few months, she had been extremely active. Two months after defrauding Wang, Su – this time playing the part of the mother with the menstruating daughter – was part of a group that conned a 54-year-old woman in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park out of US$19,000.

Su had also been implicated in operations in Manhattan and in Queens, which netted more than US$$400,000. Ng tells me, “We have video footage of her in the act, and line-up identification.”

Su was indicted on four counts of grand larceny, relating to two separate incidents. Because there was more than one offence, prosecutors were able to indict her under a hate-crime statute and seek a stiffer sentence. It is rare for someone to be prosecuted for a hate crime against people of their own ethnicity, but Interiano says he believes the case warranted it.

“The term ‘hate crime’ is poorly worded,” he says, and suggests that “bias crime” better represents the intent of the statute. “If you look at the statute itself, the word ‘hate’ is actually omitted. The fact is, all our victims shared several characteristics: they were all female, they were older, they were all Chinese.”

By the time that the victim is given a way of solving all these problems, they just want to get out of it: ‘OK, fine, I’ll do whatever it takes to save my family member.’
José Interiano, prosecutor

All but one of the cases that the Immigrant Fraud Unit has handled involved perpetrators who share the ethnic background of their victims. Ng says: “It’s only natural, whether it’s the West Indian or the Latino or the East Asian community.” He laughs as he recalls, when he was a child, seeing his parents get swindled by a Chinese car salesman. “You speak the language, and you feel like you have an instant understanding and bond. Scammers prey upon that.”

Interiano and Ng, like the police, think the scammers were part of a well-organised crime ring. Different crews all used the same stories, and, whereas most Chinese immigrants depend on family connections to establish themselves, the suspects arrived knowing no one, but had no problem instantly finding accommodation and employment.

Interiano says he does not consider the victims to be unusually gullible. Rather, the scam has been perfectly devised to take advantage of people with few sources of information.

The initial conversation with the victim is a way of harvesting personal information. Using a mobile phone, the first two scammers can have the third listen in, or they can send texts of the pertinent points. The third scammer will then seem to have supernatural insight into the victim’s life, making the warning about the family member in danger more credible.

At every stage, the gang will hurry things along, to heighten panic. Interiano says, “By the time that the victim is given a way of solving all these problems, they just want to get out of it: ‘OK, fine, I’ll do whatever it takes to save my family member.’”

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Hong Kong-born Kin Ng, from the district attorney’s office, is one of the prosecutors assigned to Su’s case. Picture: Alamy

I had met Su Xuekun on a bright morning at Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Her court-appointed lawyer, Morris Shamuil, a gentle, harried man in his 40s, greeted me on the benches outside the courtroom where she was being arraigned. He had seen his client only twice since her arrest, both times in court, and could not communicate with her unless a translator was present.

Su, handcuffed and wearing a khaki sweatsuit, was led into the courtroom. During the arraignment, she bowed and smiled deferentially at the judge, Danny Chun. Su pleaded not guilty, and, to Shamuil’s disappointment, Chun upheld the hate-crime charges.

Afterwards, Shamuil took me downstairs to a visiting area where Su was waiting for a van to take her back to prison on Rikers Island. She was tanned, with thick brown hair that was frizzy and blond at the edges – the vestiges of a dye-and-perm job. We sat down to talk, separated by a Plexiglas window. She apologised for her poor Mandarin and, whenever a word or a phrase eluded her, repeated the Cantonese equivalent to herself in increasingly agitated tones, sighing with frustration.

Su told me that she had grown up in the Guangdong countryside and began working in the fields at the age of 10. She longed to move to the city, a place where she imagined she “would not be sharing the same bed with three other siblings”. She saw how hard her parents worked, and how the work would always leave you poor, “no matter how much sweat it wrung out of you”.

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Eventually, she made her way to a town, about 250km down the coast from where Wang grew up, and got married. She and her husband had three teenage children and both worked in her in-laws’ family business, a glove factory. She said that it had been nearly 10 months since she had spoken to her family. She did not want people at home to know what had happened to her, or for her children to be ashamed.

Some nine months earlier, Su had travelled to Toronto on a tourist visa, her first time outside China. She had recently discovered that her husband was having an affair with one of her colleagues, and felt that she had to get away. She also thought that, if she could find out about Western universities, her children might be able to study at one.

For a week, she stayed at a hostel in Toronto’s Chinatown. At a local bakery, she met a well-dressed, “rich-looking” woman, her hair in “a fancy, movie-star bun”, who also turned out to be from Guangdong.

The woman, who called herself Sister Ping (coincidentally, the name of a famous human trafficker) said that there would be better opportunities for Su’s children in America. She offered to help her get there, set her up with a cleaning job, and sort out her accommodation and her immigration status.

It seemed that Su had stumbled on the ideal shu ren – the kind of familiar person you rarely encountered outside China. The arrangement was that Ping would charge US$3,000, which Su could pay once she was earning money. They drove in an estate car from Toronto to New York, but the cleaning job did not materialise. “Sister Ping said that I owed her this sum and there was only one way to pay it back,” Su said.

She was evasive when I asked about the scam. “They just told us it would be OK,” she kept saying. I asked why she did not turn in Sister Ping in exchange for a lighter sentence, and she said that she did not know Ping’s true identity or those of the other accomplices. It seemed that no one – neither victims nor perpetrators – really knew one another.

She went on, “I know, I know, it’s a terrible thing that I did to those aunties. I have elderly folks back at home, too, so I know their pain. I wish I could take it back.”

There are many factors at work – cultural barriers, social isolation – that make these immigrants easy targets
Eric Gonzalez, Immigration Fraud Unit

Later, when I run the details by Kevin Hui, of the NYPD, he says that the entire story is a fabrication, and that Su arrived in Canada with a group of scammers. “We knew they were looking for hits,” he says. “It’s a crew. That’s what they do.” The DA’s office, likewise, doubts that any family Su has in China will be ignorant of what she was doing.

Still, I wonder if Su’s fabrications might contain some fragments of truth. Shen Anqi, a legal scholar at Britain’s Teesside University who has made a study of female Chinese criminals, tells me that the upbringing Su described was typical of the women she has encountered.

For her recent book, Offending Women in Contemporary China, Shen interviewed dozens of child traffickers and leaders of prostitution rings. The vast majority were born in the countryside to large families – China’s one-child policy never penetrated the rural hinterland.

With only poor education, which left them unqualified for anything beyond manual labour, they were confronted with China’s rapid social change, rising inequality and burgeoning materialism. “The criminal market is easy to enter, requires no diploma and provides a quick way for them to aspire to something much more than what they currently have,” Shen says. “I’m not justifying it, but the incentives are certainly there.”

Shen notes that criminals like Su tend to prey on people like themselves. “They know what it’s like to be desperate and to fervently want something more through a quick fix, like a blessing,” she says. “It’s desperation chasing desperation.”

It occurs to me that, when Su told Wang that they had been fated to meet, she was right, although not in the sense that she intended. The country’s vertiginous change, incomprehensible to both, had sparked in each a kind of magical thinking, a frantic hope that life could be transformed by a lucky break, and it was this that had brought them together.

Su had told me that she was almost relieved to have been caught. “I don’t have to lie any more. The pressure’s off,” she said. And, to an indigent Chinese immigrant, the facilities at Rikers did not seem such a hardship. “We live 50 women to a room,” she said. “There’s time and space to exercise. Life is orderly. The food is not bad at all.”

There was one officer in particular, a white woman, who checked in on her regularly. “In all my months here, the lady prison guard, she was the first real American I get to know who’s almost like a friend,” Su said. She raised her hand to brush a stray hair out of her eyes. On her middle finger, she wore a ring of gold and jade.

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Su, who is now serving her sentence in prison on Rikers Island, expressed something close to relief at being caught.

I am curious about the elements of the story that the scammers told Wang, and of the ritual that they performed. A little research reveals that they were likely patched together from various strands of traditional Chinese belief.

The white tiger has been a staple of Chinese astrology since antiquity; it represents a thirst for blood and is thought to bring mortal danger to infants and pregnant women. The 49 days that Wang was told to wait before opening the package echoes the 49 days that spirits of the recently dead must wait to be allocated their place in the afterlife – a belief that entered Chinese tradition, from India, in the fourth century BC. The chant that she was told to recite was plausibly Buddhist, and the granddaughter’s gesture during the blessing, arms raised heavenwards, evoked Taoist ritual.

When I ask Wang about the symbols, she is vague about their meaning and their origins. “The white tiger is an ill omen – everyone knows this,” she says. The exact significance of the symbols is less clear to her than the fact that they carry significance.

Jonathan HX Lee, an associate professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, tells me that this is common among contemporary Chinese. “It’s the ritual and symbol that have been passed down,” he says. “They carry import, even if their historical origins have been lost.”

Lee says that this is due, in part, to the syncretism of Chinese belief – the way that the indigenous religion of prehistoric China gradually blended with later traditions.

Traditional Chinese religion revolved around veneration of the spirits of one’s ancestors. Taoism, which originated in China around the fourth century BC, introduced practices of occult medicine and exorcism.

Buddhism, which was brought to China by Indian missionaries sometime about the first century AD, added the idea of continuous rebirth and the retributive effects of karma. Meanwhile, Confucianism’s emphasis on filial piety formalised ancestor worship as part of everyday life: ancestors who did not receive offerings of food and incense would become hungry and irritated in the netherworld.

If you are of a certain generation and grew up in the Communist state, you don’t really know what real religion is in China
Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China

“Gods, ghosts, and ancestors are all connected in this world view,” Lee says. “Gods are exceptional historical human beings or ancestors who have become deified. Hungry ghosts are ancestors who have not been properly venerated.” (Many Chinese communities annually celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival, to feed and placate these disruptive spirits.)

In China, ghosts have been particularly integrated into social and administrative life. By the early 12th century, Taoist exorcism rites used judicial language to interrogate and sentence troublesome ghosts.

The founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor, issued a proclamation, in 1375, stipulating that “every county and village” must have an altar for appeasing wandering ghosts, and that there should be one for every 100 households.

As late as 1896, in a town in Fujian, city bureaucrats presided over a ritual to drive out the hungry ghosts of people who had been killed while fighting Japanese invaders in Manchuria.

In the early 20th century, after the fall of the last imperial dynasty, traditional Chinese religion came under attack from patriotic intellectuals like Sun Yat-sen, who thought it had impeded the country’s progress toward modernity. Temples were demolished and statues smashed. In 1949, the Communists established an atheist state and sought to purge the country of its superstitious ways.

“It is as if a raging tidal wave has swept away all the demons and ghosts,” Mao Zedong said in 1955. By this time, “ghost” had been repurposed as a word for any malign influence, especially a counter-revolutionary one.

Nonetheless, in rural areas, private rituals to venerate ancestors or ward off ghosts were often tolerated. And in 1982, the liberal reforms of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping permitted religious gatherings to take place again.

“The idea was that it was just for old people, and, with time, it would die out,” Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China, a recent book on the resurgence of religious belief in the country, tells me. Religion did not die out, but, as Johnson explained, the decades of prohibition had eroded most people’s understanding of spiritual traditions.

“If you are of a certain generation and grew up in the Communist state, you don’t really know what real religion is in China,” he says.

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Lee, however, cautions against viewing Chinese religion as inherently vulnerable to blessing scams. He cites scandals involving Christian televangelists and mentions a case, earlier this year, in which a Jamaican-American retiree was defrauded of her life savings by two people at a Brooklyn church, one of whom had posed as a pastor.

Ultimately, it seems, it is faith itself, rather than a specific cosmology, that makes people susceptible to fraud.

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I speak to Barend Ter Haar, a scholar of Chinese religion at Britain’s Oxford University, who makes a further point: although, from a Western perspective, some of these religious practices might seem exotic, they often fulfil functions that are easily recognisable.

Bereaved parents visiting a village shaman to arrange a ghost marriage for a deceased child might well experience relief similar to that provided by grief counselling or psychoanalysis. “The point is that it gives the sufferer a sense of agency and an explanation that can be empowering,” Ter Haar says.

In the spring of last year, Su returned to court a number of times, and astonished everyone by refusing to take a plea deal, of between two-and-a-half and four years in prison, that the prosecutors were offering.

Interiano, who was acting as counsel for the prosecution, wondered if she realised how slim her chances would be if she insisted on fighting her case. “We’ve got video recordings, pictures,” he said. “This would be pretty close to a slam dunk.”

Shamuil was exasperated with his client. “This is the best deal she’s going to get from the judge,” he said. He speculated that Su thought she could get less jail time by driving a hard bargain.

“Probably in prison she heard about other Chinese people in similar circumstances who got less time,” he said, shrugging. “Rikers is a small place. All the Chinese people know each other and talk.”

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Talking to Su, I’d got the impression that she did not fully understand the severity of her situation. It was as if the American judicial system were merely a nuisance that could be worked around, given enough perseverance. At one point, she said that, once her case was resolved, she wanted to return to the US to resume the college search for her children.

Finally, in mid-May, judge Chun told Shamuil, “If the defendant doesn’t take the plea, her sentence will certainly go up. I will be withdrawing the offer after today.”

After consulting an interpreter, Su took the deal, brows furrowed and eyes downcast. “Do you have anything to say?” the judge asked her. “I’m sorry,” she said softly through the interpreter. “I won’t do it again.”

I went downstairs to talk to Su, in the visiting area. She looked tired, with faintly bloodshot eyes and hair hastily tied in a ponytail. I asked her why it had taken her so long to plead. She did not answer, but massaged her throat and swallowed with some difficulty.

Eventually, she said that the prison doctor had diagnosed a thyroid condition that required surgery. She had hoped to return to China for the operation. I told her that when many rich Chinese people need surgery, they pay to come to America.

“I would be too scared,” she said. “To be lying immobilised in a bed at a hospital, deaf and mute, without knowing a single person?” She used Wang’s term for a helpful contact: shu ren. Su was now experiencing the same immigrant loneliness that had made Wang susceptible to the scam.

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It’s a warm Sunday morning when I meet Wang and her son at a Cantonese restaurant in Bensonhurst. The spacious dining hall, a popular venue for Chinese wedding banquets, is bustling with families, strollers and walkers wedged against the tables.

Wang’s son asks me to act like a friend of the family rather than like a journalist, explaining that his mother has kept her loss secret from all her friends.

Steaming dim sum carts roll by, but Wang is anxious that we not order too much. “Enough, enough,” she says, as soon as there are half a dozen items on the table. “We won’t be able to finish it all.”

She turns to me and smiles. “The food here is authentic, not like in Manhattan, where they are just cheating the foreigners,” she says.

I ask Wang how she has managed since losing her money, and she shakes her head. She continues work as a health aide, but she has not increased her hours. “If you work more, you risk losing Medicaid benefits,” she says. “And there are not many employment options for someone my age.”

She does not mind the work, finding it almost leisurely compared with the 12-hour shifts she once endured in the garment factory.

Wang puts down her chopsticks and reminisces about her early years in New York. She met her husband in Guangdong; he was already working in the US but had returned to find a wife.

“You don’t know how poor China was then, especially in the countryside,” she says. “America was this golden dream. Everyone wanted to go, but very few people could. That I was to marry a man who could take me to America was a rare piece of good fortune, which everyone envied.”

She smiles wryly and says: “I had this sense that coming to the ‘beautiful country’” – the literal translation of meiguo, meaning “America” – “was my blessing. I had no idea how I got so lucky.”

America was this golden dream. Everyone wanted to go, but very few people could. That I was to marry a man who could take me to America was a rare piece of good fortune, which everyone envied
Wang Jing

Once she arrived, however, Wang learned that she would see her husband only once a week. “There weren’t so many restaurant jobs back then, so he had to go out of state to work,” she says. “There were no options. For men, it was the back kitchen of restaurants. For women, it was the garment factories.” She hoped to learn English, but never had the time. “Living and working around East Broadway, it wasn’t so different from living in China,” she says. “You heard no English and you spoke no English.”

Her husband advised her to avoid dwelling on her loss. “He tells me to think of myself as a newly arrived immigrant, fresh off the plane, with just the clothes on my back and without a cent in my pocket,” she says. “But how can I erase 30 years?”

I ask if she has any kind of belief that will sustain her. She shakes her head vigorously, and for the first time I see anger in her face. “Nothing,” she says. “I refuse to believe in anything any more – no gods, no ghosts.”

As the lunch crowd begins to disperse, a family stops by to say hello. Wang’s face rearranges itself into a sunny smile, and she exchanges pleasantries. After her friends have gone, she tells me that, even with her closest family, she no longer discusses what happened; it unleashes too much pain.

“But it sits, every second, like a cold stone in my chest, so much so that I can’t breathe,” she tells me. Wang smooths a wrinkle in the tablecloth and does not look up. After some moments, she speaks again: “In the evenings sometimes, I take a walk. There is a park not too far from my home.”

She says that there is a particular bench, under a leafy oak, where she likes to sit. “I scream, just open my lungs and scream,” she says, in a whisper. “People stare, but in the dark, everyone is a stranger.”

Text: The New Yorker (c) Condé Nast

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girl-shopping

Henry Sapiecha