Even in East New York, where the pop and bang of gunfire is common background noise, the shot was impossible to ignore. Emilio Batista, an unemployed warehouse worker, heard it as he lay in bed just before midnight. It was one loud shot, and it sounded like it came from something powerful. He got up to check it out. His mother was already standing at the living-room window, watching someone race down the street. From their third-floor apartment at the front of Cypress Hills Houses, Batista and his mother had a direct view of a person crumpled up on the sidewalk below, at the intersection of Sutter and Euclid avenues, next to the storefront of a Chinese takeout place that everyone calls May May’s.
He watched the commotion and the police cars’ lights flashing below for a bit longer before he returned to bed.
By the time he went downstairs and crossed Sutter Avenue late the next morning to buy a vanilla-flavored cigar from the Valero gas station/car wash/fried-chicken joint across from where the shooting took place, the drama was long over.
In its wake, there was the dead victim: Her name was Ihsia Golphin. She was 21, the same age as Batista. She had dimples, and a grandma who called her “Muffin.” Someone had shot her in the chest while she was walking to a friend’s house.
She was part of a grim statistic: one of four women shot within a 24-hour period in late February in East New York.
As Batista neared the gas station, he recalls, he noticed May May, the owner of the Chinese takeout restaurant, kneeling on the sidewalk with a plastic bucket, scrubbing hard at the pavement with a brush and water. May May was cleaning up the dried pool of blood that marked the spot where Golphin fell. Nasty. Maybe, somehow, May May didn’t know that he could hire a crew to mop up the crime scene. Batista decided to point this out.
“May May, you don’t got to clean that,” he hollered from across the street.
But “May May got attitude,” as people in the neighborhood say. For more than 25 years, May May has sold chicken wings, fried rice, and a locally popular iced tea behind bulletproof glass on that corner. He’s known as a scrappy man with a limited command of English, disconcertingly crossed eyes, and a razor-sharp tongue. Batista wasn’t surprised by his response.
“Shut up!” May May yelled back at him.
Batista couldn’t quite make out what he said next, so the unemployed warehouse worker returned to his mission for the dollar cigar and May May continued with his cleaning and venting. “Fuck you!” he was heard screaming at passersby.
And, as the story of Golphin’s death made the rounds in the neighborhood, as a result of the gallows humor of those numbed by violence, some people found May May’s cursing as he went about his gory task hilarious. That was just May May being May May.
May May opened his restaurant in 1983, at the beginning of what became known as the “crack epidemic.” By 1989, a typical newspaper headline was “East New York, Haunted by Crime, Fights for Its Life.” Like other parts of the city—perhaps worse than anywhere else—East New York was scary, full of dangerous people lurking in front of abandoned buildings.
“Things were so bad that no one would sit on a bench outside during the daytime,” recalls Dwayne Faison, a former president of the Cypress Hills Tenant Association.
Some people called East New York the “Dead Zone”—it reportedly had the highest murder rate in the city in 1988, 1993, and 1994.
Some of the bodies, other than Golphin’s, fell at the sidewalk in front of May May’s joint—how many is uncertain. But as neighborhood resident Chanel Armstrong says, as she emerges from May May’s with a cup of iced tea, “A lot of people have been killed on this block.”
In 1990, for instance, 16-year-old Kimson Russell left his family’s apartment at Cypress to buy bread from a bodega across from May May’s. He was shot to death on his way back home, the loaf of bread found crushed under his body. Faison recalls that shooting all those years ago: His bedroom windows looked out on the scene, and he says he can still remember standing on the sidewalk with other neighbors, watching police investigate the scene. At one point, the cops inserted a slender stick into the hole in Russell’s head to determine which direction the bullet came from. Faison recalls that some onlookers thought the cops were sticking him with a pencil.
In 2007, a man was shot dead just before Christmas on the walkway in front of the projects. But not every senseless death on the block has been a homicide: Last October, a Con Edison worker was killed in a freak accident when the manhole he was working in next to the gas station exploded.
There was also an earlier murder that Faison still recalls, but, like those of so many others, the details have blurred in his mind. He doesn’t remember the guy’s name or the year—only that he was young and tall, and that after his body was taken away, he saw May May outside, cleaning up the blood.
In the early days, May May offered discounts and handed his customers their orders before collecting their payment. That practice stopped after too many people ran away with the food before paying. Soon after, May May became stingy about handing out extra plastic bags and packets of duck sauce. When he lost his temper, he would yell and flash his chicken cleaver at unruly customers on the other side of the glass. On rare occasions, like when people threw trash around his place, May May would pop out from behind the iron gate that separates him from his customers: “He’ll come out from behind that counter to challenge you,” says Efrain Garcia, 20. “And if you challenge him, he won’t back down.”
In short, May May toughened up. “For lack of a better word,” says Faison, “May May became ghettoized.”
Or, as a young guy in a green polo shirt says as he strolls out of May May’s with a cup of iced tea, “Everybody says he’s nasty, like he might spit in your food, but he don’t care. He ‘hood now.”
Others, especially women, tell of a softer side. “I’m nice, so he’s nice,” says a teenager, who says she loves his chicken wings with barbecue sauce (and, of course, the iced tea).
Chanel Armstrong says she’s been a fan of May May’s shrimp and broccoli since she was a little girl: “He screams at everyone else, but he doesn’t scream at me,” she says. “I just had a baby, and he asked me about that.” Her relationship with May May is so well known, she says, that her friends have been calling her lately, asking if she knows why he’s in such a bad mood. She shrugs and ventures a guess: “Maybe it’s because of the murder.”
Not that his gruffness isn’t well-known. After more than two decades of running a local business in a rough area, and considering the language barrier, there are bound to be a lot of stories. If you spill an iced tea and ask for another one, he might bark, “You shut up!”
May May is known for not taking a lot of guff, his wrath is often well-justified, and he doesn’t always clean up others’ messes: After one dispute over whether some fries were cooked enough, a customer threw a trash can against a wall. May May stormed out from behind his gate and yelled, “You clean! You clean!”
Apparently, May May’s used to getting trashed a lot. “I know May May. We used to extort food from him back in the day,” says a man from the neighborhood who once did time in state prison on drug charges. In a later conversation, the ex-con slightly alters his recollection, saying he and his friends used to get food from May May in return for the “protection” they provided: keeping customers from throwing garbage around inside the restaurant.
As one businessman to another, he says, he respects May May. “He never left,” says the former drug dealer. “He held his real estate. You understand why he has that attitude. A lot of things happened on that corner.”
Inside, the place is often bustling. On a recent Saturday, May May’s is packed, as usual. Ten people, mostly moms and their kids, cluster around the window, while May May barks orders in Cantonese to the two cooks behind him.
No tables, no chairs—just May May, the customers, and the cooks. Behind the bulletproof glass, May May wears big eyeglasses that make him appear owlish. Just about everyone orders chicken wings, a good deal at $2.75 for four.
May May is taking an order when a tall, skinny man wearing pink sunglasses stumbles into the restaurant. It’s just the guy everyone calls “So High.” He used to get high—now, he just gets drunk.
The other customers give him a wide berth, and May May gives him the bum’s rush. “You!” he bellows from behind the counter. “Oh, no! You go out!”
No, this will take a personal touch: In a flash, May May is out of the gate. He grabs “So High” by the elbow and escorts him out the door. “You stay out, OK?!”
“So High” returns, and May May kicks him out again. And again they go through the ritual.
It’s no wonder that the first time I try to talk to May May, by phone, he screams at me, too.
So I bring a Mandarin-speaking friend to try it in person. Our timing is good—it’s the lull between lunch and dinner—but when we approach the glass, May May eyes us suspiciously.
“I haven’t been here very long. I have nothing to say,” he says. “I just took over this business—I’m on the up-and-up.”
Eventually, May May’s gruff exterior softens. He apologizes and smiles. He tells us he’s so guarded because the police harassed him when he first moved in. After a while, he tells us the story of how he, a Chinese kid who spent most of his early childhood in the grip of extreme hunger during a famine in Fujian province, wound up selling food on an American street corner.
Yeung Sau Ka was born in a rural rice-farming village in Fujian in 1955, the first year of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. The youngest of four, he was left behind when his parents fled to Hong Kong. His parents sent for him to join them when he was five, when the country was in the grip of a devastating famine from Mao’s failed project. Some of Yeung’s earliest memories of China are of hunger.
He landed in Los Angeles at age 23, in 1978, and made his way east, joining his brothers and sisters who had already settled in New Jersey.
His wife and son, who was born the year he left Hong Kong, joined him in the U.S. in 1980. The family was naturalized in 1981, and his daughter was born here.
For his first five years in America, Yeung worked in his family’s restaurants in Jersey. Eventually, he managed to scrape together $20,000 to buy his own business.
In 1983, a classified ad for a cheap building for sale lured Yeung to the corner of Sutter and Euclid. He knew it was a tough neighborhood, but the storefront was what he could afford.
“Of course I wouldn’t choose to be here,” he says.
Like others in the neighborhood, Yeung says he didn’t feel safe walking down the street during most of the 1980s and early 1990s, even during the daytime. He was mugged twice outside the restaurant. And two other times, he was attacked and robbed inside the store while mopping up the waiting area after-hours.
The scariest incident, he recalls, took place during one of the rare occasions he wasn’t at work. A gunman tried to rob the place and fired his weapon down the narrow passage used for passing money and food. No one was injured, but the wall still bears a scar where the bullet chipped a tile below a photo of fish sticks that is taped to a kitchen wall.
The violence got to Yeung, and so began his third exile, in 1991: He leased out May May Restaurant and set up an American-style diner in Andover, New Jersey. The business failed within two years—Yeung blames his shaky command of English. He moved back to Brooklyn and resumed running May May Restaurant.
Shortly after he moved back to Brooklyn, Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor. Yeung credits him with cleaning up the neighborhood: “Now, apart from isolated incidents, it’s much better,” he says.
Irascible at work, Yeung seems to be living an American dream of sorts: He owns the restaurant and lives above it, and he owns another property in Queens. His son manages a franchise restaurant in midtown, and his daughter works for a company whose name he doesn’t know, but he’s visibly proud of her, too.
“If you’re willing to work really hard, America does offer you a better life,” he says. And the work is hard: Yeung describes his life as “work and sleep, work and sleep.”
The restaurant is open every day, from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and until 1 a.m. on weekends. On Wednesdays, Yeung travels to Chinatown for supplies. “No time,” he says, to even accept the offer of tea from someone. His only days off, he says, are Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Over time, Yeung says he has developed a certain understanding of his neighbors, as they have of him. “I’ve gotten to know people and their children,” he says. “They aren’t bad people.”
But he does acknowledge that his dealings with the neighborhood have changed him. He has learned to raise his voice to be taken seriously: “Sometimes, it’s like they don’t hear you the first time,” he says. “I say it once, twice, three times, and then I raise my voice, and then they get it.”
After all these years, however, Yeung has never managed to adapt to the violence. The first time in his life that he saw a dead body, he says, was outside his restaurant. And he says he remembers every time someone dies because it makes him reconsider his decision to stick it out in the neighborhood.
Why does he clean up the blood?
“Chinese people have a tradition,” he says, “especially if you’re a store owner. You don’t want to make your employees do the dirty work.”
Which is why he didn’t rely on anyone else to clean up after Golphin was killed.
In the weeks following her death, the spot in front of May May’s where Golphin fell attracted a legion of flickering candles as well as a cross adorned with pink plastic roses. A poster on the brick wall above the spot featured her sweet, round face, and people wrote messages to her on it. And then, one morning, the memorial was gone, and all that was left were tiny puddles of hardened wax and the word “REPENT” scrawled on the brick wall in white paint. No doubt when the next body drops, May May will be out there again, trying to scrub away the blood.
With reporting by Edward Gauvin