When closing time nears, local Chinese restaurant owners say they must quickly decide whether to greet people approaching the entrance doors with a welcoming smile or a drawn gun.
Their fears continue after they lock up for the night, checking their rear-view mirrors for headlights as they drive home. They want to make sure robbers aren't following them.
Dozens of Chinese business owners in the Triangle say they have felt targeted by thieves for so long that they have turned to firearms, including AR-15 assault-style rifles, to defend their livelihoods and their families. About 100 small-business owners have banned together to form the North Carolina Chinese Hunting Club to train in shooting techniques.
“They're changing their mentality,” said John Wang, a local business owner who translated into English for four other Chinese business owners. "Now, they're going to start shooting back.”
The club formed two years ago, but some members say their fears intensified after 42-year-old Durham restaurant owner Hong Zheng was killed outside his home on April 15. Police arrested a 28-year-old man 12 days later and charged him with murder and attempted robbery.
It was the fifth time people had broken into or attempted to break into Zheng's home since November 2015.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation created a task force in 2014 after an estimated 35 armed robberies or attempted robberies on Asian business owners were reported from Durham to the coast the prior year. Robberies declined after the task force — which included the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — arrested two men in 2015, according to SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan.
North Carolina isn't the only area that has seen crimes against Asian victims. Police in Sacramento, Calif., reported a spike in such crimes last year, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested two men last fall after a string of violent robberies of Asian businesses in Atlanta.
Some say Asian business owners are targeted because they are immigrants and often don't speak fluent English. Some carry cash instead of immediately depositing money in the bank.
In North Carolina, victims have recounted attacks that are similar to the assault that killed Zheng:
They flick off their restaurant's “open” sign, straighten the chairs and tidy up the floor and lock up shop. They head home, approach their front door and are accosted by three to five armed and masked men who demand money and valuables.
'They put guns to our heads'
Most N.C. Chinese Hunting Club members have been robbed, at their businesses or their homes.
Raleigh restaurant owner Lang Dong said he doesn't leave his home without strapping a 9 mm, semi-automatic pistol to his hip. He prefers the reliability of a Glock 17 — the most frequently carried sidearm by law enforcement.
Dong and his wife own seven guns, including three pistols. They keep one AR-15 and one shotgun in their restaurant, and they do the same at their house.
He said criminals have robbed or tried to rob his restaurant six times in less than two years and that he called the police each time. He keeps business cards from every incident, signed by different police investigators – the first on July 24, 2016, and the most recent on Feb. 28 of this year.
Dong said he takes precautions while driving home at night.
“If there's a car directly behind me … when I'm driving home and I reach my neighborhood, I won't turn," he said. "I'll keep going. I'm so nervous that they're following me, I won't risk leading them to my family. I'll keep driving until there is no one there.
“I tell my family to keep an eye out during the day."
After Zheng's death, Dong said he installed a steel-plated panic room in his house. His children are instructed to bolt themselves behind the reenforced door in case of an attack.
Leo Ni said his Durham restaurant has been robbed three times, and his home has been burglarized twice. After the first time, Ni said, police instructed him to never carry cash. He followed their advice.
But when criminals returned, Ni said they grew angry when he had no cash to hand over. He pleaded with them to believe he was empty handed, but a masked man knocked out his two front teeth with the butt of a pistol while his wife and daughters stood by.
Now, Ni keeps a shotgun at home and in his restaurant. While driving, Ni said, he can easily reach a sidearm.
“It feels really bad not to feel safe to go home,” Ni said. “To have to sneak home, always watchful, like I am the thief.”
Mark Zhu, also a member of the club, said he quit the restaurant business in 2010 and opened a cleaning service after he was robbed twice in Durham.
“They put guns to our heads. 'Get on the ground!'” recalled Zhu, who mimed pressing a pistol to a victim's head. “They demanded my wife open the register.”
Learning to shoot
Members of the N.C. Chinese Hunting Club studies firearm safety and tactical-shooting techniques like drawing a holstered pistol from the hip into an accurate aim.
The club practices at the Wake County Firearms Education & Training Center. On a recent Sunday, the original 10 club members gathered for a lesson. The eight men and two women wore jeans, Nike sneakers and boat shoes.
The club's members are divided into small groups that meet once a month for instruction by Wei Miao. Members who gathered on a recent Sunday fired off rounds with pennies balanced on the weapons' muzzles, learning to overcome recoil and stay on target even if it's necessary to empty a clip at rapid speed.
Next, Miao drilled his students on their quick-draw form. He stood behind each one and either clapped his hands or patted their left shoulder. Once signaled, the shooters tried to draw, aim and pull the trigger in one fluid motion.
While most club members are men, some say their spouses are also learning how to shoot guns. Some wives keep pistols in their purses.
“If the bad guys are focused on us – the men – thinking we're stronger and more of a threat — good," Dong said. "They will not see my wife behind them with a gun.”
Zheng's wife, Shirley Chan, tried to use a gun the night her husband was killed in Durham. The couple's daughter, Jade Zheng, said her mother pulled the trigger as attackers ran toward their house, but the gun jammed.
Durham police arrested Maurice Owen Wiley Jr. on April 27 and charged him with first-degree murder in Zheng's death.
Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn said that each previous attack made against Zheng's family was assigned to the SBI and ATF task force. In February 2017, David Jamal Lawson was arrested on charges related to a Nov. 25, 2015, robbery at Zheng's home, Glenn said.
McQuillan said the task force no longer exists.
Cary police know about the concerns of the N.C. Chinese Hunting Club, said Randall Rhyne, captain of the department's criminal investigations unit.
"We have had some burglaries. We are aware," Rhyne said. "I know that small businessmen are known to keep more cash on hand, in general."
Cary police have met with Asian business owners and conducted outreach programs on home and business security measures and "proper cash management," Rhyne said. Glenn said Durham police implemented similar seminars.
Glenn also said Durham police have in the past conducted "directed patrols at Asian restaurants and in the neighborhoods where the owners lived."
Raleigh police did not comment, saying only that they haven't investigated any recent robberies at Chinese restaurants.
After a firearms training session, Kenny Wang, a member of the hunting club, explained why he thinks the Asian community has been targeted.
“Because I think we are the minority group of the people in the Triangle,” Wang said. “We are hard-working people and we really don't cause any problem.”
But, he continued, “Especially when we call 911, we really can't explain it to them. We have English barrier, most of us. Some of us, we keep quiet. And that's probably the reason why they are targeting us.”
His instructor, Miao, had different ideas.
"The Chinese community, they don't have the knowledge (and) tradition to like (protect) itself. In our normal life, the traditional life — just work, family, done. We are good," he said. “Suddenly we face the situation: There are lots of criminals.
"This community doesn't have any protection."
Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu, who is Chinese American, said she has heard of robberies at Asian businesses for years. She said there's a stereotype that newly immigrated Asians as wary of putting their money in American banks.
Dong and Ni want police to be more aware of their troubles. They hope more police cars will patrol near their businesses at closing time.
But they also said they have their own defenses now — guns.