Big Bob by Charlie Chin. Posted Oct. 18, 2021.

Introduction: This month’s story by Charlie Chin takes us on a noirish journey through New York Chinatown replete with the twists and turns that only Charlie can provide.

    The Chinese year of the Rat, 4682 fell on the Western calendar year, 1984, February 2, and nobody was surprised when Big Bob Louie was found dead in a pool of blood on Bayard Street.   Old timers nodded their heads and knowingly intoned “All debts must be paid by New Year.”  The big question around the street was, who did it and how?  There were lots of people who wanted him out of the picture.  Most of the Chinatown gangs like the Ghost Shadows were doing time upstate, but they still had scores to settle with Big Bob.  Los Ricos over on Houston hated his guts, and If that wasn’t enough, the Wise Guys on Mulberry Street didn’t like Bob’s lack of respect.

     I was at my desk at the Asian American Times, a local New York Chinatown community weekly when the receptionist, Jennifer Zhao, announced,

     “Mr. Chiang, there is a call from a Detective Nick Morales.”   Jennifer had annoying habit of looking real cute first thing in the morning, but I put it out of mind.  She was currently engaged to a Plastic Surgeon from Taipei.   So I knew as far as I was concerned, even if I was on fire, she wouldn’t even bother to spit on me.

     “ Xie Xie, Jenny.”  As I picked up the phone, she muttered that my Mandarin accent was terrible.

New York Chinatown’s reknown dim sum restaurant. Photo by Eddie Wong.

     Nick Morales and I grew up on the edge of Old Chinatown.  Some Latin guys look a little Asian but his case Nick actually is a quarter Chinese.  Nick’s grandmother had been a tough as nails Toisanese who came over as a “War Bride” after World War II.  When her first Laundryman husband passed away, she married for the second time to a cop named Pedro Morales and took his last name.  They had a son, Nick’s father, Timmy Morales.  When Nick was old enough, the family reached out to get him job as a patrolman.  So when Nick was growing up, his family was Old Chinatown on the Chinese side and Lower Eastside Porto Rican on the other.

     Nick was more than an old friend to me.  He was my brother-in-law, and would have been the father of my sister Peggy’s baby, if things had went well.  But things didn’t go well, and then we lost both Peggy and the baby.  Nick was like a robot for a couple of months.  Somehow he pulled himself together and went back to work at the precinct.  He talked to his priest a couple of times and drank way too much for a while.  And then one day, it was spring again.

     Now it was five years later, he gotten his Detective shield.  I had finally published my novel, “Chicken Feet For Lunch,” which had disappointing sales, so I kept my “Day Job,” at the Asian American Times and we both stayed in touch to help each other out with tips and “off the record” information.  He started with a question.

     “Hola Doug, you got time to have coffee?”

     “Si, Donde?”

      “How about the Figaro café up in the Village?”  That was my clue that this was important.  Too important to be discussed south of 14th street and be possibly overheard by some Chinatown snitch.

     “Que hora?”

      “Today, at say, 4:00 O’clock.”

      “Bueno, pero,  gotta move some things around, but I’ll be there

     When I got to the Figaro café, Nick was already seated.  He was trying to look inconspicuous at a back table.   I joined him and ordered an espresso from the waitress.  I got to the point.

     “Dim ma, Nicky?”

     “You heard about Big Bob?”

     “Who hasn’t?”

     “I caught this one and let me tell you it’s a mess.  The hard part is finding somebody who didn’t want him rubbed out.   I’m up to my hips in leads and information.  Know anything that might help?”  He wasn’t asking me to snitch, just to suggest a possible lead.  Nick had tipped me off about those Russian investors taking over those condemned buildings on Elizabeth Street.  The article I wrote about it got me a promotion, so I owed him.

New York Chinatown. Photo by Eddie Wong.

     “What do you guys know down at the station?”   Nick eyed the legs on the waitress as she passed by, and started to recount.

     “Well, Robert Moy Louie, AKA Big Bob Louie, had a juvenile record.    Born in Hong Kong, came over with his parents in 1968.  He joined the White Eagles at 15, they used him to off one or two of their competitors.  Of course, Big Bob was a juvenile at the time, so even though witnesses I.D.’d him, he didn’t serve any hard time, and when he turned 16, they wiped his record clean.

      He’s a suspect in a couple other shootings but we never had enough to hold him. You remember the Bernie Jacobs case?”

    “Yeah, wasn’t he the guy that went swimming in the East River with his clothes on.”

      “Si, that’s how we found him.  After the Bay crabs had their pick, he washed up at the South Street Seaport pier.   We’re pretty sure Bob did it, but we have no way to connect him to it.”  Nick took a swig of his coffee, made a dour face, and then went on.

     “Anyway Tony, as you know Big Bob was always con cuidado  He carried two fully loaded 38’s, wore a bullet proof vest, always ate and drank facing Puerta de entrada and never went to sleep or took a shower without locking all the doors and windows. Right now all we have is that somebody was able to shoot him in the leg.”

     “So they knew he wore a bullet-proof vest?”

      “That’s what we think, and so they shot him in the femoral artery in his left leg.”

     “That’s a tricky shot.  You would have to be real close.  It must have been somebody that Big Bob knew and trusted.”

     “That’s how we figure it.  But here’s the kicker.  An eye witness from the Herb shop across the street in Chinatown saw Big Bob walking through some lion dancers and firecrackers, and then when he was twenty yards clear of them and nobody else was around, Big Bob stumbled, fell over, and hit the ground like he had been poleaxed.  There was nada and nobody near him.”

     “What about the Lion Dancers?  Could any of them have used the firecrackers as a cover for the gunshot?”

      “No, we checked them out.  They’re teens with the Chinatown YMCA.   No priors, a nice clean youth group.”  While he was talking, out of habit, Nick looked up, scanned the room left to right, and clocked the front door.

Man playing the erhu, Chinese fiddle. New York Chinatown. Photo by Eddie Wong.

    “Ozzie down at the morgue says the bullet went straight down, almost perpendicular angle, it was a 38 caliber, cut his artery, and ended up in his shoe.”

     I tried to figure the angles out loud.

    “How about somebody on the roof or maybe on the fire escape?”

     “Naw, we covered that.  The roof is six stories up.  The bullet is a 38 hand gun.  Not even a crack shot could pull off a trick like that from six stories.  Bob was shot just before he got to the corner of Bayard Street.  Somebody would have had to crawl from the fire escape on the Mott street side, along the narrow ledge on the side of the building, shoot down, and then crawl back.  Betty Wong who runs the candy store and magazine shop right downstairs says she heard and saw nothing out to the ordinary.”

     “What about an amiga?  Somebody he was seeing?”

     “I already interviewed his Siu Pung Yao, “Glenda, “The Snake Lady.”  She works up on 42nd street at a Topless joint.   She does an act with a python.”

     “Bien or no?”   Nick gave me a wry smile.

      “I didn’t have time to watch the show, I was on duty.  According to her, they were washed up.    She caught Big Bob messing around with one of the other acts, a Beyoncé look alike.  Glenda confessed she wanted to whack Bob herself by putting a bullet in his cabasa, but somebody beat her to it.  That’s what she said and I believe her.  I’m coming up empty on this one.”

     “Did he belong to any clubs or associations?”

     “Well he was second degree black belt with that rough crowded over at the  Canal Street Goju Karate School.

       But their Sensei, Ron Takahashi, says Bob stopped coming around about a year ago   Bob liked to embarrass his Sensei Ron by pointing a gun at him from across the room and asking, “What can you do against this?”  He didn’t make any friends among the students.  Most of them wanted Bob out of the club, but none of them wanted to kill him.”

Fabric and dry goods store in New York Chinatown. Photo by Eddie Wong.

     I thought for a moment and reasoned out loud.

     “So what have we got? None of the most likely suspects did it.  And a random attack is unlikely.  And of all of people who might have wanted him dead, none of them did it.”

      Nick shrugged and complained,

    “No lo comprendo.”   Then a thought occurred to me.  I smiled, and asked,

     “Have you check Big Bob’s inside pant leg for power burns?

      “No, should we?”   I scratched my chin and smiled.

     “If you find powder burns on the inside of his pants, then yo sabe what happened.”    It was about 10 AM at the following morning at the office when  Jennifer said, “A call from Detective Morales.”  I nodded, and stopped to ask her,

     “Jennifer, would you spit on me if I was on fire?”  She sniffed, knit her brow, and commented in a light Taiwanese accent.

     “You are ABC, you all crazy.”  Then she turned back to her desk to call Human Resources.  I picked up the line that Nick was on.  He was excited,

     “Son of bitch, how did you know that Bob’s pants had powder burns on the inside of his pants leg?”

     “Look, if none of the people who wanted him dead, did it, and, a complete stranger didn’t shoot him, then logically nobody shot Big Bob Louie.  Remember how he kept two fully loaded 38’s on his person?  Well, he was so afraid of being ambushed or being caught in a fire fight, he kept the guns fully loaded.  You know for safety reasons most people keep the chamber empty under the trigger to prevent accidents.   When fire crackers went off, some of them must have been blown over a couple of yards and exploded right next to Bob as he walked along. The shock waves of the explosions slammed the firing pin of the gun in his waist band against a cartridge.   He gun went off in his pants, severed his femoral artery, and he only got about twenty yards before he collapsed.  Have forensics check the bullet, I bet it matches one of Bob’s guns.”

New York Chinatown street scene. Photo by Eddie Wong.

     “Gracias Joven, should I credit you in my paper work?”

     “No, keep me out of it.  If the Brass downtown think you figured it out, you can buy me lunch.”    Nick laughed.

“How about Shanghai Bao at the Dumpling Palace?”

     “Sounds good.  I’ll be there at noon right after my shift.”

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Author’s bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

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