The four men who burst into Zi Qi Huang's home on the morning of June 16 knew exactly what they were looking for: the more than $10,000 in cash the 44-year-old Elkridge resident had stashed in his house.
Shouting "robbery" in Cantonese, their faces obscured by ski masks, the men--armed with knives and a gun--forced Huang's wife and two small children into the kitchen. In a matter of minutes, according to Huang's report to police, they'd found the money, which the family was planning to use on a trip to China. As the robbers fled through the side garage door, they stopped to grab a piggy bank that belonged to one of the children.
Howard County police said it wasn't the first time that Huang, a well-to-do supplier of area Chinese restaurants, had been targeted.
In October 1996, Chinese robbers stole $170,000 in cash that Huang was keeping at home. Those robbers also appeared to know about the money beforehand.
Such crimes have become familiar to law enforcement officials who deal with the Chinese community, and behind them lies a more complex psychological dilemma. While the language barrier isolates some Chinese from American banks, many, especially older people and recently-arrived immigrants, feel a discomfort with, and even a distrust of, the U.S. banking system, according to Chinese business owners, clergy members, political leaders and academics.
Some opt to keep their holdings in cash, at home. This makes them vulnerable to robbery by other Chinese, who learn of their saving habits through word-of-mouth, said FBI officials and police officers in Howard and Montgomery counties.
The habit also prevents them from earning interest on their money, applying for loans, developing credit histories and understanding how a key institution in American life works.
"We need to learn to deal with these institutions in this country. Then we will be better off," said Henry Yang, vice president of China Trust Bank U.S.A.'s Rockville branch.
Yang's bank opened on March 1. It sits in a quiet strip mall on Rockville Pike, next to Nippon Travel, the Temari Japanese Cafe and the Dahn Tai-chi Center. Its bright green sign announces its name in both English and Chinese. The entire staff is bilingual and greets callers in Mandarin.
China Trust is part of an area boom in Chinese banking. This month two more banks catering to Chinese customers opened in Rockville, home of the highest concentration of Chinese in the state. Several Citibanks in northern Montgomery County have bilingual staff members, as does the First Union in downtown Baltimore, where many of Howard County's Chinese residents, who own businesses in that city, do their banking.
Tsai Wei, 27, of Vienna, drove halfway around the Beltway to China Trust to make a simple check deposit on a recent afternoon. He arrived from Taiwan just months ago and knows only a few English words. But at China Trust, the bank tellers engage him in an animated conversation in Mandarin, complete with Taiwanese inflection.
"It's easier to do banking here," he explains through an interpreter. "I can talk with them."
Language is the most immediate barrier between some Chinese and banks. But there are subtler obstacles as well, according to members of the Chinese community. Older Chinese remember China's Cultural Revolution, when the Communist government seized all bank assets, instilling an uneasiness with handing money over to others, said Cheng Li, professor of politics at Hamilton College in New York, who lived through and has studied that period. Class warfare that demonized the rich was a staple of Chinese Communist propaganda, making many Chinese ashamed to reveal their holdings to others. Many of those who emigrated from the rural provinces of China never used banks at all and are initially bewildered by the U.S. system.
There are more pragmatic reasons as well. For Chinese business owners who use cash for their transactions, having a constant supply on hand is convenient. For some it is simply a means to avoid taxes.
But banks were created, in large part, to safeguard against robbery.
"Robberies happen a lot to restaurant owners. Their employees figure out how much money they have. They become natural targets," said John P. Lin, former president of Maryland's Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Kim Jordan, an FBI Special Agent based in Baltimore, worked with the Chinese community for three years investigating organized crime. New immigrants, he said, were often robbed of small amounts of cash.
"General distrust of American institutions like banks was common among new emigres," he said.
The culprits in the first robbery of the Huangs were captured hours after they broke into his home and the $170,000 was recovered. The robbers pleaded guilty to first degree assault and served jail terms of several months. The men turned out to have connections to a Boston-based Chinese organized crime group with affiliates in Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore, according to FBI affidavits. The robbers in the June case remain at large. Howard County police investigators said they believe a criminal syndicate could again be involved, though not the same as in the first robbery. The FBI is assisting in the investigation.
There are no statistics kept on these specific types of robberies, according to Maryland State Police, who compile state crime statistics. Many victims do not report them because of language barriers or fear of retaliation, Jordan said.
The problem of bank distrust is not unique to the Chinese. Some Latinos prefer to deal only with check cashing outlets run by Spanish-speakers, according to sociologists who study immigrant communities. Korean merchants often keep cash to loan to others, a sort of informal banking system, called keh. Vietnamese immigrants from rural areas also tend to keep cash at home.
The problems of the Chinese community are most familiar to law enforcement officials primarily because of its size. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, almost 7,000 new arrivals came to Maryland between 1992 and 1996, making them the state's largest immigrant wave during that period. Another wave came in 1996-97, just before Hong Kong was returned to China, said community leaders.
Typically new immigrants learn to deal with banks within five years, said officials at local Chinese banks. A pioneer of Chinese-oriented banks in New York's Chinatown area, Citibank exported the concept to the Washington area in 1993. But the idea did not catch fire until this year. China Trust, Asia Bank and Harbor Capital will open branches here within months of each other.
"Now the competition among Asian banks is accelerating. There's a tremendous market there," said Lin, the former Chinese Chamber of Commerce president.
Bank personnel explain to new immigrants that federal deposit insurance safeguards their money even if the bank closes or is robbed. They also also explain how to avoid the misfortunes of those who did not use banks.
I-Ling Chow is the regional president of Asia Bank, which opened its first area bank on July 12. He said that while the nuances of deposit insurance, mutual funds and the like take time to convey to new immigrants, the safety argument is usually enough to convince them to open a bank account.
"Their money is protected from theft or robbery we tell them," he said.
But Shu-Ping Chan, director of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Office of Asian-Pacific American Affairs, said that, for some, the learning process is a slow one.
"A feeling of distrust is developed over a lifetime. It's not going to change overnight."
CAPTION: Head teller Mindy Chang, seated, and Angela Tseng, an assistant manager, work at China Trust Bank U.S.A.
CAPTION: China Trust branch manager Rita Lee, center, sees customers Pike Chen and his wife, Jen Chen, to the door.