The Immigrant Story of the Chinese Taxi Driver Who Took His Life

Richard Chow with a photo of his brother Kenny Chow, a taxi driver who died in an apparent suicide. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The following translation is a combination of two stories by April Xu that appeared in Sing Tao Daily in Chinese, on the death of taxi driver Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow and how the Chinese immigrant worked to make ends meet. He is the fifth driver to take his life in the past five months.

“I am so sad. I don’t know why he had to kill himself,” said Richard Chow, the brother of Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow, a taxi driver whose body was found in the East River in Brooklyn on May 23 after he went missing earlier in the month. The bad news shattered a family that had already been struggling and will only see things get worse after losing their only breadwinner.

Kenny, a 56-year-old Chinese taxi driver born in Burma, left his car near the intersection of East 86th Street and East End Avenue in Upper Manhattan on May 11 and disappeared. His family had been looking for him with the help of the police and the media until Richard received a phone call from the police that confirmed the body found in Brooklyn was Kenny. 

Richard said Kenny’s wife, who was diagnosed with late-stage colorectal cancer, heard the bad news right after she went through chemotherapy treatment. “She is heartbroken. She doesn’t know what to do,” said Richard. “She is struggling financially. But she doesn’t want to bother other people.” Kenny’s daughter, a college student, had also been looking for her father with the family, and is now devastated by the news. “They are in a very tough situation,” said Richard before he sighing heavily. 

Richard and Kenny spent their whole lives together, and he knows too well the hell his brother had gone through. “He faced enormous pressure – enormous,” Richard said.

The brothers were born to a Chinese family in Burma. When an anti-Chinese atmosphere heightened in the country in the 1980s, the brothers left for Taiwan. “Our family was very poor. When we went to Taiwan, we didn’t have a penny. It was an immigrant organization in Taiwan that helped us pay for airfare,” Richard said. 

After they lived in Taiwan for seven years, the brothers moved to the U.S. to try their luck. “The early days were very difficult. We had to start from scratch,” said Richard. “We didn’t speak English. So we had to learn the language while we were working as deliverymen.”

Like many new immigrants, the brothers started out in restaurants, and then moved to the jewelry industry. During this time, Kenny met his wife. They married and then his daughter was born. The family lived a frugal but happy life. 

Around 2008, when the jewelry company where Kenny worked collapsed, he became a taxi driver. In the first two years, he thought it was a good way to make a living. “He thought he could soon save up some money. So in 2010, he took out a loan to purchase a medallion,” Richard said. Owning his own medallion, Kenny found more hope in life. But he did not know the rising wave of new technology would soon batter the traditional taxi industry he relied on.

With the rapid growth of Uber and Lyft, Chow found business quickly dropping. Even if he worked 12 hours per day and seven days a week, it was still hard to make ends meet. Chow borrowed $700,000 from the bank for his medallion, with a lien on his house. Eight years later, he still owed $580,000. He needed to pay a $3,500 monthly down payment, plus maintenance, gas and other costs, and the car itself swallowed $5,000 per month.

The family needs close to $4,000 per month to cover rent and other expenses. And this does not include the college tuition for his daughter. “If he couldn’t make $9,000 per month, the family couldn’t survive,” said Richard. “In the first two years, he liked driving a taxi because it helped him to not only pay for the family expenses but also have some savings. But Uber changed all that,” said Richard. “The taxi industry was collapsing. (…)”

The universe didn’t seem to show any mercy to the family. Kenny’s wife’s diagnosis of late-stage cancer last year pushed the family further to the edge. “The doctor told my brother that his wife may not have many days left. He was devastated,” Richard said.

Richard told his brother that the extended family and friends would help him. Before he died, Kenny had started to consider filing for bankruptcy. But that meant his house would be foreclosed. “The family would have become homeless,” said Richard. “At the time my brother lost a lot of weight. He was tired and thin.”

Richard said the family is now preparing for Kenny’s funeral. They may hire a lawyer to assist them in asking for help from the public.  

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