New York's Chinatown came together last week to honor Chuen Kwok, a Chinese immigrant who was brutally killed this month along with three other homeless men as they slept on the street.
Residents and prominent community leaders, including Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, showed up at a memorial service for Kwok, affectionately known in the neighborhood as “Uncle Kwok," at Ng Fook Funeral Services.
“Everybody wanted to make sure he had a proper Chinese celebration of his life and send-off,” Niou, a Democrat whose district includes Chinatown, told NBC News. “He didn’t have any family to claim him. We wanted to make sure he had a Chinese funeral, and the community came together.”
Kwok and the three other victims were bludgeoned to death on Oct. 5. A fifth person was injured but survived. Another homeless man, Randy Rodriguez Santos, was arrested and charged with four counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and unlawful possession of marijuana.
Because no family members came forward after Kwok’s death, the Celestial Love Foundation, which helps provide funeral services for low-income Chinese immigrants who do not have family in the U.S., stepped in to cover Kwok’s burial clothes, casket, burial lot and memorial service.
Those who attended the service mourned Kwok and swapped memories about their interactions with him. Niou said that some told stories about him from their childhoods while others recounted times they dropped off food for him.
“Folks like me remembered him from seeing him in the same spot and giving him food or water. He never really spoke much, but he was very sweet. He would always give a little bow or small nod and say a little thank you,” Niou said. “People had expressed that they had seen him, and it was very difficult to process that someone they saw every day was not going to be there anymore.”
The assembly member told NBC News that it is not uncommon for senior Chinese immigrants in the community to have similar circumstances to Kwok’s, spending their last days without family and little money. Asian Americans in New York City have the highest poverty rate compared to all other racial groups, with seniors being particularly vulnerable. Roughly one in four Asian American elders live in poverty, according to a study from the Asian American Federation of New York. Many of these Chinese immigrants, Niou explained, came to the U.S. alone, hoping to support their families.
“They have tried to bring their families over as well, but the opportunities never really came or they were working all their lives for their families and they themselves didn’t get to live a life they should have,” she said. “Elders in our community are often alone and unaccounted for.”
Wilson Mak, who’s on the board of Celestial Love, said that the foundation was started to ensure proper burials for many immigrants, particularly those in the undocumented population. While he said the prevalence of funerals for poor immigrants with no family had decreased in recent years, these burials were a fairly common occurrence, especially two decades ago during a boom in unauthorized immigration from the province of Fujian.
Kwok’s immigration status was unknown, but the organization was “happy to do it,” Mak said of the funeral.