By Sidhartha Wakade
If you walked into Happy China for a meal or some takeout on Saturday evening, nothing would give away the fact that a 90-year-old man was pistol-whipped across the head, a woman in her 60s was hospitalized after being shoved and struck over the head or that the store and its customers were robbed last Monday night.
The restaurant was open again after closing for one day after the robbery. Music played over the sound system, a mix between Asian and instrumentals of Western classics like “Jolene,” Servers moved about and took orders. Customers coming in to express condolences and hugging the staff were the only indications that something had happened earlier in the week.
Notably, Happy China was only one robbery in a string of robberies over the last three months,
According to police reports, excluding Happy China, 13 robberies with similar suspects and methods of operation occurred in Gwinnett County, Rockdale County, DeKalb County and Newton County since around late-March.
Most of the reports mentioned one skinny suspect and one stocky suspect. Of those incidents, 12 either occurred at an Asian restaurant or involved being tailed from an Asian restaurant and being robbed elsewhere. Three of the robbery reports detailed violence against the victims, with two involving women being pistol-whipped in their faces.
Cpt. Colin Campbell, Madison Police Department, said Madison police learned about the other robberies the day after Happy China was robbed. Campbell said the suspects in the previous robberies might be the same as the current robbers.
“I would say that there’s similarities between those and ours,” Campbell said. “They came in through the back and pistol whipped several people.”
In the case of Happy China, the robbers-one skinny and one stocky-, wearing hoodies, gloves and bandannas, entered through the unlocked back door around 9:40 p.m., according to police reports. Lam Vuong, the wheelchair-bound owner of Happy China, resisted when the robbers tried to take the cash register, according to reports.
A customer who witnessed the robbery and has been a regular at Happy China since her childhood said she and her boyfriend were in the store ordering takeout when the robbers entered the restaurant from the back.
“We were standing right at the register across the counter, and two guys busted out of the kitchen,” she said. “They had the gun pointed right at us.”
According to the customer, one of the robbers forced her, her boyfriend and a group of customers behind them onto the floor. He then went behind the register demanding money before the second robber, standing by the customers, yelled at the staff, she said.
“I think they were unsatisfied with the amount of cash they had found in the register, so they kept yelling at them like ‘We know you have more money,’” she said. “At that point we could hear them hitting them with guns.”
The customer said that the second robber shoved an employee in her 60s behind the counter, where she tripped and fell. He held a gun to the woman’s head, according to the customer.
“They were being really harsh with her and at that point I saw a gun being held towards her head,” she said. “And they were still hitting them with the guns almost the entire time. It was several minutes. They were yelling and hitting them with the guns at the same time.”
After the robbers failed to get more money from the staff, they patted down the customer’s boyfriend and stole his wallet and phone, according to the customer. When the robbers left through the back again, everyone looked at each other in silence before all of the customers fled the restaurant through the front doors, she said.
In the aftermath of the robbery, Nam Vuong, a 90-year-old employee and De Vuong, the woman in her 60s, were taken to the Morgan Medical Center, according to reports. Nam required staples in his head to stop the bleeding, and he was released soon after.
De’s injuries were more severe. The hospital told police that her brain was bleeding due to the impact to her head and her front teeth were chipped, according to reports.
Jimmy Vuong, a server at the restaurant and De’s brother, said that her condition has improved since her hospitalization.
When asked about the robbery, Jimmy mentioned, “It was scary.” He would motion at his head and teeth when describing the injuries his family sustained during the attacks.
Despite the shock of it all, the staff at Happy China has gone back to business quickly.
“We are ok now,” Jimmy said.
According to police, armed robberies in Madison are rare.
“I’ve been here 19 years,” Campbell said. “We haven’t had a lot of armed robberies.”
Police are still looking for the suspects, and the FBI has also gotten involved, according to Campbell.
The robbery has not scared regulars away either. Rather, the community response has been one of deep sympathy and support.
Some members of the community have taken steps to support the restaurant financially. George Lanius, owner of Thrifty Mac Pharmacy, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for Happy China.
Lanius has set a goal of $15,000 for the fundraiser and has already raised over $8,500 as of June 17.
“It has bothered me that these hardworking, innocent people… got taken advantage of like this,” Lanius said.
As for Lam Vuong, who has owned Happy China for 27 years, business is returning to usual. He can still be seen sitting on his stool by the cash register with his wheelchair tucked by the counter.
Lam wanted the community to know that everyone at Happy China is doing better, though the robbery has changed one thing in the restaurant.
“We close at nine now,” Lam said.