An immigrant success story ends in murder charge
In many ways, Zhen Li stood out as an immigrant success story.
Arriving here from China three decades ago, she ran a popular eatery in New Hampshire before becoming the well-liked manager of the highly acclaimed Dumpling Cafe in Boston’s Chinatown, whose savory buns and noodles drew customers from around the region.
The petite, slender woman also grew more assertive and prosperous over time in America. She owned a home in Quincy and accumulated more than $600,000 in assets through work and investments, plus the extra funds to indulge in Rolex watches and other fine jewelry, records show.
Few accomplishments, however, meant more to her than the success of her two children, both of whom graduated from respected US colleges.
But her grisly death in the driveway of her home and her ex-husband’s indictment last month on a charge of first-degree murder suggest she may have kept hidden a darker, more complicated part of her life.
On a Friday afternoon last fall, paramedics found her fractured and bloodied body on the newly paved driveway, as Yan Long Chow, the father of their children and a restaurant cook, sat nearby weeping after calling 911.
It was a tragic accident, Chow told police, that occurred after he attempted to back out in his minivan. He said the couple had no major problems, and, despite being divorced, were living together in this quiet residential neighborhood.
But in the months ahead, police pieced together a portrait of an enduring, but troubled, partnership involving two marriages and two divorces, gambling parlors and good-bye threats, and ultimately, a crime scene whose signs of vehicle accelerations and telltale shoe imprints told a story of murder.
As Chow’s attorney proclaimed his innocence, state domestic violence specialists had already added Li to their tally as the 15th Massachusetts resident to die from such abuse last year, saying this woman — like so many others — may have vastly underestimated the violent potential of her partner.
The truth of their relationship may now never be fully known, except perhaps to Chow. But in the will she wrote just nine months before she died, Li gave no hint of fear for her safety, much less her life.
She left most of her assets to her “beloved” daughter and son, but left Chow 10 percent of the Quincy home that she owned.
And while she asked that her children direct her burial services, she allowed that her ex-husband could “provide assistance with my funeral.”
A start in New Hampshire
Until that day when the flashing lights of police cruisers reflected off their Quincy home, the couple rarely drew public attention to themselves, beyond the accolades bestowed upon their restaurant.
They immigrated as a married couple in the mid-1980s from Fujian province, along the southeast coast of China, and after a brief time in New York, settled in the college town of Keene, N.H., in the early 1990s. They began a takeout business, King’s Garden, amid the strip of well-kept stores on Main Street, and spent endless hours stir-frying vegetables and accepting phone orders.
“I hardly ever saw them,” said Patricia Collier, who lived near them in town. “They kept to themselves.”
Yet according to some Chinese friends who knew the couple through their Keene restaurant, Li stood out as more outgoing and projected an air of competence, particularly in managing money.
“Lots of people asked her for help,” said this friend in Mandarin. “Zhen Li is very capable.”
This friend said she also knew the couple had divorced around the time they arrived in New Hampshire.
“Doing business together a lot, you can fight,” said the friend, who like many other Chinese immigrants who spoke to the Globe asked to remain nameless to avoid involvement in the criminal case.
Li incorporated King’s Garden under her married name, Zhenney Chow, though that moniker did not last for long. When she was 33 and her children in elementary school, she went to probate court, bringing her US citizenship papers, divorce documents, and a form saying “she desires to change her name to that of Zhen Li,” her birth name.
In this way, Li was unusual among new arrivals from China, more willing to engage with the US legal system and endure the continuing — though diminished — cultural stigma of divorce.
Yet, for reasons that are unclear, Li ultimately remarried Chow a year later, in 1998. Her friend from Keene said she understood the pair reunited “for the kids.”
Chow’s version of past events is unknown; his lawyer, Scott Martin, declined to be interviewed or make his client, who is being held behind bars, available for comment.
Over the next decade, while maintaining a home in Keene, the couple focused on business ventures in Boston, with Chow taking the lead in helping to start a new restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, called Taiwan Cafe, in partnership with a prominent chef, Peter Wang.
The couple also started taking out mortgages and investing in rental properties, buying a two-family home on Phillips Street as well as a four-story apartment building on Barham Street, both in Quincy. In 2003, the couple also bought a large apartment building in the Allston section of Boston. Li handled most of the legal transactions with banks and tenants, her lawyers recalled.
But their marriage fell apart again. In 2005, as their daughter went off to Trinity College in Hartford — she would later study medicine — Li called a New Hampshire lawyer and filed for divorce a second time.
Li cited “irreconcilable differences which have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage,” according to records. The trigger for the split is not detailed in the divorce records, and there is no mention there, or in Keene police blotters, of any abuse she might have suffered. Her husband, without using a lawyer, signed the divorce settlement, which calls on him to pay $500 a month in child support.
Amid the difficult time, there were glimmers of happy news. The couple’s names appeared in the local newspaper in 2006, as their son received a prestigious medal honoring his “superlative academic achievement” in high school. The boy’s athletic and musical accomplishments were also documented in the article.
When the son later went off to MIT, Li sold the New Hampshire house and moved to the Boston area, and while still divorced from Chow, reunited with him in a new entrepreneurial venture — Dumpling Cafe.
No sign of conflict
A piece of framed calligraphy — with a Chinese expression about business prosperity — adorns the main wall of the cafe on Washington Street, an establishment that won rave reviews soon after it opened just steps away from Tufts Medical Center.
Those who knew them at this time said they seemed to all appearances like a typical married couple at the restaurant, where Chow was a cook and Li was the day-to-day manager. There, he often went by the name Charlie, and she Jennifer. They stood side by side at the Dumpling Cafe’s opening day seven years ago, watching a Dragon Dance ceremony meant to bring good luck.
Li, perhaps because of her better command of English, became the restaurant’s public face and part of a small but growing number of Chinatown entrepreneurs learning the world of marketing in hopes of attracting a wider clientele.
“She was my contact there for five years,” said Christopher Haynes, a public relations consultant who was hired by Dumpling Cafe.
One bright moment for Li came in the summer of 2013 when she, on behalf of the restaurant, accepted the award for “Best Dumplings” at the annual Best of Boston award ceremony sponsored by Boston Magazine.
“You won’t find xiao long bao (here, known as ‘mini juicy buns’) with a better proportion of molten broth, ground pork filling and thin dough wrapper anywhere else in town,” wrote the editors.
Li took in the glitzy scene, posing for photos and trying the array of appetizers provided by some of the winners, Haynes recalled.
“She was beaming,” he said.
Bik Fung Ng, senior business manager for the city of Boston and a Chinatown activist, said Li, whom she got to know over the years, never expressed any resentment toward her ex-husband, though Ng often noticed it would be Li who worked the longest hours, and that Chow could sometimes not be found.
Privately, to her closest relatives, Li confided that she and Chow argued often about his gambling getaways, according to prosecutors who later interviewed family members.
Many who are familiar with the Chinatown community said it is not uncommon for Chinese restaurant workers, particularly men, to seek the fraternity of private gambling parlors as a way to unwind. Gambling has an upbeat association in Chinese culture, often linked to celebrations, though Ng said some take it too far.
Ng said that if Li had family problems, she kept them to herself. To the outside world, she came off as cheerful entrepreneur who was increasingly comfortable in America, even dropping the typical Asian reserve in greeting friends.
“She sees me, and she gives me a hug,” Ng said. “That’s Americanized.”
The couple later sold off their rental buildings, though they kept the home on Phillips Street, which was initially owned jointly by the couple, but later held exclusively by Li.
In the months before Li’s death, there were no overt signs of what was to come. Chow’s only past run-ins with the law relate largely to speeding tickets, according to records.
The Globe’s efforts to interview workers who knew them at Dumpling Cafe or the other related eateries near the Back Bay and Allston were unsuccessful, perhaps because some of Chow’s family members and longtime friends continue to work there.
When reached by phone, Wang, the chef who has known the couple for years, declined to comment. When asked about Li, he only said, “She’s a good person.”
The couple’s two children — in their late 20s, with their family torn apart — faced the difficult experience of testifying before the grand jury investigating their father.
They did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
A call to 911
Around 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2016, Chow called 911. He apparently told police, through uncontrollable sobs, that his wife had been ejected from their 2015 Toyota Sienna minivan as he tried to exit the driveway of their home in the Wollaston section of Quincy.
Later, he altered his story, police say, telling investigators that he blacked out and accidentally ran over his wife, as they were on their way to pick up some signs for their restaurant.
When authorities arrived, Li’s lifeless body was found face down in front of the van, with her left hand behind her back and her right hand under her head.
In the months following, investigators put together an accident reconstruction, measuring the width of tire marks, the pattern of blood splatter, the location of Li’s shoe impressions on the freshly paved driveway, and the trajectory of cosmetics thrown from her purse.
Meanwhile, investigators probed the couple’s relationship, using interpreters to reach relatives in China who often spoke with Li. From them and some neighbors, they heard of the frequent quarrels about gambling.
Police also heard that just prior to Li’s death, Chow had not returned home for two successive days while gambling in Boston. And that in part led, police said, to Li’s announcement that she was leaving him — and that she planned to return to China.
Investigators also concluded Li’s death was no accident. They determined that Chow that afternoon drove his minivan up the driveway, as if to pick her up near the house, but instead crashed into her, causing her body to be caught underneath and then struck her again as the vehicle went into reverse.
When the minivan returned to its starting point near the roadway, Li’s body temporarily became free of the vehicle, police said, which offered a chance for Chow to come to her aid.
But instead, police say, he drove over her body again. And again.
Indicted on murder charge
Wearing a dark suit, Chow, 55, appeared for his arraignment in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham late last month, accompanied by his lawyer and son. A grand jury the day before had returned the murder indictment, saying he deliberately ran over his wife four times.
But Chow’s defense attorney, Martin, said after court that his client should never have been charged with a crime.
“This is a tragic accident,” said Martin, who has been hired privately by Chow. “My client loves his family, including his ex-wife.”
In his plea for bail, Martin said that in the six months since Li died, Chow never considered fleeing, even though he was a free man, had a passport, and knew he was being investigated. But the judge rejected the argument, sending Chow to await trial in a Norfolk County jail in Dedham.
Meanwhile Li’s body has been buried in Boston, the city where she worked for the final decade of her life.
Her two grown children were assigned to take charge of her final arrangements, which she wanted to be paid for out of her estate.
In the end, a granite tombstone was chosen, and a plot was identified in the bucolic Forest Hill cemetery in Jamaica Plain. She was buried in a relatively new section called the “Garden of Devotion,” which serves many Chinese-American families.
Most of the engraved words on the tombstone are in Chinese characters, giving the city where she was born and the surname that her children and ex-husband share.
Her name — Zhen Li — appears both in Western phonetic letters and in Chinese characters.
And written in English, adorning the top and bottom of the tombstone, are the words, “Beloved Mother” and “Always in Our Hearts.”