What Do Chinese Corner Store Owners Say about Philly’s Cigarette Tax Hike?

Two months ago, the City of Philadelphia began levying a two-dollar-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the public schools. This measure turns out to be quite painful to some Chinese restaurant owners.

by Bole Yuan and Haojun Liu

In some areas of Philadelphia, the only businesses standing might as well be the Chinese takeout restaurants, or Chinese corner stores. In addition to quick meals, snackages and soft drinks, most of them sell cigarettes to diversify their revenue. We randomly picked 45 stores and asked them if they felt any impact since the cigarette tax increase was implemented. Eight of them, all from different zip codes, agreed to share their views.

Please note that all of them spoke on the condition of anonymity. We then refer them with their neighborhoods.

To begin with, most Chinese corner stores now sell a pack of Newport for $9. It was $7 before.

We asked: Is there any change to the sale of cigarette since the tax increased?

“A bit of decline, but it’s OK. Some customers say they would purchase cigarettes elsewhere.” – Owner of A Restaurant in Kingsessing/West Philladelphia

A restaurant owner in North Philly said she probably saw seven or eight cartons less in monthly sale, while the gross revenue of his restaurant was down for over a thousand dollars. “Customer who used to buy cigarettes here also bought other things, like sodas,” she said. “Now they don’t buy anything.”

Another North Philly restaurant owner said he used to sell five to six packs per day “when it’s cheaper.”

“Now we can only sell two or three packs per day,” he said. “Some people would cursed at the price and claimed that gas stations have cheaper cigarettes. Since there are many competitors around here, many customers will go to those owned by the Americans. We can only make a little money after everybody else has closed for the day; otherwise, we can never survive.”

“In a shop like this, we have been suffering from sleep deprivation already,” he added.

Another women who owns a restaurant in Kensington said the cigarette price is too expensive for her customer. “We can only count on selling more food,” she said.

“No one wants it.” – Owner of a restaurant in Tioga.

This restaurant owner has a lot to say about his experience selling cigarettes.

“It was quite an impact, though the sale has been dismal all along,” he said of the recent tax increase. In addition, he claimed that the police failed to stop people from selling loose cigarettes, which is illegal in Pennsylvania.

“Our business is not allowed to sell loose cigarettes; we have to sell pack by pack, not the single ones,” he said. “The police did nothing to stop them. If the government allows us to sell loose cigarettes, we can have more revenue and therefore pay more tax.”

Loose cigarette is indeed a sensitive topic right now: if the authorities in New York City had allowed people to sell loose cigarettes, Eric Garner might not die. However, we are not going to speculate the rationale behind the law. What we want to know is whether this restaurant owner’s claim about the leniency in loose cigarette control is addressed, and whether the cigarette tax increase has anything to do with it.

We contacted the Police Department, the department of Licenses and Inspections and the Mayor’s Office. Mayor’s Press Secretary Mark McDonald told us that neither the police or the L&I have the answer for us. The enforcement of the law is conducted by the state’s Department of Revenue. So far we are still waiting for them to respond. (And, yes, we have to say: To be continued.)






A Student from China and The Beauty of Philly

What if we tell you that the guy behind a popular Philadelphia Facebook page is a high school student from China?  

This is the first try of us translating our own stories. The original reporting of this story is done in Chinese by Hua Zong, who is going to graduate in December 2014 from Temple University with a B. A. in journalism. In Metro Chinese Weekly’s “Our Stories, Your Choice,” people voted to read it in English, and here it is.

Thank you for showing your interest, Philadelphia.

By Hua Zong and Bole Yuan

Street photography was accentuated in recent years by Brandon Stanton, a self-learned photographer behind the big-name Facebook page “Humans of New York (HONY).” Quoting pleasant chatters along with photographic sketches of the people in NYC, Stanton brought people’s appearances and their inner worlds to a test, and the result whatsoever keeps us confident in humanity. Since April, someone claims Philadelphia as a new test ground. In November, the “Humans of Philadelphia” page on Facebook has already gained 4000 likes.

Unlike Stanton, who might have seen more of life through losing a job in bond trading, the photographer behind Humans of Philadelphia is a 18-year-old high school student from China.


martin luo 2


From Humans of Philadelphia:
“What’s your scariest moment in your life?”
“I almost got shot.”
“What happened?”
“I grew up in West Philly. The neighborhood was pretty rough. One day, I was sitting on the porch with other friends. Some guy on the street just pulled out of his gun and shot us. “
“Why you?”
“Oh no, I was not the target. Someone who sat with me had some issues. Luckily, no one got hurt. “


Above: Hua Zong captured how Martin got the story of a subject.  

Below: Martin’s work.


Yuanxin Luo, who goes by “Martin,” is spending his third year in the US and the second year in Abington Friends School. Each weekend, Luo will leave his host family in Jenkingtown for a photo safari in Philly neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square. Generally, he looks for people who have a knack at dressing up. Sometimes people with unusual hair styles walk into his lens, too.

“I really, really like street photography in Europe and in America,” Luo said. One of his hobbies is to read photo blogs on street fashion. “Photography was like something I have always dreamed to do.”

martin luo

Last semester, he took his first photography lesson, filling a tight spot left by a classmate who dropped, and bought his first DSLR camera. But when he finally set up his first Philly trip with his photography teacher, Donna Russo, he felt nervous.

“It wasn’t easy for me to talk with strangers,” he said. “My teacher was by my side.”

Realizing Luo had never been in any part of the city other than Chinatown, Russo decided to take him to LOVE Park, and then the courtyard of City Hall, and then Rittenhouse Square. Walking through various social scenes at the center of Philadelphia, Luo became more and more enthralled. Encouraged by his teacher, he started to engage the people on the street.

“If he was nervous he didn’t really show it,” Russo said in an email. “It was so much fun for me to watch him ‘at work’ as he mingled, talked and shot people — all kinds of people!”


Luo would sometimes ask the subject to recollect his scariest moment in life. In one of his earliest posts, a subject talked about twisting his ankle in wrestling. In a more recent post, another subject shared his story of “almost get shot” in West Philly.

“Conventional thinking” would simply assume it unlikely that a non-native English speaker like Luo could capture meaningful snippets. But he can. He manages to jot down intimate moments of life such as the first date of lovers, the witness of childbirth by parents and the farewell to the deceased. According to Luo, he learned a lot from reading novels and living with an American host family. But perhaps what helps most is the exposure to life he gets from portraying Philadelphians.

One of Luo’s tricks of getting good subjects is to show up in festive events, and Philadelphia has quite a few, such as Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival in late spring and Midtown Fest in fall.  “People dress up at festivals,” he said. To his satisfaction, Luo captured fashion and spirits in all seasons.

In fact, Luo’s Facebook page is the second one that bears “Humans of Philadelphia” in its title. Last year Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Chuck Putnam, a 71-year-old amateur photographer who created “Humans of Philadelphia: Honoring our human diversity thru photography.” Both photographers are exploring the city with their enthusiasm towards photography and the diversity in Philadelphia.

“If I can run into a street without traffic, and if I could have the fortune to meet a cool guy on a skateboard, it will be perfect!” Luo said, picturing a scenario. “I will ask him to pose in the middle of that street, and I will snap that photo.”

“There is always someone on the street who can touch my heart,” Luo said. “Who can make me to have the desire for their stories. And in the end, everyone has different stories to share.”