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    Near-tragedy renews a bond

    The shooting of 20-year-old Lai Chau is reversing years of slow estrangement between her and her father.

    By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 28, 2001


    Charlie Chau sat at the side of his daughter's hospital bed and just watched her sleep. It was Christmas evening, and he had come alone.

    Then 20-year-old Lai Chau woke up. She gingerly picked up the pen and note pad resting on her stomach and scribbled her father a message.

    I love you.

    She continued writing. She was feeling better, she scribbled, but her head still hurt. She wanted the ventilator out, she wanted to breathe on her own, she wanted to be able to talk. She wanted to go home. She worried about her injuries. Would her life return to normal?

    Charlie Chau struggled for answers, overcome by both anger and hope.

    The 50-year-old man told his daughter in heavily accented English that everything would be okay.

    He didn't ask her about the shooting two weeks ago or about her carjackers. It hurt him to see his little girl so tattered, but he was glad she was alive.

    Lai Chau's rapid recovery at St. Joseph's Hospital from three bullet wounds to the head is more than a miracle. It means there will be a second chance at a new relationship for this Vietnamese-born father and his American-born daughter, whose bonds long have been strained by a cultural divide.

    "Like all parents, all I want is a good life for my daughter," Charlie Chau said Thursday at the family's restaurant, the Wok Out, in Clearwater. "I want to bring her home and help her get better. And, hopefully, we will grow closer, too."

    Charlie Chau was born in Vietnam, his daughter at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. He divorced her mother when Lai was 6 years old and became a single father.

    He remembers awkwardly brushing her hair once or twice when she was younger. He let her invite friends over to their four-bedroom Largo home for slumber parties and he bought her cake on her birthdays.

    He tried his best to raise her, with the help of his elderly mother, but the family restaurant took up a lot of his time. He worked 13-hour days, six days a week.

    "I do not collect welfare or use food stamps," Chau said proudly. "I don't have much money, but as long as I have two hands and two feet, I will continue to work hard."

    It's that work ethic that allowed Chau to provide for his daughter as she entered her teenage years.

    Her interests shifted to chatting on the telephone, listening to American music, watching movies and wearing the latest fashions.

    While she got everything she wanted, she shared less with him, more with her friends. She didn't drink, smoke or do drugs, so he left her alone. He knew she had a lot of friends but cannot name them.

    Their relationship also was hurt by her inability to speak or understand Vietnamese. He spoke to her in choppy English, she responded in fluid sentences.

    "It was very difficult," he said, in an interview conducted in Vietnamese.

    He told her to study hard and be successful, and said she was a good student at Pinellas Park High School but does not know how she fared on her report cards. He just trusted her.

    When she told him of her plans to go to USF to study pharmacy, he was thrilled.

    As a graduation gift, he bought her a new, dark blue 1998 Acura Integra. Weeks later, she had it painted pink. He just laughed.

    "She likes pink, and that's what she wanted to do," he said with a smile. "I just wanted her to have a car to drive to college."

    But Lai Chau informed her father that she was moving out, getting an apartment closer to USF's Tampa campus. Charlie Chau tried to talk her out of it. Single women from traditional Vietnamese homes didn't just move out.

    She assured him she would get a roommate. He helped her move into the Remington Apartment Homes at 10610 N 30th St. When he saw the apartment gates with a plastic-card entry system, his anxiety was tempered a little.

    Lai used her student loan to pay her rent, asking her father for money for food, books and other necessities from time to time. Her first year at college, she didn't come by the restaurant as much.

    He didn't know if she had a boyfriend, or even a roommate.

    "I was worried, but what can you do?" he said. "She is grown up."

    But the night of the attack, Dec. 13, Lai Chau stopped by the restaurant for a rare visit. She helped her family, and declined her father's offer to spend the night at home. She had to go back to her apartment and study, she told him.

    Back at her apartment complex in Tampa an hour later, the pink Integra caught the eyes of two men who demanded money at gunpoint.

    Lai Chau gave them the $40 in her purse, but they ordered her to get in the car. They drove her to Forest Hills Elementary School, where they shot her three times. Later they set her car on fire.

    Police arrested 17-year-old Tobaris Arrington of Tampa, whose parents alerted police after he told them he had taken part in the shooting of Lai Chau.

    While Hank Arrington, Tobaris' father, has to live with himself, knowing that this might be the ruin of his son's life, Charlie Chau finds himself planning a new one with his daughter.

    He does not know who will stay home to care for her once she is released from the hospital, but it warms him to know that he has been given another chance.

    "I want to thank all of my customers who prayed for her, the doctors and emergency workers who helped her," he said. "Without each and every one of them, she would not be alive. I have my daughter back."

    -- Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at 813-226-3403 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

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