Translation of a series of articles on organized illegal migration from Fujian Province, China to the United States in the mid 1990s by the Japanese journalist Arai Hifumi (新井一二三) that appeared in the Hong Kong monthly The Nineties (九十年代）.
The Price the Golden Venture Passengers Paid: The Snake Road: Fuzhou to New York via Hong Kong
Arai Hifumi, a freelance Japanese journalist living based in Hong Kong, wrote an enlightening five article series on the smuggling of people from the Fuzhou region of Fujian Province into the United States. She interviewed alien smugglers and smuggled people in New York City, Hong Kong and in their homeland — the Fuzhou region of Fujian Province, China.
Arai concludes this five-part series by observing “Strange as it is to say, in these relatively wealthy ‘overseas Chinese villages’ I saw Chinese poverty more clearly than anywhere else. Although these people are adequately clothed and fed, their income, in absolute terms, is far lower than that of people in Western countries. They never stop converting US dollars to renminbi in their heads so that even the poorest man in Chinatown becomes a wealthy man.
“More serious than economic poverty is spiritual poverty. A society in which the only value is money is a very empty society. During the few days I spent in Fuzhou, no matter with whom I spoke, the money and illegal emigration was the constant topic of conversation. I can’t remember how many times people told me “Chinese are just very vulgar people. ” Some of the illegal emigrants not only want to make their fortunes abroad but “want to become foreigners”. Chinese feelings of national inferiority are very strong, ” wrote Arai.
“Many of the illegal immigrants from Fuzhou told me, in one way or another, “If I had know before I came here, I never would have left Fuzhou. ” I realized after visiting Fuzhou, however, that they have no choice because this society forces them to go abroad. Reform and opening up to the outside world means to these people of the ‘overseas Chinese homeland’ villages that the door has opened once again to illegal emigration”, noted Arai.
“Many foolish things have been said about the wave of illegal emigration from Fuzhou. But I can’t laugh about them. To tell the truth, illegal emigration is yet another late twentieth century Chinese tragedy, ” concluded Arai.
These articles appeared in the July – November 1995 issues of the Hong Kong Chinese-language monthly Nineties.
- · The Snake Road: Fuzhou to New York via Hong Kong — Two Hundred Thousand People Cross the Pacific 2
- · Fuzhou Illegal Aliens in New York — The Snake Road Fuzhou — Hong Kong — New York (Pt. 2) 9
- · Strange Tales from New York’s Chinatown The Snake Road: Fuzhou – Hong Kong – New York (Pt. 3) 18
- · The Price the Golden Venture Passengers Paid — the Snake Road — Fuzhou to Hong Kong to New York (Pt. 4) 26
- · Coming to Fuzhou, Hometown of the Fujianese Illegal Immigrants (literally ‘the human snakes’) 33
- · The Snake Road: Fuzhou — Hong Kong — New York (Pt. 5 — Conclusion)
Nineties Magazine September 1995 pp. 66 – 72
The Snake Road: Fuzhou to New York via Hong Kong — Two Hundred Thousand People Cross the Pacific
Several hundred thousand Fujianese have entered the United States by various illegal routes and settled in New York City over the last several years. How did these people make their way from Fuzhou to the United States? This magazine has spent several months doing in depth interviews to answer this question. The first installment is about “the smuggling way station — Hong Kong”
by Arai Hifumi
In March 1995 I worked with an NHK Japanese television film crew which filmed a documentary in Hong Kong and New York. The film introduces the new immigrants who have arrived in the United States from Mainland China over the last several years. These new immigrants include graduate students and Chinese business people working in New York.
The group of Chinese immigrant which made the deepest impression on me however were the illegal immigrants. The wave of illegal immigration from China which began in 1986 increased even more after the Tian An Men Incident when the U.S. government offered the so-called Tian An Men Green Card stimulated a new surge in illegal immigration from China. Although getting legal permanent resident status is very difficult, these illegal immigrants had succeeded by merely entering the United States since the United States, unlike other areas (such as Hong Kong and Japan) does not by and large arrest and deport illegal immigrants.
In just a few years this new wave of immigrants transformed the character of Chinatown into a Fuzhou Town. By official estimates alone over one hundred thousand Fujianese have entered the United States illegally in recent years. Chinatown observers say that at least several hundred thousand new people have moved into the community. Moreover, with the poor economic conditions in the United States have plunged these people with no legal status into living conditions no better than the “pig sty” housing endured by nineteenth century immigrants to New York City.
Even more astonishing is that many of these illegal immigrants traveled on a legal PRC passport as they passed through Hong Kong on their way to the United States. I came to understand, over the course of many conversations with a Hong Kong snakehead, that widespread official corruption has been indispensable to the success of the worldwide snakehead network.
I want to thank NHK and the documentary’s director, Iketani Kaoru for giving me the opportunity to meet these little-known people and permission to publish this series of articles. The views that I express in these articles are my own. After returning to Hong Kong I went on to visit the Fuzhou homeland of these people in order to make the series more complete. I have used letters to stand for some peoples names and place names but otherwise the accounts and facts in this series are completely accurate.
Chapter I The Smuggling Relay Station — Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Snakehead
P immigrated to Hong Kong from K Township in Lianjiang County, Fuzhou in the early 1980s. Tall and thin, he dresses casually but neatly. With a beeper on his belt and a cellular phone in his hand, he has the air of a small businessman. I met Mr. P for the first time One day in March 1995 in a small bar on the eastern side of Hong Kong. He admitted right off, without any hesitation at all, that he is a snakehead.
Lianjiang County in Fuzhou has a long tradition of immigration. For many years people from Liangjiang County have immigrated to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Ever since economic reforms got underway in China, overseas Chinese from the United States have been returning to Lianjiang County and astounding their relatives with generous gifts. P, who was born and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, moved to Hong Kong with his father at age. Each time he returned with his father to their home county, they would meet alien smugglers (snake heads) and people being smuggled (human snakes) on the road. So quite naturally he became a runner for some snakeheads.
Since 1990, when P became an independent snakehead, he has helped nearly three hundred people pass through Hong Kong and enter the United States illegally. All his customers, including quite a few relatives, are from his hometown. Their destination is Chinatown in Manhattan, New York.
Since the end of the 1980s the world press has reported many cases in which Fujianese planning to enter the United States illegally were caught at sea. There is no way to tell just who many times more people actually entered the United States successfully. Moreover, Hong Kong has become a very important way station for people planning to enter the United States illegally.
Over the course of more than twenty conversations with P, I came to understand quite clearly each step of his operation. Listen to what he has to say.
The Smuggling Fee is US$35,000 Per Person
“Sending a person to the United States is a big operation which can be broken down into several phases. ” The first phase is recruiting customers in Fuzhou and to collect the US$2000 deposit from each customer. The total smuggling fee is US$35,000. The customer pays the balance after arriving in the United States. During the early years relatives in the United States paid the smuggler’s fee. Now, with the increase in the numbers of Fuzhou people who are in the United States a great deal of capital has accumulated in Fuzhou. More and more families in Fuzhou are able to afford the smuggling fee of the snakehead. If someone is truly unable to pay the snakehead’s fee, he is able to get a high interest loan. Be that as it may,. Fuzhou people save up a great deal of capital before they leave Fuzhou.
“The second step is getting passports for the clients. ” As everyone knows, applying for a passport in the PRC is very difficult. Fortunately for these people there are always corrupt officials who will do anything if the price is right. P helped his clients buy Guangxi Province passports. These passports cost US$2000 each. Immigration officials the world over know that many Fujianese want to immigrate abroad illegally. Therefore Chinese carrying a Fujian Province passport will attract much attention from immigration officials. Guangxi Province passports are much safer.
“The third step is to take the clients to Shenzhen.” They wait in a hostel near the Shenzhen train station. It is said that the border police know that the Luohu Hostel is often used by alien smugglers and other criminals. Getting cooperation from the police is much safer than hiding.
At this point, the Guangxi Province passports held by the Fuzhou people already contain tourist visas from third world countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Getting a Thai visa in a PRC passport costs US$800. Just as in the case of the Guangxi Province passports, corrupt officials who know perfectly well what is going on are selling visas to the snakeheads.
The Fuzhou Snakehead Clients in Hong Kong
On a certain day each week, P brings a group of snakehead clients, who now all have airline tickets from Hong Kong, out through Chinese immigration into Hong Kong. The border inspectors on duty that day are all his ‘friends’ who allow the group to leave China legally. The Hong Kong immigration officials at the Shenzhen River and Luohu give them a one week transit visa.
Hong Kong became a home base for the snakeheads because any mainlander with a valid PRC passport, a visa and air tickets to a third country can legally stay in Hong Kong for seven days. Flights leave the Hong Kong International airport for many foreign countries including the United States.
Although Mr. P’s clients are en route to an illegal entry into the United States, their seven day stay in Hong Kong is legal.
While in Hong Kong, these groups generally stay in small hotels run by Fujianese which include breakfast and charge about HK$110 to HK$130 per night. The operators of these small hotels know very well why their guests have left home “but they’re all hometown fellows and they don’t give any trouble” says Mr. P. These kinds of small hotels are common in the Jordan and Honghon sections of Kowloon and in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island.
You can tell that these hotels are run by Fuzhou people for Fuzhou people just by looking at the hotel sign, although there are some other customers such as old KMT soldiers from Taiwan going back to see relatives in Mainland China.
I visited two of these hotels. Each hotel has a few small rooms, each with three to five beds. Although they can’t compare with five star hotels, these small hotels are clean and comfortable. People say that in March, 1995 when business was especially good for the snakeheads, each bunk had two men in it. That is too crowded. When I was there, I saw four men drinking Qingdao Beer and playing poker.
I asked them, “Why did you come to Hong Kong? ” “Seven days transit”, one man answered. “Where do you plan to go from Hong Kong? ” “I don’t know. Who are you? ” he said, in Fuzhou-accented Mandarin.
They weren’t tense because their presence in Hong Kong was legal and each of them had many family and friends who had a smooth trip to the United States. ” Nothing to worry about, it all goes smoothly” said one young woman who looked to be about 18 or 19 years old.
US$20,000 to Buy a Legal U.S. Visa
Mr. P said that sometimes he is unable to arrange an itinerary which will get his customers illegally into the United States within the seven day term of their Hong Kong transit visa. He arranges for his customers to get a physician’s letter so that Hong Kong immigration will extend their visa on medical ground.
Snakehead clients who overstay their visa lose their freedom of movement. They don’t dare go outside and must stay in their room all day. If the police were to catch them, they would be sent back to the PRC. Some snakeheads from the very start forbid their clients to go outside or to telephone Hong Kong relatives for fear that information about their plans to enter the U.S. illegally and their illegal overstay of their Hong visas gets out.
There are many different ways of getting from Hong Kong to the United States
The safest way is to get a visa legally. According to recent news from Canada of eighty-seven members “Yunnan Province Economic Study Tour” went to Toronto in mid April 1995, seventy-five vanished. This news make a sensation among the Hong Kong snakeheads. They discovered that this the so-called ‘Yunnan Province Economic Study Tour’ was actually composed of Fuzhou people whose only connection to Yunnan Province were passports issued in Yunnan Province. A Canadian company had invited them to visit and supported their visa application at the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong. As a result seventy-four people were able to enter the United States illegally. “Wow! ” said Mr. P. , “Those snakeheads earned US$750,000 in one operation!. “
Crossing the Canada-U. S. border is so easy that as far as the snakeheads are concerned, Canada is part of the United States. For example, one Fuzhou group that left Hong Kong on May 5, 1995 arrived in Vancouver and after a thirty-hour car ride were got to New York Chinatown on May 8.
The next best method is to by a “legal” visa. The current prices are U.S. and Canada — US$20,000; Japan and the U.K. US$10,000. These visas are sold to snakeheads by people working within foreign consulates. Usually this is a partnership between a Fuzhou person who does interpreting or some other task for the consulate and a consular officer who “puts money first”.
The first method is deception, the second is bribery. But the visas obtained by snakeheads and snakehead clients who use these methods are the “real thing”.
If neither of these methods work, Mr. P tries riskier methods.
Boarding Pass at the Hong Kong Airport
A risky but common method is to sneak aboard an aircraft. Once a Fuzhou person with a third-country visa has passed through boarding procedures and immigration at the Hong Kong airport, they switch boarding passes with someone waiting inside and carry a ‘shaved head’ (photo-substituted) passport with them as they board the aircraft.
The U.S. airlines at the Hong Kong airport attach a slip of paper with the data and a serial number to the back of the traveler’s passport at passenger check-in. This is to prevent people from sneaking onto aircraft. At aircraft boarding time and again at Tokyo and other transfer points, the passports are checked again in order to search for people trying to enter the United States on a photo-substituted passport. “This all due to pressure from the U.S. government. ” said Mr. P. If a client is caught on the aircraft, he is returned to Hong Kong and serves time in a Hong Kong jail. “
One day, Mr. P showed me several PRC passports. All of them were genuine passports obtained in Guangxi Province. The passports contained entry and exit stamps from many countries. Mr. P explained that the more stamps in the passports, the more convincing it appears. ” Look at this woman’s passport. She has an entry stamp for Thailand but no exit stamp. She sneaked onto an aircraft in Bangkok. ” The woman, a relative of Mr. P, had an uneventful trip to New York in September 1994. Mr. P got the passport back to assist his next client.
I met one young fellow from Fuzhou who was on his first visit to Hong Kong “in transit”. But to judge from his passport, he had already been to a dozen foreign countries. Obviously some of the so-called ” genuine PRC passports” issued in Guangxi Province had been “reconditioned”.
False Documents Production Plant in the Philippines
Mr. P says that the technical competence of passport photo substitution work done in the Philippines is very high. Regardless of whether the passport is from the U.S., Japan, or Taiwan the passport can be ready in one day. Modern computer and other technology cannot detect these excellent photo substitutions.
Mr. P looks everywhere to find passports which can be photo subsituted and used by his clients. Mr. P was very interested in my Japanese passport. “I offer you US$8000. Will you sell it? Japanese passports are very useful. No American visa is needed. Sometimes we send the clients on a tour in Europe before sending them to the United States. ” Mr. P say that whenever possible, he prepares a tourist itinerary for his clients. As everyone knows, the many passport thefts which occur worldwide are probably all related to the demand for passports which can be used for alien smuggling. Photo subsituted passports are usually stolen and then photo substituted.
Fake U.S. visas are also made in the Philippines. I saw a visa marked US Embassy Manila printed on paper identical to PRC passport visa pages. ” First you cut the passport binding and remove the pages, then you insert the page with the visa and sew the binding together again. “, said Mr. P. All snakeheads are very good at this handicraft skill. Some have even done it while accompanying their clients on an aircraft.
Some of Mr. P’s clients don’t fly directly to the United States. They first go to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries and then on to countries such as Brazil, Panama and Mexico before going on to New York.
Clients wait in Southeast Asia for the snakehead to make final arrangements. The best places to wait are cheap (low expenses) and allow a legal stay (low risk). “Cambodia is very good. PRC nationals can stay in Cambodia 90 days without a visa and expenses are very low. You can live there on just a few U.S. dollars a day “, said Mr. P. Who would have guessed that people being smuggled from Fuzhou to the United States use Phnom Penh as a way station.
The Economics of Alien Smuggling
Mr. P said that business was very good during two years during 1992 – 1994 he grossed US$9 million. On another visit he told me he earned US$2 million in his best year.
Just like other businessmen, snakeheads want people to think that they are very successful. These figures are gross income, not the personal profit of the snakehead.
No matter how many countries through which the client passes or how long it takes, the snakehead’s fee is fixed at US$30,000 including food and accommodations along the way. Therefore, for Mr. P, “capital management” is essential. Currently, the profit margin on each person who gets into the United States is US$10,000. Once Mr. P has paid off the other people involved, he makes a profit of US$5000 per person.
The US$25,000 capital invested in the trip includes the passport, visa, air ticket, food and accommodations. Mr. P also spends money on “public relations” with the immigration officials of many countries. In fact, a person from rural Fuzhou on their first trip overseas, no matter how well disguised, has a hard time deceiving a professional immigration officer. Mr. P himself often says, “The documents I prepare are genuine. Only the people are fake. ” or “Because the quality of the goods are too low, I can’t use a genuine U.S. passport”. In order to get his customers through immigration smoothly, Mr. P needs “guanxi” (connections) with the immigration officials at the ports of entry.
In New York I met an illegal immigrant who had flown to the U.S. west coast with a fake U.S visa he picked up in a Southeast Asian country. When the Immigration Officer at the Port of Entry asked if her husband was in the United States, she answered ” No”. She didn’t realize that the visa had the annotation “to visit husband”. As a result she was sent to a small room on the side for another interview with a Chinese-speaking interpreter. “That Shanghai man was very nice. He let me go right away”, she told me. She was likely the beneficiary of connections made before by the snakehead.
Mr. P speaks Fuzhou dialect, Cantonese and Mandarin but he can’t speak English. Therefore, he always targets Chinese people working in immigration.
Pressure From All Sides
Yet Mr. P can’t buy all the immigration officers in the world. Some foreign immigration officers want to extort money from snakeheads. Once eight of Mr. P’s clients were caught by the security service of a certain Southeast Asian country. The official, who got in touch with Mr. P through one of the clients, demanded — and got — a payment of US$200,000. “He released my clients. I took a big loss on that trip, ” he said.
The snakehead must take good care of his clients during their trip to the United States since, the snakehead, who must invest a large sum of money in the trip, is only paid the smuggler’s fee after his clients have entered the United States successfully. Snakeheads are usually very polite to their clients. Mr. P gives his beeper number to clients in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. If they have a problem at any time, he will hurry over to help them. Mr. P also takes his clients to parks and on mountain climbing trips to relax. He often gets telephone calls from Fuzhou. The relatives of his clients are calling to check on things. “They’re all hometown folks who know me and give me a lot of pressure. I get pressure from the United States, from Hong Kong Immigration Bureau, from customers and even from the families of customers! “
Once the illegal alien has been smuggled successfully into the United States, the client vs. snakehead balance of power shifts. ” My friends are waiting for them at the New York airport who take them to their own place. My friends get in touch with the relatives of my clients in Fuzhou. When the smuggling fee is paid, the client is allow to leave”. Mr. P says that the smuggler’s fee is sometimes paid in New York City and sometimes in Fuzhou. Mr. P doesn’t have any direct connection with the Fuqing Gang or other Chinese gangs, if a client tries to escape without paying, Mr. P will call on a gang to help exact payment. “I tell my clients about that at the start. But they are all hometown folks, so its better not to get the gangs involved. “
Cases of illegal immigrants being nearly beaten to death occur frequently in New York City’s Chinatown district. Most of these cases involved illegal aliens who have not paid back the snakeheads.
As Mr. P talks about his work, it is clear he doesn’t think of himself as a lawbreaker. ” First of all, I don’t go out looking for customers. They come to me to ask for help. “
“I don’t like the name ‘snakehead’. I am only doing a kind of invisible business. Except for our clients and immigration officers around the world, nobody see our work. Our work is highly professional and depends upon a high degree of trust in our working relationships. We never cheat people. We always pay for passports and visas. We take responsibility for the safety and well-being of our clients. “
Smuggling people is an illegal activity which must be kept secret. Therefore, in the snakehead world, nobody uses their real name. Meanwhile, back home in Fuzhou, his “secret” is an open secret among his relatives and people in his hometown. He lives in an area of Hong Kong which has many people from Fuzhou. While drinking coffee in a building near his home, some passers-by waved at him. Mr. P said, “I got their sons into the United States.”
When Mr. P was interviewed anonymously for Japanese television, he also brought his wife and child along. All three were dressed very well; it was clear that the interview was a great honor for them. I said to .Mr. P, “Isn’t it difficult talking about these things in front of your child? ” Mr. P replied, “No matter. He understands. ” Later I understand that Mr. P wasn’t the only snakehead in his family. Several households of the P family earn their living as snakeheads. The child understands what the adults in his family do and won’t talk about it with his classmates..
I met Mr. P over twenty times. He wasn’t what I had expected a snakehead to be. He is like an average person in many ways. He neither drinks nor smokes; his one vice is betting on horse races. He takes his son out to play every Sunday. He usually reads the Dongfang Ribao and the Tiantian Ribao. The death of Taiwan pop star Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng) broke his heart. “I admire her for refusing to sing in Mainland China for any amount of money”. Mr. P places great importance on family life. He keeps his wife’s picture in his wallet. He told me once about the solemn funeral of his grandfather in Fuzhou. He even showed me a tape of the funeral.
A Snakehead’s Thoughts on the Law
As a snakehead, Mr. P lives with many restrictions. He cannot casually make friends. As a result, he places greater stress on family and relations with people from his hometown than do most people. His isolation, in fact, is probably part of his reason for agreeing to see me. Mr. P has never paid taxes, and since he has no tax return, he is not able to apply for a U.S., Canada or many other countries. Although he has sent nearly 300 people to the United States, he has never been able to see for himself the situation of the Fuzhou people in New York City.
Mr. P’s biggest difference from most people is in his concept of law. He does not consider ” illegal behavior” as an ” illegal activity”, especially when he is breaking immigration laws. Mr. P, as soon as he find out that I am a permanent resident of Canada, started trying to persuade me to “marry” his relative. ” You take your picture together with him, then you take the tax documents and sponsor his application for immigration to Canada. How about it, for US$15,000. This is completely legal. He will disappear immediately after entering Canada. You won’t be responsible. ” He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t agree to his proposal. He sighed. ” Your landed immigrant status in Canada is going to waste! ” He told me of couples in Hong Kong who go through a fake divorce, go back to Fuzhou and get married, bring out their new partners to Hong Kong, and then get married to their original partners again, now HK$80,000 richer.
Mr. P also asked me to do other things, such as make sure than his clients had gotten boarding formalities at the Hong Kong airport and onto their plane. To accompany his clients on flights to the United States and Canada and to help them with filling out forms and other formalities. Each time he said, “This is completely legal. “
In fact, haziness about the law is something which snakeheads and their customers share. Customers expect that once they have paid US$30,000 they will be able to enter the United States without any problem. To Fuzhou people on their way to be smuggled into the United States, the snakeheads are merely operating a special kind of travel agency.
Mr. P says he is thinking about switching to another line of work. In early 1995, U.S. immigration policy became stricter and the snakehead business has become more difficult. “This business is not my career. I’ll earn some money and then move on. “
I came to realize that for the people of Fuzhou, illegal immigration is routine. Many people know that 300,000 Fuzhou people live in Hong Kong. I didn’t realize the great tragedy that this wave of illegal immigration had created until I got to New York City. The snakehead can change to another line of work at any time, but people smuggled into the United States may spend their lives as illegal aliens.
[End of Part One]
Nineties magazine (Hong Kong) August 1995 pp. 72 – 79 by Arai Hifumi
Fuzhou Illegal Aliens in New York — The Snake Road Fuzhou — Hong Kong — New York (Part 2)
East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown is Little Fuzhou. Many illegal aliens from Fuzhou live a hellish life there. They work ten or more hours every day for about US$300 a week. Crowded together in small, miserable apartments, they are regularly cheated, robbed and kidnapped...
[Editor’s note: Great numbers of illegal aliens from Fuzhou have flooded into New York City in recent years. Arai Hifumi has written a series of articles about this migration from Fuzhou based on interviews in Fuzhou, Hong Kong and New York. ]
“If I had only known, I would never have come to America”
No one knows just how many people from Fuzhou have settled in New York City. But everyone will tell you that most of the people from Fuzhou are illegal aliens. ‘Little Fuzhou’, the nickname for the East Broadway section of Manhattan’s Chinatown, is a byword for lawlessness. New arrivals, just smuggled in from Fuzhou, arrive in this district every day.
“If I had only known, I would never have come to America”. Nearly all the people from Fuzhou I met in New York City told me this in one way or another. Life in America for these illegal immigrants from Fuzhou means no legal status, no English, bad working conditions, low pay, crime, poor living conditions, and being constantly cheated. For most of the illegal immigrants from Fuzhou, America is a dead end, just like a tomb. You can only get into it, you can never leave.
This is no ordinary sad immigration story. The ‘snakeheads’ smuggle country people from China mainland to the glittering world of New York City. These country people don’t speak English and don’t understand Western society. All they understand is that there are hometown people in New York who will help them when they arrive. They never imagined that there would be so many cheats and criminals among these ‘hometown people’ who await them.
Once in America, they never leave Chinatown. If they work ‘outside’ — that is outside of New York State — it will be in a Chinese restaurant. And whenever they get a day off, they will ride many hours on the bus back to Manhattan’s Chinatown to see their hometown friends. They have no legal status, so they can never feel secure.
They Only Have Two Dreams
Each illegal immigrant owes a snakehead alien smuggler US$20,000. In order to get together the money to pay back this debt, they will take any job, no matter how miserable and difficult. They work in restaurants, and in factories for about US$1000 per month. Paying off the debt means that, in effect, they have to work for the snakehead for at least three years before they can save any money on their own. Their working hours are long — they can even think about and don’t have the time anyways to go study English. Most of them are poorly educated peasants who can’t even speak the Chinese national standard Mandarin dialect well, much less learn a foreign language.
They only have two dreams. First, they want to pay off their debt to the snakehead as rapidly as possible, then to accumulate savings for a few years until they can buy and operate their own restaurant. Opening a small restaurants costs US$60,000 – 70,000. This is an astronomical sum to these ordinary restaurant workers. Second, they want a green card so that they will have legal status in America and then bring over their wife and children and reunite the family in America. They expect that the U.S. government will declare an amnesty for the illegal immigrants.
“I want to go back, but I can’t. “, they say. One reason is their debt to the snakeheads. Another reason is face. “I came to America to earn money so that my relatives can have a better life. The father conquers so that his son can become Emperor. ” In other words, for the good of my family I willingly sacrifice myself. They remember seeing the “visitors from Gold Mountain” [jinshan ke] who wore famous-brand wristwatches, gold rings, and gave many presents to their family and friends. Once they got to America themselves, they realized that these relatives were putting on airs on their trip back home. Especially for these illegal aliens with a big debt to repay, their life in America is “like being a slave”. But, if they ever return to Fuzhou for a visit someday, they too will put on the airs of a “visitor from Gold Mountain”.
Everyone had many stories to tell but they didn’t want to be interviewed. The most important reason was not politics, but fear that everybody would know about the miserable plight into which they had fallen. They were afraid not merely of losing face themselves but of making China lose face.
I asked them, “Don’t you feel tricked? Don’t you want the people back home to know what America is really like? ” But they shook their heads. They want the people in Fuzhou to hold onto their illusions, since it is really the only thing that helps them go on living.
Although may of the Fuzhou illegal aliens have been in New York for a long time, objectively as well as subjectively they are still living in Fuzhou. Although they live in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, in their hearts they haven’t landed yet.
Call him Younger Cousin, since he lives together with his cousins. They are from K City in Fuzhou’s Lianjiang County. They are from the same town as Mr. P, the Hong Kong snakehead. ” I’m 19 years old. ” But that is in the Chinese system of reckoning; he is actually nineteen years old.
Younger Cousin has a third grade education. This is his account of modern Chinese history “China has been liberated for 45 years. The cultural revolution lasted the first fifteen years. The economy became stable and economic growth began about thirty years ago. Since that time, China has the world’s fastest growing economy. ” He is not unintelligent; he is just young and hasn’t had much education.
Younger Cousin came to the United States illegally two years ago. “My father was often ill and my family was very poor. I had no alternative”. But relatives were willing to lend him the US$32,000 he needed to pay to be smuggled into the United States. ” Naturally, ” he said, ” if the family had no money at all I wouldn’t have been able to come. Only families with a little capital can pay for the trip”. That is the amazing thing about alien smuggling: the truly poor are unable to leave China and the truly rich are happy to stay at home. Only those who have a little capital but not enough to go into business for themselves think about going abroad illegally. In Cousin’s hometown most of the people want to go abroad.
I ask him, ” What are the main industries in your hometown?” He answers, “Everybody farms. The only people with money are the ones that came back from the USA”.
Younger Cousin’s snakehead is from Taiwan. “I got on a non-stop flight from Taipei to the United States”. What did he think when he arrived in the United States? “I didn’t have any impression at all, since the snakehead locked me up for ten days. ” Afterwards? ” At first I thought America was heaven, later I realized that America is a battlefield. “
The first thing an illegal alien must do upon arrival in the United States is to apply for political asylum. The many “immigration services” companies in Chinatown handle the paperwork for about US$200. Cousin said, “You only need to submit two photographs and you’re all set. “
Many of the Fuzhou people who come to the United States apply for political asylum because of China’s one child policy or because of religious persecution. But Younger Cousin isn’t married, nor is he religious. What reason did he give for asking for political asylum? “I don’t know. ” He doesn’t have any documents or a copy of his application. “It’s all being taken care of by the immigration services company”.
Nonetheless, Younger Cousin got political asylum and a one year work permit, called the C8 card. The C8 card is named after the section and paragraph of the law under which it is issued. The INS takes a long time to process paperwork. The waiting period during which the applicant holds the C8 card is getting longer. Younger Cousin is now applying for the second extension to his C8 card. (This policy changed in early 1995. Getting a C8 card has become more difficult than before.)
Younger Cousin makes $300 per week bussing dishes in a restaurant in New Jersey run by some Cantonese. His daily income, including tips, has exceeded $100 only twice over the last two years. He has been working hard, but has only paid off half of his debt so far. The restaurant owner picks up the workers in Manhattan six mornings a week at 9 AM. Cousin gets back to Manhattan about 11 PM.
One of his cousins, Elder Cousin, now aged 45 is former Red Guard who has lived in New York for twenty years. He was one of the first Fuzhou illegals to come to New York. Elder Cousin has been doing odd jobs in western style restaurants since he arrived in New York. The first time I met him, he was working for a ‘Hangarean” boss but didn’t realize that meant the boss was from Hungary. “That lady is very mean, screaming at people all day. ” But Elder Cousin didn’t know just how he was being cursed, since he can’t speak English.
Elder Cousin came to America in 1975 and got his green card in 1988. He went back to China for the first time in 1989 and got married. In Spring 1994 his wife gave birth to a baby girl, but he still hasn’t received his daughter’s picture. Does he plan to bring them to the United States? “I couldn’t never afford to support them”, he replied.
Elder Cousin was robbed on the street twice last year. The muggers were blacks and South Americans. The blacks hit him in the face and damaged his cornea. “My vision is very fuzzy in my left eye. The doctor says that it is incurable. For $15 that black guy made me a cripple! “
Since Elder Cousin went to the US very early, he and Cousin met for the first time in New York. Younger Cousin said, “After I pay off the debt, I’ll work for a few years more to earn some money and then go back to China. In America, if you don’t have your own business you’ll never be able to get married even if you’re 50 years old. ” Elder Cousin said, “There is a lot of street crime in America. There’s nothing good about it. Only the dollar has such a very high exchange rate against the PRC renminbi. ” Elder Cousin has only the money he gave his parents to build a house in Fuzhou to show for his twenty years of work in the United States.
During one visit with the two cousins, another of their hometown people laughed at him saying, “You have a green card and a young wife. Why not bring them to New York City? You’re just a poor New York City bachelor. “
Elder Cousin suddenly yelled, ” He looks down on me because I’m poor. He looks down on me because I’m poor! ! “
When I saw the two cousins two weeks later, the two men had been fired and were now unemployed. “Blackbirds are black the world over — all bosses under the sun are no good!”, Elder Cousin said.
Crowded, Miserable Living Quarters
Cousin lives on Orchard Street but there is not even one fruit tree on the entire street. They live on the edge of Chinatown in what was once a Jewish community. As the numbers of people from Fuzhou grows, Chinatown has been expanding. “We Chinese are getting stronger and stronger. “, says Elder Cousin. But in fact it is just the most impoverished part of Chinatown that is expanding.
A clothing store run by some Jewish people occupies the first floor of the building the cousins live in. Apartments are on the second and higher floors. The cousins live on the third floor with fourteen other people from there hometown. These new immigrants from the Fuzhou region of Fujian Province live separately according to where they are from in the Fuzhou area. There is a group of people from Fuzhou City proper, along with other groups from Changle County, Lianjiang County, and Fuqing County. They generally prefer to live with their hometown people. Of the sixteen people who live with the cousins, seven share the same surname as the cousins. Another four share a different surname. Nearly everyone in the group is related to the others. Younger Cousin is the youngest and Elder Cousin is the oldest. Most are married “poor New York City bachelors”.
The apartment, once divided into a bedroom, dining room and kitchen now is filled with 16 beds. The bed is an individual’s only personal space. Some of the occupants work during the day, others work at night. Someone is coming in or out of the apartment at all hours of the day and night. Once they get home, people make themselves dinner or watch TV or a videotape in the tiny living room. No wonder Younger Cousin says “We can’t even sleep well in America. ” These are country people; home in China they never lived in such a crowded place.
The apartment is in very bad shape. Spiders spin their webs along the walls. The bathroom was broken but never repaired. The doorknob is broken, so the door has to be opened quietly from the other side. Of course the door can’t be locked. A bare light bulb hangs down from the ceiling. An empty beer is the ash tray.
Rent is US$1000 per month — more than for a midtown apartment. There are more and more illegal immigrants who can’t manage to live their lives anywhere but in Chinatown so the Chinatown housing shortage has driven up rents in this area. Moreover, U.S. law does not permit landlords to demand key money for an apartment. But paying US$2000 in key money is very common in Chinatown.
On top of the rent come water, electric and heating bills, so the share of each of the sixteen occupants of the apartment comes to US$100 per month. A sheet on the wall lists who has paid the $100 fee for the current month. Some of the people paying rent don’t actually live in the apartment but work out of state but want to hold onto an address in New York City because whenever they have some business to transact they return to Manhattan’s Chinatown — the capital of the Fuzhou people living in the United States.
All sixteen either work in one of the two big industries of Chinatown: the restaurant or the clothing industry. Someone like Elder Cousin who does odd jobs or washes dishes in restaurants never earns more than US$1300 per month. Someone who can cook or steam clothes in a clothing factory, the pay is a little better. The highest paid worker on Orchard Street is Mr. L. He is the foreman in a clothing plant who assists the boss in managing the workers. He makes US$2000 per month. Mr. L told me, ” My bosses are graduate students from Beijing and Shanghai. They can speak English. They are very able people”.
The Sixteen People on Orchard Street
The sixteen live out their lives in Chinatown. They buy food, visit people, and take care of their business all in Chinatown. When they get back home in the evening, they sit in the living room reading a Chinese newspaper or watch a Chinese videotape. There is no sofa or coffee table in the room. Only two television sets, both turned on at the same time. They enjoy watching Kara-OK tapes, especially love songs. Seeing the couples on the TV screen, they think of happier times. “That’s what happiness is, isn’t it?” Mr. L says to himself. Once I saw several men suddenly start singing together the old song “Blood-soaked Elegance” [Xueran de Fengcai]. I opened my mouth to say, ” Isn’t that….. “. Elder Cousin interrupted me to say “That’s a song of the China- Vietnam War. ” Nobody spoke up to correct him. [Translator’s note: ‘Xuerande Fengcai’ is actually a PRC song used in campaigns to promote the reunification of China (with Taiwan)]
Among the sixteen people living in the apartment on Orchard Street, some have just arrived in the United States. Others came one or two years ago while still others came five or six years. Elder Cousin, who arrived in America twenty years ago is the exception. The big increase in the population from Fuzhou started six or seven years ago. Most don’t have a green card and still owe money to the snakehead alien smugglers. The Fuzhou people in New York’s Chinatown rarely use American banks. Every two weeks they take cash to the Bank of China branch at East Broadway to make a wire transfer to China. The Bank of China is open seven days a week. Several hundred customers line up for service at that Bank of China branch every Sunday. Nearly all the wire transfers are made out for people with addresses in Liangjiang County, Changrong County or other places in the Fuzhou region.
Once, a man in a western business suit visited the apartment on Orchard Street. He is one of Elder Cousin’s hometown friends who used to live in the Orchard Street apartment. Now he owns an out-of-state restaurant and has driven into New York City on business. The reaction of the people in the apartment divide into two groups: one group expects to be just as successful within a few years; the other group doesn’t think they will be able to make it for a variety of reasons such as age, ability, background and personality.
Elder Cousin has been in America for twenty years, but he still seems like a farmer from Fujian Province. After losing his job, he often gets up early and doesn’t return until late in the evening. I ask him where he goes? Younger Cousin translates for me: “I go to Atlantic City”. The people from Fuzhou love the Atlantic City casinos. Every two hours a special bus leaves Chinatown for the two hour long trip to Atlantic City. “He makes $5 each trip” explains Younger Cousin. The bus fare to Atlantic City is $17 but everybody is given $22 when they arrive at the casino. The casinos used this to pull in customers. No matter whether he goes in the morning and comes back in the evening or goes in the evening and comes back in the morning he must be spending more than $5 on these trips! ” Elder Cousin lost $200 at the casino last night”, Younger Cousin told me, as if that were amusing. Elder Cousin’s wallet contains no bank card or credit card but it does contain several VIP cards from Atlantic City casinos.
“It’s All Because We Can’t Speak English”
“Miss, please read this for me. ” said one of Elder Cousin’s relatives to me during one of my visits to the Orchard Street apartment. He wanted me to read an English letter for him. “Does the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) want to send him back?”, the other asked, gathering around me. They told me that the INS returned his application for an extension of his C-8 card.
The letter contained an application to extend the C-8 card but there was no letter from INS. “Was there anything else in the letter? Let me have a look at the envelope. ” Once I had taken a look at the envelope, I knew what the problem was. “The application wasn’t sent back by INS. The Post Office sent it back because you didn’t put stamps on the envelope. “
Everyone felt relieved but very embarrassed. Sixteen people living together, but not one of them could figure out why the letter had been returned. “None of us speak English”, S said.
S, who is twenty-seven years old, came to the United States two years ago. He never even went to elementary school. He learned to speak the Chinese national standard Mandarin dialect of Chinese after arriving in New York City. “I want to study English but I am not getting anywhere”, he said. At home in China he raised chickens and ducks. “I made a good income in China, but there was no way to get rich in that job. ” In New York he steams clothes in a clothing factory. The equipment is heavy and hot. The heat is hard to take, especially during the summer”.
Some of the people living in the apartment are educated. Mr. W, the leader of this small group, studied Chinese medicine in China and sounds like a well-educated person. That is why everyone chose him to handle money for the group. Yet Mr. W doesn’t think he will be able to learn English either. “We just are that kind of people who can learn English”. It may have something to do with age. Mr. W is already over forty years old. “Our first priority in America is staying healthy. The second priority is making money. ” Mr. W doesn’t smoke or drink. He puts tags on clothing at the factory. When he gets back to the apartment he reads the Chinese newspaper.
The kind of life the sixteen people on Orchard St. can live is sharply limited by their ignorance of English. They suffer big economic losses too. Each time a letter comes in from INS, they go over to the “Lawyer Building” which is actually an immigration services company. The name plate on the door is straightforward — Translations Services. There English-speaking Chinese people held them read letters, fill out applications and handle various kinds of paperwork. Clients pay between $100 to $1000 to carry a matter through to its conclusion. Since the clients don’t understand what is involved in handling the different matters they have no way of knowing whether the services they are paying for are cheap or expensive.
One day Elder Cousin lost his wallet and the Social Security card in it. He needed to fill out an English-language application to get a replacement card. By filling out the application form for him, I saved him several hundred dollars. Another day the heating company came to Orchard Street and turned off the heat for some reason. I called the heating company and was told that a gas line had broken and that service could not be restored until the line was fixed. Something as easy as that is for them a very great difficulty. All because they can’t speak English — and don’t even have a friend who speaks English.
Helping the Boss Find Workers — the Employment Agency
In addition to the Immigrant Services Company, there is another agency which plays a large role in this new immigrant society. That is the Employment Agency. There are dozens of employment agencies in the East Broadway area of Little Fuzhou.
“Restaurants, helpers, odd jobs, out-of-state — many, many jobs await you”. When they hear this announcement, many people go inside to sign up with the employment agency. Illegal immigrants who have no friends or relatives to help them must depend upon the employment agency.
Although one might think that because it is called an employment agency its purpose is to help workers find jobs, it would be more accurate to put it the other way around — the role of the employment agency is to help bosses find workers. This is why many of the new immigrants from Fuzhou are dissatisfied with the employment agencies. The employment agency charges workers six percent of a month’s salary just for accepting their application. Even if the applicant is fired after a few days and is never paid, the employment agency won’t refund the application fee. Naturally, from an employment agency business perspective, the faster workers are fired the better — because the agency can then recommend another person for the same job and take six percent of that person’s first monthly paycheck as well. Many of the positions are for ordinary laborers — just the sort of job the new immigrants from Fuzhou can do best. The boss often never pays the workers, the employment agency pockets the fee for introducing the worker to the employer, and the only one who makes nothing from the deal is the poor worker.
Mr. Zhuo, a forty-one year old man from Lianjiang County, came to the United States two years ago. Last December he paid a Chinatown employment agency $83 for finding him a job for him in an out-of-state restaurant. He waited on the roadside for the restaurant boss to come for him, but the boss never showed up. He went back to the employment agency to ask for his $83 back. The agency refused to give him the money back. They argued and the employment agency called the police. Mr. Zhuo was arrested and spent two days in jail. Later the prosecutor charged him with attempted assault.
Mr. Zhuo went to court three times. Each time the judge found him guilty and ordered him to sweep the streets for two days. Mr. Zhuo insisted, “I was cheated. I am innocent”. He doesn’t understand what “attempted assault” means.
One morning I went with him to that employment agency. When he heard the woman in the office speaking English on the telephone, he said angrily ” You think that just because you can speak English you can cheat we Fuzhou people anytime you like! “
The Fuzhou Gangs Invade and Rob Apartments
I had to telephone beforehand each time I went to visit my Fuzhou friends in their apartment on Orchard Street or else they wouldn’t open the door for me. Every week brings new of robberies in the areas where the Fuzhou people live. Unlike ordinary street crime, attacks on residences are made by armed Fuzhou gangs.
Once I visited a group that had just been robbed so that I would understand what was going on. The apartment floors above a steel-making plant was divided into eight small rooms in which 30 Fuzhou people aged in the age 20 – 50 age range lived. All of them worked either in restaurants or clothing factories.
“On Saturday night at 12:40 somebody knocked on the door. They spoke our home dialect. We thought it was somebody from home. Wouldn’t you know it, but as soon as we opened the door four punks with guns charged into our apartment. They were all young fellows in their twenties. “
“Those punks locked us all up in a small room. They stole our cash, wristwatches, tape recorders and passports. Some of us were kicked around and beaten up. In just about half an hour, those four punks stole six or seven thousand dollars from us.”
Fuzhou people don’t use American banks. They keep cash on hand at home until the next time they go to the Bank of China to wire money home to Fuzhou. Although they are the poorest people in America, they always have a few hundred dollars in cash on their person.
Feelings of powcrlessness could be read on the faces of these people. Thirty healthy young people could not resist those four punks. “We work hard in America. The money we earn by our hard work is stolen by the gangs. We are in constant danger for our lives. The police don’t pay any attention to us. “
As soon as the thieves left, they called the police. “After a long while some policeman came, including one Chinese. But the Chinese speaks Cantonese — he can’t speak Mandarin. They just stood at the door and asked a few questions. They didn’t even take any notes or come inside to take a look at the state of the apartment. The Cantonese man said, if you want to report the crime, you can come to the police station tomorrow. But we can’t speak English and we have to go to work. We can’t take a day off. “
“The poor you are, the more you see of the devil” . The longer I stayed in New York’s Chinatown, the more I can to see that this saying makes a lot of sense. These Fuzhou people don’t even have a place to complain. They can only move to another apartment, try to forget their awful experience, and hope that the punks never come knocking again. “
Airport Kidnappings Happen Everyday
But something worse than these robberies — kidnappings — occur very often. According to an article in the April 10, 1995 New York Daily News, an illegal alien named Ye was kidnapped at Kennedy International Airport by a gang. Twenty-six year old Mr. Ye left Fuzhou in September 1994 and traveled through Yunnan Province in China, Burma, Thailand, and Taiwan before reaching Kennedy Airport in New York in February 1995.
At the airport he was supposed to meet someone (probably a snakehead) who was to send him to his brother in Michigan. But a gang member kidnapped him. He was locked in a Brooklyn apartment for 34 days. The kidnapper tortured him by chaining him to a heater, beating him, and burning him with cigarette butts. The gang called up Mr. Ye’s family in Fuzhou, had them listen to his screams, and then demanded US$20,000 in ransom. One day when the kidnappers ordered Mr. Ye to cook a meal for them, Ye jumped out a window of the apartment and ran away.
According to the report, illegal aliens just off the plane from Fuzhou are kidnapped at Kennedy Airport nearly every day. Just recently two legal immigrant from Guangdong Province was kidnapped. This incident, and the case of Mr. Ye which happened shortly thereafter, finally brought this problem to the attention of the police and mainstream society.
Gangs attack newly arrived illegal immigrants for several reasons. Since the alien smuggler’s fee is usually paid after the smuggled person arrives in New York, each alien is worth US$30,000 or more to the alien smuggler. Second, when the illegal aliens arrive in New York City, they and the snakehead (alien smuggler) do not recognize each other. If a gang member pretends to be an alien smuggler, kidnapping is very easy if the victim can be fooled into cooperating in their own kidnapping.
One gang member told the New York Daily News: “I make $2000 each time I go to the airport. Its easy to make $30,000 a month. ” Kidnappings now take place in Chinatown as well as at the airport. Once a gang has kidnapped someone and called up their relatives in Fuzhou, the family can usually borrow money from some relatives and borrow $20,0000 or $30,000. A Mr. Zhang told me how his elder brother, then working at a Long Island restaurant, was kidnapped and held for ransom for $30,000. This brave younger brother got in touch with the FBI. Seventeen Fuzhou gang members were arrested. Mr. Zhou is relatively well-educated — he’s now the manager of a take-out restaurant. Although two years have passed and the gang members are still in jail, Mr. Zhou doesn’t dare to come to Chinatown often, particularly not to the East Broadway section of Chinatown where many people from Fuzhou gather. The last time he went there he wore dark glasses so that he wouldn’t be recognized.
Many of the Fuzhou people in New York City say, “Crime in America is way out of control”. New York is not known as a safe city and the weakest people in society are the most likely to be crime victims. Fuzhou people are usually preyed upon by other people from Fuzhou. There close ties to their homeland make them reluctant to retaliate. Especially if the case involves people from their hometown, they are reluctant to report a crime to the police. As a leader in the Chinatown community told me, “Fuzhou people aren’t really bad people. Every society has its bad people. ” Burdened as the Fuzhou people are with many debts and “living a slave’s life”, there are always some young people who will try to get easy money. This situation is one of the results of the great wave of illegal immigration from the Fuzhou region.
The Telephone System Becomes Sinified
One evening the ‘leader’ of the sixteen people in the Orchard Street apartment came home in a very cheerful mood. “Why are you so happy? “, I asked him. “I called home. “, he said with a big smile. ” How long did you talk on the phonel? How much money did you spend?” I asked. “I talked on the phone for an hour. No matter how long I talk it is just $15”, he said. “I bought a number. “
The Fuzhou people in New York City often “buy numbers” to make their long distance phone calls. According to people familiar with this practice, this is a way of stealing money from the telephone company. Criminal organizations steal someone’s Calling Card number and sell it through a wholesaler who in turn sells it retail for $15 a call to many people. The United States telephone network is completely computerized. You need only add a calling card number to the number you want to reach in order to make a telephone call from anywhere in the United States to anywhere else. You don’t need to speak English. The victim is the owner of the Calling Card number who is shocked to receive the next telephone bill for calls made by many different people.
Long distance calls can’t be made from the telephone in the Orchard Street apartment. This is usually the case among the new immigrants from Fuzhou. With many people living together in one apartment and many hometown friends coming by to visit, there would otherwise always be someone who would use the phone and not admit it. In order to avoid this kind of argument, they (or the telephone company) cut off long distance service to their apartment’s telephone number.
In another Chinese area of New York City, Flushing there is an AT&T Worldwide Communications Center. There many Chinese make long distance phone calls from telephone booths at the center. Center personnel assist customers with long distance dialing. Chinese-style telephone services are springing up in America not only to provide these services, but also, as a manager at the AT&T Worldwide Communications center told me, “The many illegal aliens living around here don’t have the identification they would need to apply for long distance telephone service. ” AT&T only has three Worldwide Communications Centers in the United States. The other two, one in Los Angeles and another in San Francisco also primarily serve the Chinese community.
Several small companies provide the same kind of service to Manhattan’s Chinatown more cheaply than AT&T does. These companies advertise telephone calls to China for $.47 cents a minute. These telephone companies can be called the product of the sinification of America by these new immigrants from Fuzhou.
The Poor Bachelors of New York City
Thirty year old Mr. Wang, from Changle County in the Fuzhou region, spent forty-five days on a fishing boat crossing the Pacific Ocean. “It was very difficult. I wanted to stretch but I couldn’t move. We only had bread to eat. ” His parents, wife and child are all in Mainland China. The telephone is his communications lifeline to them.
“Each time I call them on the telephone they ask me ‘if life in the United States is hard?’ Life is hard and I am very lonely. But how can I tell them that? I don’t want my parents and my wife to worry about me. So I don’t answer, but the tears keep rolling down my cheeks. ” Mr. Wang’s eyes are have started to redden even as we speak.
Mr. L of the Orchard Street apartment also calls home every month. He thinks of his wife constantly. Our hometown has become a widow’s village. All the men between twenty and fifty have gone to the United States. Only women, children and old men have been left behind. We haven’t been home for many years. Although we write letters, make telephone calls and send money home, I can understand how some of the women back home just can’t stand the loneliness. Some punks back home try to take advantage of them, but I hope my wife will hang in there. ” Mr. L has put into words the feelings of many of the poor bachelors of New York City.
How do they handle this situation themselves? Mr. S says, “I’m a bachelor, so I go to the massage parlor.” He is divorced and has no regrets. Many shops in Chinatown offer sex for hire under the cover of a massage parlor. People say that some years ago most of the women working in the massage shops were from Shanghai. Now they have been replaced by women from the Fuzhou area. These women, also illegal immigrants, were tricked by a snakehead alien smuggler, now must rent out their bodies to pay off the debt to the alien smugglers. I can’t think of situation crueler than that in which these women suffer.
I asked Younger Cousin, “What do you want most? ” He answered, ” You introduce me. ” That is, he wants to find a girlfriend. There are far more Fuzhou men than women in New York City’s Chinatown. Most of these new immigrants are conservative people from the countryside. Unlike their compatriots in America from China’s big cities, they don’t want to have a “series of promiscuous relationships” within their own circle. Some of these men have extramarital affairs of even take a little (unofficial second) wife. But only people with money who have become the boss of their own small business can afford that.
Younger Cousin is young and cute but can’t find a girlfriend. Although he has been in New York for two years, he has never met an American woman. ” I’d never be able to afford to support here. Anyways we’d never be able to communicate. ” On the headboard of his bed he has taped pinups of half-naked Hong Kong film stars.
[End of Part Two]
Nineties magazine (Hong Kong) September 1995 pp. 102 – 108
Strange Tales from New York’s Chinatown The Snake Road: Fuzhou – Hong Kong – New York (Part 3)
by Arai Hifumi
In the factories where Chinese people make clothes, nicknamed sweatshops, they often earn less than the official minimum wage. The brutal competition for work in the restaurants in Chinatown pushes down wages. The prejudice of mainstream U.S. society is that “Chinese want to be slaves”. The reality of Chinatown is that the people who treat Chinese people worst and have the least sympathy for them are usually other Chinese.
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of in a series about the illegal immigration of people from Fuzhou to New York City based on interviews Arai Hifumi made in Fuzhou, Hong Kong and New York. The first two installments were entitled “The Alien Smuggler’s Base — Hong Kong” and “Illegal Aliens from Fuzhou in New York City ” .
Seven Days a Week, Fifteen Hours a Day
Although most of the Fuzhou people in New York City are illegal aliens, some are legal immigrants. Any illegal alien who manages to get a green card will usually immediately file immigration petitions for relatives back home.
After the Tian An Men affair in June 1989 the U.S. government issued a so-called “June Fourth Green Card” which in addition to benefiting graduate students from the PRC also enabled 40,000 illegal aliens to obtain permanent resident status. Over the last few years the U.S. government has given some people political asylum on the basis of China’s ‘one child policy’. People who got the right of U.S. permanent residence in this way are no different from other people who came illegally from Fuzhou. They merely had a good opportunity and good luck. Many people from Fuzhou in New York are angry at the ‘unfairness’ of U.S. government policy for just that reason.
Sixty-four year old Mr. Y and his 60 year old wife immigrated to the United States four years ago. Mrs. Y’s younger brother immigrated to the United States much earlier. He then filed an immigrant visa petition for his sister in 1980. Mr. Y and his wife waited patiently for ten years in their rural village in Changle County. Their two elder sons didn’t want to wait, so they entered the United States illegally before their parents immigrated legally to the United States. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Y two small children and a daughter with them to the United States. They left behind three married daughters in mainland China.
Mr. and Mrs. Y were farmers who tilled their fields and raised chickens. Before leaving China, they ‘returned their fields to the production brigade’ and canceled their household registration. Now Mr. and Mrs. Y work seven days a week. Mrs. Y is on the ‘front line’ of a Chinatown clothing factory. Mrs. Y cuts the threads off clothing which has already been sewn. This, the lowest job in the clothing factory, is reserved for old people. Worker are paid piecework. They get five to six cents for each item of clothing. Mrs. Y can finish ten pieces of clothing per hour so she gets $.70 or $.80 cents an hour. This is not even one-fifth of the legal minimum wage of $4.25.
Mrs. Y is very hardworking. She leaves home at 9 AM everyday and walks ten minutes to work. She comes home at midnight or 1 AM. ” Sometimes even three or four AM”, Mr. Y told me. She makes only a little over $10 or at the very most $20 for a fifteen hour working day.
Is Mr. Y Angry? Not at All
Mr. Y washes dishes in a restaurant six days a week. On his Mondays off he goes to the clothing factory to help his wife. He isn’t very fast, so Mr. Y can only make $5 or $6. I visited them one Monday evening after ten PM in the clothing factory. On the counter, the contrast between the big pile of this year’s fashionable pants and mini-skirts coated with a black, shiny surface and the Fuzhou couple was shocking. They looked like they had been working all day. Mrs. Y’s clothes were nearly coated with bits of thread.
Mr. Y doesn’t usually work as long as his wife does. He goes to work at eleven in the morning and goes home at midnight. On his way home he searches for rubber buckets in trash barrels. “After washing them out, I can sell them for $.25 each”, he says. This supplements the US$850 per month the couple earns. “I earned $950 per month before, but that was before taxes. I quit that job when my present boss told me the he would help with the tax payments. So I took this job, even though my income is $100 per month less. ” Mr. Y did this because this Spring his son was arrested because of his connection with a counterfeiting ring. Mr. Y needed to show a tax return in order to bail his son out of jail. My first boss said there isn’t any tax return. Was Mr. Y angry? No. “The manager is from my hometown. He asked his boss, but his boss said no, so the manager couldn’t do anything. “
Their four sons haven’t done well since coming to the United States. One of their sons joined a gang. He often goes to the airport to kidnap new arrivals from Fuzhou. He was caught two years ago and sent to prison. Another son was badly beaten by gang members. He hasn’t been able to work for a year and a half. The third son was arrested for counterfeiting. Only their little boy lives together with them. Their daughter works out-of- state and rarely comes home to see her parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Y live in Chinatown in what was originally a one bedroom apartment. Later on two more rooms were added. Three people can barely sit together in their combination living room/dining room. The old couple’s bedroom is as small as a closet. Just barely enough room to put a bunk bed. The old couple sleep in the top bunk, their boy sleeps in the bottom bunk. For this closet they pay 5350 per month. Several young people from their hometown live in the other two rooms. They all come and go at odd hours.
Mouse traps are on the kitchen floor. The bathroom is full of hanging clothes. There is no bath tub and no mirror. There is no even toilet paper. They use napkins brought back from the restaurant instead.
“But Everybody Lives this Way in America”
Mrs. Y can’t speak Mandarin Chinese. I have to ask Mr. Y to interpret for me so that I can communicate with her. “Why did you want to leave China?”, I asked her. ” Because my wife’s younger brother in the United States filed an immigrant petition for us. And the children all wanted to come. ” Mrs. Y nodded her head. ” Do you have a hard life in China? “, I asked. ” Life in China has gotten much, much better over the last few years. But the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. For people with no money like us, opportunities are few. China is a very unfair place. “, Mr. Y said.
I asked Mrs. Y, “Is live hard in America?” She showed me with gestures that her hands hurt terribly and she injured her leg, but she didn’t go see a physician. Mr. Y said, “I have never gotten over my cold. I just cough all the time. ” He doesn’t look well. Standing more than ten hours a day washing dishes is hard for a sixty-four year old man.
” Do you think about going back to China?’, I asked them. ” I’d like to go back. We will go back next year during the Chinese New Year. “, said Mr. Y. But Mrs. Y shook her head, and said a few words to her husband in Fuzhou dialect. “She says going back to China isn’t any good. We won’t be able to earn any money. She can earn several dozen renminbi in one day in America. “
Although her pay is far below the minimum wage, all Mrs. Y has to do is convert it in her head to renminbi and it becomes a princely sum. Therefore, although her hands ache and her foot is injured, Mrs. Y will go back and work endlessly for seven days a week.
“Why do you do this? “, I ask. But the old couple don’t seem to understand what I am asking. Mr. Y says, “But everybody lives like this in America. ” Of course this is true for the only part of America he knows.
The Sunless, Unventilated Sweatshop
One day I went with five investigators of the New York State Labor Department Garment Division to several garment factories in Brooklyn.
High rents forced the garment factories once located in Manhattan’s Chinatown to move to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Now more than 500 garment factories operate in the Sunset Park area. While many of the garment factories in Chinatown were in the upper stories of tall buildings, in Brooklyn the factories are often located in old garages. The work area is large but there aren’t any windows.
Chinatown garment factories have long been nicknamed ‘sweatshops’. People work there for ten hours a day in sunless, unventilated rooms. Workers even eat their lunch in the factory. The workers prepare the vegetables, the boss provides the rice. Food is kept in a rubber bag hung up near an ironing press to keep the food warm. Unlike Chinatown, transportation in suburban Brooklyn is inconvenient. If the boss didn’t drive them to work, the workers wouldn’t be able to get there.
The thread-particle filled air is very bad. The seamstresses made masks of fabric to put over their noses. Once they put on these masks, even the most attractive of women looks like a bear.
The chief is the only one among the five Labor Department investigators who doesn’t wear a uniform. Three of the investigators are Chinese, but the two of them from Hong Kong can’t speak Mandarin. Only a middle aged woman among the investigators speaks Mandarin. Her colleagues told me that this woman used to work in the Hong Kong garment district. Another investigator who speaks only Cantonese can’t be understood by anyone but her section chief. The workers don’t understand anything she says. The New York State Labor Department doesn’t have even one investigator who can speak Fuzhou dialect.
They go into one garment factory after another. After accompanying the inspectors to the first two or three factories, I felt disappointed. The inspectors check if the factory is registered. If the factory is registered, they don’t concern themselves with anything else, or at most check the emergency exit or check if children are working in the factory.
Importing Slaves in the Name of “Helping the Folks Back Home”
Finally, at our request, the section chief ordered the inspectors to talk with individual workers how long they worked each day, how much money they make and so on. There is a reason why the Labor Department doesn’t aggressively investigate the garment factories. “The main reason is that the Republican Party, which controls the State government, is friendly to industry.” , said the section chief. In other words, the government prefers to favor the bosses rather than to favor the workers. The section chief said, “Before, when the Democratic Party controlled the state government, we operated very differently.”
The investigators asked the workers a list of questions. When do you start work? How many days a week do you work? How many hours a day do you work? How long is your lunch break? How much money do you earn in a week? Except if the inspectors suspected a worker was under the age of eighteen, they inspectors didn’t do anything. They didn’t even check if the workers had work permits.
With the boss or an assistant standing next to them as they spoke to the inspectors, the workers were reluctant to say anything. Once the workers had told the inspectors how much they made and how many hours they worked, the inspector calculated their hourly wage. This wage usually fell below the minimum wage. But the inspectors didn’t press charges against the boss. In New York State, although violating the Labor Standards Law is “illegal” the authorities cannot move against an employers unless someone has pressed charges against the employer and then the case comes to the attention of the authorities. The labor inspectors “perform their investigation” but don’t tell workers the procedure they would need to go through in order to press charges so their visits to the factories don’t do any good.
I heard about the terrible conditions in the Chinatown garment factories only shortly after my arrival in New York City. Some of the garment factory bosses admitted to me privately that indeed, lending the snakehead fee to prospective illegal immigrants in the name of “helping the hometown people” was in fact just a way to import slaves. Workers are paid piecework. Only the fast, nimble hands of the younger seamstresses or iron operators had any chance of earning the minimum wage. Worker are often not paid their correct wages. Sometimes weeks or months without pay go by. The most tragic aspect of this is that the worse the boss is about paying workers on time, the harder they work. They fear that the plant will close, they will lose their job and with it the small income they have. This story often ends with the workers arriving one morning to find that the factory has been locked up and the boss has run away.
The day I accompanied the Labor Standards Bureau investigators on their ‘investigation’ the workers at one clothing factory said that they hadn’t been paid for two and a half weeks. The manager on the spot told the investigators that “The boss has gone to the bank to get the money. ” They waited an hour but the boss didn’t come back. The chief of the Labor Standards Bureau told the manager, ” We will come back before 5 PM to make sure that the workers have been paid. ” But that afternoon at 4:30 PM the chief told me that they were breaking up to go home. “We are civil servants. We don’t do overtime “.
Chinese Americans in Direct Competition with Chinese Workers
The Chinatown garment factories make the kind of high quality ‘Made in the USA’ clothing sold in the department stores on Fifth Avenue. However, the pay of garment industry workers has dropped sharply over the last few years. Some say this is because the PRC, which once specialized in making cheap clothing, has now moved into the high end of the U.S. clothing market. Salaries are so low in the PRC that even after transportation costs have been factored in, clothing made in mainland China is still cheaper that clothing “Made in the USA”. Chinese American factories are high tech and deliver the goods quickly. However, when the economy is slow, consumers look more at the price tag than at the quality of the clothing. Therefore the garment companies lower wages, telling their workers that if we can’t cut prices we will have to start using products made by your mainland Chinese compatriots. As a result the Chinese in America (including many illegal aliens) are competing directly with PRC workers.
An official responsible for the garment industry in the U.S. Department of Labor says that while garment factory bosses don’t observe labor laws, the bosses themselves are under much pressure. Therefore, the U.S. government has a new policy: Treat a product manufactured under illegal conditions as contraband and forbid its sales.
Nonetheless, working conditions in the ‘sweatshops’ are not improving. Two seventy-year old immigrants from Guangdong Province who have been seamstresses for twenty years told me, “Wages are getting lower all the time. The boss often doesn’t tell us what the piecework rate is. We only find out when he pays us. ” The two believe that the increasing number of illegal aliens partly accounts for this. ” Because there are so many workers, the boss is sure he can get his way. “
Several days after I accompanied the state labor inspectors, I got a call from the “Chinese Workers’ Association”. One of their members works at one of the garment factories I visited. When we met, the 40 year old woman told me, “With the boss standing right next to us, how could we dare tell the truth? Everything was just stories made up for the Labor Bureau..” She also said that the actual conditions in the garment factory are much worse than those that I had observed. In a law-abiding country like the United States, I can only say that conditions in the Chinese garment factories fully justify the name “sweatshops”.
Labor Disputes with Chinatown Characteristics
The Jing Fong Restaurant on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown is the biggest Chinese restaurant on the East Coast of the United States. The restaurant has seating for 1100 guests and employs 120 workers. Ever since the end of February 1995, a group of people demonstrate outside this restaurant several times a week, yelling the slogan “Stingy Jing Fong!!”
“Jinfeng management steals tips! Jing Fong workers on strike! “. The demonstrators, members of the Chinese Workers’ Association and their supporters, are attacking the illegal actions of the Jing Fong restaurant’s management.
Xu Guangdong, the organizer of the demonstration says, “U.S. law forbids management to confiscate tips. But in Chinatown, not only do all the managers share in the tips, they get a bigger share than the workers. The Jing Fong does this too. In the eyes of the law, they are thieves. We received an accusation from a Jing Fong employee asking that the manager of the Jing Fong return the tips to the workers. “
On the demonstrators placards are written “Enforce Labor Laws” and “Put an End to Slavery !”. To make their point they brandished a paper coffin.
In the Jing Fong Restaurant, manager Dong said, “They are professional troublemakers. They’ve already forced ten restaurants to close. Our workers all enjoy working at the Jing Fong Restaurant. Not one of them is participating in that demonstration. The labor union intimidates them. “
On March 23, some local people who supported the Jing Fong Restaurant against the labor union calling themselves the “Committee for the Promotion of the Economic Advancement of Chinese People” held a “Thousand Plate Dinner in Support of the Jing Fong Restaurant”. Nearly all the leaders of New York’s Overseas Chinese community took part — such a wide range of people in fact that it bridged the old left-right split in the New York Chinese community. Meanwhile, video monitors mounted outside the restaurant showed the progress of the dinner inside. A tape boomed a recording of ‘Descendants of the Dragon’ [tr. note: a popular patriotic Chinese song written by Taiwan’s Hou Dejian in 1978.]. Poster printed by the “Committee” bore a photo of Lin Song, chairman of the labor union, with the message “This is the face of the devil who wants to destroy the economic prosperity of our community. “
Clearly, this was a labor dispute ‘with Chinatown characteristics’. The workers held up a coffin, the bosses respond by calling them devils, even going so far as to call them ‘bandit workers’. Unprecedented was the use by capitalists under attack of the song ” Descendants of the Dragon” to emphasize that the Chinese community was in crisis.
Moreover, some of the Jing Fong management personnel organized their own counter-demonstration. On the afternoon of May 4th, the restaurant closed so that all the workers could participate in a demonstration against the assistance that Asian-American lawyers were providing to the labor union and the activities of the union itself. The leaders of the demonstration used loudspeakers — “Down with the bandit worker Lin Song” and “Down with his running dog Xu Guangdong”. It was almost as if the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution was being recreated in New York City.
“All We Ask is that the Restaurants Obey the Labor Laws”
If we compare who made the most noise, then we see that the people supporting the Jing Fong Restaurant were louder. Everyone, from the leaders of the Chinese community to the local Chinese language press was condemning the labor union. But if we look at who had justice on their side, the labor union’s case was much more persuasive. Nobody disputes the fact that the Chinatown, including the Jing Fong, violate U.S. labor laws. The restaurants do not pay the legally mandated minimum wage and management take tips.
“All we ask is that the restaurants obey the labor laws. This is a basic demand. Chinese workers should receive the same protection that all American workers receive” says Lin Song. What about being cursed as a devil? Ling Song laughed, saying “We go out and catch some devils, and we end up being the ones called devils! Isn’t that ironic? “
He also made the point that Chinatown restaurants are closing because of vicious competition. “The rents are always going up. The restaurant owners never ask that the rents be reduced — they just take the rent increase out of their workers’ pay. If they are determined to stay in business, why don’t they just get together and raise prices? ” Lin’s words make sense. Eating a bowl of noodles in Chinatown costs just $3. That’s cheaper than a restaurant meal in any other section of New York City. Low wages make low prices possible.
In fact, the wages of workers at the Jing Fong Restaurant are no lower than at other Chinatown restaurants. The Jing Fong Restaurant, as the “Biggest Chinese Restaurant on the East Coast”, has a symbolic value that makes it symbolic. The Jing Fong Restaurant workers don’t participate in the demonstration “because if they ever went outside with the demonstrators they would be fired and put on a black list. No restaurant in Chinatown would hire them. ” explained Xu Guangdong.
Lin Song believes that the decline in wages over the last few years is connected to the increasing numbers of illegal aliens. “The more illegal aliens there are, the larger will be the supply of cheap labor. If the boss knows that someone does not have legal immigrant status, the boss can control them. The illegal aliens can’t speak English, don’t understand American society, and can’t leave Chinatown. They have no legal status. Where can they go to get a job? ” The links between Chinatown organizations and organized crime are an open secret. Workers have every reason to be afraid.
Low Wages are Related to the Increase in the Numbers of Illegal Aliens
The Chinese language press depends on advertising to survive, so naturally it dare not offend the rich. As a result, articles in the Chinese language press generally reflect the views of the bosses or their supporters. Articles by workers almost never appear.
When I asked workers at the Jing Fong Restaurant about the labor dispute, nearly all said “I am very happy to work here” and “The demonstrations are bad”. However, when I asked them the same questions late at night as they made their way home, they had different answers. “Of course we are low paid. But if I don’t do what the boss says, I won’t have a job tomorrow. If that happens, I will have no money at all. So, if the boss wants us to join a demonstration for the company, well, we do it. “
An old man, a dishwasher at the Jing Fong, said ” In Mainland China I never took part in a demonstration. I never imagined that when after I came to America I would pick up a sign and join in a demonstration. But the sign is written in English and I don’t know what it means. “
Most people think that the labor union is right but don’t agree with their parading in the streets with a coffin. “We’re all Chinese. That’s going too far! ” The community people who supported the Jing Fong often pointed this out in their criticism of the labor union. The labor union newsletter, “The Worker’s Voice”, printed an article “What does the Coffin in Front of the Jing Fong Restaurant Represent? ” According to the article The low wage slave systems promoted by the Jing Fong Restaurant is a mixture of corrupt feudal remnants and a totalitarian system… we must put this system in its coffin. “
The day the Jing Fong ‘workers’ demonstrated, I walked with them for two hours. Many non-Chinese who came across the group were astonished to see Chinese demonstrators. “What are you doing? ” they were asked many times in English. But not one of the demonstrators was able to tell the non-Chinese people what was going on. I am sure that none of those ” Yankees ” had any idea that this was a demonstration organized by the boss against labor leaders.
The Fuzhou People, Not the Cantonese, Now Dominate Chinatown
Fuzhou associations often hold banquets in the Yidong Restaurant on Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. This year’s banquet was to “Give a Warm Send-Off to Ambassador Li Zhaoxing who is returning to China to Become Honorary Vice Foreign Minister of China and to Warmly Welcome Ambassador Mei Ping to New York to Take Up the Post of Consul General”. On the podium were the U.S. flag and the five star red flag of the PRC.
Mei Ping, who had just flown into New York from the West Coast, said “I can’t speak Cantonese. I’m from Shanghai, myself. ” The audience laughed. Not because he was being funny, but because their speaker didn’t realize that most of the audience was from Fuzhou. The letter of invitation merely said the New York XXX Chinese Association” and there was no mention that this was an association of people from the Fuzhou region.
New York’s Chinatown was once dominated by the Cantonese. But with the arrival of more and more illegal aliens, the strength of people from the Fuzhou region has steadily increased. In addition to the old timer’s Fuzhou Countryman’s Association, there is the Fuzhou Office representing the new generation of Fuzhou people that just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Even newer are organizations like the Fuzhou – America Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The PRC flag and national anthem are prominent elements at events sponsored by these organizations. Every October First, when the PRC celebrates its National Day, the publications of these organizations are filled with photos of Overseas Chinese leaders together with PRC representatives in the United States. Chinatown leaders send congratulatory telegrams to the Chinese government, Fujian Provincial government and down to Communist Party cadres in the ‘homeland of the illegal aliens” such as the Lianjiang County Magistrate and the Secretary of the Changrong City Party Committee.
Now that the PRC is promoting “the socialist market economy” these apparent signs of communist sympathies are entirely illusory. No communist sympathies are involved — what they have in mind is the enormous Chinese market. In fact, there hometowns in Fuzhou welcome investments from Overseas Chinese in the United States. The saying ” Economics makes for strong ties” in the way the Left and the Right — long at odds in the Chinese community — came together to oppose the workers’ movement during the labor dispute.
I noticed that nearly all the prominent leaders in the New York Fuzhou community had lived for a time in Hong Kong. They came to the United States two or three decades ago to set up family-operated Chinese restaurants. Later they built clothing factories and big restaurants and then gradually moved into other fields such as travel, insurance, and real estate. Now they are investing their American earnings in their Fuzhou hometowns.
New York’s Fuzhou Chinese Community
These Fuzhou Overseas Chinese leaders don’t enjoy talking about the illegal immigrant problem. One man who runs several companies of his own told me, ” Who says that ten people live in a single apartment’? I haven’t seen it. ” I told him how the Fuzhou Chinese poor live in New York City. He wrote the word “Respect for work and happiness in work” on a piece of paper and then told me, “We started as workers in a restaurant too and slowly moved our way up. We still work more than ten hours a day. If you say that the people in Chinatown are slaves, then I am a slave too. Everyone is like this in America, don’t you see?”
The leaders of the Chinese community are also bosses so they can’t side with the workers, even workers from their hometown.
What separates them from the illegal aliens of the 1990s is that most of them came from Hong Kong and so their personal and business circumstances were better in many ways. Moreover, the America they moved to allowed them to realize their immigrant dream. No matter what their circumstances were when they arrived in the United States, none of them had to start out with a burden of debt equivalent to three years income.
As leaders of their community organizations, these bosses do help people from their hometowns. For example, “the Health Department fined a restaurant. The restaurant owner can’t speak English. I went over to the Health Department right away and told them the restaurant owner doesn’t know the health regulations and didn’t violate the regulations intentionally. The Health Department immediately reduced the fine, and let the incident pass. “
However, when the illegal aliens need someone to speak up for them to the American authorities, they certainly can’t go to these community leaders to ask for help. They go instead to the ” immigration services company” and pay for service. Many people in Chinatown earn the money of the illegal aliens — the landlords who charge high rents, the bosses who employ cheap labor, the employment agencies and the immigration service companies.
Needless to say, Fuzhou people normally spend all their money in Chinatown. Recently all the Chinese restaurants have hired Fuzhou managers in order to get more business from Fuzhou people. Although most Fuzhou people have a low standard of living, but the Fuzhou people spend more on weddings than anyone else. The bridal shops in Chinatown all depend on business from the Fuzhou people. The Bank of China branch on Broadway transfers money earned by the Fuzhou people to the PRC. Illegal aliens earn foreign exchange for the PRC and give business to the Bank of China.
All these people, even if they are not from Fuzhou, are Chinese. Some people criticize the absurdity of U.S. immigration policy, the incompetence of the Labor Bureau, and the prejudice of mainstream U.S. society that the Chinese are “voluntary slaves”. All this is true. But the reality that we see in New York’s Chinatown is that the people who cheat Chinese people the most, the people who have no sympathy at all for the Chinese, are often Chinese themselves.
[End of Part 3]
Nineties (Hong Kong) October 1995 pp. 90 – 95
The Snake Road — Fuzhou to Hong Kong to New York (Part four)
by Arai Hitbmi
The Golden Venture was the most best-known incident involving the mass smuggling of Chinese aliens into the United States. More than two hundred Golden Venture passengers are in detention throughout the United States. I went to the Manhattan Detention Center to visit Mr. F, who has spent two years in prison nearly in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. He hasn’t seen the sun for two years. Now he has decided to go back to China.
(Editor’s Note: This is he fourth in a series of reports Arai Hifumi has written on the illegal smuggling of Fuzhou people into the United States. The series concludes in the next issue of Nineties.)
Visiting an Illegal Alien in an American Detention Center
“I saw the lights on shore, took off my clothes, and jumped into the water. The water was very cold and I swallowed a few mouthfuls of water. I was so afraid that I was going to die. All I wanted was to live. I just couldn’t die at that moment. I swam for thirty or forty minutes and finally made it ashore. I thought, ‘now my life will be different’. But I never imagined that this could happen to me! “
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center is on the fourth floor of the Federal Building in lower Manhattan, not far from New York University. Mr. F from Fuzhou, 27 years old, has now lived there for two whole years. He was one of the 286 passengers on the Golden Venture which ran aground near New York City on June 6, 1993.
The ‘Golden Venture’ was the best-known incident involving the smuggling of large numbers of Chinese illegal aliens into the United States. Ten passengers on the ‘Golden Venture’ died trying to make it ashore. Although public opinion has forgotten this incident, once a worldwide sensation, but for most of the passengers on the ‘Golden Venture’ the incident is not yet over. As of June, 1995, only thirty passengers had been given political asylum. Forty-five others were released for humanitarian reasons. More than two hundred others are, like Mr. F, being held in detention centers throughout the United States.
At the time I visited the INS detention center in Manhattan, eight Chinese were being held there. All were men who had arrived on the ‘Golden Venture’. The rules for visiting people in detention and the conditions in the detention center vary from detention center to detention center.
The Manhattan detention center, relatively ‘open’, allows outside visitors to see the detainees every weekday afternoon.
Nonetheless, security measures at the detention center are fairly strict. The visitor first registers downstairs, then passes through a security checkpoint much like those at airports. Once the visitor arrives on the fourth floor, all the items the visitor is carrying such as wallet, money and passport are put in a small closet which is then locked by a detention center worker. The visitor tells the worker the name and nationality of the detainee to be seen. Then the visitor passes through the security checkpoint once more, registers again, and then enters a waiting room.
Not even a newspaper may be brought in from the outside. The detention center workers will accept only underwear and cigarettes for the detainees. The first time I went to the detention center was on a Monday and the center was especially busy. Spanish was the language I heard most often in the waiting room. Those people were immigrants from Central and South America. There were many black people as well. The detention center workers were all black people.
After I had waited for about an hour, a detention center worker called Mr. F’s name. I got up and went to the meeting room. The room, about the size of an ordinary classroom, had power blue walls and about ten small chairs and desks. Detainees wearing brown uniforms chatted with friends and relatives.
Four Years Spent Getting to America
Mr. F stood to shake hands with me. He is not tall, but is solidly built, with gray skin and long hair like woman. I later learned that his skin was gray because he had not once seen the sun during his two years detention. He wore his hair long as a souvenir of the long days in detention. His good physical condition were the result of daily workouts in the exercise room.
“There are all kinds of people here. Some of the black people and the Spanish people [meaning people from Central and South America) are very mean. I am small. If I don’t exercise, people will pick on me”.
The detention center is different from a jail. There are two types of inmates. The first, like Mr. F, are illegal aliens whose cases have not been decided yet. The second type are people waiting for a hearing before an immigration judge. No matter what the category, spending two years in immigration detention is extremely unusual. Ordinary illegal aliens, once arrested, can ask to be released on bail. For the passengers of the ‘Golden Venture’ however, the U.S. government did not permit bail. Some people say that by not allowing bail, the U.S. government politicized thc ‘Golden Venture’ case or was ‘making an example’ of them in order to deter other Chinese from coming to the United States illegally.
Mr. F has spent two years living in a concrete box with fifty criminals. Mr. F told me however, that since he spent two years on the long road from Fuzhou to America, it has actually been four years since he left home. He set out from Fuzhou to Yunnan Province, crossed the mountains into Burma on foot, and then flew from Thailand to Europe. “I had bad luck so I got caught” said Mr. F of his four months in an Austrian jail. He was returned to China through Poland. Yet still he was not discouraged. He spent little more than a week at home before setting out again. He again crossed the mountains into Burma. This time Lady Luck sent him to Kenya in Africa. After waiting for six months in Kenya, he boarded the Golden Venture as it set out for New York.
“Why did you want to leave for New York?’ I asked Mr. F.
He answered, “Our hometown is full of overseas Chinese. Nearly every single family has someone overseas. Some come home to build great big houses. Everyone thinks America is full of gold. I too was caught up in this widely held belief too. Before I was an electrician and did repairs. I didn’t think my prospects were very good, so I decided to go to America to try my luck. My elder sister’s husband, my uncle and many other members of my family were already in New York. “
Mr. W Had Better Luck
During these two years in the detention center, Mr. F’s request for political asylum has been turned down three times. If the next lawsuit fails as well, the next step would be the U.S. Supreme Court. All eight of the Golden Venture detainees in the Manhattan Detention Center are in the same situation.
“That day when I got to shore, I heard police sirens but didn’t run away. People had told me before that illegal aliens are not arrested in the United States, and that if illegal aliens are caught, they are released right away. In fact, I should have run.” said Mr. F.
One of Mr. F’s old comrades, Mr. W is one of the thirty passengers on the Golden Venture who come from Wenzhou. Mr. W got refugee status for humanitarian reasons. I went to visit Mr. W at his home in the New York suburb of Flushing. When I arrived one Sunday, Mr. W and his wife had just returned from doing their laundry. The couple, still not yet thirty, had come to the United States by different routes. Mrs. W had left behind her husband and eight year old daughter to go with her brother to Yunnan Province where they climbed mountains to get across the border. Once she had settled down into a new life as an seamstress in New York, she sent for Mr. W.
Mrs. W told me, “The day before the ship got to New York City, I got a telephone call from a snakehead. Who could ever guess that when I went to work the next day everyone would be talking about an alien smuggler’s ship that had run aground. I was very worried. I didn’t know what to do. “
Later, when Mr. W was being held in a detention center in Virginia, Mrs. W went to visit him. The immigration judge was moved, and ordered that Mr. W be transferred to Manhattan INS Detention Center. The ‘humanitarian grounds’ that got Mr. W released was that he had been injured on the ship and that because he did not get immediate medical attention, one of his feet had shrunk considerably.
Today, Mr. and Mrs. W, Mrs. W’s younger brother and his wife, and another person from their hometown live together in a three bedroom apartment. Simple but spacious, the living room has a color television, VCR, CD component system and other equipment purchased by Mrs. W from her earnings.
Mr. W works in the same clothing factory as his wife. Their first goal is to pay off the alien smuggler (Golden Venture passengers who have been released are still obliged to pay their debt to the alien smuggler). They are also doing the paperwork for their daughter to immigrate to the United States.
There is no great difference between Mr. W and Mr. F. Mr. W who was able to get legal resident status and will now shortly be joined by his daughter to start a new life with his family of three in New York was just luckier than his comrades on the Golden Venture. That’s all.
“l’m Scared of Jail and Scared of Waiting” — Morale Gets Worse Each Day
Meanwhile in the Manhattan INS Detention Center, the morale of Mr. F and his seven comrades falls with each passing day. They all say, in one way or another “I’m scared of jail and scared of waiting”.
In the early days of their confinement in the detention center, the Chinese detainees found everything unfamiliar — down to the western food they had at mealtime. Moreover, since they were often picked on because they couldn’t speak English. After some time had passed, Mr. F learned a fair amount of English on his own. I was amazed as I watched him communicate in English with the black guards. Among the people from Fuzhou I had met in Chinatown, almost nobody could speak English as well as Mr. F. Mr. F is a clever man. The ironic thing about the whole situation was that although Mr. F had never left the detention center, he had had much more contact with American society than the illegal aliens who live in Chinatown. Moreover, the Chinese newspapers in the detention center helped Mr. F and the other detainees understand what was going on in American society and in Chinatown.
Mr. F, except for earning a dollar by working in the kitchen, had the rest of the time for himself. He spent his time reading his newspaper, exercising, playing ping-pong and other activities. He had a lot of time left for to think. His own situation gradually reduced his faith in the American system. “What is democracy, rule by law and freedom? I don’t believe in it. If it were true, why are other people being released and I can’t be released?” asked Mr. F.
Ever since the U.S. government changed its policy towards illegal aliens in early 1995, some of the Golden Venture passengers have given up hope on remaining in the United States. One by one, they have started the procedure to give up their cases and request repatriation to China. Golden Venture passengers kept in detention throughout the United States have been exchanging news. As a result, three of the Chinese being held at the Manhattan INS Detention Center decided in mid April to return to China. Ever since, Mr. F has been unable to hide his uncertainty.
” My family asked me to go home. “, Mr. F said. At home live his parents, his wife, and his son who is not yet five years old. “I left after we had been married just two years. My greatest regret is that through all these years I haven’t been able to watch my son grow. ” From the detention center, Mr. F can only make collect calls (including calls within New York City). Once he reached his family with the help of an acquaintance in Hong Kong who made the extra connection into the PRC. Except for that one time, he has only been able to stay in touch with his family by writing letters. “I am a foolish person. Sometimes I even write letters to my son, even though he is too small to read. I hope that he will be able to read the letters some day and understand the way I feel. “
Mr. F has guilty feelings when he thinks about his wife and parents. “I know they are worried about me. I want to write a letter that will reassure them. But I feel that I can’t do it. I want to write them a letter but I just can’t do it. That is when I feel saddest. ” said Mr. F.
Live in the detention center has set Mr. F to thinking about himself. ‘Now when I look back, I realize I was very naive. Everybody wants to go to America, so I go too. I never imagined that the price of being an illegal immigrant could be so high. I have wasted four years of my life. If I had stayed home in China, I might even have been able to set myself up in business by now. In fact, China isn’t such a bad place to live nowadays. The economy is growing fast and there is some opportunity. Compared with that prospect, what would life in America be like? If I get out, I will go work in Chinatown for US$1000 per month. It will take me several years to pay off just my debt to the snakeheads. I wouldn’t be able to see my family for more than ten years. ! “
Those Who Chose Voluntary Repatriation Still Have Money Problems
When I went to see Mr. F again at the end of April, 1995 he told me, “I’ve decided to go back. I told the lawyer yesterday. I am not going to wait for the results of the appeal.” An illegal immigrant who returns to China must pay a 15,000 RMB (renminbi) fine. Now that he has corresponded with his father about it, Mr. F is sure his family can afford to pay the fine. ” If I pay the fine, the government will release me. I don’t have any political problem. “
These last two years Mr. F has been trying to persuade the U-S- government to accept his petition for political asylum based on China’s one child policy. Now he tells me, “Our generation of Chinese don’t want many children. One child is enough for me. ” Applying for political asylum is supposed to a serious ‘political act’. However, at this stage, Mr. F straightforwardly denied that he came to the United States for a political reason. In fact, most of the people from Fuzhou who come to the United States come as economic migrants not as political refugees.
Mr. F told me earlier, that in addition to his debt to the snakehead, he has yet another debt. He spent US$15,000 on his way to the United States. After returning to China, he of course will not owe the snakehead anything but he will still have to repay US $15,000. When he had paid the US $15,000, he expected that he would be able to pay it back gradually from his earnings in the United States. Now that his attempt to immigrate illegally to the U.S. has failed, it will be very difficult to earn such a large sum in China. I know that it was very difficult for Mr. F to make the decision to return to China, so I didn’t bring up the problem of the additional debt. He left China to earn money; now he is returning to China with a big money problem.
Mr. F’s comrade, Mr. J is over forty years old. He originally raised cattle on a small island near the mouth of the Minjiang River. He called himself an ordinary Chinese peasant. He has a wife and four children. His family’s situation has deteriorated since he left home. The family of five depends on the money his wife makes weaving straw hats for its living. Mr. J just got a letter from home that his little boy will have to stop going to school because of the family’s money problems. He can’t decide whether or not to go back to China. I am sure that his indecision stems from his family’s troubles. Mr. J has grown much more white hair these last two years.
Keeping People in Confinement for a Long Time is Inhumane, But Releasing Them is No Better
The Golden Venture passengers were at first confident that America would accept them. In fact, for several years before the arrival of the Golden Venture the U.S. government did grant many applications for political asylum based on China’s one child policy. But things are different now. There are more and more illegal aliens in Chinatown who didn’t get resident status under false pretenses as refugees. The Golden Venture passengers were treated differently — they couldn’t enter America but they didn’t leave either.
Mr. D, 33 years old, is another Chinese at the detention center. His application for political asylum states that his wife, after having had two children, was forced to have an abortion after becoming pregnant for a third time and that his father’s house was damaged by the authorities. I don’t know whether this is true but what I do know that political asylum is the only route through which ordinary Chinese people can get permission to stay in the United states.
Mr. D’s application has already been denied twice. He doesn’t have much confidence in the United States. But his American lawyer told him that he mustn’t give up hope. This American lawyer used to teach English in Guangzhou and speaks fairly good Mandarin Chinese. He is in contact with his congressman and with human rights organizations to help get Mr. D the right to reside in the United States.
Once I ran into this lawyer in the detention center waiting room. With him were two American Roman Catholics who opposed China’s one child policy on the grounds of their reverence for human life. They want the U.S. government to give political asylum to the Golden Venture passengers. “As an American, I feel ashamed. They came to the United States at the risk of their lives to escape an inhumane government because they believed that the United States is the land of democracy and freedom. But as soon as they came ashore they were detained and have already been held for two years. This is very inhumane. ” Therefore they were paying the lawyer’s fees so that the lawyer could work full time on Mr. D’s case.
The sincerity of the religious convictions of these people is evident. My own feelings were more complicated. If we set aside for a moment the question of whether or not Mr. D’s application for political asylum is well-founded, the church too has its political ax to grind. They want to ban abortion so Mr. D’s case works to their advantage. In other words, although holding the Chinese in detention for such a long time is inhumane, what the reality which awaits them outside isn’t really more humane.
I asked the two religious people: “Do you know that illegal aliens like these people are released they will immediately owe the snakehead alien smuggler US$30,000? In Chinatown it is very hard to earn even the minimum legal wage. They live together ten people to an apartment and go out to work over ten hours every day. Did you know that?” They looked at me in astonishment, “Do things like that go on?”
Mr. F Finally Leaves New York
Knowing that life in Chinatown is very cruel, I was happy to hear the Mr. F had decided to return to China. I heard that he wanted an address book to write down the addresses of his comrades at the detention center, so I bought him a ‘Made in China’ telephone address book in a stationary store — New York stationary stores address books are all ‘Made in China’ — and smuggled it into the detention center in the back pocket of my pants to give to him.
Mr. F looked defeated. His face didn’t look good at all. He was a lot thinner too. “I finally realized that going back is best. “, he said. But he still wasn’t at peace. While he waited for the U.S. INS to repatriate him to China, he couldn’t help feeling the full gamut of emotions as he reflected on his past and his future. A few days before he had gotten in a fight with a black man over some small matter. As a result he had been put into solitary confinement — in detention center slang he had been “put on the bus”.
I asked him, “What will you do when you get back to China? ” “The first thing I will do is pay a lot of attention to my wife. We will need to rebuild our relationship. Next, I want to start my own business. When I get back home, I see what kind of business I should get into. ” I asked him, “Will you try to come back?” Mr. F just made a bitter laugh and nodded his head.
May 12, 1995 was the last day I saw him. The INS had planed to transfer him to the New Orleans detention center on May 1 and then on to a few other place before taking him to California for his flight with other illegal aliens back to China. But on that day there was heavy rain and a flood in New Orleans so the airport was closed. Mr. F had to wait a few more days in Manhattan.
“Now that I’m going, I want to get out of here soon! “, Mr. F said. These last four years his life had revolved around waiting. “After I get back to China, you come for a visit, OK? ” Mr. F wrote his address near Fuzhou City on a piece of paper for me. Once he had had dreams of America and set out on the smugglers’ road. But spending two years in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty he hadn’t seen the American sun even once. Now that he was ready to leave, cloudy skies and rain delayed his departure.
I heard later that Mr. F left New York on May 18. Now only four passengers from the Golden Venture remained in the Manhattan INS Detention Center.
Your Hopes Don’t Die Until You Hit New York
I left New York myself on May 15 and got back to Hong Kong on the evening of May 16. For someone like myself who has legal traffic documents crossing the Pacific on the long trip back takes only a little over twenty hours.
I thought about ‘Younger Cousin’, the nineteen year old illegal immigrant I had met in New York. He couldn’t understand how I had come to America. ” Do you come as an illegal immigrant too?” he had asked me directly on our first meeting. Seeing me shake my head in surprise, he continued, ” But you are an immigrant, aren’t you? ” In his mind, people who ‘go abroad on tourism’ just don’t exist because that has never been an option in his own life. Moreover, in his hometown, illegal immigration is a matter of course. Only people who are luckier or are in better circumstances can immigrate.
When I got back to Hong Kong, I went back to see the snakehead Mr. P. He said that lately there has been a lot of pressure from the U.S. government. A certain consulate in Hong Kong had ordered that every visa given to bearers of PRC passports be verified. As a result three of Mr. P’s customers weren’t able to leave Hong Kong.
Two women, one man, all under twenty passed the Hong Kong border carrying only a travel bag. Not daring to show themselves on the street, they spent the entire day in their rooms watching television. This time, for safety’s sake, Mr. P put them up in private homes. They told him that many of their classmates had already gone to New York and there was no work back home. “Of course its better to stay home. Fuzhou is becoming very developed. But we have relatives in America and we want to see what the West is like! ” one naive girl told me.
I asked her if she knew what life was like in America. She said, “They’ll let me do work-study in America. In the clothing factory I’ll be paid according to how hard I work. ” “According to how hard I work! !” I hadn’t heard people use those words for years. ” In America they call it ‘piecework’… ” I told her, and then, I thought to myself, should I tell her about the terrible conditions I had seen in New York City, and urge her not to go there?
In my mind floated the image of the women working over ten hours every day in a windowless clothing factory and images of Fuzhou women who work in massage parlors — and that happens to people who have a smooth trip to New York. For others not so lucky — they could end up confined to an INS Detention Center like Mr. F.
But the three young people before me were very naive, relaxed and not at all concerned about the cruel fate which awaited them. I remembered what an illegal alien had told me in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “If I had only known, I would never have come to America. But even if some had told me beforehand, I would never have believed them. ” The group sitting around the man had all nodded in agreement. In other words, your hope don’t die until you hit New York.
I had planned to end this series here. But after meeting so many illegal aliens in Hong Kong and New York, I came to be more and more firmly convinced that I need to go to their Fuzhou homeland. I needed to see just what kind of place it is, the kind of life people lived there and just what the people left behind think.
Fortunately I had several home addresses of the illegal aliens I had met. In late June 1995, I went to the starting point of the “Snakehead Road” in Fuzhou in order to write the last article in this series. From the map I know that Fuzhou City, which lies at the western side of the Taiwan straits, is only 750 kilometers or about an hour by plane from Hong Kong.
[End of Part Four]
The Nineties November 1995, pp. 69 – 75
Coming to Fuzhou, Hometown of the Fujianese Illegal Immigrants (literally ‘the human snakes’) The Snake Road: Fuzhou — Hong Kong — New York (Part. 5 — Conclusion)
by Arai Hifumi
Officials at the US INS and Labor Department have all heard of Fujian since tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Fujian Province, China have flooded into Manhattan over the last several years. Actually by far the greatest proportion of the Fujianese come from the area around Fuzhou City. Only a few come from Fuzhou City itself; most are from the neighboring counties of Lianjiang, Changle, and Fuqing. These three counties, among the nine counties which comprise the Fuzhou Municipal District, are stretched out along the seacoast. Only one or two hours by car from Fuzhou City proper, these coastal counties have a long tradition of immigration. Living standards are higher than in the mountain districts of Fujian Province.
Going to Fuzhou to Visit the Families of Illegal Aliens
Only 194 kilometers separate Maweigang in the suburbs of Fuzhou City from Keelung on the far side of the Taiwan straits. The straits are narrower here than they are at Xiamen (Amoy) to the south or Wenzhou to the north. “We used to go to Taiwan all the time” an elderly Fuzhou man told me. That was before 1949. Before 1949 the sea tied coastal Fujian to the entire world. After 1949 the sea changed into a barrier separating Fujian from the world. Most recently these seas saw PLA military exercises.
Today daily flights between Fuzhou and Hong Kong serve businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan. One afternoon in late June, I took a China Eastern Airlines flight to Fuzhou. The plane arrived in that coastal open city in one hour. I went to Fuzhou to visit the families of illegal aliens I had met in New York City.
Next to me on the airplane to Fuzhou sat an overseas Chinese from Brazil. Born and raised in Taiwan, he had never been to Mainland China. For this trip to visit his brother, he had set up a factory in Fuzhou, he left his Rolex watch and gold ring with relatives in Hong Kong. Because “I’ve heard that there is a lot of crime in the Mainland”. He gazed at the airline food sitting on the tray before us and asked me anxiously ” Is China a very backward place?” I reassured him saying, ” It’s much better than before “.
Once I got off the plane, I realized that I had been too optimistic. When we got off the plane and headed right into the immigration office, the first thing I saw was a quarantine station with a white-uniformed nurse and a big sign “Blood Tests”. The foreigners were all scared to death. Fortunately, the white-clad angel did not ask us for any blood samples.
Getting through customs was easy: customs didn’t open any suitcases. The airport had no information window and no one manned the foreign exchange window. No taxi information was available either.
“Miss, do you want a cab? ” a young fellow asked me. He told me that a cab to the city costs RMB 50. As soon as we had stepped outside the building, he hailed a cab and asked the driver for RMB 15. When I got in the cab, the taxi driver told me, “The next time you come you should leave the building and then look for me. We are not allowed inside. That fellow made an easy RMB 15. ” Actually, a cab to Fuzhou costs just RMB 15.
Fuzhou, like other Chinese coastal cities, is one vast construction site. Buildings are being torn down as new buildings are going up and new roads are being built everywhere. There were many big hotels, dance halls, Kara OK singalong bars. There were even more construction workers in tattered clothing. Ten years ago I visited Fuzhou City; it had changed beyond recognition. The only thing that I remembered from before was the big statue of Mao Tsetung on May 1 Plaza. The only differences are: now there is a big Coca Cola sign behind his back and the May 1 Market as this feet.
My hotel, the Huaqiao Fandian, was inexpensive and clean. The key to each room is kept at the service desk on each floor. Anyone wishing to make a long distance call needs to inform the service desk in advance. Fuzhou is just 750 kilometers from Hong Kong, but I had arrived in another world.
A Fuzhou City Intellectual is Transformed Into a Snakehead
The next day I visited relatives of two Chinese who had gone to the U.S. illegally. I visited the parents of 33 year old Mr. L. Mr. L is one of the very few illegal aliens who came from Fuzhou City proper as well as being the only university student. Mr. L left Fuzhou city about a year ago, reaching the U.S. by way of Hong Kong. When I visited Mr. L, he was working off his debt [money owed to snakeheads for smuggling him to the U.S.] by working for snakeheads in New York City. For an illegal alien trying to make a living in the American economic slump, working for the snakeheads is a shortcut to success.
‘ Mr. L’s parents live near the railroad station. The already retired old couple live with a helper from Jiangxi Province in a three bedroom apartment furnished by their state work unit. They appear comfortable: in their apartment is a telephone, color television, and refrigerator.
But Mr. L says “Our house is no good. Other people spent a few tens of thousands of RMB to rebuild their houses to make them beautiful. “. Mrs. L said, “We can’t afford air conditioning. Where would we ever find RMB 3000 for that? We’ll have to wait until our son gets rich. “
In today’s China, wealth and poverty are judged by far different standards than they were a decade ago. The old couple don’t have to worry about eating or staying warm, but a higher standard of living is beyond their reach. This is a family which, although well-fed and adequately clothed, still lives in relative poverty.
I took a look at Mr. L’s old bedroom. On his old study desk were two pictures which Mr. L had sent home from America. One picture was taken in Hong Kong Qianshui district when he was on his way to the U.S. The other picture is Mr. L in a suit at the World Trade Center shaking hands with a cardboard cutout of President Clinton.
The elder Mr. L is well-educated; he had been the editor of a party newspaper. When he spoke of his son in the U.S. he avoided using the world “alien smuggling” [toudu].
” My son had an iron rice bowl (secure job) and his unit sent him to study computers at a university in Shanghai. But young people today are ambitious. Last year he went to Moscow with my son-in-law. He said it was for business, but it didn’t work out. Upon his return he didn’t give up, saying that he wanted to go to the United States. I didn’t know it that was really possible. But my son is already grown, and his father opposing him on this would have been no use. “
Of Course Life in Foreign Countries is Better
Mr. L’s mother is from a farm family in Changle County. Members of her family have been going to the U.S. for many years. More than likely a relative on his mother’s side of the family lent Mr. L the money for his trip.
Mr. L said ” Now that he is in the U.S., he will work hard, get his green card and then come back. I don’t expect to see him for another six or seven years. “
Mr. L is already married and has a daughter. Mr. L’s wife and daughter live on the southern side of Fuzhou City. They visit the grandparents from time to time.
I remember one time in a Chinese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, how Mr. L had too much to drink one day and said, “How can you understand the pain we Fujianese feel? We have an economic burden, a language barrier, no identity, are looked down on and can’t see our families for years and years! “
But Mr. L asked me very little about how his son was doing in the U.S. I didn’t know either whether I should tell them the whole story. Just as I was thinking about his, the mailman arrived with a letter from Mr. L in America. After he had read the letter, Mr. L took off his glasses and told me, “My son says he already found a new job in Atlantic City “.
Gambling is the only industry in Atlantic City. I don’t know whether that means that Mr. L has washed his hands of the snakeheads or whether he is getting in even deeper into an evil business.
Mr. L’s mother has cancer and has already had four operations. Certainly this elderly lady feels lonely and would like to have her only son at her side. Does she want her son to return?
She shook her said, saying in a definite tone, ” No. I don’t want him to return. Life overseas is certainly better than life in China. Foreigners people have culture; Chinese have a poor moral character. Chinese are very vulgar people. “
After leaving Mr. L’s family, I rode the bus to Lianjiaug County to visit the family of Mr. F who had been a passenger on the “Golden Venture”. Mr. F had already decided in mid May to voluntarily leave the INS detention center in Manhattan. But he was still being processed for deportation and hadn’t yet arrived home.
Ninety Percent of the Men Have Left the Country
During the bus trip from the center of Fuzhou City to the Mawei Economic and Technology Development Zone I saw many factories being built by foreign investors. We continued north along the Min River. On our left was the Stone Mountain, on our right green rice fields. Behind us was the coffee colored Min River. The rice fields, wedged in as they were between the mountains and the river, were actually quite small. I thought of how many illegal aliens from Fujian told me “My hometown is too small! “.
The road between Mawei and Lianjiang was being widened and so was uneven and difficult. The bus driver was careless as well. I held onto the side of the window and curled up to protect myself from the shocks. If I hadn’t I might have been injured.
After an hour the bus finally reached the mouth of the Min River and drove into the very last township before Lianjiang County. This little township is Mr. F’s hometown.
As we entered the town, I had the feeling I was entering a different age or had stepped into an old movie. Although this township is just a few dozen kilometers from Fuzhou City, life here is clearly rural, not urban, and belongs to the past.
Mr. F’s wife is from a rural village. She didn’t know what to do after I sat down with here. She suddenly began washing her long hair. She said that the road repair workers had damaged the pipes so now the family has no running water. They have to get water from outside.
I sat by myself in the room. Two children were playing. One was Mr. F’s five year old son; the other was elder sister’s daughter. Children in the countryside don’t go to nursery school and so can’t speak Maudarin. The walls and the floor are made of dried mud. Apart from the refrigerator and coal stove, there was only a table and a few chairs in the room.
After Mrs. F had finished washing her hair, she went inside to call her father-in-law. Mr. F’s father is over 50 years old but looks much younger. Ever since Mr. F left four years ago, the senior Mr. F, a slaughterer of pigs, has supported a family of five: his wife, his daughter, his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. Since slaughtering pigs is night work, he rests at home during the day. Soon, Mr. F’s mother, a plump middle-aged woman, came home.
Supper in the countryside starts early. We began to eat at five. On the table were dishes prepared by the daughter-in-law: various small fish, snails, and vegetables. They ate an amazing amount of rice gruel (xifan). The women and children ate big bowls of it.
Mr. F’s father poured beer for himself and I and started talking about his son. Mr. F had failed twice in two attempts to immigrate illegally within the last four years. Now after two years in the INS detention center he had applied for voluntary departure. The men and women in the family had very different views about his decision to return home.
Mr. F’s father and his younger brother, who returned home shortly after supper began, both say that the Golden Adventurer was a failure and of course Mr. F can come back to his hometown and live a decent life. Mr. F’s father said “I bring home RMB 2000 every month from my work. On the income I support a family of five and still have enough left over to drink beer and smoke every day. Isn’t that good? These past two years we have a telephone and a refrigerator. Ten years ago we couldn’t dream of these things. “
Mr. F’s mother sighed, saying, “Our family has bad luck. All I want is for my son to stay in America. Now that he is coming back we will have to pay an RMB 15,000 fine. How will we ever afford that? ” Than wiping her tears with a handkerchief she asked, “Can you help my son find a job overseas? “
Her daughter-in-law said bitterly, “Our neighbor went to Japan. We hear that he sends home 300,000 yen every month. Their house is very big, beautiful and has a toilet. ” Their own house has no toilet, so they need to use an outhouse. They need to go to an old shed to wash. The two women insist that once Mr. F returns he should once again go abroad to try his luck.
Mr. F’s younger brother, 22, is a fine arts student. He said, “Ninety percent of my male junior high classmates have left the country. I was the only one who finished vocational school. I didn’t go abroad because I want to study Chinese painting — I want to live my own life. But nearly everyone only thinks about money — so they all went abroad. “
Hometown Folks Can’t Understand Suffering of Fujianese Illegal Aliens in the U.S.
In this rural Chinese village, people like to exaggerate their wealth. For example, a nine story building with swimming pool which sits across the street from Mr. F’s home. Mr. F’s father told me “They are overseas Chinese from Holland. Their family was very poor before and their mother lived in a home for the poor. Everyone looked down on them. Then their son overseas became wealthy. He came back seven years ago and spent RMB 2 million to build this fine home. “
“Who lives there now? ” I asked him. “Nobody! ” replied Mr. F’s younger brother. “They live overseas. They only built the house so that the hometown people would see it”.
This social climate puts great pressure on people to go abroad. This is an overseas Chinese district — Mr. F’s mother has many brothers and sisters living in the U.S. including a son-in-law living in New York City. The men work in Chinese restaurants; the women are seamstresses. She has heard about the “New Immigrants” — that is the illegal aliens in the U.S.
“Borrow money to make the trip to America. Spend three years paying back the debt. Then you are your own man. “, she said. I told her that the working hours are long and living conditions are poor in Chinatown. She said she knows all that.
Although they know that living conditions are difficult in America, Mr. F’s wife and mother are very envious of people who have left the country. They don’t understand why Mr. F gave up his dream of living in America and is now coming back to China. They can’t see how spending two years without sunlight in an INS detention center in Manhattan turned Mr. F’s skin a kind of grayish color. They can’t see his tears and how much he misses home. They can’t see the miserable room in Manhattan which ten or more Fujianese men share. What they can see however, is the money which overseas Chinese send back home and the big houses they build back home.
In New York City, I heard Fujianese tell me bitterly “If I had know before I came, I certainly would never have come to the United States. ” and “America is like a tomb — you can get in but can’t get out”. But when I went to their hometowns, I only met people happily waving letters with money sent back from overseas without a thought to the bitter sacrifices which that money represents.
I had planned to return to Fuzhou that same evening but by the time we had finished eating supper, it was already 7:30. They told me “There are no buses after dark”. So I had to spend the night at Mr. F’s house. That evening I lay talking with Mrs. F on her bed. When Mr. F left they had been married for less than two years. She and their son lived with her parents-in-law, cooking and taking care of the house.
I asked here, “Didn’t you originally want to go to America with him? ” She said, “Of course. Else why would I let him go? I love children. I would love to have a daughter. If I went to America, we could have more children. “
Summer in Fujian is hot and humid. Mrs. F runs the electric fan all evening long. But it is still hot, and there are many flies. I couldn’t sleep–I tossed and turned all night on the old bed.
Soon it was light outside. Mrs. F went downstairs to make breakfast. I looked at my watch: it was 6 AM. By the time I came downstairs at 7 AM, everyone had already finished breakfast. Breakfast in the countryside is vegetables and rice gruel (xifan).
The Widow’s Village in Lianjiang County
In New York City’s Chinatown, I met a group of 18 illegal aliens from S village, K township in Lianjiang County who lived together in bunkbeds in one room. Most of them came to America after getting married, leaving wife and children at home.
” All the men between 20 and 40 go abroad. Only women, children and old men are left at home. Our home has become a village of widows. “, one man told me.
K Township, Lianjiang County is at the mouth of the Min River. Beyond K Village is the sea and the mountains. Looking at K Township, I could understand why people living there felt drawn to the sea. A sign by the side of the road: “As long as the smuggling people abroad [tou sidu huodong] continues, the struggle against smuggling people will continue”. Another sign reads: “Translation, Completing Applications, Foreign Language Typing, and Transcription Services. Clearly, the first sign addressed illegal immigration and the second legal immigration.
I found a three wheeled cab to take me into the mountain. In just ten minutes I was in a little fortress-like village amid green rice fields bordered by a mountain. This is the widows’ village. The population couldn’t be over two thousand. “
I got out of the cab and walked into a small lane. All the houses were little rural village houses, very unlike the big homes in Mr. F’s neighborhood. I didn’t hear a sound. The public toilet smelled awful.
After walking for a little while, I saw a group of old people sitting quietly outdoors. They sat there quietly staring at me. I was dressed casually and wouldn’t have attracted any attention in Fuzhou. Here it was completely different — I stood out.
1 kept on walking, pretending not to notice, and soon came upon a large open area where twenty women were seated. I walked over to the group — there were young, middle-aged and elderly women. A board lay at the center of the group. On the board was white rice flour; it seems they are making snacks. A crowd of playing children surrounded the women. Some old people were standing around smoking. There was only one man, but he was obviously ill. I had truly come to the “widows’ village”.
“Can You Get a Passport for My Husband? “
“Why are you looking at us? “, a women in her thirties asked me in a loud voice. This is obviously a place where tourists don’t come often. I told that that I’m a foreigner. After a few questions the curiosity and warmth of the country women slowly came out. They invited me to eat the treat they were preparing. One person ran home and quickly returned with a small bowl.
“We are country people here. Our men have all gone abroad. We don’t have anything to do at home, so we spend our time sitting together chatting. ” The two women who could speak Mandarin became the spokeswomen for the group.
“Most of the men are in America. A few are in Japan. Once they go abroad, they don’t return for many years. Chinese men are very good. They work hard and send money home. “
“The men in Japan make the most money. They send 300,000 sometimes 500,000 yen home each month. “
I told her that it is very hard to earn so much money in Japan. Most Japanese can’t save 300,000 yen let alone 500,000 yen each month.
“Of course. Chinese men are very hard working”, one person said. The others nodded their heads proudly.
One young wif’e came to my side, took my hand and asked, “Can you help my husband get a passport and visa’? He went to Japan, but was deported back to China a few months ago. If you can help, we can give you some money. How much do you want? “
These country woman very rarely went to Fuzhou and never to any other city such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Yet their husbands were all overseas. I at first thought I would share with them what I had seen of the miserable lives their husbands have in New York City. But that just wasn’t possible. How could a mainland Chinese country woman possibly imagine what life is like in New York City?
Moreover, they feel considerable social pressure. If I hadn’t seen their husbands in New York City’s Chinatown, I may have believed that their men send home every dime. But that is not what Fujianese in New York City do. Since over these last few years merely holding down a steady job is doing well so paying off the debt to the alien smugglers is very difficult. Some Fujianese illegal aliens in New York can’t even cover their living expenses if they are fired. I know that many of the women of the “widows’ village” have not received a dime from their husbands for a long time. Their husbands told me this. But how can they admit this to their fellow villagers?
Not Going with the Crowd Takes Courage
I felt more and more stifled as a sat together with the “widows”. While I sympathize with these women who have not seen their husband for many years, I can’t understand why they all must have the same “gold mountain dream”. I also realized that this homeland of the overseas Chinese at the mouth of the Min River had long become the homeland of the snakeheads. For someone living in this kind of oppressive atmosphere, not going along with the crowd would take great courage.
The women of the widow’s village admonish their men, just as Mrs. F did, to go abroad to work illegally. These women themselves, however, are also the victims of alien smuggling. Their husbands are absent for long periods and they must care for the old and the children by themselves. Moreover they are despised in their own country. In Fuzhou City I often heard the vulgar slang term an “18 thousand lady” [wanba soul.
Someone explained that when alien smuggling began the smuggling fee was US $l 8,000. Thus the people smuggled become the 18,000 dollar customer [wanbe ke] and their women were 18 thousand ladies [wanba soul. No matter what its origins, this term is not complimentary. A Fuzhou City taxi driver told me that some of his friends often go to the countryside to play mahjong with some wanba sou. “These women are lonely and have money. They say they want to play mahjong, but they really just want to spend some time together with a man. Although they lose and you win, they still give you a gift like a cellular phone or something. “
I don’t believe this story. Personal ties are very close in the Chinese countryside. Women live under close watch of their neighbors. These women could not get away with that kind of behavior. There could be a few isolated instances, but they must be rare. Many eyes watch these women. It must be very hard being a “illegal alien widow” [toudu guafu].
The “widow village” women invited me to stay for lunch. I politely declined, and returned to K Township in a three-wheeled cab, and then in a small ferry which took me across the Min River. Changle on the opposite bank is another famous ‘snake homeland’. Most of the villages along this seacoast depend equally on fishing and farming for their livelihood. Although differences between the rich and the poor are easy to see, and I was told that there are some very impoverished villages in the area, in general the ‘snake homeland’ villages near the mouth of the Min River are actually fairly wealthy compared to the rest of Fujian Province and to China as a whole.
Only People From Wealthy Areas Can Afford Illegal Emigration
‘What could be more natural? The mountain village people have no money and so if they want to emigrate, the snakehead won’t help them. People who go abroad without any hometown relatives there to help would certainly be dead of starvation within three years. The snakehead wouldn’t make any money and the high interest loan would not be repaid. ” This is the explanation the cab driver gave me on the road back to Fuzhou City. He is from the city. Ten years ago his aunt went to Japan for study and work and then married a rich old Japanese man. Last year she gave his uncle RMB 100,000. The money was used to buy his taxicab.
In Fuzhou everyone — both city people and country people — have relatives overseas. The people is these “homelands of the overseas Chinese” live well, but there are not limits to human greed. In China today, the only thing valued is money and the only standard of achievement is money — “Whoever has a lot of money is a wonderful person”. In this sort of society, anyone who has the option will think about illegal emigration.
In Fuqing City, one of the ‘overseas Chinese homelands’ , nearly every household lives in a mansion. These mansions cost RMB 60,000 far, far above what an ordinary Chinese could afford.
Some Chinese do in fact become wealthy overseas by the economies of the Western countries have been sluggish these last few years, so recent illegal emigrants can see that their chances of living the ‘overseas Chinese myth’ are small indeed. I remember visiting ‘cousin’ in New York City. He had lived there for twenty years but was still living in a miserable room in Chinatown with ten other men from his hometown. Lately he has been out of work and didn’t have any money to send home to his wife. But he built a house for his parents. That is, the illegal emigrant sacrificed his life in order to preserve the illusions of his family and to satisfy their need to show off. He lives the same sad, miserable life as the poorest of the 19th century immigrants.
The mansion in the ‘overseas Chinese village’ is not necessarily a sign of success and wealth. Sometimes it is won through blood, sweat and tears.
Reform Reopened the Door to Illegal Emigration
Many Chinese in New York City, especially students from mainland China, despise the illegal immigrants from Fuzhou. They say that ‘Fuzhou people are different from other Chinese people’. But without exception, the Fuzhou people I met are typical Chinese in every respect. The only difference is that the overseas Chinese tradition created the wave of illegal emigration. Chinese society is not ruled by law. The Fuzhou people are far from being the only Chinese have only a hazy conception of law. They don’t feel guilty about illegal immigration.
The real reason for the “the wave of illegal emigration abroad” is the Chinese political and economic system and the social climate. The so-called ‘socialist market economy’ is actually a sort of capitalism with Chinese characteristics in which equality of opportunity is not protected and private privilege is rampant. The absence of fair competition results in economic anarchy. People have no scruples about taking advantage of every money- making opportunity which arises. For the people in these ‘overseas Chinese villages’ their overseas connection is the only capital they have. Thus everyone is obsessed with plotting how to emigrate abroad. Nobody considers the human cost of illegal emigration.
Strange as it is to say, in these relatively wealthy ‘overseas Chinese villages’ I saw Chinese poverty more clearly than anywhere else. Although these people are adequately clothed and fed, their income, in absolute terms, is far lower than that of people in Western countries. They never stop converting US dollars to renrninbi in their heads so that even the poorest man in Chinatown becomes a wealthy man.
More serious than economic poverty is spiritual poverty. A society in which the only value is money is a very empty society. During the few days I spent in Fuzhou, no matter with whom I spoke, the money and illegal emigration was the constant topic of conversation. I can’t remember how many times people told me “Chinese are just very vulgar people. ” Some of the illegal emigrants not only want to make their fortunes abroad but “want to become foreigners”. Chinese feelings of national inferiority are very strong.
Many of the illegal immigrants from Fuzhou told me, in one way or another, ” If I had know before I came here, I never would have left Fuzhou. ” I realized after visiting Fuzhou, however, that they have no choice because this society forces them to go abroad. Reform and opening up to the outside world means to these people of the ‘overseas Chinese homeland’ villages that the door has opened once again to illegal emigration.
Many foolish things have been said about the wave of illegal emigration from Fuzhou. But I can’t laugh about them. To tell the truth, illegal emigration is yet another late twentieth century Chinese tragedy.
[Conclusion of Series]