How One Bus Stop Encapsulates The American Immigrant Experience

I have used the Chinatown bus dozens of times to travel between Boston and New York City. It's a terribly-kept secret that for $10-15, you can get limited luggage space on an uncomfortable, aging bus with a driver that shoots you over to New York City like a banshee (3.5-4.5 hours usually). But I was fascinated at the stories behind these bus companies; coming from an immigrant family whose father owned his own business, I was certain that the spirit of entrepreneurship behind these businesses must have been significant. A story in the New York Times explores some of the drama that goes on in one of New York City's most exciting city blocks:

As the popularity of the buses increased, their numbers multiplied, and by 2002 three companies were wrangling over the little block, Forsyth Street between East Broadway and Division Street. One company owner hired several women to sell tickets on the sidewalk, and his competitors followed suit. Quarrels between rival ticket sellers became commonplace.

Each day, hundreds of people descended on the strip. To take advantage of the surge in foot traffic, local business owners eventually began selling Asian snacks like sweet olives and shrimp crackers, along with less exotic items like Pringles for the increasingly prevalent non-Chinese traveler. In closet-size booths around the corner, peddlers traded in cheap cigarettes, smuggled aboard the buses from out of state, while on the sidewalk, bored-looking men handed out business cards imprinted with come-ons aimed specifically at the homesick, like “Innocent lady, sweet home, comfortable service.”

In just a few years, a vibrant, competitive and largely self-contained economy had materialized around the bus stop, or bah-see zhan, an economy that employed at least 200 people, all of them bound to one another in a complicated network of alliances, dependencies and feuds.


(Image by spinachdip)

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I live around chinatown and have taken these buses and I must say... those ladies that sell the tickets are incredibly loud and rude. All they want is your money and as soon as you buy a ticket, they just shoo you away. The buses almost never leave on time because they try to fill up the entire bus. So if they say they're leaving at 4, they'll end up leaving at 4:30 to 5 just so they can fill an extra 2 seats. I recently discovered which is generally the same price or cheaper depending on when you book the tickets but I'd definitely prefer that over the chinatown buses.
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I've taken many of the busses in Chinatown from Philly to NYC (and back)... and well, the ones I've taken seemed to be well maintained, the drivers weren't psychotic on the road and the company staff were nice and helpful. $20 both ways is hard to beat. IMHO, the best part is getting to Chinatown in both cities. Loads of activity and culture surrounding it. I always looked forward to taking the bus up to NYC and then walking through Chinatown to get to where I was going to in NYC.
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The fact is most people a only know of the fung wah but true be told there are many buses in that area of NYC that go to Philly, DC, Boston, and Virgina Beach. There are many companies some even have websites so you can buy your tickets. I have seen things transported from one city to another and non of what they were transporting was either illegal or unsafe.

From a Native NYC
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Lenny Nero, it's true that these buses can be slightly shady at times, but it's more the people on them than the bus company themselves. But that's life, full of sketchy people (some call them 'eclectic'). The chance that you'll get in an accident in your own car driving from Philly to NYC (or NYC to Boston) is probably just as likely! Unfortunately, many people don't drive or own cars, or they do and just can't afford to. Asking a friend/parent/whoever to drive you over 200 miles is unlikely to result in a positive outcome and a round-trip train ticket is almost four times as expensive as the Chinatown bus.
So some of us (especially poor students such as myself) have no choice but to take these buses. I've taken them several times to various destinations and have had no problems other than sitting next to a large woman who screamed into her cellphone about how much she hates her Aunt for the entire two hour ride.
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I forgot to mention, I'm a bus repair shop worker, and I keep abreast of the various accidents in our industry. These cheapo buses are involved in so many safety systems failures its unreal. In fact, Fung Wah already has the feds and the state looking at them after two of their buses lost front wheels due to improperly tightened wheel nuts, and another that got in an accident due to improperly maintained brakes. I'd never EVER ride one of these things.
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