Immigrants smuggled into the U.S. from the Chinese city of Fuzhou reached an all-time high in the early 1990s when the Golden Venture incident occurred 20 years ago this month. Then, around 1996, a new wave of immigration from family-based petitions took place. In the 21st century, immigrants from Fuzhou and the villages around it, keep coming in through various ways.
These immigrants have become an important part of the fabric of the Chinese community in New York, the city where they often land. They have played a major role in the evolution of the businesses in Chinatown, especially in the restaurant, garment, and intercity bus industries.
From Smuggled to Family-Based
One of these immigrants is Mr. Lin, who came to the U.S. from Fuzhou 30 years ago. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he said, the strong economy and better living standards in the U.S. became a magnet for Fuzhounese people who had previously emigrated to Hong Kong. They started to use Canada as a stepping stone to come to the U.S.
During this period, many obtained legal status thanks to the 1986 amnesty granted by former President Ronald Reagan. Family members who had remained behind in Hong Kong or Fuzhou obtained family-based green cards one after another around 1996, and moved to the U.S. where they were united with relatives who had entered the U.S. earlier.
Around 1988, many people living in Fuzhou started to seek various pathways to come to the U.S., including by water, land and air. After departing from their hometown, they normally had to spend half a year to one or two years, stop in different countries and, sometimes, cheat death before they were smuggled into the U.S.
This wave of smuggling reached a climax around the time of the Golden Venture, a cargo ship carrying 286 smuggled undocumented immigrants that ran aground near Rockaway Beach in Queens on June 6, 1993. It even nurtured a sophisticated industry of smuggling which the U.S. government later cracked down on. Some immigrants smuggled in during this period of time got legal status when Congress allocated special green card quotas to Chinese nationals after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Their family members were able to reunite with them in the U.S. in or after 2000.
First Stop: Restaurants
The influx of Fuzhounese immigrants brought a strong labor force into the Chinese community and made a significant impact on the businesses in the community. Mr. Zheng, who was smuggled in from Fuzhou in the late 1980s, said the route he took to get into the U.S. was long and dangerous, zigzagging around the globe.
He said that after he departed from his hometown he went through different countries to get to Mexico, where he crawled through a hole in the barbed-wire fence on the border and got into the U.S.
Ship transport, such as the Golden Venture, became increasingly popular later. Mr. Zheng said the early immigrants from Fuzhou often arrived in the U.S. with nothing but the clothes they wore. They knew nothing about the U.S., didn’t speak English and had to rely on the help of people from the same hometown to find jobs.
Most of the Fuzhou immigrants then worked at manual jobs in garment factories and restaurants. You only needed to work hard and didn’t have to speak English. The first job Mr. Zheng got in the U.S. was as a helper in a restaurant. Back then, there were not as many restaurants in Chinatown as there are today. Many Fuzhou immigrants got helper jobs whose main duties were dishwashing and other chores.
At the time, most restaurants run by Fuzhou immigrants were located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. There were no Chinese restaurants in Brooklyn until 1990 or so. The Fuzhou immigrants worked extremely hard once they arrived in the U.S. to make money. Some of them only took one day off per month and even that was only because they needed to do laundry and to wire money back to their families in Fujian province.
Mr. Zheng himself was one of those hard-working Fuzhou immigrants who, after paying back the smuggling fee, saved enough to open a Chinese restaurant of his own.
During the heyday of smuggling in 1992 and 1993, there were, on average, one to two ships arriving every month, bringing in 300 to 400 immigrants at once. But the rapidly increasing population of laborers soon caused a new problem.
From New York to Other States
Mr. Zheng said that around 1989, a helper in a restaurant could make $1,300 a month. But around 1992, the wage dropped to about $700, thanks to the influx of new immigrants that created a labor surplus and an employer’s market. In this tightly competitive environment, people who tried to help their newly-arrived relatives look for jobs often had to treat the potential employer to a meal to persuade them to create an opening by firing a current worker.
Those who could no longer find jobs in restaurants or garment factories started to work in other businesses in Chinatown. There were also people who couldn’t find a job anywhere. They ended up wandering the streets and some were recruited by gangs. Mr. Zheng said that was the time when some immigrants, hungry and addicted to gambling, joined the gangs to collect “protection fees” from businesses. Abductions and extortions also happened every now and then, and sometimes the victims were friends or relatives of the predators.
Around 1993 and 1994, many immigrants who came in earlier and had saved some money were pushed out of New York by gang activities and the sharp competition among restaurants, Mr. Zheng said. They went to other states to open Chinese restaurants and did surprisingly well. So when more immigrants came in through family-based petitions around 1997, they tended to move out of New York with their families and run Chinese takeouts in other states.
That was a time when the U.S. economy was booming. The success of Chinese restaurants outside New York encouraged more Fuzhou immigrants to leave New York and go farther inland to open restaurants. Today, there are more than 30,000 Chinese restaurants in the country and about 90 percent were opened by Fuzhou immigrants. It is fair to say that in the U.S., wherever the sun reaches, there is a Chinese restaurant run by Fuzhounese immigrants.
Mr. Zheng said the immigrants who made their first bucket of gold from the restaurant business later invested the money in other businesses in the U.S. or in China, contributing to the economic development of both countries.
In the Garment Factories
Yongxiang Wang, a Fuzhou immigrant who has been working 20 years in a garment factory, witnessed how his immigrant peers transformed the industry. Mr. Wang left his hometown of Jutan Village in Changle County in the Fujian province in 1989. He spent six months en route and went through several countries in South America and eventually to Mexico, where he crossed the border and got into the U.S.
A construction worker at home, Mr. Wang found a job in a garment factory when he settled in New York. He started as an apprentice to learn the basic skills and has since been working in this industry for 20 years.
Mr. Wang said that before 1990, the U.S. had a big garment manufacturing industry. Domestically-made products not only served the American market but were also exported to other countries. At the time, many of the garment factory owners in New York were Cantonese. The workers were mainly Cantonese and Malaysian immigrants. In the 1990s, more and more Fuzhou immigrants came on board.
Mr. Wang said when he started to work in the garment factory, there were not many Fuzhou immigrants there. He had to study Cantonese in order to communicate with his bosses and co-workers. But in or around 1992, Fuzhou immigrants became a major force in the garment industry. Most of the immigrants smuggled in were male, and they helped to balance the gender composition of the traditionally female-dominated industry.
Labor Shortage in Garment Factories
Mr. Wang said that every wave of immigrants brought in new energy for the garment industry and helped spur its development. But he was sad to see the industry’s shrinkage since China and some Southeast Asian countries joined the World Trade Organization and grabbed garment manufacturing orders from the U.S. with their cheap labor costs.
The garment industry hit bottom in 2008 during the financial crisis and many went bankrupt. There were 50,000 garment factories in New York City before and now only 5,000 remain. Many middle-age workers lost their jobs. They had to transfer to the restaurant or home care industries or simply stay at home to take care of children or grandchildren.
Now, the garment industry is recovering, thanks to demands from the international market. But there are fewer young immigrants from China. Those who come here are less willing to toil in the factory. They are more likely to go to school or find some light jobs. This has created a labor shortage in the garment industry.
Mr. Wang said now there are plenty of orders but the factories cannot find enough workers to do them. The ups and downs of the garment industry in the past 20 years, in his eyes, are frustrating.
Rising of Intercity Buses
Mr. Cheng, a Fuzhou immigrant who also worked in a garment factory in the early days, is now running an intercity bus company. He started his business by transporting Fuzhou immigrants to other states where they found restaurant jobs. Now the intercity buses in Chinatown have secured a solid market with diverse passengers from different racial groups and income levels.
When recalling his experience from the past 20 years, Mr. Cheng was emotional. He said he came to the U.S. through the South American route in the early ’90s. Those who came with him all went to work in either restaurants or garment factories. Despite knowing no one in New York, he quickly found a job in a garment factory.
But Mr. Cheng always knew he was not interested in working with clothing. When he got his driver’s license, he started to do deliveries for some trade companies. During this time around 1997, more and more Fuzhou immigrants went to other states to open restaurants, which attracted even more immigrants to go to those places to look for jobs.
The need for transportation for these people created a good business opportunity, and became the harbinger of the intercity bus industry. In the beginning, people in this business mainly used private cars to send a few restaurant workers from New York to their destinations one at a time.
Mr. Cheng joined the industry after 9/11. At first, he used a 15-seat van to run between New York and Maryland to send passengers to restaurants along the way where they worked. With more people going to others states, the demand increased. He increased frequency and purchased a bigger van. Eventually he purchased the 50-seat buses that he runs now.
Mr. Cheng said in their fledgling stage, the intercity buses only covered routes between New York and Washington D.C., Boston and Philadelphia, incomparable to the ubiquitous network of today. Normally, they would take passengers from New York and drop them at exits along the highways. Then the passengers would transfer to smaller vans waiting there and the vans would send them to the doors of their restaurants.
A 6 Million-Passenger Business
Mr. Cheng said he never expected the Chinese-run intercity bus industry would be as developed as it is today. Relying mainly on word of mouth, the low fares of the “Chinatown buses” not only get them a stable market among Chinese immigrants but also attract passengers from other communities. By 2005, non-Chinese passengers had become a major pillar of the industry.
Up till 2007, the routes of the “Chinatown buses” mainly only covered the few states around New York. There were some smaller vans that went farther to the inland areas, but the frequency, once every 2-3 days, was scarce.
Nowadays, according to a survey conducted by Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown BID, the “Chinatown buses” offer more than 200 routes, connect New York with more than 60 cities on the East Coast, and transport more than 6 million passengers a year.
The influx of Fuzhou immigrants deeply affected all major businesses in the Chinese community. Other than the garment, the restaurant and the intercity bus industries, the growth of remittance, construction industries and the formation of the cluster of job placement agencies along Eldridge Street can also be attributed to the Fuzhou immigrants.
Meanwhile, these immigrants also helped extend the geographic boundary of Chinatown, expanding it from the original one in Manhattan to the newly-formed ones in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
With their passion for the American dream, and their strong willingness of working hard to fulfill it, Fuzhou immigrants undoubtedly have proved their value to their host country.