A Chinatown commuter van waits for passengers.
Whats drives the Chinatown van drivers?
By Loretta Chao
Fa la shen! Fa la shen! yells Mr. Zhou with urgency as he points to his white shuttle bus. Parked behind a row of sidewalk vendors in Chinatowns Chatham Square, the bus fills up quickly; and just as the last of the grey cushioned seats are taken behind the tinted windows of his shuttle, Zhou will jump back into his seat, throw it in gear, and head to Fa la shen, or Chinese for Flushing.
Zhou, 45, who only gave his surname, is one of dozens of contract drivers who work non-stop to bus people between Manhattans Chinatown and outer borough neighborhoods like Flushing, where city officials report the number of Asian and Pacific Islander residents has more than quadrupled since 1980. Buses also run to and from Chinatown and Elmhurst or Sunset Park for as little as one dollar.
You can catch the van anywhere on 8th Avenue [Sunset Park], said Mr. Zhang, 26, who was waiting on Division St. for the bus to Sunset Park. It takes only 20 minutes to get here. Its convenient when we come to Chinatown to relax. Plus, its impossible to find parking in Chinatown.
Chen Zhen, 40, a real estate agent also waiting for the Brooklyn bus, agreed that the shuttles are great for avoiding parking trouble.
I take this to work about two, three times a week. Why spend $10 to park my car, when the vans only cost four for a round trip? he said. Instead of worrying about parking I can just go to sleep. Its very convenient. The only downside, Zhen said, is that drivers often try to cram four people into a seat made for three.
Zhous company, Zhong Hua, has a fleet of about 20 buses working everyday, and solves this problem by carrying two tiny red folding chairs which fit perfectly in the aisle for extra passengers. A television on each bus plays music videos and concerts recorded from the Chinese cable channel, CC-TV for the passengers entertainment.
David Crane, the chairperson of transportation at Community Board 3, said some of the bus companies worsen Chinatown traffic problems because they do not have designated loading zones as Zhong Hua does.
You see them picking up [passengers] on Grand St. just west of the Bowery; they swoop in, and pick up a load of people, Crane said. The vans are kind of orbiting the neighborhood
theyre adding to congestion.
Despite these complaints, Crane said the companies that are regulated have provided a valuable service to the neighborhood, especially before 2003 when D train service was stopped between Chinatown and the outer boroughs.
As convenient as the service is for riders however, drivers say the work is extremely difficult and unrewarding. Each driver has to buy, insure, and sign their buses up with a company, which then gets a cut of their daily earnings. Zhou, for example, makes seven round trips everyday during the winter and gets to save less than $100.
I have worked 365 days for four years now, said Zhou, who lives in Flushing with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Just think Ive never taken a vacation, not even for one day. I havent even had time to get sick.
Its just unbearably hard. I dont know English. When I go out I feel like Im mute. Everything I learned in school is useless, he said.
And while customers are plentiful, the increasing number of vans has led to bitter and sometimes violent rivalry over the past six years. Police arrested the drivers involved in a string of murders as part of what they called a bus war in January 2003, but investigators said minor offenses like tire slashing and window breaking often went unreported. With some drivers working until 11 oclock at night, they face other dangers as well.
One driver, Mr. Huang, who drives to and from Sunset Park for a company called Tong Da said he and his colleagues had been terrorized for months by a gang before police intervened last summer. They had been taking money from us for over a year, $300 per month, Huang said. We were afraid for our lives
They almost beat me up once because I refused to pay them and I ended up giving it to them. We had to protect ourselves.
Mr. Wu, 41, a driver from a company called Xing Fa La Shen, said he is fortunate because his customers are mostly just traveling to work everyday and cause very little trouble. What bothers him instead, are company rivalries. The other companies still harass our customers, he said. We share the same stop in Flushing and they would jump in our vans and tell our passengers to ride with them
Making just $60 on average per day, Wu said he doesnt think he can handle the business for much longer. Theres no way I could to this for more than a year and a half. I cant stand the arguments, he said.
Still, Zhou said hes grateful to have a job where he can survive without knowing a lot of English, and where he can get home in time to see Lila, his daughter. He said, I came with both hands empty. At least now I have a stable job, and I dont have to worry about tomorrow
And I just think about Lila - shes the best thing. I just want to go home and play with her.