Volume 74, Number 44 | March 09 - 15, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Robert Stolarik

A Chinatown commuter van waits for passengers.

What’s 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 Chinatown’s 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 Manhattan’s 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. It’s convenient when we come to Chinatown to relax. Plus, it’s 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. It’s very convenient.” The only downside, Zhen said, is that drivers often try to cram four people into a seat made for three.

Zhou’s 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 … they’re 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 — I’ve never taken a vacation, not even for one day. I haven’t even had time to get sick.

“It’s just unbearably hard. I don’t know English. When I go out I feel like I’m 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 o’clock 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 doesn’t think he can handle the business for much longer. “There’s no way I could to this for more than a year and a half. I can’t stand the arguments,” he said.

Still, Zhou said he’s 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 don’t have to worry about tomorrow … And I just think about Lila - she’s the best thing. I just want to go home and play with her.”

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