New York | Chinatown’s Underground Economy

Immigrants from China’s Fujian province attempt to live the American Dream without green cards

Chinese men wait outside an employment office in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where illegal aliens seek employment. MARK PETERSON / CORBIS
01 October, 2010

AFTER OVERSTAYING HIS TOURIST VISA, Alex Zhang (name changed) came to New York City’s Chinatown—a modern-day Ellis Island for illegal Chinese migrants. Despite his status, he found kitchen work in a restaurant through one of the two dozen or so employment agencies that form a horseshoe around Forsyth and Eldridge Streets, just underneath the Manhattan Bridge, where Chinatown meets the Lower East Side. Most of the agencies are legal; many of the workers aren’t.

Migrants from China’s Fujian province flock to these agencies. It’s possible—in a couple of hours—to find a listing, have a brief phone interview with a boss and board an out-of-state bus to a new job replete with dorm-style accommodation. At agencies with English names like Sincere and Success, prospects crowd the streets outside. Inside, jobs boards list positions by job description, wage and area code. A block from the agencies sit buses that shuttle workers between the dozens of urban and suburban Chinatowns up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as well as to the South and Midwest. Bus ticket hawkers, mostly undocumented Fujianese women, sell tickets with postcodes printed on them, to guide workers to their destinations. The bus lines shadow an ever-expanding network of Chinese restaurants that feed Middle America watered-down Chinese food.

The employment agencies are part of a massive underground economy that thrives in this part of Chinatown. With East Broadway as its main artery, the area is home to immigrants from Fujian, the Chinese province adjacent to Taiwan. In the last three decades, the neighbourhood has spread across the Bowery from New York’s traditional Cantonese Chinatown, swallowing adjacent areas. There is some enmity between the Cantonese and Fujianese. The Cantonese hail from Hong Kong and Guangdong province, which lies just below Fujian. The Cantonese were the first Chinese to come to the United States, arriving en masse at the turn of the last century.

These days the hallmarks of Fujianese commerce—hand-pulled noodle soup restaurants, shops peddling traditional Fujianese fish balls and fresh fish and lines for cut-rate Chinatown buses—stretch from the margins of Wall Street to the traditionally immigrant-rich Lower East Side. Fujianese commerce is even seeping into the traditionally Cantonese areas.

Fujian supplies the bulk of Chinese migrants to the US—most hailing from the capital city of Fuzhou and surrounding areas. The idea of going to America to seek fortune has seeped into the Fujianese DNA. In and around Fuzhou, remittances from abroad have brought development to a once neglected region. In American Chinatowns, real estate agents offer immigrants enticements to invest in brand new apartments back in Fuzhou.

Fourteen years after his arrival in the US, Zhang, now in his mid-40s, has spent a third of his life in this underground economy. His work in restaurants in Iowa, New Jersey, Kentucky and Pennsylvania has paid for a large home in Fujian. His wife and 20-year-old daughter live there. He hasn’t seen either of them in more than a decade.

Zhang’s journey was relatively mild by Fujianese standards. Stanley Liu, who is married to Zhang’s niece, endured a month on a boat from Fujian to Mexico—eating mostly canned tuna. Liu then rode more than a 160 kilometres across the California border in a cargo truck. Smuggling routes are constantly shifting, though. “The gangs do risk-management just like Wall Street,” explains Demetrios Papademetriou, who heads the Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute. “The Mexican border is getting to be a much tougher place to cross.”  The path to the US can include Southeast Asia, Latin America and Canada via boat, train and planes. Some migrants have even been found inside shipping containers.

Though the economic downturn is believed to have lessened the flow of Chinese migrants, business at the New York employment agencies remains strong. Many here are just like Zhang: Fujianese and without green cards. (Exact numbers are impossible to gauge, but as of the 2007 census, of the 313,372 Chinese émigrés then living in New York City, 135,535 were not citizens. And this only counts those who responded to the survey. According to the latest estimate from the Pew Hispanic Center, the United States contained 11.1 million illegal immigrants in 2009.

Since many undocumented Chinese migrants work in Chinese restaurants and don’t speak English, labour violations are common. “They come into [the US through] a [smuggling] network that is much more tightly controlled [than other ethnic communities],” Papademetriou says. “That’s why their rates of exploitation are also high.”

Smuggling fees now range from 70,000 to 85,000 dollars. It’s a bounty that migrants always pay. “The organisation will sell you to someone else and you will have to work to pay it off,” Liu says. “You cannot escape because most of the organisation is run by gangsters.”

The World Journal, a Chinese-language daily, reports that human smuggling from China to the US is a 750 million-dollar-per-year business. The trade has grown significantly since Liu came from Fujian in the early 1990s. His 28,000-dollar fee was paid by an aunt and uncle. Since then, he’s paid it forward, chipping in to help other émigrés.

And although they deliver Chinese food to cities and towns, across many of them, Fujianese migrants can seem invisible. After 17-year-old Qian Huang was shot in the head while delivering food to a tough neighbourhood in Richmond, Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported it took investigators almost two months to identify his body. Huang’s driver’s licence was from Illinois, a state that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licences. After his death, his exact relationship to the restaurant he’d been delivering food for was still unclear, as was the question of who owned the restaurant.

In insular Fujianese communities, though, organised crime is a clearly consistent presence, even for owners. At Zhang’s first posting in Connecticut, a co-worker was one of three gang members involved in kidnapping the boss’ child for six days, eventually releasing the boy after an 88,000-dollar ransom was paid.

The case spooked Zhang. He’d planned to apply for political asylum within his first year. He missed the deadline.

Now 12 years have passed and he’s moved up the food chain. He is now a sushi chef in Pennsylvania. He’s got a new lawyer and is preparing to re-apply for political asylum. “I need to come up with a new [immigration] status so my family can be reunited,” he says, seated inside an opulent second floor dim sum parlour in Chinatown. “I really want the family to come here.”