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.