By Cyrus Farivar
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Class of 2005
March 21, 2005
Advisor: Joe Nocera
A few times every weekend, a large dark blue airport shuttle-sized van pulls up in front of the Charter Oak Supermarket in Hartford, Conn. This "station" is situated a few minutes from the main station in downtown Hartford that houses both Amtrak trains and Greyhound bus lines. Not much other traffic tends to come by this small corner supermarket, where the owner and his family live upstairs. Directly across the street to the north is a large muddy lot.
Charter Oak Supermarket is a stop for one of the so-called 'Chinatown buses' – a group of companies that have their roots in New York's Chinatown. The industry began seven years ago, with a single company and a semi-underground shuttle van service for Chinese students and restaurant workers to Boston. Today there are seven major companies that now service destinations including Hartford, Philadelphia, Albany, Washington, D.C., Rockville, Md., Richmond, Va., and even Atlanta, Detroit, and Cincinnati. Most of them have large, comfortable coaches for the long-haul journeys.
The blue van is operated by one of the smaller companies, Boston Deluxe. This line has a fleet of three buses and one van. Jack Ho founded the company in 2003. He's been in the Chinatown bus business for the last five years, and has been running his own company for the last three.
Ho, 28, runs his single van and three buses on the weekend along his New York - Boston route. Boston Deluxe is the upstart on this route. His two competitors are much larger companies, Lucky Star and Fung Wah. These established Chinatown bus companies operate 15 and 18 trips respectively, leaving at least once an hour from 7 am to 11 pm in each direction. "They're slick," Ho comments, while driving from Hartford to Boston one February morning. "I gotta be slicker."
He says that Fung Wah is his "greatest competition." That's why he only operates on the weekends, when there is more demand. He'd lose money trying to operate during the week when up against Fung Wah's 18 daily buses.
"To take out Fung Wah, that's no problem," Ho says flippantly. "But that's going to take time."
Although he has a few other drivers, Ho himself makes three round-trips on the 200-mile journey between Boston and New York each weekend, including a stop in Hartford. He serves as investor, owner, driver, baggage handler, customer service agent, and press officer all at once. Ho's eyes scan constantly for an opening in an adjacent lane, adapting and moving as needed. Occasionally, his Nextel phone rings, and a voice from another world squawks at him. He switches from English to Chinese effortlessly. Sometimes it's the other drivers, or his longtime girlfriend, Sybil Cheung – who acts as a dispatcher – or sometimes it's customers, trying to get information.
Sitting behind Jack Ho seats are a group of college students – none of them Chinese – in three rows of cramped vinyl seats. They are chatting away on their cell phones or absorbed in the aural world of their iPods. The van is not built for comfort, but rather for efficiency and speed. Some try to sleep, others try to read, and still others try to write on laptops, forced to cramp their elbows as to not obstruct their seatmates. All they care about is getting to their destination quickly. Most of them know that taking Boston Deluxe's van service means speed, when compared to other local regional bus service, such as Greyhound. With a van, Ho can reach Boston from Hartford in roughly 90 minutes. The same trip on a bus would take at least an extra half hour.
"You see that bus over there?" he says while driving, an air of annoyance in his voice.
Ho points to a bus in the distance on a stretch of Interstate 90 in southeastern Massachusetts. The bus is a few hundred yards down the road, barely visible. It was one of the rival Chinatown buses, most likely Lucky Star.
"How fast do you think he's going?" he says rhetorically.
A quick glance at Ho's speedometer shows he is holding steady at 80 mph. The bus farther is probably at 85 mph. He shakes his head at this example of what he considers to be irresponsible driving.
"I'm doing 80 and I can't catch up with him," he says. "If it was raining, he's be sliding already. If it was snowing, he'd be dead."
As he made his way along the interstate, Jack Ho told his story. He was born in Taiwan but was raised in New York's East Village. As such, Jack Ho speaks English with only a hint of an accent. He started in the business five years ago working as a driver for his father's company, Dragon Coach. Within two and a half years he'd worked his way up to manager. He was 25.
But eventually, Jack Ho reached a point where he split off from his father to start his own company in 2003. At this point in the story, the usually gregarious entrepreneur, who prides himself on customer service, became curt and vague.
"I wanted to do it myself," he says, while driving steadily toward Boston. "My English is better than his. I don't like relying on anybody." Jack Ho remained confident that he could build from the lessons he learned working long hours at his father's Chinatown office.
"His [buses] always broke down – not mine," he says. That's all he'll say.
Jack Ho added that he and his father, Edward Ho, don't see much of each anymore. However, a few weeks ago, they attended a bus convention in Las Vegas together.
* * *
The origin of the Chinatown bus industry isn't actually in Chinatown, but rather in Brooklyn, along Sunset Park's 8th Avenue in the southwestern part of the borough. A few minutes walk past a gritty and grimy industrial zone from the 9th Avenue subway stop on the M and D lines leads to a small office along the heart of Brooklyn's own version of Chinatown.
Surrounded by cheap Chinese fast food joints, a few cafˇs and a handful of bodegas, Fung Wah Transport Vans Inc. has a narrow office at 4207 8th Avenue. Pei Lin Liang is an unassuming middle-aged man who looks older than he should be at 42. Silver streaks are scattered throughout his head of full, dark hair. His teeth are somewhat crooked, adding a tinge to his otherwise jolly smile. Fung Wah's president sits behind a small desk, scattered with papers, but punctuated with a pack of cigarettes and a few butane lighters. His workaholic weary-eyed face shows his many hours logged on the road.
One wall is covered in business cards with various annotations in Chinese and English of doctors, insurance agents, towing facilities and garages. The other wall is dominated by maps: one of the subway, one of the New York City area and one of the entire United States, written entirely in Chinese. Below it on a table is a computer that seems to be rarely used. Across the room, on a long desk, is a stack of parking violations from the City of New York. There is a palpable sense of organized chaos in his office.
Liang immigrated from Shuhai in southern China, near Macau, to New York in 1988. His parents had emigrated only two years before. His first job was as a bus boy and then as a waiter at a Chinatown restaurant. Within a year, he got a job delivering noodles in a truck to all five boroughs. Two years later he was working on the weekends for Four Seas, a local Chinese shuttle service that took passengers from Sunset Park to Chinatown for $1.50 one-way, making as many as nine round trips per day, and delivering noodles during the week. Liang is driven to succeed, and he succeeds at driving.
In 1996, Liang founded Fung Wah Transport Vans, Inc. to compete with his former employer to take garment and restaurant workers to Chinatown. He was sure that he could do it better. Many Chinese workers, he says, were afraid of taking the subway during the pre-Giuliani days, when the transit system had a reputation for filth, crime and violence. "Maybe Four Seas is 10 hours a day," he says. "If I owned the company, it would be 14 hours and I'd make more money."
So he continued with the shuttle service for two years, until one day a group of Chinese parents approached him. They all had children who were college students in Boston. Shortly before the school year started, Liang had a request from a group of local students. "Parents asked me 'Do you have a charter to go to Boston?' " he says.
Within two years of occasional trips to and from Boston, Liang started taking the parents of these Chinese students up the Atlantic coast as well. "Sometimes they go to visit their sons and their daughters," he says. "The parents go there and they cannot speak English. So I thought there was a market – the convenience for the Chinese."
By August 1998, Liang himself was carrying up to 14 passengers on one round-trip per day for $25 one-way, and $45 round-trip. Business boomed. He soon had to upgrade to minibuses. By 1999, he had four minibuses with a capacity of 24 people each and six vans – running seven trips per day.
Around the same time that Liang was expanding his line, several other Chinese-owned businesses were operating bus lines across the East Coast. A few were shuttle services for Chinese workers, like New Century Travel, which was founded in November 1999 in Philadelphia with service to New York City. They began with 15 passenger vans making the two-hour trip several times per day.
But most other Chinese owned bus companies were not shuttle services, but rather tour and charter companies. Jimmy Cheng founded Lotus Tours in 1994, catering to Chinese visitors wanting to visit American tourist sites across the East Coast. Edward Ho, Jack Ho's father, founded another tour company, Tomorrow Travel and Tours, in 1995. He too operated charter buses and tour packages for Chinese tourists across the Atlantic coast, including some to Canada, becoming one of the larger operators.
* * *
By 2001, the companies tended to operate on their own, mostly without competition along the same routes. Fung Wah had the New York – Boston line. New Century Travel had the Philadelphia – New York line. And Lotus Tours and Tomorrow Travel and Tours had plenty of Chinese tourists to share between them. But then came Sept. 11, 2001. The economic effects of the attacks were devastating for Chinatown. Its main thoroughfare, Canal Street, was blocked off for months given its proximity to City Hall, which was under extremely tight security.
The tourists stopped coming. The Chinese tour companies were headed towards extinction. But people like Edward Ho could not be discouraged. They would adapt their business to the new economic scene. Even after Sept. 11, what businesses were still doing well? Fung Wah was. It continued to expand. By 2002, Fung Wah had outgrown the vans and minibuses – the company was running 14 trips per day to Boston on large coaches. It was not dependent on tourists, and when the tourists stopped coming, the tour companies turned to the Fung Wah model.
Edward Ho turned his idle tour company buses as Tomorrow Travel and Tours into a regular bus line powerhouse: Dragon Coach. Ho became one of the first Chinatown bus operators with service to Washington, D.C. – his main competition was Greyhound, who charged over $60 for a round-trip ticket, nearly double of what Ho charged. By early 2002, it became clear that the D.C. line wasn't enough; he needed to expand his reach. But Dragon Coach only had two buses. Ho wanted to add a Philadelphia line, an Albany line, and a Richmond, Va., line.
In deciding to enter the Philadelphia market, Ho was making a decision to go head-to-head with another Chinatown bus line, New Century. This new direct competition was something that was happening more frequently. As it did, tempers flared. Price wars broke out and so did violence. At the time, many of the companies had reached such a boiling point that they would often fight over parking spaces, particularly in the tight space at the intersection of Forsyth Street and East Broadway, just under the Manhattan Bridge. At this one spot, there is precisely enough room for only a few buses to park one after the other. Setting a bus a few feet in front or behind would prevent rival companies from parking. Various companies, particularly New Century Travel and Dragon Coach constantly fought over customers and parking spots. Companies resorted to having people stand or sit on benches in bus parking spots to prevent other companies from using them. The rules were simple: first come, first serve.
That is, except for the time that driver Di Jian Chen, then working for Edward Ho's Dragon Coach, backed up and rammed Lun Don Chen, owner of rival company New Century in May 2002. According to media reports at the time citing the criminal complaint, Di Jian Chen backed up three times, catching Lun Don Chen as he stood between his own bus and his rival's. Lun Don Chen sustained a fractured pelvis, internal bleeding, and several other injuries and went to the hospital that night in critical condition, wrote the New York Daily News.
But Edward Ho's troubles didn't stop with the Lun Don Chen incident. Ho's biggest hurdle came in early 2003, when he says that money was stolen from Dragon Coach. His wife, Lillian, who handles financial records for Dragon Coach, says that $100,000 was taken in January 2003. But the money didn't just vanish out of thin air. Edward Ho says he knows who stole his money: Di Jian Chen, and his own son, Jack Ho.
In January 2003, both Edward Ho and Lillian traveled to China for vacation. Edward Ho returned in March. While he was gone, Ho left the company in the hands of two of his top employees, his son Jack Ho, and Di Jian Chen. Edward Ho, who uses the popular Chinese-owned online ticketing agent IvyMedia to sell on his behalf, found that he was missing $100,000. When he called to ask where the money had gone, IvyMedia told him that it was now being transferred to Dragon Coach U.S.A., a new company founded by Jack Ho and Di Jian Chen. Edward Ho fired the pair on March 10, 2003.
Edward Ho sued Dragon Coach U.S.A. for trademark infringement, and got Chen and his son, Jack Ho, to cease-and-desist. The company shut down, and was re-opened the next day in April 2003 as Today's Travel. Edward Ho spent $5,000 on legal fees, and managed to get his trademark – Dragon Coach – preserved. However, he still was not able to recoup what he says is stolen money.
Around the same time, in March 2003, Di Jian Chen tried to set up a partnership with Jimmy Cheng, owner of Lotus Tours – who like Ho, had idle buses with no tourists to sustain his company, Lotus Tours. Cheng refused, citing increasing tension in the Chinatown bus industry. He was willing to charter buses to Chen – from a safe distance – but did not want to get directly involved in the business. Cheng wasn't the only one that was getting wary. Dragon Coach moved its pickup and drop-off locations uptown, near Penn Station to avoid the escalating situation that was brewing on the Lower East Side.
Two months later, on May 9, 2003, Di Jian Chen was murdered, shot five times in the chest.
* * *
One day, I went to visit Edward Ho in New York's Chinatown. Ho keeps a large office on the second floor of a building at the southern end of Chinatown, near Confucius Plaza. Walking into the main entryway, an expansive space with several desks looks out over Park Row. The walls are covered in brochures and posters of other regional destinations, such as skiing in Tennessee. The home of Dragon Coach is surely the largest such Chinatown bus office in New York. Ho has a smaller office off to the side that sports a large black leather chair, with a proud picture of his now eight-year-old son as a baby, the product of his second marriage.
Ho is a thin man, who was wearing tight-fitting black jeans, a green buttoned-shirt underneath a bright yellow sweater. Occasionally he lifted his sweater to reveal a holstered cell phone and a metallic lighter in a sheath clipped to his belt, which he produced a few times per hour to light a cigarette. He deposited the ashes in an ashtray in the shape of a curled-up burgundy-colored dragon on his desk. Ho dismissed his rivals like a puff of smoke.
While reporting the story, I'd heard a lot of conflicting things about Edward Ho. Sometimes he's portrayed as a victim of theft and betrayal, and other times he's portrayed as a shrewd businessman. Edward Ho says that his former employees, Di Jian Chen and his son, Jack Ho, stole his $100,000. But other versions of the story say that Edward Ho himself is responsible – allegations abound that he gambled $160,000 away, right around the same time when Edward Ho claims his money was stolen.
I asked Edward Ho if there was any truth to this; he flatly denied the charge. Ho did, however, admit to attending casinos and says he has lost as much $8,000 at a time. He said that his maximum spending limit on gambling would be $10,000. That aside, Edward Ho says that even if he had spent the money, it would be his right to do so as someone who has total ownership of Dragon Coach.
"If I use this money, who can say?" he says, "Who says? I'm the boss. I'm the owner. But I told you – this is bullshit. I'm not stupid. I have a lot of employees. If I lost $160,000 how could I pay them? Am I stupid enough to go to a casino and lose $160,000?"
While Edward Ho's trademark suit concluded in 2003, he was never able to recoup his allegedly stolen money. His wife Lillian, he says, still wants to go after his son to recover the money. But he can't bring himself to do it.
"My wife wants to sue Jack, but I say forget about it," he says, maintaining a tense dˇtente between himself and his son. Since the incident with his son, Edward Ho refused to see or speak to his son during all of 2003. His wife has forbidden Jack Ho from entering the Dragon Coach offices.
The only time that they see each other anymore is when they spend time with Jack Ho's young daughter, Edward Ho's granddaughter. "I don't want to talk about my son," he says. "I don't like him. But we have a granddaughter. So I just look after her."
Despite their disagreements, Jack and Edward Ho are willing to put the past behind them – that is, until the past re-emerges. During a routine corporate records search, I'd stumbled across the fact that Jack Ho's company and Edward Ho's company were using the same address. As I learned more about their strained relationship, I was puzzled by this fact. So I asked Edward Ho about it.
At first Edward Ho seemed confused by the question. But when I pulled up the record from the New York State Division of Corporations, it was quite clear – he didn't even know that Jack had done this. When asked if Jack had asked for permission, he emphasized that he would not have authorized using his address. Despite this news, Edward Ho was not willing to take action.
"If my wife knew, she would be not happy, very very not happy," he said, resigning back into his desk chair, a look of dismay washing over his face.
After a two-hour interview with Edward Ho, I knew that I needed to call Jack Ho and find out his perspective on this story, given the new information that had come to light. Walking down the narrow steps of the office building and onto the street, I dialed Jack Ho's cell phone and got his voice mail – which is the same number that is listed on the Boston Deluxe tickets. His voice mail reflects his commitment to his business, telling customers that if they have questions to leave him a message or to check the website, www.bostondeluxe.com. I left a message.
I rounded the corner and stopped in at a cafˇ. No sooner had I been there for five minutes when my phone rang. It was Jack Ho. He was livid. He demanded to know why he had just received an angry call from his father, and why I was asking so many questions, and suggested that perhaps I was working for the police. He assured me that he would make sure that none of the other Chinatown bus companies would talk to me.
"Thank you for riding with us," he said in a surly but exasperated voice. "Please don't call me again."
And with that, he was gone. I tried calling back, but he would not pick up his phone.
* * *
Di Jian Chen's murder was never solved. Nevertheless, the Chinatown bus industry seems to have calmed down since then. It has now employs more "normal" business tactics – ranging from hiring an English-speaking M.B.A. as an executive, to creating websites for online ticket sales.
In the fall of 2003, for instance, Chinatown bus newcomer Shui Ming Zheng, and his company, Eastern Travel added an M.B.A. to their ranks as vice president. David Wong speaks fluent English and got his business degree from Indiana State University. Before joining Eastern Travel, Wong had been running his own tour packages and buses, often arranging tour deals for Chinese businessmen coming from overseas – much like Edward Ho's Tomorrow Travel and Tours.
When Wong joined the company, Zheng wanted to expand his lines all the way to Washington, D.C., and to add more service to that area. Wong told him that the only way that Eastern Travel could stay competitive in the Chinatown bus world was to move uptown. Given that more and more customers were not Chinese, having a stop more centrally located within Manhattan provided an added convenience.
Many of the Chinatown bus companies were now using online portal IvyMedia, a relatively new Chinese-owned business run out of Cambridge, Mass. The site's owner, Jimmy Chen, says that he models the company on Expedia. This move attracted customers who did not want to trek down to Chinatown only to find sold-out buses.
The Chinatown bus industry eventually settled on healthy competition between the half dozen major operators. Fung Wah and their rival, Lucky Star, who both dominate the New York – Boston route, have settled on a $15 fare. Each company now civilly competes with one another.
The two companies moved their Boston pickup and drop-off location from the narrow Boston Chinatown streets to Boston's large South Station, where most large commercial coaches operate. Their ticket kiosks stand only a few feet from each other at the far end of the South Station bus terminal. They each offer the same route, the same fare and only slightly different schedules. While they might both call out "New York! Fifteen dollars!" at approaching customers once in awhile, they aren't really competing with each other more than they are competing with traditional American bus behemoths, Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines, which dominate South Station.
Last year, the two more established companies took Fung Wah and Lucky Star to court, alleging that they were operating without proper interstate bus licenses. They sought an injunction against Fung Wah and Lucky Star, then known as Travel Pack. "The competitor has been in the market place for five to eight years," says Robert Schwarz, Executive Vice President of Communications for Peter Pan. "They've grown to being serious. Peter Pan wants everybody to play by the same rules."
But the two larger companies voluntarily dismissed the case in July 2004. They had sought a temporary injunction against the two Chinatown bus companies, but the request was denied. Fung Wah and Lucky Star continued their operations without interruption – and they now have the proper interstate bus licenses. Pei Lin Liang, Fung Wah's owner, accuses Greyhound of trying to drive him out of business. Jeremy Kahn, Peter Pan's attorney, said he could not rule out future litigation.
One thing is clear: most of the Chinatown bus companies report an increase in the last 18 months of more regular and stringent inspections from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Prior to 2004, they had been completely ignored. Some say that this is directly due to Greyhound's influence.
* * *
During the course of my reporting, I also went to interview Jimmy Cheng, the owner of Lotus Tours. Cheng is the new model for the Chinatown bus industry. He speaks English well, and his weekends are spent at home with his wife and children, in Rockville, Md. Meanwhile, Jack Ho spends his weekends driving between New York and Boston. He wears a long coat over his suit, which contrasts sharply with the greasy work outfits of his Brooklyn mechanics, where he spends most of his time supervising. But Cheng has no background in bus driving or auto mechanics – he's a businessman.
Cheng has now expanded – running his own Chinatown bus company, called Today's Bus, which is also known as Apex Bus. (He changed the name to distinguish it from Jack Ho's now defunct company, Today's Travel.) Cheng oversees the 20-bus fleet, which offers service to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. from New York City.
While Cheng has been part of the Chinatown bus industry for only a couple of years, he has been an observer for far longer. He's known in Chinatown – Jack Ho even asked him to join Ho's bus business. But Cheng has mixed feelings about Jack Ho. "I like him, but I don't like the way he does business," he says. "His father, I don't like him personally, but I like the way he does business."
Cheng says that even though Edward Ho now competes with him, that in a way, he feels bad for what happened.
"When he started, he had the best timing," Cheng says. "There were only two companies at the time, Fung Wah and Travel Pack. Edward Ho knows how to do maintenance and to operate the buses, and [Di Jian] Chen knows how to run the business. It was perfect timing when they do the business together. If the casino hadn't happened, they'd be the biggest one – no Fung Wah and no Travel Pack."
But Cheng is as calculating as they come. Last summer, he spent over $100,000 to purchase a personal website, www.staticleap.com, that provided a roundup of the Chinatown buses. Why? Because it was the number one hit for the search phrase "Chinatown bus" on Google. Cheng bought the site from a Maryland man, and edited the site so that his company appears at the top of the lists of the destinations of the various Chinatown bus companies. He even added some small editorial comments like "22 buses/day, Excellent customer service." Nowhere on the site does it acknowledge that Apex Bus now owns the site.
Maybe things haven't changed so much after all.