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Chinatown Bus: Ode to a Cheap Thrill

Yep, we really dodged a bullet for almost 15 years there, didn't we?

Behind that handwringing, back patting and steady stream of "I told you so" are thousands -- if not a million or so -- veterans of those cheap jaunts up I-95. They were kids who stashed guitars and amps in the cargo compartment on the way to shows, they were students who found love in far-off campuses, they were young people who just wanted a few more hours with old friends and they were sons and daughters who just wanted a little more time home for the holidays. They were the Chinatown bus riders, and they changed an entire industry.

Fung Wah was never supposed to be any of the above, though. When it first opened shop in New York in 1996, it was a van service that took Chinese immigrant workers from Brooklyn to Manhattan's Chinatown. By 1997, it had grown to a coach bus service for Chinese families looking for an inexpensive way to visit their college-bound children in Boston. It ran from Manhattan's Chinatown to Boston's Chinatown and that was supposed to be it.

But it was tough to keep a lid on something like a $10 bus fare to Boston or New York for long. Keep in mind, in the late-1990s and early 2000s it wasn't at all unusual to see Greyhound fares between Boston and New York that started at $40 and, frequently, hit about $65 for a one-way trip. Also, getting to New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal from then-burgeoning Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg was no easy task, while the Fung Wah stop at Canal Street was far more accessible.

Kids from Brooklyn and Brighton caught on, word of mouth about the "$10 Bus" and "Chinatown Bus" spread -- with help from folks like Brooklyn band and Harvard alums Bishop Allen, who released "The Chinatown Bus" on an EP in 2006. By that time, the Fung Wah had gone mainstream and got its own gate at Boston's shiny and relatively new South Station bus terminal. Fares had started their creep up to $15 but it was still fairly cheap, customers could book tickets online and the convenience of a bus that departed every half hour or so was unmatched.

It was also something the competition couldn't ignore for much longer. In May 2008, British discount bus service Megabus built a hub on a street corner in New York City next to Madison Square Garden and started running service not only to Boston, but to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Syracuse, Hartford, Niagara Falls and elsewhere. Not only were its $1 gimmick fares for early booking, $8 midweek Boston-New York fares and online ordering modeled after Fung Wah, but Megabus and parent company Coach USA actually bought two other Chinatown bus companies in 2008 and early 2009, only to sell them off shortly thereafter.

Greyhound, meanwhile, wasn't about to let everybody else eat off its plate. It refurbished its old fleet but added a new service called Bolt Bus with Megabus' $1 reel-'em-in fare but without its far more frequent departures. It did, however, have a great online presence, faux leather seats, curbside pickup in New York City and another great little feature borrowed from the Megabus folks: Wi-fi.

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