Chinatown Bus: Ode to a Cheap Thrill

(Ho!) I don't think you're right for him

(Hey!) Look at what it might have been if you

(Ho!) Took a bus to Chinatown

(Hey!) I'd be standing on Canal

(Ho!) And Bowery

(Hey!)

(Ho!) And she'd be standing next to me

(Hey!)

- The Lumineers, "Ho Hey"

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- On the Friday before St. Patrick's Day weekend a decade ago, I found myself in the basement dining room of Wo Hop -- an infamous, if touristy, late-night Chinese restaurant on Mott Street in New York's Chinatown -- at sunrise eating egg foo yung and watching the staff turn a corner table full of meat and dough into rows of dumplings.

I was working as a copy editor at a newspaper in North Jersey at the time, and both cash and days off were hard to come by. After wrangling a Sunday-Thursday schedule, I decided to make the most of both my time and money by booking a ticket on a Fung Wah bus and crashing on the floor of a friend's bedroom in South Boston for the Saturday St. Patrick's Day parade down West Broadway.

Not only did I get a 5:30 a.m. bus out for $10, but it took me up I-95 in four hours, gave me two days to spend doing the things idiots do when turning an hours-long St. Patrick's Day parade into a two-day affair and brought me home Sunday with a Boston Phoenix and Newbury Comics bag next to me and plenty of time to make my Sunday night shift. The Fung Wah was convenient, it was quick and, now I'm told, it could have very well been the end of me.

Earlier this month, the federal Department of Transportation shut down Fung Wah after the company responded to initial concerns about safety by blocking access to its records. In the past two years it has been cited for 159 maintenance violations, racked up nearly a dozen speeding tickets and has been cited for employing drivers without commercial driver's licenses.

Oh, there's also the small matters of running over pedestrians on the Manhattan Bridge, related on BoweryBoogie.com, overturning in Massachusetts, described in the Worcester Telegram, and getting involved in myriad other calamities in recent years, noted in a boston.com editorial.

That brought the scolds out of the armchairs to remind the rest of us how lucky we are to still be alive (though Fung Wah never killed anyone). The New Yorker dusted off Bob Dylan's "Farewell Angelina" for a parody song that sounds like Weird Al Yankovic's dad giving him a lecture about the perils of low-cost coach travel.

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.

If Fung Wah's safety record didn't kill it, those cheap competitors offering wi-fi certainly would have. After a near-collapse from 2002 to 2006, DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development says bus ridership grew 8.1% from 2006 to 2007 and 9.8% between 2007 and 2008. That just happens to coincide with the launch of cheap Bolt and Megabus wi-fi service, but also with the launch of Apple's ( AAPL) first two iPhones in June 2007 and July 2008.

At the same time, Fung Wah accidents were transitioning from unfortunate one-offs to regular occurrences. In 2007 alone, New York-bound Fung Wah buses were involved in three separate accidents on the Mass Pike that involved one bus losing its wheels, another hitting a guardrail during a snowstorm and another hit a barrier in front of a toll booth.

While Fung Wah managed to quiet things down until about 2011, other unseen damage was already being done. All those folks who were wearing headphones, thumbing through magazines or talking to friends on Chinatown buses just a few years before were playing game apps, making dinner reservations and mapping out a night of bar hopping on wired buses with smartphones and tablets just a few years later. They didn't mind a cheap ride on the increasingly shaky Fung Wah every so often, but it wasn't the only game in town.

The Fung Wah incidents, combined with structural cracks that forced 21 of its buses off the road in February, quieted what the bus line's owners had dubbed, in Cantonese, the "magnificent wind."

Even if Fung Wah keeps refusing to comply with federal authorities and shuts down for good -- and other similarly scrutinized Chinatown bus lines follow -- that's far from the end of its story. Though lovers in Northeast towns no longer have a steady $15 solution bridge for their long-distance relationships, they've set the price for bus services like Greyhound's low-budget Yo! route.

While no amount of bar hopping and couch surfing could overshadow Fung Wah's safety record, the fares it produced made it possible for roommates in Portland, Ore., to catch a Bolt Bus to crash with friends in Seattle before Bumbershoot, or for college bros in Bellingham to take a similar ride up to Vancouver for a Canucks game. Because of bands who spent their Fung Wah rides romanticizing those trips in their rhyme books, others can catch a Megabus from Chicago to a gig in Madison or from Dallas to a South By Southwest show in Austin.

There's more romance to those beaten-down, cloud-spewing, patently unsafe Fung Wah buses than their cracked, decommissioned frames can convey. They were the death traps and suicide raps that Bruce Springsteen advised escaping while you were still young, but it was tough not to enjoy the cheap and ready ride while it lasted.

When the Fung Wah isn't making its St. Patrick's Day runs down to the Fifth Avenue parade or up to Southie this weekend, maybe their mothballed silence will remind former passengers of a time when they weren't always so grey, ornery and risk-averse. Maybe it'll even remind them why they cared enough to grumble in the first place, as the New Yorker's Marc Philippe Eskenazi did when his parody dissolved into an earnest sendoff in its last verse:

"Farewell Fung Wah. Your engines may be crazy, but they still got me here."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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