IN SEARCH OF WEALTH, CHINESE MIGRANTS RISK their lives to be smuggled to North America

Tom Fennell November 22 1999


IN SEARCH OF WEALTH, CHINESE MIGRANTS RISK their lives to be smuggled to North America

Tom Fennell November 22 1999


IN SEARCH OF WEALTH, CHINESE MIGRANTS RISK their lives to be smuggled to North America

Tom Fennell

Every year, nearly 100,000 Chinese who desperately want to build better lives are believed to be smuggled to the West. Yet, instead of wealth, most willfind only hardship and years of indentured labour. For many migrants, the route begins in Chinas Fujian province and ends at the most common destination, New York City—with a brief stop on Canadian soil. Macleans correspondents traced that route and talked to people who had completed the long often terrifying trek. Their report:

FUJIAN: Ready to go

Liu Jinqi and the young Chinese salesmen chatting in the busy clothing shop have just one thing on their minds: going to America. Hundreds of thousands of their compatriots have already made the journey, and Liu, 25, tells Maclean's a local shetou, or snakehead, has agreed to smuggle him abroad. He has given the snakehead a down payment, but will still have to come up with the full $75,000—more than he could ever hope to make on his salary of $195 a month. “I will pay the rest after I get a job in America,” he says confidendy. “I really want to go.” His fellow salesmen in the Fujian town of Jinfeng also talk anxiously about striking out on the perilous trip, which could take them deep into jungles, across oceans and through several countries. They will put up with any hardship to reach their all-consuming goal: “Zhuan qian,” they say. “To make money.”

If he leaves by ship, Liu will start by boarding a boat for the island of Pingtan, direcdy across from Taiwan on the Fujian coast. A day or two later, he will climb into another small boat and head out to an aging, usually decrepit oceangoing vessel waiting in international waters. It will finally take him across the roiling Pacific to North Americas west coast.

For a few thousand dollars more, hundreds of other Fu-

jianese have purchased fake passports and flown direcdy to airports in Canada and the United States, where they declare refugee status. Many others have taken a more circuitous route—often travelling to Southeast Asia, then to Latin America or Europe before reaching those same North American airports. So many have made the trip that almost 400,000 Fujianese now live in New York City alone. A prostitute, sitting in a dingy hotel bar in the Fujian capital of Fuzhou, says she too wants to escape, and is undeterred by the possibility of being raped, beaten and robbed along the route. “A friend of mine had a horrendous experience,” she says. “He almost starved on the boat, and when he couldn’t pay the snakeheads, he was kidnapped and held until his family came up with the money.”

Many Fujianese towns have been dubbed “widows’ villages,” because all the young men have gone. The money the migrants send back to their families has created a stark difference between those with relatives abroad and those without. Sprinkled among the traditional houses are fiveand six-storey mansions. The homes, some costing as much as $300,000, are garishly decorated with ornate chandeliers and spiral staircases.

Signs of wealth are everywhere. A marble plaque on the wall of an old shop in one community is dedicated to a local man living in America who paid for the village’s concrete sidewalks and town square. A cornerstone at a senior citizens’ centre in the same community proclaims that it was paid for by another villager living abroad. “There’s really no need to work,” explains a woman as she plays mah-jongg

with a group of friends in front of her house. “Most of the people here live off money sent back home by relatives.”

Beijing has cracked down with more security patrols in the region, and the increased risk has allowed the snakeheads to charge as much as $90,000, nearly double the fee six years ago. A boat with 150 people on board can bring in gross revenue of $11 million to $13.5 million for the smugglers. “The money to be earned here is so little,” sighs the wife of a shoemaker in the small town of Tantou, “while the money in America is so much.” But money is not always the only motivator.


One woman’s journey

Just north of Fujian is the province of Zhejiang. There, in the village of Wenzhou in September, 1998, Lijuan Hu decided to throw her lot in with the smugglers. She was just 18. In addition to watching dozens of others depart in the hope of building a better life in the West, Hu told Macleans she had another reason for leaving her village. She had received a letter from a family planning office, the agency that enforces Chinas policy of limiting families to one child. She says her father had been forcibly sterilized by doctors following the birth of her mothers second child. Fearing for their older daughters safety, they arranged for her to leave China for a price of $75,000. More than four months would go by before they would hear from their daughter again. When they did, the tearful phone call came from an Ontario jail.

Hu’s journey began when the snakehead ordered her to travel by train to the southern city of Nanning in Guangxi province. She then took a bus about 170 km to a small town near the border of Vietnam. That night, a man on a motor-

cycle arrived, and under cover of darkness they followed a gravel trail deep into Vietnam towards the coast of the South China Sea. As she bounced along on the back of the motorcycle, Hu suddenly longed for her home. “I missed my parents,” she recalls. “I didn’t know if anyone would tell them if I died on my way.”

Once at the coast, she was held for days in a safe house. “I couldn’t even cry out loud,” says Hu. “I wept to myself in the small room.” Finally, she was ordered into a boat along with three other migrants from China. They were taken to a battered fishing trawler and headed down the coast of Vietnam towards Cambodia and Thailand. “The wind came up and the waves got higher and higher,” she recalls. “I slipped and almost fell into the sea, but one of the guys grabbed me and saved my life.”

The smugglers refused to tell Hu where she was being taken. Experts who have studied the routes used by smugglers say she likely reached the coast of Cambodia or Thailand and was moved to either Phnom Penh or Bangkok. At one point, she crouched by the side of a railway track and waited for a train. As it slowed, she jumped aboard. “I saw people jump on trains in the movies,” Hu says, “but I never thought I would try it in real life.”

Phnom Penh and Bangkok are major snakehead staging areas, where officials are easily bribed into providing the migrants with fake documents. They are then flown to cities in Mexico, Central America or Europe before being rerouted to the United States or Canada. Hu’s destination was Amsterdam, where she was given a fake passport and visa. She boarded a flight for Canada and arrived at Montreal’s Dorval airport, where, as instructed, she declared refugee status. She called a telephone number that she had been given and her handlers quickly picked her up.


Once again, she found herself in a safe house, this time in one ofToronto’s Chinese districts, where she was held for almost two weeks. Finally, she was sent to the U.S. border near Buffalo, N.Y., in a large delivery truck with three other female refugees. As the driver neared customs last January, with the temperature at about -19° C, he ordered the four women into a wooden box bolted to the bottom of the truck. They had almost made it through when they were arrested by a customs officer who noticed Hu’s hair dangling from the container. After 4 V2 months on the road, a suddenly relieved Hu phoned her parents. “They asked me why I was crying,” says Hu, who is now working in a restaurant as she awaits her refugee hearing in Toronto. “I told them I was just happy that I was finally free in Canada.”

VANCOUVER: Landing by air and sea

Three thousand kilometres to the west, Colin Downton of the Vancouver Police Department’s Asian gang squad has heard dozens of stories like Hu’s. The walls facing his desk in a squat building on the Vancouver waterfront are covered in Polaroid mug shots of known members of groups like the Big Circle Boys—an Asian gang heavily involved in people smuggling.

Most migrants, just prior to landing at Vancouver International Airport, flush their false documents down the toilet of their airliner. Once in the airport, the migrants declare refugee status and are usually released pending a hearing. Enforcers representing the snakehead often pick them up and take them to a safe house. Downton says the snakeheads have been known to keep them captive for days as they try to ex-

tort even more money from their relatives back in China. In one case, he said, they put a woman on the phone and tortured her while her family back in China listened.

While the arrival of migrants at Vancouver International is largely anonymous, mass arrivals at sea off Vancouver Island have triggered public outrage. Victoria RCMP Cpl. Ray Legare says there is evidence that Chinese illegals have been landing on Vancouver Island as far back as 1997. Those fears were confirmed in July, 1998, when the Philippine-registered vessel Sun Lion was seized off the west coast of Vancouver Island with a Filipino crew aboard but no migrants. Legare says the illegals were off-loaded onto a beach near a road in the vicinity of the remote northern Vancouver Island community of Winter Harbour. After a short hike, they were loaded onto vehicles and driven to a ferry for the trip to the mainland. The RCMP believes the migrants may have been helped by area residents or fishermen. “We’ve heard they are paid $1,000 a body to assist with an off-load,” says Legare. “There are a lot of people who will get involved.” But the newcomers’ stay in British Columbia is often short.

TORONTO: The clearinghouse

Within weeks of the Sun Lion’s arrival, many of the migrants who had been on board the ship began to show up in Toronto. Police believe that, like many of the refugees who landed in Vancouver, they had been moved across the country in vans and cars. Once in the city, they were kept in safe houses until they were cleared to run the border near Buffalo or through the Akwesasne Indian reserve, which straddles the Ontario, Quebec and U.S. borders 70 km southwest of Montreal.

While the arrival of migrants in Toronto from ships like the Sun Lion is striking, hundreds of other refugees show up at Pearson .«

IN B.C., POLICE SAY REFUGEE BOATS may get local help

International Airport. A Chinese f woman named Hong, a doctor of | traditional Chinese medicine, told 1 Macleans she said goodbye to her | husband and eight-year-old child last May at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai. She then flew to Europe and switched planes in Germany and Holland, before finally arriving at Pearson four days later.

Hong says her worst moments came at immigration in Amsterdam when police checked her documents. Once through, she, like hundreds of migrants before her, made sure there was no evidence of her use of illegal papers. “I destroyed all document cards,” said Hong, who is now living on welfare in Toronto, “before I got off the plane in Canada.” Increasingly, some Chinese refugee claimants are opting to stay in Toronto, which has a growing Fujianese contingent among the city’s more than 400,000-strong Chinese-descended community. But many more head south.


Dark end of the rainbow

The Fujianese who finally reach their destination face years of subsistence work as they attempt to pay off the smugglers. Their days often begin on the dirty sidewalk of Forsyth Street in New York’s Chinatown. As cars and subway trains rumble overhead along the Manhattan Bridge, men from Fujian loiter outside a dozen storefront employment agencies, waiting to be called inside for jobs at restaurants or garment factories. The pay is poor, no more than $250 (U.S.) a week, and the hours are long—usually 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. But the men on Forsyth Street have few choices. “Back in China, they’re told that coming to the United States is like coming to paradise,” says Sara Mak-Lee, a social worker with St. Vincent’s Hospital in the heart of Chinatown. “Of course it isn’t true, but they have to make the best of it.”

The Fujianese, who are isolated from the mainstream by language and their illegal status, have their own section of Chinatown centred on a six-block stretch of East Broadway known locally as “Fuzhou Street.” People living in the area from other parts of China blame the Fujianese for rising crime and falling wages. And they mock them for the way they dress and talk, and for some of their customs — such as the practice of men holding hands as they walk down the street.

Primarily single men, they provide ready customers for

dozens of gambling parlors and thinly disguised houses of prostitution. Ming Li, a New York police detective who has worked out of Chinatown’s Fifth Precinct for 15 years, points to a bright-red banner that announces a supposed Chinese community association. In reality, he says, it is a storefront gambling operation and massage parlour, catering to the lonely. “It’s tough,” says Li. “The No. 1 TV show in China is Baywatch, and they think it’s going to be like that.”

Living conditions, too, are harsh for the Fujianese huddled together in Chinatown. For about 200 single men, home is a converted warehouse on Bowery Street, up three long flights of stairs. Inside, tiny cubicles have been built. Each contains three or four wooden bunks, enough to sleep half a dozen men in shifts. The narrow corridors are hung with laundered T-shirts and underwear; along the walls, men cook over hot plates. Rent for such accommodation mns about $200 (U.S.) a month. A man who identified himself only as Ziang said he had lived in his cubicle for three years, sending most of what he earns back to relatives in Fujian.

Families fare little better. Many men are sent to jobs up and down the U.S. East Coast, separating them from wives and children for weeks at a time. Most of the women work in non-union garment factories in Chinatown and often find it difficult to keep their families together. Mak-Lee sees scores of pregnant women at her hospital’s clinic. A third, she says, tell her they plan to send their babies back home. The practice is so established that operators charge a standard $1,000 (U.S.) fee for the service. The problem, says MakLee, comes when the children are returned to their parents around age 5: “They come back to New York speaking only Fujianese, and they haven’t bonded with their parents. They have a lot of behavioural problems.”

Still, the migrants keep coming—a steady influx of up to 300 every day to Chinatown. “No matter how bad it is here,” says Det. Li, “there are always more people back in China ready to take the trip.”

Andrew Phillips

Sheng Xue

Chris Wood

Paul Mooney

With Andrew Phillips in New York, ShengXue in Toronto, Chris Wood in Vancouver and Paul Mooney in Fujian