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From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Tue Nov 23 1999 - 09:31:07 EST

Terror and Hardship - In search of wealth, Chinese migrants risk their
lives to be smuggled to North America.

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
will find only hardship and years of indentured labour. For many migrants,
the route begins in China's Fujian province and ends at the most common
destination, New York City - with a brief stop on Canadian soil. Maclean's
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 confidently. "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, directly 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 America's west coast.
For a few thousand dollars more, hundreds of other Fujianese have purchased
fake passports and flown directly 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 five-and 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
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.
>FROM CHINA TO CANADA: 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 Maclean's she
had another reason for leaving her village. She had received a letter from
a family planning office, the agency that enforces China's policy of
limiting families to one child. She says her father had been forcibly
sterilized by doctors following the birth of her mother's second child.
Fearing for their older daughter's 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
motorcycle 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 of
Toronto'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[inverted
exclamation mark] 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 1/2 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 extort 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 International
Airport. A Chinese woman named Hong, a doctor of traditional Chinese
medicine, told Maclean's 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.
NEW YORK CITY: 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 runs 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 Mak-Lee, 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."

COPYRIGHT 1999 Maclean Hunter Canadian Publishing Ltd.
(c) 1999 Information Access Company. All rights reserved.
This article may only be stored on a computer network for a maximum of 30
MACLEAN S 22/11/1999 P24

Melanie Orhant

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