Skip to content

On the Chinatown bus, you get what you pay for: Almost nothing.

IMG_1192.JPG

Passengers anxiously await boarding the bus in New York City. They may face many comfort challenges en route. (Photo by Danielle Blundell/CNS)

IMG_1194.JPG

On a recent Tuesday, the line for the Eastern Travel Chinatown bus was unusually orderly. (Photo by Danielle Blundell/CNS)

IMG_1195.JPG

Passengers anxiously await boarding the bus in New York City. They may face many comfort challenges en route. (Photo by Danielle Blundell/CNS)

Traveling by Chinatown bus from New York to Richmond, Va., only upsets Kira Disse’s already nervous stomach. It’s not the rough-and-tumble ride or the cramped quarters but the first-come, first-served mad dash to secure a spot on board. Right before the bus comes to a complete stop curbside, the line of passengers dissolves into a swarm, with everyone rushing for the door.

“Some buses make you have an assigned seat before you get on,” said Disse. “Others just ‘go with the flow.’ The people in charge are always frantically yelling on their phones in Chinese, so it’s hard to know what’s going on.”

There is one thing Disse does like about the Chinatown bus: the $35 price. But as the economy drives yet more customers back to a mode of transportation they’d previously left behind, cash-strapped passengers like her are being reminded why they switched in the first place.

On a recent Sunday, Disse wiggled past the crowd to grab a seat on a full bus headed back to her Richmond, her hometown. Once the bus started moving, she almost wished she hadn’t been successful. The bathroom had no light or toilet paper, a movie she would never have watched was playing on full-blast and she sat next to an armrest hog who didn’t really understand the concept of personal space.

“The Chinatown bus is like purgatory on wheels,” said Danny Wheeler, who rides the Eastern Travel Chinatown bus line once every couple of months. “You never know what to expect. But when you’re on it, you can’t get off until your stop, and nothing fazes you.”

Over the past decade, the Chinatown bus lines have attracted thousands of customers traveling up and down the East Coast despite their lack of basic amenities. Since airfare and train ticket prices haven’t dropped in the wake of the recession, the demand for Chinatown bus service has only increased. The cheap tickets—on average, one-quarter the cost of flying and one-third the cost of train travel—sound like an amazing deal, but once on board customers remember why they once vowed to never ride the Chinatown bus again.

What began in 1998 with the Fung Wah Company linking New York City to Boston by bus has blossomed into a full-blown industry over the past decade. Now more than 200 businesses operate curbside out of Chinatown and Midtown Manhattan, to transport customers to destinations ranging from Boston in the northeast to as far south as Atlanta. Most of the buses, however, aren’t anything like the luxury liners you remember from school field trips. Walking down the narrow aisle without whacking someone in the head with your bag is next to impossible. A typical ride includes passengers yapping on cell phones with “outdoor voices,” eating smelly Indian food or possibly painting their fingernails. (Numerous attempts to reach officials at various Chinatown bus companies were unsuccessful.)

As various episodes unfold, Chinatown bus riders tend to fall into different two camps: those who are uninterested in the bus riding antics altogether and those who watch in utter disbelief.

Though no stranger to the Chinatown buses, Wheeler, a 24 year-old-student, definitely belongs to the latter category. Until about a month ago, the last fight he found himself in the middle of took place in his high school cafeteria. But as the Eastern Travel bus pulled up to its routine Washington, D.C., stop around 3 a.m., Wheeler woke to shouting, police sirens and fisticuffs.

“It was absolutely insane—like something out of a movie,” said Wheeler. “All of a sudden these two men are throwing punches, people were getting pushed into the aisles, and the bus driver is screaming.”

As it turns out, the bus turf wars that make Disse’s stomach churn have occasionally turned violent. In Wheeler’s case, the police arrived, handcuffed the two men and proceeded to question the bus driver, which delayed the bus for a good 45 minutes. What shocked Wheeler most, however, was that some of his fellow passengers slept through the scuffle.

Daniel Lawson, 23, typically copes with claustrophobia on a Chinatown bus by opting for a window seat, bringing an inflatable pillow and packing various forms of entertainment, including his iPod, a book and occasionally his laptop.

But if he forgets to bring a DVD to watch, there’s always the fledgling bootleg movie operation taking place in the bus aisle five minutes before leaving.

“These guys come in off the streets with a backpack and uncomfortably approach you and whisper, ‘Moo-vee? Moo-vee? One dollah! One dollah!’” Lawson said. “There’s nothing like illegal activity out in the open to make you feel like you’re in for a safe ride up and down Interstate 95.”

Whether fearing for their safety or their sanity, many passengers find the discomfort of traveling tolerable only when in a substance-induced, comatose state.

To fall asleep on the bus, Liz McEntee feels it necessary to pop two Tylenol PMs, which she often purchases from the 7-Eleven just before boarding the bus. Other passengers turn to alcohol, wielding open containers while the bus is moving—yet another iteration of illegal activity on the bus. While Wheeler took shots with a fellow traveler before leaving New York City behind, Disse once sat across from a passenger who sipped beer out of a water bottle all the way back to Virginia. When her friends from Richmond have ridden the 1 a.m. bus to New York, Chardae Morrison, a student living in New York City, can tell they’ve come straight from the bar because they reek of alcohol.

“Getting drunk to deal with the bus ride doesn’t seem like the safest or smartest thing to do,” said Morrison, 23. She doesn’t drink herself, but she wonders what inebriated passengers would have done if faced with a situation similar to the time this past summer when the Eastern bus started smoking on the trip to New York. The driver pulled the bus off the road but was relatively useless after that point; the individual passengers banded together to fix the bus themselves.

“The Chinatown bus definitely serves its purpose,” said Morrison. “You just have to understand that you get what you pay for.”

E-mail: dmb2176@columbia.edu