Thursday, September 16, 2004


The Chinatown buses aren't in Chinatown. They’re at South Station.

A handwritten note, taped to the ticket window at Beach and Harrison in Boston’s Chinatown, says so, and the ticket office, carved from space beneath stairs leading to the Chinatown Eatery, is empty.

This is significant because it implies either a slight defeat for Chinese organized crime or the crushing power of big industry — meaning, in this case, larger bus companies such as Greyhound and Peter Pan (which are actually one company). The big companies hated Fung Wah, Lucky Star and Travel Pack for keeping fares as low as $10 one way, forcing their own prices lower (to $15 from a typical $35) and hurting their bottom lines. And one way Fung Wah and its indistinguishable competitors could sell so cheap is that they picked up and disgorged customers on the streets, rather than having to pay for berths at bus stations.

The Chinatown companies are putting on a brave face. “Rain or shine, hot or cold, customers can now enjoy the comforts of an indoor bus terminal for all their traveling needs,” says another sign at the Lucky Star and Travel Pack nook. But down the street, at the Crown Royal Bakery, the women who until Sept. 1 were selling Fung Wah tickets grimace when asked why the buses have moved.

“The city,” says one.

“The law,” says the other.

The Chinatown buses had played a cat and mouse game with police, who ticketed the buses when they stopped to pick up riders. Fung Wah losing was a foregone conclusion, since Chinatown is small and the buses are big. Pretty much all the police have to do to spot an illegally parked Fung Wah bus is show up. It’s like finding a Tonka truck on a coffee table.

But this is also a blow to the theory that Chinese organized crime was in charge. If the idea behind the buses was to generate a lot of paper money that would enable the mob to launder cash made elsewhere, there’s no reason the crime lords wouldn’t go on paying a lot of $50 parking tickets for the privilege. That Fung Wah has a sophisticated Web site that allows online payments is another minor blow to the theory, which was advanced by the New York Daily News about a year ago.

Now the Chinatown buses are tucked far down the bus terminals, in the small-company ghetto with Brockton & Plymouth. Their prices are uniformly up half, to $15 from $10, because, a ticket seller shrugged, “We come here. We pay the terminal.”

Outside, Peter Pan and Greyhound have people passing out fliers for their new rates, competitive with the Chinatown buses: $20, up from $15.

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