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Riding the Dragon Coach: Chinatown-to-Chinatown Between New York and Washington - 2003-02-08

New York City has one of the largest populations of overseas Chinese in the world. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, business has fallen off in Chinatown, which is near the financial district where the World Trade Center stood. In the past year or so however, a new competitive enterprise has added some new life to the bustle of that neighborhood's maze of streets. It's an alternative bus service between the Chinatown districts of New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. VOA's Adam Phillips rode the bus called the "Dragon Coach" between New York and Washington.

It's ten minutes to six on an icy Chinatown evening, and the long, white Dragon Coach is almost full. This luxury coach is one of fifteen low-fare Dragon Coach buses operating throughout the northeastern United States every week.

Thomas Yuen, our burly Hong Kong-born driver, surveys the ethnically mixed array of passengers as some stow their coats and parcels, others take out chopsticks for a late-afternoon snack, and everyone settles in for the ride to Washington, about four and one-half hours south.

Phillips: "How do you like being a driver?"
Yuen: "It's ok! It's nice. I mean I have fun with the driving, and I can visit my parents in D.C. So it's a nice job for me."

About three quarters of Mr. Yuen's passengers tonight are Chinese. Many grasp shopping bags full of fresh vegetables and other food culled from New York's bustling Asian markets.

"I have lots of customers, a lot of passengers, they come from Washington, [and] they come here to shop," says Mr. Yuen. "Some of them come once a week, to buy food. It's cheaper and [they have] more choice. Especially for the holiday[s], [the] Chinese holiday[s]. We [they] have some traditions, some things we have to buy. They come to Chinatown and buy the stuff and come back."

Mr. Yuen explains why Dragon Coach is a popular choice for this clientele. "We can communicate with the customers," he says. "That us what the important thing is. A lot of people don't speak English. So they are afraid when people ask them something they don't understand, and they don't know how to answer. So they feel more comfortable with the Chinese."

Dragon Coach company manager Kevin Ho estimates that a full forty percent of his customers are illegal immigrants. Many have families in New York but work in Washington restaurants. They are attracted by Dragon Coach's low price. A round-trip ticket between the New York and the nation's capital costs $35 - less than half the price at Greyhound, the nation's largest bus company.

"What do those people need? They need transportation [and a] lower price," he said. "They can't afford Greyhound. And also, Greyhound, they check for the ID. We don't need to check the ID. So we just built this market."

But you don't have to be an immigrant to like the ticket price on Dragon Coach. This man, who gave his name as Chuh, works in a laboratory at a prestigious New York hospital.

Chah:"And right now I live in Manhattan. My family is in Maryland."
Reporter: "Tell me about this bus service. It helps you?"
Chah: "Yes. It is cheap you know, compared in price [with] Greyhound and other services. But sometimes it is not on time, it takes some time [a long time] and you have to be patient. But the price is quite good."

According to Wah, another rider, the music on the bus's sound system - pop music straight from the Honk Kong hit parade - is good, too. "I think the bus is luxurious," she says. "And the service is good. I like to take this bus."

Soon, the bus eases out of its makeshift parking space on a Chinatown street, bores its way through traffic, passes through the river tunnel and out onto the open highways of New Jersey.

This young Chinese professional says he is impressed by the number of non-Chinese riding Dragon Coach tonight. He hopes this service will help build a bridge between the two communities.

"Chinatown is like a small, closed community," he says. "Sometimes they can communicate in the bus. You see different faces. Yellow, black and white people. [It's] interesting, you know. There are many students, low-income passengers. They take this bus."

A student named Andrea finds the atmosphere on the bus exotic. For her, riding the Dragon Coach Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus is a continuation of an adventure that began several months ago, when, during a walk from her apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, she discovered a particularly Chinese part of Chinatown.

"It was a cool experience," she says. "I just sort of ended up wandering around, and have since trickled back in, poking into the shops and all that kind of stuff. I am very fascinated by how you can have a sort of country within a city. And this is like a little slice of that, I guess."

The international spirit extends to the film that soon appears on the video monitors above the seats. It is a Chinese comic melodrama about prison life. The English subtitles help everyone to feel included, even though some scenes, like a riot, need no translation.

Soon, the movie is over, and the U.S. Capitol comes into view through the enormous windows of the bus.

Thomas Yuen brings the Dragon Coach to a stop in front of the company's humble storefront façade in Washington's modest Chinatown, and the passengers stretch, yawn, shuffle off the bus, and disperse into the night.