8, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 18
A. Peterson for TIME.
Chen Canting pictured in the US having survived his harsh ordeal.
illegal Chinese immigrant embarks on a long and dangerous odyssey from Fujian
province to the promised land of America
By TERRY MCCARTHY Fuzhou and New Jersey
was the most dangerous thing Chen Canting had done in his life. But as he
crouched in a fishing boat in the south China province of Fujian, he had
no idea just how perilous it would be. A dozen others huddled in the small
craft. Some of their faces were familiar, but the 20-year-old knew none
of them by name. In the pre-dawn darkness, nobody said a word. They had
only one thing in common:all were bound for America. Illegally.
Chen told no one he was going except his father. The 50-year-old farmer
from Meiyou village was not really surprised. Canting, the second eldest
of his five children, was the most ambitious. Slightly built, but with a
surprisingly deep voice and a self-assurance that belied his years, No.
2 Son always wanted more than the village offered. Instead of carousing
in karaoke bars, he had tried to set up his own business. He went south
to Xiamen to trade seafood, but ended up losing money in the fickle, seasonal
business. Undaunted, he was now attempting something far more audacious:trusting
local "snakeheads" to spirit him across the ocean to the promised land of
The father warned him to be careful, to stay out of fights. There were plenty
of stories of people dying on the ships, or of being caught at the other
end and sent back. Father and son agreed not to tell the young man's mother.
She would try to stop him. The night before he left, Chen took over from
her as usual at the noodle stall he helped her run. After she went home,
he quickly closed up the stall and made his way into Fuzhou, 25 km away.
At the main railway station, the snakeheads were waiting for him, just as
they said they would be.
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had introduced Chen to the snakeheads-gangsters who run human smuggling
syndicates in southern China, with links to Chinese communities all over
the world. Shifty, violent men with a liking for gold watches and rings
the size of plumbing fixtures, the snakeheads have a ruthless reputation
throughout Fujian. Chen was afraid of them, but he was also exhilarated
at the prospect of getting to the U.S. and earning more money. It was
to be a rite of passage. (Chen's name, village and some identifying details
have been changed to protect him and his family.) For $37,000, the snakeheads
had promised to take him to New York. He didn't know how long it would
take, what the route would be, what kinds of risks he would endure. It
was with a mixture of fear and excitement that he sat in the boat as it
pulled away in the early hours of Sept. 3, 1999.
Every year, thousands of Chinese pay huge sums to cram into ramshackle
ships and sealed containers in the hope of sneaking into America. According
to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of people
trying to leave China in this fashion rose fivefold last year from 1998
levels. Rough estimates suggest that 10,000 actually reached U.S. shores
by boat in 1999. Some are caught-1,500 were repatriated last year-but
most succeed in joining the estimated 275,000 illegals who enter the U.S.
annually. A significant percentage also die trying. In January, a container
ship docked in Seattle with 18 Chinese in the hold. Three were dead, buried
in the filth at the bottom of a container; the others were on the verge
of starvation. Still, like Chen, they keep coming.
The ship that would take Chen across the Pacific was waiting off the coast
in the darkness. It was a rusty old Korean freighter with three holds.
Chen was among 100 people packed into the rear hold; 60 more were loaded
into one of the front holds, and the third held food and water for the
voyage. When the hatches were slammed shut, Chen felt as if he was on
a prison ship.
Life inside the hold was nightmarish. There were no windows and only one
fan to suck out the stale air. "We were cold all the time," says Chen.
The toilets consisted of two buckets-one for men and one for women. Hygiene
was impossible to maintain in the cramped conditions. "Everyone got eye
infections. For a week my eyes were all red, and I couldn't see anything."
The snakeheads periodically handed out water, rice, peanuts and some vegetables
to their human cargo, but no meat, fish or tea.
Half a dozen snakeheads and three armed Cambodians stood guard. "They
were Khmer Rouge-you know, assassins," says Chen. They spoke no Chinese-the
snakeheads communicated with them in English. They allowed the emigrants
onto the deck once a week to wash in salt water. Otherwise Chen and the
others were confined to the hold 24 hours a day. Once when he tried to
sneak out on his own, Chen was caught and beaten before being thrown back
into the hold. The snakeheads would sit on deck and drink beer at night.
Then they would go into the holds and pick out one or two young women
to come up on deck. "Nothing was said, but when they came back everyone
knew what had happened," says Chen.
The snakeheads did not waste much sympathy on their human cargo. Several
weeks into the trip, a man who was traveling with his wife and three-year-old
daughter fell ill. For three days the man was nauseous and disoriented.
On the fourth day he died. The captain of the boat had his body thrown
Chen thought the journey would never end. In fact, it would take the aging
freighter five weeks to cross 14,000 km of ocean. A modern container ship
would have been faster and even cheaper, because the snakeheads pay only
the freight costs for each container-as little as $900 from Hong Kong
to Seattle. A 40-foot container can carry up to 24 people. But there are
drawbacks:the windowless boxes are locked from the outside, and nobody
can get out until the container is unloaded. Immigrants can starve or
be asphyxiated, especially if the crew of the ship doesn't know it has
stowaways. Moreover, the chances of discovery are higher, as the huge
ships have to dock at recognized ports and pass through customs formalities.
Older cargo ships are often barely seaworthy, cost the snakeheads $250,000
or more and carry only 100 to 200 people. But they have the advantage
of being able to land pretty much anywhere. Chen's cramped freighter had
no bunks, and people slept cheek by jowl on the floor.
At the beginning of October, the ship encountered a big storm. As the
rickety bucket rolled from side to side, waves crashed over the decks
and water poured into the holds. Suddenly the daily fear and uncertainty
escalated into full-scale terror, and the holds echoed with screams. "Everyone
on the ship thought we were going to die," says Chen. But the ship plowed
on, and on Oct. 8 it reached its destination-not America, as Chen had
presumed, but Guatemala, well away from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Bad weather hampered a landing, and on the first night only half the Fujianese,
including Chen, were offloaded. They were forced to stand on a shallow
reef, with water up to their thighs, waiting for small boats to come out
from shore to pick them up. Finally five vessels, manned by Taiwanese
gangsters, ferried them to land. The Fujianese trudged through fields
for several hours before they reached a road where vans awaited them.
The next night the Taiwanese boats went out again, but this time the Guatemalan
police were waiting at the landing site. Chen thinks local peasants who
saw the first group tipped off the law. Most of the second batch of Fujianese
were arrested as soon as they reached shore. One boat capsized in the
choppy water; Chen says a dozen people drowned.
Chen and about 100 others were taken to the home of a Taiwanese who lived
with his Guatemalan wife on the outskirts of Guatemala City. "He was a
big boss," says Chen. "His house was like a mansion, and there were 100
servants." Chen quickly discovered that Guatemalan peasants led, as he
puts it, "much worse lives" than farmers in China. Indeed, he and his
fellow illegals were not fleeing desperate poverty. Their coastal province
is relatively well-off for China:Fujian receives plenty of investment
from Taiwan, just across the strait, and the land is fertile enough to
feed everyone. But Fujianese have a centuries-old tradition of emigration,
peopling Chinatowns around the world. Many young people grow up with the
idea of emigrating to join their rich relatives overseas. What China denies
them is not food, only opportunity. At home Chen was making $120 a month
wholesaling fish and running the noodle stall. In the U.S. he knew he
could earn much more.
At the house of the Taiwanese, Chen and the others were told to keep out
of sight. The Guatemalan police were searching for them, so they spent
a month holed up inside, waiting to resume their journey. For the snakeheads,
who get paid only on arrival, the trip had now gone badly wrong. A dozen
of their human cargo were dead, an additional 38 had been arrested by
the Guatemalan police, and U.S. immigration authorities had been alerted.
The snakeheads would not allow any of the illegals to call home.
What Chen did not know was that news of the drownings and arrests had
already made its way back to Fujian. In their small red brick house at
the end of a dirt road, Chen's parents were deeply worried. "We would
make food and then just sit at the table looking at it, with no appetite
to eat it," says his mother, a thin woman with a weather-beaten face from
years of working the fields. She wished bitterly that she had been able
to stop him from going.
At the beginning of November, a white truck pulled up to the Taiwanese
gangster's home. Chen and 24 others were marched outside and forced to
climb into a tight crawl space under a false floor in the back of the
truck. The vehicle was then loaded with grapefruit and driven north into
Mexico. The trip took 40 hours. "We had no water, very little air, lying
down all the time. For sure if it lasted even another hour or two I would
have suffocated," says Chen. "By then I was more scared of dying than
of being caught and sent back." Lying there, all he could think of was
his home and his family, and he wished he had never left.
But now there was no going back. Chen was fearful about what would happen
when he arrived in the U.S. He hoped his family would be able to borrow
enough money to pay off the snakeheads, but he wasn't sure. "If your family
has no money to pay, they throw you into the black market. I have heard
that could be selling heroin." Or worse:snakeheads have no compunction
about killing if their bills are not paid.
Chen and his companions were finally released from the truck in the middle
of a forest in Mexico. They were given into the care of three armed "coyotes"
who guide emigrants across the border. The Mexican leader spoke some Chinese;
this was not the first group of Fujianese he had seen. Chen was told that
the men would earn $5,000 for each Chinese they got into the U.S. alive.
But because the immigration authorities were on the lookout for Chen's
group, they camped in the forest until the end of December. Chen and his
comrades had no idea where they were. They had little choice but to hunker
down and eat the unfamiliar Mexican food they were served. Chen learned
a few Spanish words, including cigarrillos; cigarettes were his only antidote
to the tension. At New Year's the anxious band was driven north near the
border to a town full of bars, only to wait some more, presumably while
the coyotes contacted accomplices on the U.S. side of the line. On Jan.
10 they headed out on foot across the desert.
Crossing the border took six days. The Chinese had little water and less
food. At night, when the temperatures dropped below freezing, they could
do nothing but hold each other for warmth. Their Mexican guides would
not allow them to light fires, and Chen still had only the two thin shirts
and one pair of trousers he had been wearing since he left Fujian. On
the sixth night they reached a chainlink fence, which the Mexicans cut
open. Chen pushed his way through. After 17,000 km and 135 days he had
finally made it to America.
There was no chance to enjoy the moment. If ever the immigrants were in
danger of being captured, this was the time, with the U.S. Border Patrol
on the prowl. The Chinese were lucky that night. A minivan with darkened
windows was waiting for them, a Chinese driver at the wheel. The snakeheads'
far-flung networks had delivered. The driver sped through the night to
a large city, which Chen discovered was Houston, though he had only the
vaguest idea of U.S. geography. All he had was the telephone number of
a distant cousin who lived in someplace called Flushing, New York.
The snakeheads were not finished with Chen yet. After a day in Houston,
he was driven to Los Angeles, locked in a room and told to phone his family
in Fujian for the passage money. The price had suddenly increased because
of the Chinese who died or were arrested en route. The snakeheads now
demanded $50,000 for delivering Chen safely to the U.S. That represented
a fortune, more than 30 years' earnings for Chen back in Fujian. The amount
was not negotiable.
Chen called home on the night of Jan. 18. His mother answered the phone
and burst into tears. For more than four months, the family had had no
idea whether he was alive or dead. The only thing they knew was that he
had not been among those reported arrested.
The same day Chen's father began the onerous search to collect the money,
borrowing from friends, relatives and money-lenders-who demanded interest
at a rate of 2% a month. As he brought each portion home, he hid it underneath
his wooden bed. "We were very nervous," says the father. "We had never
had so much money before. I told Eldest Son to stay at home all the time
to watch the money." After two weeks he had acquired the full amount.
On the night of Feb. 1, two local snakeheads came to the house to pick
it up. The next day the snakeheads in Los Angeles released Chen and put
him on a plane to New York City.
"New York was great-like playtime," says Chen. His cousin from Flushing
gave him a bed, and for a week he wandered around Manhattan, gaping at
the skyscrapers and the aircraft carrier Intrepid, which made him realize
just how small his own craft had been. "I had never seen a ship that big."
But Chen's cousin, who has U.S. residency, did not want him to stay indefinitely,
and after a week she kicked him out. Chen then learned the meaning of
being alone. He didn't know a single other person in the country. The
only place he felt comfortable in was Manhattan's Chinatown, once he knew
how to get there by subway. Wandering the streets, he came across a window
sign in Chinese, advertising a job agency. For a $40 introduction fee
and a $12 bus fare-almost the last of the small amount of savings he had
brought with him from home-Chen was soon on his way down the New Jersey
Turnpike, bound for the Dragon King Chinese Buffet Restaurant-an "all-you-can-eat
crab legs, sweet-and-sour pork, and 'plenty more' for $12.95, plus fortune
cookies with your check"kind of place. The food bore little resemblance
to anything he had eaten at home, but he knew how to chop vegetables,
wash dishes and mop the floor. For a 13-hour workday, six days a week,
Chen makes $1,400 a month and pays no taxes. He sends most of the money
back to his family to repay the snakehead debt.
Chen has been working at the Dragon King for more than two months now.
He is happy to be in the U.S. and seems to identify naturally with the
American can-do mentality. "The best thing about America? You can work
without ID," says Chen, smiling broadly. He likes Americans:"When you
bump into someone on the street, they will smile and apologize, not like
in China, where people snap at you all the time." But it bugs him that
he cannot buy cigarettes or beer, because "they need ID-and I don't have
Chen has come of age in the course of his long odyssey. He cannot hide
his pride when he says he will keep sending money to support his family
in China, even after he has paid off his debt. For the time being he works
with 17 other Chinese, all from Fujian, as well as five Bangladeshis and
one Indian-and not a green card among them. Finding proper papers will
come. "I haven't had time to work that out yet," he says, implying it
shouldn't be too hard. Meanwhile he is trying to learn English so he can
climb out of the dishwashing level of the economy. He has already dreamed
up a business plan to import crabs from China. And at the right time he
plans to get married, to some Chinese woman who also came over by boat.
"They are tough, and don't cry much, so they make good wives," he says.
His family are delighted that No. 2 Son is safe in the U.S. When Time
shows his parents pictures of Canting standing outside his restaurant
and sitting in a car, the mother rushes off to show all her neighbors,
as proud as American parents displaying college graduation photos of their
children. Like a knight slaying a dragon, Chen Canting did the most dangerous
thing he knew of-risking death on the high seas, imprisonment in four
countries and abandonment in a nation where he knew nothing of the language
or the culture. He broke the law and remains an illegal immigrant, which
still poses a problem if he is ever caught. But for now he is in America.
And that, as he says, is the strangest, most wonderful thing of all.
With reporting by Ricardo Miranda/Guatemala City
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