Chinese village full of New Yorkers: a story of illegal emigration

January 2, 2011Jing Gao3 Comments, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From Nanfang Daily

The decline of Caozhu Village is at the same pace with that of many rural villages in China. What’s different is, here, desolateness is caused by affluence instead of poverty. People have left waves after waves for their American dream. Their pursuit of happiness leads to a faraway city that has a 13-hour time difference: New York. The village that doesn’t resign to its fate is a microcosm of the entire city of Changle, which supervises the village and has a population of 673,000: people are either in New York, or on its way to New York.

After half a century of nonstop emigration, the actual Caozhu Village has been moved to the United States. Now over 3,000 villagers resides in the U.S., while fewer than 1,000 still live in Caozhu. The population has dropped to an all-time low since its founding in Ming Dynasty four hundred years ago.

Huge outflow of young villagers is now a rarity. At the end of 1980s, it was still a common sight that formidable crowds of young people set off together. People waved goodbye to one another, as if Spartans bade farewell to warriors heading for Thermopylae.

Most advertisements are either about learning English as the second language or looking for long-lost families

Caozhu village falls under the jurisdiction of Changle City, Fujian Province. In history, Zheng He, an eminent Chinese mariner of Ming Dynasty, embarked on his voyage on the Indian Ocean to places as far as East Africa. Since the old days, residents here have risked their lives by fishing in boisterous weather to earn a living. It takes only one hour by bus from Caozhu Village to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province. And yet it is much closer to the sea, 15 minutes by walk.

In 1960s, the first batch consisting of only a handful of Caozhu villagers jumped on the boat heading for the U.S. In the particular times, illegal emigration was the best way to extricate people from the harsh reality.

Now over 3,000 have settled down half a globe away.

Mahjong is the major pastime of villagers left behind.

The young and the middle-aged have left. The old are left behind. The village looks deserted.

The village here was more like a place of no continuity.  Even a baby sitting in a trolley parked in the sun is more likely an American citizen: its parents in New York are so busy working 13 hours a day that they have to sent the baby back home and leave childcare to grandparents.

The village rests quietly in the sun. An aching void fills the air. Any human voice or dog bark sounds hollow. Dozens of old people – they belong to the majority of the village – sit on the ground in front of the village council, enjoy the sunshine and chitchat for the entire morning, the subject being the most prosperous city in the world, New York.

The only noise they made was when 65-year-old Cao Dianwu killed a rat and dangled it in front of the crowd. He once worked in the U.S. for 16 years, and killed countless rats at dirty kitchens in Chinatown.

Caozhu Villagers in the U.S. have coined an expression, “Daytime stove, nighttime pillow, weekends at lawyers’ home.” Lawyers’ home refers to places where they, as illegal immigrants, could seek help for gaining a legal status in the U.S.

Cao Xiaole, 25, and Cao Minfan, 26, are cousins. Their childhood friends are all now in the U.S. Some do dishes in New York’s Chinatown; some work as delivery guys; some have even started restaurants in other states. The primary school they went to was even forced to close because of extremely low enrollment. Every time they meet, they can’t help but sigh over missing the opportunity by inches.

More than 10 years ago, father of Cao Minfan had already started a family-owned factory. After serious thoughts, he decided to go abroad. At that time, the village viewed going abroad as glorious as becoming a government official in Beijing.

A good opportunity presented itself. A person who looks very much like Cao Minfan’s father returned to China from the U.S. and decided to settle down. So he sold his identity to Cao’s father at the price of hundreds of thousands of yuan, or tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, then an astronomical sum by Chinese standard.  People call this method “head change,” which is much safer than “boat hopping.”

But if they had been stopped by the border police, the scheme would have fallen flat, causing a huge financial loss. Only good luck and great resemblance can ensure success of such a plan.

Old Cao not only coasted through the border, but gained legal status from the beginning. The fluke was the envy of all villagers. In contrast with illegal immigrants, he can walk freely on the streets of the U.S. without dodging police investigation.

But the seemingly perfect plan has a flaw, which was not found until years later. In 2009, when Old Cao wanted to take his family to the U.S., he found he was a nonexistent person. How to show his family ties to the U.S. Immigration Services? How to prove the boy and the woman are his family? He failed even after presenting a bunch of correspondence between him and his family. Immigration services thought it was a fake marriage.

Still, “boat hopping” is the major method of illegal emigration. Cao Minfan’s cousin, Cao Xiaole, kept a picture of his father taken in Thailand en route to the U.S. On the picture, his father is smiling, silhouetted against palm trees and a sand beach. It was the golden corridor to the U.S.

Villagers usually take a boat to the international waters, where they change to a bigger ship heading for Thailand, Vietnam or Laos in Southeast Asia. They travel across vast oceans there to Mexico, and pass the mountain range at the border of Mexico to the other side, the U.S.

The journey is tortuous and dangerous. Smugglers always try to stuff as many people as possible onto trucks and boats and load little food supply. Some people were suffocated to death due to overcrowding and ill air. Some fell off the boat. They usually have to wait for several months in countries on the way, and arrive in the U.S. two to three years later.

Failing on the verge of success often happens. Even after they reach the U.S.-Mexico border, bullets of border patrol may end their journey or even lives. Another cousin of Cao Xiaole had to drift on the Pacific Ocean for half a month after his ship ran out of fuel. He had to feed on fishes from the sea. In the end, he had to turn himself in to the border patrol.

Route of illegal emigration to the U.S. White line is for "traveling"; black line is for "boat hopping."

Because “boat hopping” is too risky, “traveling,” as a more decent and comfortable way, has replaced it as the common method. Smugglers have magically transform themselves into “consultants. ”

After being separated from the father for almost ten years, Cao Xiaole, then only 16, his little brother and his mother, planned to reunited with him in New York by dint of “travelling.”

They would need to make a round-the-world tour. The route: Nauru, Singapore, Philippines, Denmark, Czech, the Netherlands, and finally into the U.S. from Canada. It was actually not that different from being a tourist. After they toured around the globe, they approached Canada without a stir.

They expected that after seeing a collection of border stamps by various countries, visa officers would easily buy the story that they were merely Chinese tourists who had been catapulted to affluence. Eventually the family would happily and legitimately enter the U.S., and “vanish.”

At first, the three of them obtained citizenship of Nauru through investing 300,000 Chinese yuan (US$35,000) in the South Pacific island nation. They needed the Nauruan passports to travel to many countries without visa.

They shook hands with Nauruan president and left a sincere and warm smile on the passport photo. It was important to them, especially when the passports were presented to border police.

They weren’t asked any question in Singapore. There they had a prearranged meeting with a tour guide, who told them the first stamp is the most crucial, whereas later overseas travels, like how credit history works, are much easier after the credibility is established.

The family had a one-month vacation in Singapore. Cao Xiaole was deeply impressed by clean streets and pedestrians who abided by traffic laws. However, one day, they heard about a piece of news: Customs officers at the British Port of Dover found a truck in which 58 illegal immigrants, many of whom were from Fujian Province, died of suffocation.

The incident has had a huge impact on the emigration wave in Caozhu Village as well as the entire Fujian, and is brought up even to this day. From then on, most people have given up on the extremely risky method of emigration, and instead resorted to “traveling,” which is more expensive but safer. Cao Xiaole’s family considered themselves lucky that they didn’t have to be that “foolhardy.” But they overlooked the long shadow the Dover Incident casts.

In fact, similar incidents have never stopped claiming the villagers’ lives. A relative of Cao Xiaole was shot dead by Mexican police while trying to climb a mountain from Mexico to the U.S. Another villager of Caozhu was constantly under arrest and had to hide himself in a human waste transport vehicle. He was found choked dead in the U.S.

Death was a heavy price that villagers paid for emigration, but they were not daunted. Those who settled down in the U.S. always tell the same legend that has a strong appeal for villagers: green card, high income, unemployment insurance, basic allowance for subsistence, free health insurance, free education…

Significance of migration to the U.S. to villagers of Caozhu is similar to reaching adulthood. Going there means the person can macho it out and have a bright future. “In fact, people have no second choice,” said Cao Xiangren, accountant at the village council.  Staying home not only loses one’s face, more important, there is little arable land in the village. Fish farm or vegetable farm can only bring in several thousand yuan (less than US$1,000) a year. Even if one goes to the cities and work as a migrant worker, earning two thousand yuan (US$300) a month can’t give one dignity.

The Dover Incident had led many countries to tighten their border control.  Cao Xiaole’s family travel finally came to an end on the Canadian side of the border.

U.S. border officers detected something fishy from the family’s eager and anxious look, and rejected their entry. The red stamp on their passport was only the beginning of their bad luck. On their way back, their entry was rejected by several countries. Their Nauruan passports were even impounded in Singapore. They had to flee back to China where they did not go back home until being locked up and interrogated by border inspection in Xiamen for days.

They spent 800,000 yuan (US$100,000)altogether without avail.

However, Cao Minfan is still waiting for another opportunity. His father bade his time after he successfully set his foot on the U.S. soil through the brilliant idea of head change and his good luck. But the judgment of fake marriage by the immigration services also landed the family in dilemma. They decided to go to court with the U.S. government.

On the other side of the globe in New York City’s Chinatown, both fathers of the cousins toil and moil. Their working hours is from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. One works as a receptionist at the front desk. The other works as a cook. Every day, they walk on the street filled with stink of garbage and fish. Two fathers seldom mention their drudgery to the families. But it is easy to learn about it from bulletin boards at the village’s gate.

In the alien land, homesickness, legal identity and safety are all challenges.

Yang Wei emigrated to New York from the city of Changle, and is now owner of several Chinese restaurants. He met immigrants that come from various villages under the jurisdiction of Changle. “They work like a horse,” Yang said. Many people have turned taciturn after too much work. They stay in a daze all day long. A cook from a village in Changle he once hired often talked to himself while cooking. He was sometimes quiet and sometimes ecstatic.

Cao Dianwu often talked about his experiences in New York City after he returned to the village. He was once waylaid by black teenagers.  After that, every time he was in the same situation, Cao, a roly-poly looking uncle, stretched out his two arms like Bruce Lee did, and managed to scare a few away. But it did not always work. In the worst times of public security, Chinese were killed in public restrooms after being robbed.

Such stories are always subjects of the village chitchats. Nowadays, New York City seems no longer distant to a Chinese coastal village. An attack on a fellow villager in NYC would be talked about by many in Caozhu the next day.

A cross made of pure gold. Emigrants have brought back Western religions.

Caozhu villagers remitted large sums of money home and funded building of halls as magnificent as the U.S. State Capitol.

The village is declining, while its wealth is cumulating. Villagers of Caozhu who did manage to settle down in the U.S. remitted large sums of money home and built halls as magnificent as the U.S. State Capitol.

The way villagers spend money flabbergasts migrant workers from Sichuan. “When U.S. dollar was strong, $100 bills were stacked on mahjong tables. Every time an old person died, those who attended the funeral got several hundred yuan in red envelopes as favors from the host.

Wealth of the neighboring village is no less than that of Caozhu Village. They also funded several halls. Keeping up with the Jones is then a matter of course.

Residents of Caozhu village are fed by their relatives abroad. Each household hires a babysitter and pays her 1,800 yuan (US$275) each month. What residents do is mostly enjoying sunshine, playing mahjong, and at times checking their mail for baby formula sent by the U.S. government.

Caozhu is full of stories of illegal immigrants interwoven with blood, tears and wealth. “They are not as free as us. We can be home anytime we want,” Yang Fang, a migrant worker from Nanchong of Sichuan said. She said she wasn’t envious of these “high-class” migrant workers. Empty houses have been gradually taken over by people from Sichuan who have found jobs here. Even the rule of mahjong has been “Sichuanized.”

Cao Dianwu, at an old age, can never go back to the village that used to be bustling with life. He would rather stay by himself in Fuzhou. He worked in the U.S. for 16 years, two and half months shy of getting the green card (U.S. permanent residence).  But in 1992, he decided to return when his mother became terminally ill. At the airport, immigration services tried to talk him into staying until getting the green card, but he insisted and managed to see his mother for the last time.

Cao Xiangren, the village’s accountant, remembers that he spent 6,300 yuan (US$800) on installation cost of the landline service alone in order to talk to his daughter in the U.S. Now Cao Xiaole’s father often calls him, and occasionally video-chat with him. At 59, he often says over the phone that he is tired from work, and is considering coming back.

But to Cao Xiaole, “father” is but a title. The image he can form of his father is his father playing with him in the park. He understands that fathers have sacrificed themselves for the benefit of his generation, but distance between the son and the father is hard to avoid. “I felt as if I never had a father.”

His father left in 1992 when he was 6.

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3 comments to “Chinese village full of New Yorkers: a story of illegal emigration”

  1. Cleo | January 2, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    What industry is in the town that lures Sichuanese to work there? I love the Fujianese in NYC. They don't act like anyone owes them anything and they have a lot of spirit. I think the restaurant food standards aren't very good still and don't represent Fujianese food well to outsiders.

    • Jing Gao | January 2, 2011 | Permalink Reply

      It is very likely that Sichuanese go to the town to work as nannies and babysitters, but I am not that sure. This is what I infer from the original article. In fact, as far as I know, Fujian cuisine is much less famous than that of Sichuan, Jiangsu, Shangdong and Canton. But the province does have a hardworking ethos that help its population find footholds in foreign countries.

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