China's Great Migration

China's Great Migration: "Little America"
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 9 2008 2:10 PM

China's Great Migration

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"Little America"

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FUZHOU, China—Moments after boarding my flight for the short trip from Hong Kong to the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou, I get the first inkling of the extreme demographic peculiarity of the place I'm headed. A woman at the ticket counter has bumped me, with inexplicable apologies, to first class, so I get to board before everyone else and relax with a plastic flute of orange juice while the hoi polloi files on.

And this is when the weirdness starts: Half of my fellow passengers are babies.

They're chaperoned, of course, by mothers and grandmothers and an occasional disinterested-looking uncle. But every passing adult totes a wriggling, cooing, chubby-cheeked infant. At two dozen, I stop counting.

There's an intriguing reason for this. The overwhelming majority of Chinese who have emigrated to the United States over the past 20 years come from a handful of counties around Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, which lies along the banks of the Min River, just across the strait from Taiwan. Seeking better economic opportunities, the Fujianese fled their farms and fishing villages throughout the 1990s and took circuitous—and often illegal—journeys to America. In 1994, then-CIA Director James Woolsey estimated that as many as 100,000 Chinese were entering the country illegally every year. That figure was probably a little high, and the exact numbers are impossible to tabulate. But you get the idea.

The Fujianese are known for their work ethic and entrepreneurial zeal, and the new arrivals fanned across the United States and started businesses. That generic Chinese restaurant in the strip mall near your house? Almost certainly run by Fujianese. Those no-frills "Chinatown buses" that initially linked Eastern seaboard cities and now rival Greyhound, crisscrossing the continent? A Fujianese innovation.

The Fujianese in America work so hard, in fact, that when they have babies—babies who, by virtue of being born on American soil, are U.S. citizens—they don't have time to raise them. So, they send the babies home, back to the very villages the parents left, to be raised by their grandparents. The babies sitting around me—who begin screaming in unison as the plane nears Fuzhou and begins its descent—are packing something that many of their chaperones lack: U.S. passports.

Baggage claim looks like a Maclaren showroom. One colorful, souped-up stroller after another rolls by on the carousel. I'm waiting for something a little more prosaic. Before leaving the States, I was having a drink at the house of Sean, a Fujianese friend who works as a bartender in Philadelphia. Sean's 9-month-old son already lives with his grandparents in a village outside Fuzhou. Sean asked, all casual, whether I would mind bringing something to the baby for him. "Of course," I said, pleased to think that I might get to meet his son and hand over some happy, lightweight trinket from America—a stuffed toy, say, or a baby bonnet.

"Great, thanks so much," Sean said. Then, eyeing my backpack, "It's not gonna fit in that."

Before this trip, I could imagine few ways to get strip-searched and interrogated faster than trying to board an airplane with a massive gym bag stuffed with 30 pounds of a powder you blithely inform security is "baby formula." But I've somehow managed to make it this far without raising any alarms.

After checking into my hotel, I meet up with a friend of a friend, Dr. Tang Xiao Xiong. "There are more Fujianese overseas than there are in Fujian," Dr. Tang tells me. He wears tinted, gold-rimmed spectacles and jeans that are pressed to a knife's edge, and he smokes long, thin cigarettes more or less nonstop.

"The first group of Fujianese to come to America were sailors," he explains. "New York was where they jumped ship." The sailors who settled in New York's Chinatown in the 1960s and '70s sent word back to China that you could make more money in one year at an American restaurant or garment factory than you could in a decade back home. In the 1980s, more Fujianese started making the trip. The exodus started with a single township, Tingjiang. A young man would leave, then send for his wife, then his siblings, then her siblings, and so forth. Demographers call this "chain migration," a term that explains how a few pioneers establish roots in a new place and send for others. A Fujianese colloquialism captures the same idea: "One brings 10. Ten bring a 100."

Dr. Tang had a successful career in Fuzhou, but even he felt the lure of America. After scoring a visiting-scholar position at the University of Southern California in 1992, he overstayed his visa and moved to New York, where he lived illegally until 1997. He established a medical practice treating undocumented Fujianese, who came to him because they didn't have health insurance. These migrants lived frugally, he told me, saving money to send for family members and sending cash home for the construction of lavish mansions in their villages. These houses became status symbols, the taller and gaudier the better, and as ever-present reminders of American prosperity, they drove others to migrate.

I'm curious to see some of these houses, so Dr. Tang and I drive to Yingyu village in Tingjiang. We're joined by Jinhua, a friend of Dr. Tang's. He jokes that Tingjiang is like "a little America on the banks of the Min River."

The first thing you notice about Yingyu is the mansions: four- and five-story monstrosities of concrete and tile, floor-to-ceiling windows of mirrored blue glass. They remind me of Frank Lopez's house in Scarface—the split-level with an elevator. *

As we stroll through an ornate gate (erected with money sent from America) and wander along a stone alley that winds through the village, we notice something else: There's no one here. All the adults of working age have left, Dr. Tang explains. They call these towns "widow's villages." Half the houses are vacant and shuttered. The others are home only to grandparents—and to American-born babies.

An older couple stand with their grandson, who looks about 3. They're curious about the random white guy wandering through the village, and Jinhua tells them I'm from New York.

"Oh," they say, smiling, and gesturing at the boy. "His parents are from New York. They have a restaurant on Henry Street."

"You have a very nice house," I tell them.

"Not really," says a voice behind me. "Look at mine."

It's a skinny young woman who has been standing nearby, listening to our conversation. (At least I think she's young. More than once in Fuzhou I've met people and assumed they were in their 30s, like me, only to have them mention that they were born in 1940 and share vivid recollections of the Great Leap Forward.)

The woman points to another house, which is, if anything, only very slightly larger than the first one. (Sigmund Freud's notion of the narcissism of minor differences takes on a whole new dimension in small-town Fujian.)

A man with a crew cut and a green leather jacket approaches. "You from New York?" he asks in English. He introduces himself as Lin Song and insists that I come and look at his house, which is bigger still. We approach a salmon-colored building perched at the edge of the village, looking out over rice paddies and mountains in the distance. Inside, it's one gleaming faux-marble floor after another, flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and stray Doric columns, serving no apparent structural function, which are painted Versace gold. The Fujianese are not shy about sharing what things cost, and as we ascend a brand-new wooden staircase, he announces, "Every step? Three thousand Chinese money."

Lin Song is a little vague about the source of his wealth, but he mentions a restaurant in Virginia and some kind of footwear concern in the Dominican Republic. I ask who lives in the house. "Me and my wife," he says. "Everyone else is in America. Four daughters. One son. All U.S. citizen!"

Undiscouraged by the apparent housing glut in Yingyu, Lin Song is actually building another, bigger mansion about 100 yards from the first. It's going slowly, he tells me, because he's having trouble finding local men to do the construction—all the potential candidates have left town.

Dr. Tang has made dinner plans, so we have to take our leave. Lin Song is genuinely disappointed. He seems to like chatting in English, and he asks when I will come back and visit him. We thank him for his hospitality, and he walks us to our car.

"See you in America," he says.

Correction, April 10, 2008: This entry originally misstated the name of the Scarface character with a split-level house. It was Frank Lopez, not Tony Montana. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Patrick Radden Keefe is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His book on snakehead Sister Ping and the Fujianese in America will be published in 2009.