The Passing of a Magnificent Wind
In not-really-that-surprising news this week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Fung Wah Bus, the notorious progenitor of low-cost interstate bus services, off the road. This news hit me especially hard. Not only because I regularly take Fung Wah to travel from my hometown of Boston to my home in New York, but because I was actually in the middle of one of those trips when they were shut down and found myself stranded in The City on a Hill. I headed down to South Station on Tuesday to try and talk to a few people at the Fung Wah desk, and except for a few head shakes and no comments, a young man nonchalantly said, "Oh no, my boss would kill me," when I asked him for an interview.
At that point, they were running rented charter buses in lieu of their fleet, but by 8 PM, they were officially ordered off the road and had posted a paper notice replete with typos at the terminal and their sales desk. Fung Wah spokespeople have claimed that the company will get back on the road, but the effects of bringing down the flagship carrier of cheap-ass rides are still rippling out.
Before their shutdown, Fung Wah (Cantonese for "Magnificent Wind." Yes.) had actually come a long way in terms of safety, regulation, and popularity.
Founded in 1996 by Pei Lin Liang, Fung Wah originally offered one-dollar shuttle service for Chinese immigrants from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Chinatown in Manhattan. The following year, as their popularity grew with the growing number of Chinese immigrants wanting to visit loved ones in Boston, Fung Wah began intercity service between Boston and New York City. During this period, the company was still unlicensed and unrecognized by the Feds, still using 15-passenger vans, and running on word of mouth among young, fearless travelers. (I first became aware of Fung Wah in 2001 by way of filmmaker Elgin James, then a doorman at a Boston nightclub I frequented, who was regularly traveling between the two cities.) By September 2004, amid mounting safety concerns from Boston city officials, Fung Wah finally began operating out of a major bus terminal, Boston's South Station, even though they had slowly been introducing actual buses into their fleet as early as 2002.
This move was also believed to have motivated Greyhound/Peter Pan to take notice the new upstart's growing share of the Boston-NY route. Timothy Shevlin, executive director of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, noted then, “The big dog out there, Peter Pan, is dead set against Chinatown bus lines. They don't want that kind of competition.”
Even after becoming licensed and legitimate, Fung Wah fixed their price to a still insanely reasonable 15 dollars, cheaper than a crosstown cab in either city. The company also led the way for low-cost bus companies like Lucky Star, Bolt, and Megabus. But Fung Wah could never seem to shake its shady reputation after one of their buses flipped and injured passengers in Massachusetts in 2007. The following year, a Fung Wah bus was sideswiped by a dump truck on Canal Street, resulting in the death of a woman who happened to be standing on the sidewalk.
In the mythology of perception, these kinds of incidents defined Fung Wah. Buses prone to crashing driven by militaristic monsters and filled with live chickens and SARS. But that simply was never the reality. I am not ashamed to admit it (nor am I really bragging), but for the last six years I have taken the Fung Wah so frequently that I am sort of like the Wilt Chamberlain of I-95 (though I have never had sex with any other passengers). I have sometimes found myself on the bus twice a day, multiple times a week. I am not exaggerating when I say the times I have ridden the bus are easily in the high hundreds, and I have literally never even been on a single bus that broke down or has been in a mortally dangerous situation, save for the occasional bathroom breakdown. As someone who hates a sweater enough to actually write about it, I can assure you, I would not waste my time or my dime repeatedly on an enraging experience.
I would even go as far to say that I love the Fung Wah. What other company has employees that excitedly wave you over to them while you are wearing a Black Flag shirt with a giant middle finger on it? The truth is, Fung Wah was a conduit to my formation as dual denizen of the East Coast’s best scenes. From day trips to hardcore matinees at CBGB, weekly classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, to visiting a girlfriend for the weekend, Fung Wah was my main squeeze.
Of course, the ridership of my many trips up and down wasn't of highest moral fiber. Since I am a fan of traveling at night, I have been lucky enough to witness such things as a disheveled Hessian disappearing into the bathroom before emerging 30 minutes later in a full on narcotic nod, who then fell into my lap while still holding his syringe. I've also sat through countless clouds of cigarette and weed smoke from those who couldn't wait the 90 minutes it takes to get to the McDonald's rest stop. And while I have never seen crates of live chickens (and in this smartphone age that hasn't produced any photographic evidence, I don't think any of you have either), I did once sit in front of a living, breathing, barking dog in a trash bag that someone carried aboard. As I slept in the very back seat one morning on my way to work, I was woken by a strange elderly woman who sat on my feet and said I reminded her of her nephew.
But these people, and every other person who has waited to get on the bus before getting into explosive arguments on their phones, can honestly be found on any other bus at any given time and are not nearly as much of an inconvenience as getting decapitated by a guy on a Greyhound bus. With its destination on Canal Street right off the BQE, Fung Wah also saves you the extra hour Greyhound, Bolt, and Megabus tack on by crawling through snarled uptown traffic in Manhattan. Thankfully, due to the fear and stigma that Fung Wah carried, I could easily show up at either ticket desk with two minutes to spare and still get a seat (sometimes two to myself), while long lines of Greyhound passengers petrified of ever riding a Chinese bus for "safety" reasons would wait, blissfully unaware that the Hound was not only responsible for more crashes than Fung Wah, but actually had multiple passenger fatalities as well. And yes, a fucking decapitation.
Fung Wah's closure will surely fuel debates about the oversight necessary in this now-crucial industry that has benefited scores of tourists, day trippers, workers, sweatpants-wearing scumbags, junkies, and crying babies. Others are wondering why regulators were asleep at the wheel for so long that a licensed company could have 21 of their 28 vehicles declared an "imminent hazard." While still others, like myself, are asking perhaps the most important question of all: How the fuck am I going to get home?
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