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Backstory: Travel noir – the Fung Wah 'extreme'

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2006


On I-84 east of Hartford, Conn., the late-morning traffic is light on a crisp, blue Tuesday. A long downhill grade beckons. This ought to be a Fung Wah moment.

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Our Fung Wah bus, stamped with the Chinese lettering of that maverick line – bargain king of intercity transport, legendary speedster, and longtime magnet for the urban cool – eases into the center lane and gathers speed.

Then ... nothing. Spotting a state-police cruiser across the median on the westbound side, the driver pumps the air brakes. Trash bags sway from armrests all down the aisle, and the speedometer's needle drops down near the speed limit. A Bud Light truck swipes past us on the right and a couple of passengers reflexively glance at their watches.

Chalk up the slowdown, perhaps, to an inauspicious Fung Wah moment from last week: One of its buses wound up on its side in the torn-up sod near a highway exit in Auburn, Mass. – looking in news broadcasts like a tossed-off toy.

No one was seriously hurt. Nor were there injuries in Fung Wah's previous high-profile mishap: a fire that engulfed a bus last August and touched off a broad federal inquiry into motor-carrier standards.

This time, Massachusetts officials ruled to allow the discount line's continued operation there, provided it agree to random safety inspections and that it hire English-speaking drivers.

But don't expect a radicalcorporate reinvention. Louder than any regulatory rumblings has been a generally positive – or at least bemusedly accepting – buzz among frugal travelers that sometimes borders on outright devotion. Fung Wah – despite some ribbing – owns an odd and persisting mystique that is rooted, to be sure, in its absurdly low fares but that also draws upon a faint aura of adventure travel and a deep, insular, and in-your-face foreignness.

Besides, Peter Pan and Greyhound are probably no one's idea of counterculture cool.

Fung Wah is an "extreme provider" that is a little inaccessible to mainstream travelers, and sweetly appealing as such, says James Twitchell, a University of Florida expert on brand appeal.

"Nothing is more attractive in branding than being able to colonize the edge of something," he says. "[In Fung Wah] we've got a great story on the edge of a fungible 'product,' namely bus travel, then it's cast with this great narrative of Asian overtones, sort of film noir. You're in this dark and creaky world."

Today, interactions with the bus line can also approach situation comedy. Calls to the New York and Boston offices at the height of its public relations crisis these past two weeks dissolve into mutual language confusion and hang-ups. Several Fung Wah employees even declined to translate the carrier's name when asked. A ticket agent in Boston seems to tentatively buy into "Chinese Wind" when it is proffered. She laughs at "Wild Chicken," the best guess of one online wag. Fenghua Jieyun Gongsi is the official name of the company, and can be translated as "Elegant Rapid Transit Company."

The low priority given customer-service skills extends to the website.A link to "news" still takes a user only to a 2004 New York Times article – skipping recent developments.

What is clear: Its fares are remarkable. Fung Wah's primary service connects Boston's South Station with New York's Chinatown, at $15 each way, up recently from $10. The service was created in 1998 as a van line serving the two cities' Chinese communities. Other Chinese carriers followed, spawning deep, sometimes violent rivalries. A shooting incident in 2003 was linked to the bus wars, though not to Fung Wah.