Backstory: Travel noir – the Fung Wah 'extreme'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"I read ... about how there were these gang wars among the different bus lines and how ... somebody got shot or something," says Jennifer Schmidt, a regular rider from Brooklyn. "People were like, 'Are you still going to take the Fung Wah bus?' And I was like, 'Yeah, it's cheap.' "

Our four-hour trip earlier this week was efficient and bus-ride dull, which seemed to suit the 30 or so riders, who slept, chatted on cellphones, or sat plugged into iPods. There was a Chinese-American restaurateur from New Hampshire headed down to see suppliers, an elderly woman in a sari, a young Russian couple who boarded on a tip from a stranger, and an Irish tourist who had read about Fung Wah in the Rough Guide.

Riders seemed relaxed, or at least resigned. "Anything can happen to anyone ... anywhere," shrugged the Russian woman, who asks to be identified by her first name, Anastasia.

Tales circulate about hard braking that jolts riders awake, cellphone-gripping drivers, and rugby-scrum queues. But plenty of reported happenings on Fung Wah buses seem to be merely offbeat, even poignant. New Yorker Bianca Shagrin met her husband on a Fung Wah bus on Valentine's Day in 2004. She "liked the twangy Chinese music" on the buses, she writes from her honeymoon. Now she leans toward Greyhound: "slightly (but not always!) more reliable."

Still, tough statistics add gravity. Fung Wah's drivers – as a group – rank in the "worst 2 percent" of drivers nationwide on regulatory violations such as speeding, following too close to other cars, and not keeping proper logs, says Ian Grossman of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Over the past two years, he adds, 71 Fung Wah drivers were inspected and nine were suspended from driving – twice the national average for other bus companies.

But Fung Wah has "always been very receptive to fixing things and meeting federal standards," he says.

The real question for some observers involves the economics of delivering passengers some 220 miles – in vehicles that register single-digit m.p.g. ratings – with all of the attendant costs, for $15, almost hourly and all week long.

"I suspect they're cutting some kinds of corners," says Kip Viscusi, a professor of law, economics, and management at Vanderbilt University and an expert on societal responses to risk. "It's a question of which corners they're cutting."

In a 2004 interview with The New York Times, Fung Wah founder Pei Lin Liang described the staggering hours and high degree of multitasking by employees as "business by suicide."

On Canal St. in New York, Fung Wah customer-service agent Frank Torres herds passengers on the sidewalk. He downplays the Sept. 5 accident: "When you're dealing with public transportation it'll happen. It's not like we take big buses and put taxi drivers in them," he says, echoing Fung Wah statements about driver training.

He describes a recent program in which passengers were given comment cards and 25-cent tokens. The idea: Write down complaints, or, if you're happy with the ride, hand the token to the man behind the wheel. "We had some notes and calls," says Mr. Torres. "And we also had drivers walking away with a lot of change."

Michael Kanin contributed to this report.

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