© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Artists Pay Tribute To No-Frills Chinatown Bus, Discomforts And All

The Fung Wah Biennial celebrates the now-defunct Chinatown bus service. For her performance piece, Sunita Prasad crowdsurfed around the bus.
Bryan Chang
Fung Wah Biennial
The Fung Wah Biennial celebrates the now-defunct Chinatown bus service. For her performance piece, Sunita Prasad crowdsurfed around the bus.

When I was a college student in Boston, in the mid-2000s, I didn't have a whole lot of money. But for the price of a movie ticket, I could catch the Chinatown bus down to New York City. It was a fast, cheap adventure.

These days, thousands of people travel up and down the northeast corridor on services like MegaBus and BoltBus. But the Chinatown bus was the original budget bus service. It started in the late 1990s as a service for the Chinese-American community, and became popular with students and others looking for a thrifty ride.

Now, a Queens-based activist arts organization called Flux Factory is celebrating the Chinatown bus with a series of on-board performances that pay tribute to the often-arduous journey.

The Fung Wah Biennial is the brainchild of Will Owen, a Flux Factory resident artist, who chartered buses from New York to Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He and more than 20 artists transformed the experience with objects, food and performances — an homage to Fung Wah, one of the first and most famous Chinatown bus lines.

Sure, only artists from Brooklyn and Queens would think of making a tribute to a budget bus. But for Will Owen and others — myself included — Chinatown buses democratized cheap travel.

On a recent Saturday, I took the Fung Wah Biennial bus on its inaugural trip, from New York to Boston. This ride started like they often do — with the bus parked illegally in Chinatown, and the driver worried about getting a ticket.

On board, the celebration called attention to the discomforts of Chinatown bus travel — from the lack of frills to the lack of personal space.

Art duo Pines/Palms made seatback comfort kits complete with fortune fish, homemade lavender sachets and earplugs. Sunita Prasad crowdsurfed around the bus as we cruised down the highway.

"If this had been any other bus ride, and someone started doing that, I mean, people would be like angry, upset, you know: Why are you in my space?" said passenger Crystal Cun.

But on this bus ride, people were supportive. They held her up, and she made it all the way around.

The whole thing felt playful, but the real Fung Wah bus line had a serious safety problem. They got into some big accidents — buses that rolled over, lost wheels, or caught fire. In 2013, federal regulators pulled their operating license because of cracks in their bus frames. The Fung Wah company tried to make a comeback last year, but failed.

And yet, I miss the Fung Wah bus like I miss my younger self — some version of me that wasn't mad if the bus broke down, or the bathroom wasn't working. In the best-case scenario, the bus was fast and cheap, and I ended up exactly where I needed to go. It always left me with a story — and the Fung Wah Biennial gives me a new one to tell

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!