Artists Pay Tribute To No-Frills Chinatown Bus, Discomforts And All The Fung Wah bus was a cheap and not entirely safe way to get between major cities in the Northeast. It's no longer operating, but that hasn't stopped former riders from "recreating" the experience.
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Artists Pay Tribute To No-Frills Chinatown Bus, Discomforts And All

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

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

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of people travel between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston every day on services like Megabus and BoltBus. The original low-cost bus service though was for the Chinese-American community - the Chinatown bus.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Activist arts organization Flux Factory decided to pay homage to the Chinatown bus with some onboard performances, highlighting the discomforts of that mode of transportation. They call it the Fung Wah Biennial, after one of the original Chinatown lines. Reporter Pien Huang went along for the ride.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: 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.

On a recent Saturday I took the Chinatown bus again - this time from New York to Boston. And this ride started like they often do - with the bus parked illegally in Chinatown.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Chinese).

HUANG: Not everyone is here, said the driver, as he tried to get people on board so he wouldn't get a ticket. We left just a little late.

WILL OWEN: Welcome to the inaugural leg of the Fung Wah Biennial.

(APPLAUSE)

OWEN: Thanks.

HUANG: The Fung Wah Biennial is the brainchild of Will Owen, a resident artist at Flux Factory in Queens. He and more than 20 artists chartered buses from New York to Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. They transformed the experience with objects, food and performances. Fung Wah was just one of many Chinatown buses, but it was one of the first and most famous. And 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. This celebration called attention to the downsides of Chinatown bus travel - like a lack of frills and comfort and a smell that's pretty rank - and then tried to redeem them with amenities and calming aromas. The art duo Pines and Palms made seatback comfort kits. Sophia Traverman (ph) unpacked the contents as we left New York.

SOPHIA TRAVERMAN: Home-made lavender sachets, a golf pencil so you can write in the zine and then earplugs, so if you want to tune out of all the wild stuff that's happening on the bus and have a moment you can.

HUANG: But even earplugs don't help with personal space. It's cramped on a bus, people sneeze, elbows bump. In her performance piece, Sunita Prasad was doing it on purpose. As we cruised down the highway she laid down on top of her seat and crowd-surfed around the bus. Passenger Crystal Koon (ph) could not ignore it.

CRYSTAL KOON: If this had been any other bus ride and someone started doing that, I mean, people would be angry, upset - you know, why are you in my space?

HUANG: On this bus ride, people were supportive. They held her up, and she made it all the way around. Her space was ours and our space her's. The whole thing felt playful. But the real Fung Wah bus line had a major problem. It was unsafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Discount bus company Fung Wah tonight is pulling most of its fleet off the road.

HUANG: That's a clip from Boston's WCVB three years ago, announcing that Fung Wah was shutting down. They'd had some big accidents - buses that rolled over, lost wheels or caught fire. And ultimately, 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 it 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. Always I had a story and the Fung Wah Biennial gave me a new one. For NPR News, I'm Pien Huang.

MARTIN: An exhibit on the Fung Wah Biennial runs through March 31 at the Flux Factory Gallery in Queens.

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