Coming to America…Fuzhou’s Main Export is People

Posted in Barbershop, Fujian, Immigration at 3:21 am by Benjamin Ross

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You’ve all heard the stereotypes. 15 Chinese workers crammed into a small room in the back of the local Chinese eatery. They never show their faces. They never leave the kitchen. They don’t speak English. They don’t have green cards, and they certainly aren’t paying any taxes. This has caused quite a stir of late as the Bush administration looks to revise the US immigration policies. Some Americans think it’s about time we punish those who have illegally entered our country. Others feel that it’s just another act of xenophobia from an already over-paranoid administration. In a barbershop in Fuzhou, this is a hot topic as well, but for different reasons.

Fuzhou is famous for its opulent banyan trees, its sugary 荔枝肉 (sweet and sour pork), and its scorching hot summers. But more than anything Fuzhou is best known for its legions of expatriates who emigrate to all corners of the world to wash dishes, cook food, and scrub the floors of Chinese restaurants. If you have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant outside of China, chances are you have consumed food prepared by a Fuzhou cook.

Estimates suggest that as many as 40% of all Chinese abroad trace their roots back to Fujian province. The vast majority of them immigrate without the proper documentation.

One of the barbers in my shop is especially interested in this topic. My first day on the job he asked me to give him an English name. I chose “Adam” because it sounded similar to his Chinese nickname.

After giving him a name and teaching him some basic English greetings at his request, I asked Adam why he was so interested in learning English.

“I have several relatives who have illegally immigrated to the United States. It is my dream to one day sneak into the United States as well,” he answered.

Adam is uncharacteristically candid for a Chinese, but dreams such as are not uncommon in the City of Banyan Trees.

Like most of Fuzhou’s illegal immigrant population, Adam is not from Fuzhou city proper, but rather from a surrounding town about two hours away. It is in these small, coastal towns where locals have traditionally looked abroad to achieve their fortunes. My first year in China was spent in one of these towns.

Fuqing is a one hour bus ride away from Fuzhou, and is not a desirable city to live in by Chinese standards. It is small, has poor public infrastructure, and few job opportunities for people with college degrees. Yet, on a casual walk through Fuqing, one will see young women wearing designer clothes, old couples living in 5 storey mansions, and men with long fingernails and hairy moles driving BMW’s. Another suspicious characteristic of Fuqing, is the seemingly low number of people in their 20’s and 30’s.

In the words of my friend Xiao He who grew up in Fuqing “There are two options for young people in Fuqing. If you can make it into college, you can get a good job and move to a bigger city. If you don’t get into college, you just sneak into Japan to work for 5 or 10 years” According to Xiao He, of his 41 high school classmates, 11 of them are currently working in Japan, all illegally.

Each little town outside Fuzhou has a corresponding country in which its locals have existing connections and tend to immigrate to. While Fuqing’s expatriates can be found mostly in the kitchens of Tokyo’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinese restaurants are mostly staffed by immigrants from Lianjiang and Changle, two other small towns just outside of Fuzhou.

The reason people go abroad is simple…money. Most of them spend their entire time working (often up to 13 hours a day), have meals and housing provided by their employer, and rarely go out or spend any money. This lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of barbershop employees in China.

After I initially figured out the hourly salaries of the little brothers and sisters in the barber shop, Adam asked me to calculate what he would be making had he been working in the United States rather than China.

Using the minimum wage of my home state of Missouri ($6.50 per hour) the same schedule as worked by Chinese barber shop employees would net $23,000 per year (before taxes which likely aren’t paid anyway). In China that comes to around 14,500 RMB per month, a salary which easily catapult a worker into the Fuzhou upper class. Looking at these figures, it’s not hard to understand why there is such a draw towards illegal immigration.

This is exactly what Adam and many other Fuzhou people are thinking when they look for opportunities to go abroad. Either way, he will be working 70 hours a week and living in cramped living quarters. It’s just a matter of whether he will be making 50 cents an hour or $6.50.

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  1. Hek United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 3:39 am


    Excellent blog.


    Oh, what ever happened to Ron?

  2. Joe United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 5:31 am

    I don’t know that illegal immigrants would necessarily make minimum wage…..

  3. Matt United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 8:45 am

    Are your Chinese coworkers aware of the minimum wage in the U.S.? Do they expect a certain level of income or would they be willing to work for less? I guess it would depend on the scruples of their employer.

  4. China Law Blog United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Washington’s state’s minimum wage is $7.93 and rises with inflation. But, do these Chinese restaurant workers really get the minimum wage? I doubt it.

  5. Jas China said,

    May 22, 2007 at 9:42 am

    This is a very serious issue, a social phenomenon cause by a lot reasons. 存在的,既是有道理的, which i guess can translate to: existence is a reason. Both the labor offerer and the money payer gives what they have and gains what they need, same case between developing and developed countries at this moment.

  6. Cate United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 11:09 am

    Please tell Adam that US$23,000 is near poverty level income in the US (esp in big cities such as NYC and LA). Many Chinese do not seem to understand that although they make much more in the US as compared to China, the cost of living is also much much higher and hence their purchasing power with the same amount of money is much lower in the States. On top of that, he may also have to work for years as a semi-slave to pay off the “passage fees” demanded by snakeheads.

  7. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 22, 2007 at 11:10 am

    When I was writing this article I was thinking how it is quite possible many illegal immigrant workers are working for under minimum wage. By the same token, there are also some illegals who make more that the minimum. Remember most of them stay abroad for long periods of time (we’re talking 5-10 years), and they don’t always stay at the same job, or in the same position. So for a reasonable comparison I decided to use minimum wage as a median. As one might expect, there are no accurate statistics on wages for illegal immigrants in the US. Even if they are working at a few dollars under the minimum, they are still making a hefty salary by Chinese standards.

  8. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 22, 2007 at 11:16 am


    This was exactly my thought as well when I first heard about all these schemes to head to the US, especially when you consider most Fuzhou people go to New York City, one of the most expensive places to live in the US. There is no way they could possibly save enough money to pay back the fees that they payed to get smuggled across. However, the lives they live in the US are not the same as the lives you and me live. They are not going out, eating at restaurants, and enjoying the city life. Most of them live in employer provided housing, and eat food provided by the restaurant. Basically, they spend no money.

    It is very true, as you point out that they have to work for years before paying off the money. This is all part of the plan. Usually that takes about 3 years (the going rate to get smuggled to the US is about 600,000 RMB right now). But after that, it’s all profits. And the conditions they work in the US, aren’t that different from those working in China.

  9. Lawrence China said,

    May 22, 2007 at 11:41 am

    That’s totally true. As the condition is the same, why not working in US? And after ten years, they would definitely come back to China and have a good life. So, from another aspect, it is not illegal IMMIGRATION. They just illegally work in US for several years and then leave.

  10. Cate United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    If they know what they are getting into, that’s fine. However, I suspect that many of the illegal immigrants come to the US with unrealistic expectations. I once told a Chinese migrant worker that there are in fact poor people in the US, his reply was that I was lying.

  11. Shopgirl's Shanghai blog Sweden said,

    May 22, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    But then again, how would he find a job in a foreign country without speaking the country’s language. Housing is much more expensive, so are the other living expenses.

    I should know who moved from China when I was four to Sweden. Although we weren’t those called illegal immigrants from the beg.

  12. doom United States said,

    May 22, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    The Chinese immigrants I know that have come to the US to work in restaurants that stick it out end up doing quite well for themselves. Like Ben said, a lot of times, it’s not what you make, it’s what you spend. Plus if you are willing to work your ass off, live meagerly, and stick with it, you can save enough to buy house, get a good immigration lawyer, and experience a little bit of the American dream. I have seen this happen a lot in my town particularly with Ukrainian immigrants.

  13. Handan China said,

    May 22, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    Excellent post, Ben! Since all my doubts have been cleared up by the back and forth in the comments, all that’s left for me to say is, good job! Not that I didn’t try hard to come up with some critics, though. Can’t do it with this one:)

  14. CJ China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Ben… I think that you blogs have been a real eye opener for many expats (except for maybe one guy here: http://www.benross.net/wordpress/?p=73#comments). Keep up the great reporting.

    Last year I spent 12 days in a village in Anhui to harvest wheat. Same deal… no special privlages. Why? Because most of my staff are from this small village of 120 households. I just really wanted to know and share their experiences.

    Yes, I know 12 days is NOT 30 days. But it only takes 8 days to do the harvest. Best experience I have ever had in my life. In fact, I am going back next week to do it again.

    BTW… I am a white American who has lived in Shanghai for 19 years and own a pizza joint. So for the cynics out there… you can always learn more about China by just going out there and doing what Ben is doing or what I have done.

    You should know that harvesting wheat is NOT that hard. Although from a train or car it may seem so.

    Now get back to that broom and clean the toilets! : )


  15. CJ China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Sorry Ben… I met this link: http://www.shanghaiist.com/archives/2007/05/21/american_guy_le.php#comments

  16. Letz United States said,

    May 23, 2007 at 1:41 am

    This situation will continue until Chinese can make at least 1/3 as American. A good news is that China Yuan is appreciating quickly. I would say in the following 20 years, this emmigration flows will gradully reduce to a unnoticed level.

    Fuzhou in particular has long history of emmigration. No wonder people there are all thinking about this path. However, lately other places in North China like Northeastern provinces have found their citizens making efforts towards illegal immigration to European and the U.S.

    I am actually in favor of this, since it will mitigate the the competition of job market in China. I wish these guys never come back again, haha.

  17. Alan United States said,

    May 23, 2007 at 4:34 am

    Dude, you did an excellent job depicting Fuzhouites’ migration to overseas. Your description of Fuqing, Lianjian and Changle is so accurate. Your mention of Fuzhou’s sugary pork made me feel nostalgic.

    I am originally from a suburb in Fuzhou (Mawei) and have lived in the States for 20 years. I came as a graduate student, studying Computer Science and Linguistics. After completing my graduate studies, I got a job as a software developer, worked for a year and then started my own software consulting firm. Once in the 90’s, I went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch with my coworkers from IBM. Upon hearing the Fuzhou accent uttered by the host, I told him that I was a Fuzhou-ren as well. Little did I know that my ancestral identity would shock him greatly. He exclaimed in the most shocking and disbelief tone, “A Fuzhou-ren could work for the IBM Corporation? Bu cuo bu cuo! (Not bad! Not bad!)” I told him that I did not come to America illegally but as a graduate student on a legal F-1 visa. For the entire lunch, the Fuzhou host stared at me from time to time, as if I were a rare finding.

    I have a lot of distant relatives who are here illegally and work in Chinese restaurants in NYC, D.C. and other cities all over eastern states. Some of them came with unrealistic expectations. They all knew it would take them usually 3 years to work and save every penny to pay off the “passage fee.” However, most of them, if not all, thought working in a Chinese restaurant in America was an upscale job (easy, respected, and lucrative). Those who are still in Fuzhou but plan to sneak into NYC would tell you that washing dishes in America is easy. How so? Because there are dish washers in America. They also thought jobs are plentiful, which is not true for newly minted illegals. A few years ago, we met two Fuzhou-ren from Changle, both illegal, who were hired by a Taiwanese general contractor to work on some building projects of our basement. The health of one of the guys started to decline steadily after coming to America due to stressful work, bad living quarters provided by employers, irregular meal times, unsteady income, and loneliness. They also told me about other Fuzhou-ren who had committed suicide and gone crazy after some tough times in the Beautiful Rice Land (the word ‘America’ in Fuzhou hua also means ‘the rice land’ although it only means ‘the beautiful land’ in Mandarin). Allow me for a quick digression. The word Mei as in Mei Guo(America) in Mandarin is Mee in Fuzhou hua, which means rice. When I was growing up in Fuzhou in the 60’s and 70’s, we were poor and didn’t have enough to eat. When our relatives in the U.S. sent us money, we oftentimes used the money to buy rice. Hence, as a kid, whenever I heard the word America, I associated it with plentiful rice. What a nice country, I thought, where there was plentiful rice for everyone.

    My parents and siblings still live in China. The last time I visited them was 3 years ago. Fuzhou has certainly changed a lot. My siblings are all doing well, but they still want to sneak into America to work in Chinese restaurants, just like many other Changle ren or Tingjian ren. I told them I don’t own a Chinese restaurant and hence it’s impossible for them to live with my family and have me drive them to a Chinese restaurant to work each day. They thought I wasn’t being brotherly. Chinese always want to know how much money other people make, especially with family members. I made a mistake once by telling them exactly how much I brought home a year as a software consultant. They were dumbfounded with my figure because even a top chef in a Chinese restaurant could only brought home about USD$30,000 a year. Needless to say, they showed their familial greed. That’s Chinese. When I told them taxes ate up a big portion of my income and besides I also had to pay for car insurance, daycare expenses for kids, saving for retirement, etc. etc. They told me, “You are being too honest. Second Uncle Chen in NYC has a restaurant and doesn’t pay nearly as much as you pay in taxes. Neither does Uncle Lin in D.C.” I must say that my siblings are very familiar with NYC even though they have never been there. They know exactly which street our relatives’ restaurants are on. They even know traveling from Queens to Chinatown in Manhattan, you have to pay a toll. They basically have no desire to stay in Fuzhou. All they want to do is to sneak into America and work in a Chinese restaurant. It’s not just for money. It’s also about status for a family. Suburbs in Fuzhou are known for overseas Chinese or expatriate Chinese households. They are the status symbol of success. Yes, almost all of the old illegal migrant workers plan to return to Fuzhou after working here for 15 to 20 years. But they do want their kids (those who come at a young age) to stay in America for a better life for their next generation. Sadly many of the young kids who came with their Fuzhou parents (in these cases, they are usually legal) suffer a great deal in America. They have no friends except for their own Fuzhou ren. Their parents don’t speak English. Other more successful Chinese in school won’t hang out with them. We all have heard stories of some overachieving second-generation Chinese Americans. But rarely do any of these second generation Chinese Americans belong to Fuzhou ren whose parents came here illegally.

    As for how much money they make in Chinese restaurants, here are some figures. For a chef, they usually make about $1500 to $2500 a month; a dish washer/kitchen helper makes less than $1,000 a month. Waiters and waitresses are reserved for those who speak a little English and who have been in America for a while. Their base salary ranges from nothing to at most $400 a month. With tips, they can make a total of $1,200 to $2,000 a month, depending on how busy the restaurant is. I have made it my mission to tell my own flesh and blood in Fuzhou not to pay an exorbitant amount of passage fee to come to America illegally. So far, no one, not even one of my siblings, would believe me. After all, those returning restaurant workers could afford nice houses in Fuzhou which they would otherwise not be able to without working in America. Those returning Fuzhou ren usually would never mention anything bad about America. They always boast about how successful they were in America even when they had to make up stories. Hence, those who have never been to America insist that streets in America are paved with gold. All you have to do is to bend down and pick up the nuggets. In a sense, Fuzhou ren still live in the 1840s with the gold rush mentality.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts on Fuzhou. Dude, you are having too much fun in Fuzhou.

  18. jon byrne United Kingdom said,

    May 23, 2007 at 4:43 am

    hi benjamin ,
    im very interested in your blog’s ,they are very insightful . What i am really wondering is how did you manage to get a job in a barbers shop , i thought that you needed a skill that the chinese required and that a chinese person couldnt do (for what ever reason ) . A bit like canada and australias rules for entry ?

  19. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 5:14 am

    You do not need a skill to start in the barbershop, since all the training is done on the spot. You start with learning hair washing and massage, then move on to perms and dyes, and finally (usually after several years) learn how to cut hair. I got the job by walking in and explaining that I wanted to 体验生活 (experience life) and work in their shop for one month. After a bit of explaining they were ok with it.

  20. Shopgirl's Shanghai blog Sweden said,

    May 23, 2007 at 5:19 am

    Again, I don’t usually read other blogs carefully even though I blog every day, but I have been hooked on your blog. I think it’s excellent and I really admire your gut to take this step. I just hope that your future employer will realize how much you have learned in that barbershop than other people have learned in a lifetime.

    YOU GO!!!!!!

  21. Heilong Ireland said,

    May 23, 2007 at 7:36 am

    Funny, Fujian and Dong bei ren come to Ireland, what usually happens is they come one a student visa and then just open a resturant, chinese shop or Chinese barber shop. The first 2 that I mentiond are usually opened by Dong Bei(north eastern) people and the barber shops are opened by Fujian people. They dont really like each other because the other thing the fujian people are good at is being the local Hei shi hui(mafia). They collect money from chinese businesses and start braking stuff if its not paid. Nobody can understand their fujian hua and the are usually less educated than the north eastren people as they are unable to speak english.

  22. Jas China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 9:02 am

    Wow, here become more and more popular! Learnt a lot from your blog, Ben. You did great job! And everyone’s opinoin here openned another window for me to see things from diffirent aspects. Thank you, everyone.

  23. Hunter China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    Illegal Immigration! Actually I had been expecting your post on it from the very begining, once I knew you’re in Fuzhou, the district so infamous of it.

    You really did a great job!

    I’m just wondering, if you have the plan to come to Shanghai, and try the life of “民工” (farmer worker), the very bottom stratum of China big cities.

  24. ash China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Surely Bens work also falls under ‘illegal work’ as he doesn’t have the correct permits to be working there, nor does his ‘boss’ have the correct permits to hire a foreigner? 😉

    Great work Ben – You are keeping me enthralled.

  25. jon byrne United Kingdom said,

    May 23, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Ben , what i was trying to get at was , i thought that to be able to stay and work in china you needed to have a job with a foreign company or to work for a big chinese company that needed particular skills that you have . How have you managed to stay in china and work for this barber’s shop ,i did not think this was possible ? As an aside i think what you are doing is amazing ,and so very informative ,cheers .

  26. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    I won’t go into specifics here, but I have a visa to be in China…You are supposed to have a job with a special skill like you said to get a visa…but…..you are also supposed to pay all your taxes as well (see my corruption article)…if you know what I mean.

  27. Jenn China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Ever since I read this post I’ve been thinking about it. Not only because it is a great piece about immigration and the supply and demand of it all, but because of something I read a few months back.

    It’s sort of silly, but it leads to some interesting questions. To me at least.

    I was searching around online for a sushi restaurant called Fugakyu in Boston because I was thinking about where I could get a gift certificate to for a friend. While I was looking for the contact information I came across a few reviews of the restaurant.

    One was pretty negative, which I found surprising, but even more surprising was why the person hated the restaurant. They wrote something like [not an exact quote but I think pretty close], “There are no Japanese people in the restaurant and the service was terrible. Amigos run the kitchen and the waitress was cursing in Fu-Chaunese (the nastiest part of China)” and then some more rambling about warm sashimi and “I guess this is how THEY’re always ‘full’.”

    Who would have said this? Is there a known dislike by a certain group against Fuzhouren? Obviously this person is Chinese or lived in China for a while, how else would they detect Fuzhouhua? And how do they know what the nastiest and dirtiest part of China is?

    Also an interesting perception of immigrants doing work in an ‘ethnic’ food restaurant in the US that isn’t their own ethnicity.

    One more thing, I’ve lived in Japan and if Fugakyu employees Mexicans, they can make damn good sushi.

  28. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 28, 2007 at 2:01 am

    Fuzhou people have a bad reputation in many places of the world, mainly due to issues relating to illegal immigration. Fuqing people have a reputation for running the mafia and other small crime in Tokyo’s Chinatown. Many of them go to Japan to work, but either cannot find work, or find petty crime more profitable. The same holds true in the US, in spme respects. Of the Chinese immigrants I have met in the US, I find they often fall into one of two categories. One group is generally over-achieving, highly educated, highly cultured, and of high 素质 (Chinese term which includes education, ettiquitte, and culture among other factors). This group is probably the source of most of our positive stereotypes about Chinese people, (I can honestly say I have met more Bei Da and Qinghua graduates in Kansas City than I have in Fuzhou). The members of this group come from all over China, and also include many Taiwan and Hong Kong Chinese. The other group is low-educated, and low 素质. Most of these people are illegals from Fujian. They generally do not learn English, never leave the restaurant, and are essentially only in the US for money. People with low 素质 are often disliked, or looked down upon by people with high 素质 even in China. So it is only natural this difference would carry over.

    Another reason for possible dislike for Fuzhou people (and this in my opinion is the most legitimate) is the illegals from Fuzhou make it much harder for Chinese who honestly want to go to the US for legitimate reasons such as education or travel. Currently, baring some soft of miracle, a typical Chinese citizen cannot even get a tourist visa to the US. Why not? Because the US government is afraid they will never return to China. If there were not so many illegals pouring over the borders, would this situation change? It certainly wouldn’t hurt.  

  29. Jenn China said,

    June 3, 2007 at 12:19 am

    Yeah, like my surrogate nainai and yeye who just want a tourist visa to go to the US to take care of their grandchildren for a few months because they are retired and bored. They were rejected 3 times before they got a visa and had to wait over 3 years for it.

  30. Lambo United States said,

    October 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Come on guy… Stop blame on the Mexican. They not the only illegal here. The Fuzhou Ren is the most illegal out there. 10 out of 10 buffet got illegal worker. Just our gov did give a damn about it! Plus they not doing anything bad. Such as robbery or murder. They just want a better life here.

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