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Dreaming the American Dream In Fujian

June 23, 1993

GUANTOU, China (AP) _ Sitting on a wooded hill overlooking their small fishing town, Lin Shou and Dong Yuanzheng stared at the sea, sharing a cigarette and a dream.

″I really want to go America,″ said 21-year-old Lin, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the American eagle and ″American Legend″ across the chest.

″I really wanted to go when I was a kid, but I haven’t got any money,″ replied 30-year-old Dong. ″I’ll still be here when my hair has turned white,″ he said, casting coffee-colored eyes to where Guantou hugs the Min River in southeast China’s Fujian province.

Many of their neighbors have already gone. U.S. immigration officials say thousands of Fujianese, many from Guantou and small towns like it around the provincial capital Fuzhou, have slipped into the United States in recent years.

Chinese call it ″toudu,″ sneaking in. Guantou people say nearly every family has at least one relative abroad. Once established, they often arrange for more family members to follow.

The impact of emigration is striking. Guantou’s dark, incense-scented alleys echo with the cries of fresh-cheeked children and the slow shuffles of old men. Men in their twenties are much rarer.

″Nearly everyone in the generation above me has gone,″ said 19-year-old Wu Jianfen, who proudly wears around his neck a jade pendant sent by a cousin in the United States.

The Communist government’s embarrassment is evident in the banner stretched across Guantou’s muddy main street. It exhorts townspeople to ″RESOLUTELY STAMP OUT SMUGGLING AND ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION.″

Guantou residents told a recent visitor that a local ″snakehead″ - an immigrant-trafficker - had just been jailed for four years.

In a temple converted into a rest hall for old people, wrinkled men puffed the local cigarettes and slurped tea from huge enamel mugs. Outside, Wu and his friends smoked Marlboros, eyed girls and talked about America. They called it ″meiguo,″ the beautiful country.

″There is nothing for young people like me to do here. That is why we go overseas to earn money,″ he said.

Residents say fishing, Guantou’s traditional industry, is no longer profitable because fish stocks have been depleted. Many fishermen have sold their boats and subsist on farming, shopkeeping, construction and odd-jobbing.

Dong makes about $5 ″on a good day″ driving goods and people around town on a converted motorcycle. That’s not bad, compared with the $12 a month the average peasant earns.

Linked by a potholed road to Fuzhou, the town of 10,000 has also missed out on Taiwanese and other foreign investment flooding into the province. Smokestacks can be seen farther up the Min River valley, but Guantou has none.

So Guantou is fertile territory for ″snakeheads″ who, according to residents, charge $30,000 to smuggle people to America.

Townspeople say many emigrants borrow the fare from friends or loan sharks. Others, like Lin’s cousin, work in what U.S. officials have likened to indentured servitude to pay back their debts once they reach the United States.

″He sent a letter saying he is barely earning enough for himself or to pay back what he borrowed,″ Lin said of his cousin.

But even knowing they face a hard time in the United States, or heavy fines if they get sent back, Guantou’s young are lured by the wealth they see among families with relatives abroad.

Cheng Minzhong, who entered America legally and therefore was able to come back for a visit, said Guantou has grown visibly richer during his three-year absence.

Cheng’s brother got him a job in a Chinese restaurant in New York City, where he earns $30 a day. Cheng now calls himself Andy, speaks broken English and sports a large gold earring.

On the hill, Lin and Dong pointed out the large concrete houses owned by families with relatives abroad who send money home. The buildings contrast with Guantou’s traditional cramped wooden homes.

″If I go to America, I will come back and built a house bigger and better than that one,″ he said, pointing to a three-story house he said was built by a family with a son in Japan. ″I would be a great man.″

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