When Chen Jihua learned, during lunch, on a steamy August day in 1992, that a boat would pick him up that very night from his village, Meihua, in Fujian province, and take him to the United States, he was nervous. He had been seeking the opportunity for a while, but had expected some advance warning.

He hadn’t packed. He had no idea what to take on such a long journey.

A distant relative, who helped the snakeheads (as human smugglers are called) to organise clients in Fujian, assured Chen everything would be fine.

“She said, ‘You don’t have to bring anything. The boat is very big. It has everything, even a bar,’” Chen recalls, with a bitter grin, when we meet for lunch at a restaurant in Queens, New York.

Not only was there no bar on the ship, as Chen would soon discover, there was not even enough food. He and 100 or so passengers from other villages in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces had to hide in a hold that was normally used to store fish. The ship was supposed to arrive in Hawaii after a 20-day voyage, but took 10 days longer. The canned fish and drinking water the snakeheads had prepared for their charges didn’t last that long. At the end, the passengers were cooking bowls of congee with ballast water.

In Hawaii, the ship was intercepted by US officials and the passengers were arrested. After a short detention, Chen was bailed by the snakeheads and took a plane to New York, landing with nothing more than a change of clothes. But it didn’t matter; he was met by a former classmate, who took him to a supermarket, bought him some necessities and a winter coat, and offered him a job at the New Jersey restaurant the classmate owned.

Many new immigrants owe a debt of gratitude to those from their school or their hometown who arrived before them, but the establishment at which Chen and his friend studied, Tingjiang Secondary School, is extraordinary. In January 2015, when it was founded, Tingjiang Secondary’s American alumni association boasted more than 15,000 members, making it easily one of the biggest alumni associations of over­seas Chinese, even when compared with those of elite Chinese universities. And most of the alumni had, like Chen, been brought into the country, to work in restaurants, during the high tides of human smuggling from China to the US, in the 1980s and ’90s.

Migration from Tingjiang county, which had been well sought for about 30 years, has been ebbing recently, for a number of reasons, including economic development in China, the 10-year visas now available to Chinese wishing to go to the US, which make legal travel easier, and the repeal of the one-child policy, which had been the basis of many requests for political asylum made by Fujianese immigrants.

Alumni who had been working like demons to fulfil their American dreams, or simply to survive, also began talking to each other more frequently. Using WeChat, a social networking platform that is perhaps as popular with overseas-Chinese populations as it is in China, they were, for the first time, comparing life stories – with each other and with those old school friends who didn’t cross the Pacific.

Migration had become customary in the 17 villages of Tingjiang, a mountainous county now affiliated with Fuzhou city, long before the waves of human cargo began to hit US shores in the 80s. In the 19th century, men from Tingjiang would voyage to Southeast Asian terri­tories such as Singapore and Malaya in search of their fortune. By the 1960s, they were heading for Hong Kong, and a fortunate few were already finding their way to the US. Tingjiang Secondary School, on the banks of the Min river, 8km from where it meets the ocean, has seen it all.

Established in 1850 as the Yishan School, a private school teaching the Chinese classics, Tingjiang Secondary has been providing education for years seven to 12 since 1958. It is the only school in the county that does so.

Zhang Yuanzhao graduated from Tingjiang Secondary in 1974. He remembers that while many families in the county struggled to feed their children, some of his classmates came to school riding new bicycles that had been sent back by fathers working overseas.

“We thought they were so rich,” Zhang says. “We were so jealous.”

Many in Tingjiang wanted to emigrate but, according to the 100 or so school alumni Post Magazine spoke to for this article, no human-trafficking networks were in operation in Fujian before the mid-80s. Those who had overseas con­nections could go to Hong Kong on the pretext of visiting family in the city, an avenue that was reopened in 1973 after a shutdown at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966. In Hong Kong, many were able to obtain fake passports with which to enter the US.

This was the route used in 1983 by Zhang, who now runs restaurant and real-estate businesses in Connecticut.

In the same year, Chen – one of the overwhelming major­ity of people in the county who didn’t have overseas connec­tions – dropped out of Tingjiang Secondary a month short of getting his high school diploma. He took an apprenticeship at a local shipyard. After a year of unpaid, back-breaking work, Chen saw no chance of getting a paid job at the yard, so he quit and enlisted in the army. A few years later, after being discharged, he started working as a truck driver.

He had been struggling all that time to make ends meet. Still, “I had no relatives in the US and going to the US was something I did not even dare to dream of”, Chen says.

Things were to soon change, thanks to an alumna of Tingjiang Secondary, Cheng Chui-ping.

Sister Ping, as she was broadly known, was one of the most notorious snakeheads in recent US history. Many Americans learnt of her after the Golden Venture ran aground at Rockaway Beach, in Queens, in 1993. As law-enforcement officers gathered on the shore, some of the 286 undocumented Chinese being transported on the cargo ship panicked and jumped into the water. Ten drowned and the rest were arrested.

Your neighbour whom you just saw working ... in the morning could ... disappear in the afternoon
Liu Lingyan

For the first time, a spotlight was shone on the human traffic flowing in from China. The Golden Venture run was one of many Cheng had helped facilitate. She fled before being arrested in Hong Kong, in 2000, was extradited to the US and convicted. Cancer would claim Cheng in 2014, as she languished in a Texas prison.

Back when Chen was looking for a way out of Fujian, however, Cheng had just begun to establish a direct route from China to the US. And she was tapping into high demand.

“Your neighbour whom you just saw working in the farm in the morning could bump into someone with a connection and disappear in the afternoon,” recalls Liu Lingyan, a gradu­ate of the Tingjiang Secondary class of ’86 who remained in China and is now a nurse in a hospital in Fuzhou. “He may not even have had time to tell his wife until he arrived in the US.”

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Passage wasn’t cheap. By the time Chen made the journey, the fee to be smuggled by ship had jumped to US$27,000 from the US$18,000 it had been in the early ’80s (those who came by plane had to pay US$30,000). He borrowed the money from classmates who’d already made it to the US. To pay them back, he would have to work 12 or 13 hours a day in restaurants for his first few years in the country.

But punishing work days were not the toughest challenge Chen faced. After the Golden Venture tragedy, the US govern­ment tightened the system for political-asylum appli­ca­tions made by Chinese. Chen’s application was turned down twice. His wife, who he had married in his home village, Meihua, could wait no longer. Seven years after he left, she paid to be smuggled into the US, leaving their daughter with relatives. When the couple finally received their green cards and brought their daughter over, she was 17.

“I hadn’t seen my daughter for 16 years. Isn’t it scary?” says Chen. “She still complains that I was a cold-hearted father. But I did this all for her.”

Still, Chen can count himself lucky. Almost everyone from the school knows – or knows of – someone who died en route to the US – drowned or crushed between boats when making the jump from one to another in rough water; poisoned by insects in a jungle; or kicked from the top of a mountain by snakeheads trying to evade the searchlights of law-enforcement helicopters.

Chen Songhui (not related to Chen Jihua) dropped out of Tingjiang Secondary in 1984, in his first year of high school, when he got an opportunity to work in a machinery plant in Fuzhou. He was one of the 40 or so students out of the 350 who had graduated from the middle school in 1983 who would remain in China. For a long time, when Chen returned to Tingjiang, to visit his parents, neigh­bours would ask whether he had just come back from the US.

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“In their minds, if you are a young man and you didn’t go to the US, there must be something wrong with you,” says Chen. “So I just stopped going to Tingjiang.”

Chen made 30 yuan per month while ex-classmates made US$2,000 toiling in restaurants in the US. No one imagined then that, one day, those who had stayed in China might live as well as – or even better than – those who departed. Well, almost no one.

When Wang Mengxin thinks about the different paths he and childhood friend He Yixin took, the word “fate” comes to mind: “Otherwise, how do you explain that when everyone else was trying to come to the US, to make more money, he went back to China from here and became the richest person among all our classmates?”

He went back to China from here and became the richest person among all our classmates
Wang Mengxin

Wang and He had been classmates since kindergarten. They graduated together from Tingjiang Secondary in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution. Initially, they had no choice but to answer the call of Mao Zedong, to “go down” to the countryside. While labouring on the same farmland, they both dreamt of leaving China. Wang, who had relatives in Hong Kong, twice tried to get to the city, but his appli­cations were rejected. He later found a job at a local electric welding factory, making a stable but minimal wage of 38 yuan per month.

In 1982, Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy began to trans­form the business atmosphere. That year, Fuzhou held a major exhibition of electric welding machines. Wang visited several times, developing a plan to buy a machine with which to set up a workshop at home. He would weld balcony rail­ings, which, he deduced, would soon be in great demand because of a boom in the construction of apartment buildings.

“I had decided on the model of the machine, and even had a solution to deal with the poor electricity supply in my apartment,” Wang recalls. But he then learned from a relative that he could now try to get to the US on a student visa. He applied and soon found himself in America, as a student of a language school he never attended. Instead, he found work in a restaurant.

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His friend, He, was raised by a grandmother when his parents – “bloody landlords” – were sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution. The family was poor and, as a child, he had often gone hungry. Unlike Wang, He had no overseas relatives but he also found a way out in 1982. He received a permit from another friend, who worked for the local department of security, allowing him to visit Hong Kong, and a non-existent relative. His strong sense of entrepreneur­ship kicked in; He took on all sorts of odd jobs, from washing dishes to digging subway tunnels. When he had enough savings, He opened a small trading company.

When He flew to the US, in 1986, he did so on a business visa and in business class. And on a one-way ticket; He was thinking of joining schoolmates already established in the land of opportunity.

“Those days, we all believed in the US you could make more money than anywhere else,” says He, in his office in Fuzhou. Three months later, he was on his way back to Hong Kong.

“I learned that in order to stay, you had to apply for politi­cal asylum and had to say you were persecuted by the Chinese government. That would have been a lie for me,” explains He. “I couldn’t lie.” But that was only one reason. “I realised that, without speaking English, I may have had to work in a restaurant for my whole life.”

Shortly after he returned from the US, He started investing in the China, at first in a tiny plant in Fuzhou making moulds for toys, then in an auto-parts factory. After suffering big losses in the real estate and stock markets in Hong Kong during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, He shifted his focus completely to the China.

I come from a poor family that had no money nor background. My story of success is really the story of China
He Yixin

In 2000, the entrepreneur went to the Wuyi Mountains, in northern Fujian, for a holiday, and discovered that the high-quality tea grown in the area was not being produced and marketed effectively. He smelled opportunity again. The next year, he sold most of his businesses and invested 18 million yuan in building a tea company called Wuyi Star.

With 500 million yuan (HK$565 million) in annual revenues, Wuyi Star has become one of the leading tea producers in Fujian.

“I come from a poor family that had no money nor background,” says He, a Hong Kong resident and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “My story of success is really the story of China.”

In 2015, when He visited the US, Wang and a few dozen other Tingjiang Secondary alumni hosted a banquet for him in a New York Chinatown restaurant. Former classmates walked onto the stage one after another to share fond memories of him as a schoolboy.

Wang says he doesn’t think he would have been as success­ful as He if he had stayed in China because he is not as ambiti­ous as his friend. But, if he had stuck it out at his welding workshop, he might have benefited from the business boom in China. “I might be more successful than I am now,” says Wang, who recently handed over the small restaurant he owned in New York to his son. “But who knows? It’s all fate.”

Not everyone who stayed in China has been as successful as He, but the country’s economic boom has certainly had a universal effect. In 1992, the year Chen Jihua departed for the US, the per capita annual gross domestic product in Fuzhou was 2,763 yuan. In 2015, it was 75,300 yuan and in Mawei district, the area that includes Tingjiang county, the GDP per capita has climbed to 157,300 yuan.

Chen Songhui, who is now a project manager in a lift manufacturing company in Fuzhou, sent his daughter to high school in the US in 2011. Now, she is in her third year at New York’s Stony Brook University. Chen says that the US$40,000 or so annual costs of his daughter’s education are not a big burden for him and his wife, who is an accountant.

In 2012, Chen visited the US to see his daughter and his sister, who had found her way to the country during the peak smuggling years and lived in New York’s Chinatown.

“Chinatown was so dilapidated. It was far less modern than Tingjiang,” he says. “My sister lived in a tiny apart­ment, which she divided into two, and sublet half out – while I had a 1,000 sq ft apartment in Fuzhou all for me and my wife.”

There are no credible statistics on undocumented immigrants, let alone those from any specific part of a country, but political asylum applications in the US (a major avenue used by undocument­ed immigrants seek­ing legal status) by Chinese have been dropping since 2011. In fiscal year 2015, the latest statistics available, only 1,757 applications were filed by Chinese people in the US, less than 20 per cent of the 2011 figure.

My parents were fishermen. I had no guanxi in China. In the US, as long as you work hard, you can make it
Chen Jihua

This trend is also noticeable at Tingjiang Secondary. Principal Huang Qingyu says the exodus of students has slowed to a trickle – a few students from the whole school each year compared with the 20 or so youngsters a class of 50 would expect to lose before graduation in the early 1990s. And those who do leave are no longer smuggled; they travel instead on green cards obtained by parents already in the US.

These days, though, 80 per cent of the students attending Tingjiang Secondary are themselves the children of migrants, from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces – so many locals of work­­ing age having left for America. For these youngsters, there is far less incentive to make their way to the US.

On the other side of the Pacific, almost everyone in the Tingjiang Secondary alumni association knows one or two classmates who have returned to China, in search of opportunities.

Chen Jihua has no plans to move back anytime soon, however. In 2001, he saved enough to buy a takeaway restaur­ant for US$40,000 in Flatbush, New York. He worked as the cook and when he was not in the kitchen, he hit the streets to give out menus. He worked 12 hours a day without a holiday for 10 years, he says, until he was finally burned out and sold the restaurant for a modest profit. In 2006, he purchased a house in Sunset Park.

“If I hadn’t come to the US, I don’t think my life would have been as good,” says Chen, who now drives a taxi and is an auxiliary officer for the New York Police Department. “My parents were fishermen. I had no guanxi in China. In the US, as long as you work hard, you can make it.”

Still, in 2015, when President Xi Jinping visited the US, Chen travelled with a few dozen alumni from New York to Washington, to queue up along the street to greet the leader. And during the summer holidays, he often takes his American-born teenage son back to visit his home village.

“Of course, we love China. We grew up there,” says Chen. “Yes, it is not perfect. But when we were kids, it was much worse.”

The story was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting