TWO hours' journey from Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian Province, lies the village of Houyu. Arriving there, it is soon clear why so many of its residents have risked their lives to go illegally to the United States. Located in Changle County, at the mouth of the Minjiang River, Houyu's luxurious houses, built with money sent back by overseas Chinese, make it stand out from other villages along the road, which traditionally depend on farming and fishing. These houses, costing two or three million yuan, are the visible proof of success abroad, often in the United States. Such signs of affluence may have helped tempt ten locals to join the ill-fated voyage on the East Wood which stranded its human cargo onthe Marshall Islands before they were repatriated last week. More evidence lies with the continual stream of well-off Chinese Americans who return to visit their home town. Mr Zhang Ziyong has just come back to Houyu to take his wife and son to the United States. They are going legally; their application to emigrate has been approved. Inside another well-decorated three-storey house, 85-year-old Mr Zhang Tianzhang and his ailing wife have come back to pass the remainder of their lives at home. Mr Zhang has five sons and four daughters living in the United States. ''Each of my sons has at least one restaurant,'' he said proudly, adding that when he celebrated his birthday in the United States last year, he had more than 70 children and grandchildren by his side. So many villagers have left for the United States and other countries that Houyu's population has started to dwindle. Four years ago, there were more than 10,000 people, now it has less than 9,000. Villagers said the outflow started when China and the US normalised relations, but last year there was a sudden upsurge. By unofficial estimates, the overseas Chinese population of Houyu is now as great as the number in the village itself. ''In our village, almost every man above 50 has a son or daughter in the US,'' said one resident. The majority of those leaving now are young men and women. They send their hard-earned money back to build a new house, even though they may plan to take their families to the US in the future. As a result, many large houses are unoccupied. Sometimes other villagers are hired to look after their properties for about 300 yuan a month. Meanwhile, those villagers that remain have given up their traditional way of life. Farmland is no longer ploughed, but given to those who are interested. In some extreme cases, they pay other people to use the land. According to villagers, most emigrants travel to the US via a third country, such as Singapore, Thailand, Burma or Japan. They use different kinds of travel documents, genuine or forged. For years, all went smoothly. No accident involving migrants from the village have been reported, except for one young man who disappeared in Thailand a few years ago. His family have not heard from him since. In the past, leaving Houyu for the United States by sea was rare, partly because it was thought too dangerous, and partly because the village had adopted measures to stop such an escape route. Village chiefs were stationed at the docks near the village during high tide to try to prevent young people leaving. Young villagers would board small boats near the coast and then change to larger ships hired by ''snake-heads'', people who smuggle out would-be migrants. But the coastline is so long that it has been difficult to completely stem the outflow. (Would-be migrants can also leave by sea from other nearby counties.) It is understood that among the 525 illegal immigrants caught on the Marshall Islands, more than 10 came from Houyu. They chose to travel by sea because most have no close relatives in the United States or other countries who can act as their guarantor. Each had to pay the snake-head as much as US$30,000, mostly borrowed from relatives, who believed that if the borrowers successfully landed in the US, the money would quickly be repaid. The unsuccessful East Wood illegal immigrants from Houyu are still being detained in custody in Wuhang, the main town in Changle County. They are being held with more than 100 others from the same county. An officer at the detention centre said it was not known when the illegal immigrants would be released. But informed sources said new offenders caught leaving the country without approval are normally fined 10,000 yuan; repeat offenders not only have to pay the 10,000 yuan fine, but also face education through labour for between six months and two years. Sources said a Houyu villager was involved in the smuggling effort. The man, now in his 50s, had left for the US as a teenager and returned to Fuzhou in recent years to start his ''business''. When telephoned by a Post reporter, posing as a would-be migrant, the man said he was no longer in the smuggling business. ''I am sorry, I can't help you now. It has become very difficult after the incident at sea.'' Asked if he knew if there were others still providing the service, he repeated that things had become difficult. Then he hung up. Due to the increasing number of people who want to leave, both official and unofficial organisations in Fuzhou are offering immigration services to help would-be migrants solve their problems through legal channels. According to Fuzhou television, a recent exhibition by the province's entry and exit authorities to explain the channels of leaving the country legally attracted thousands of people. The province's first immigration counselling centre was also set up in Fuzhou last December. According to the general manager of Fuzhou Suburban District Overseas Chinese Consulting Services Centre, Mr He Xiangmo, many would-be migrants are unaware of the channels available for them to leave. ''Many illegal immigrants are qualified to apply to leave the country legally,'' Mr He said. ''But because of the complicated application procedure, and because they are not good at presenting their cases, it is difficult for them to go through the procedure smoothly. ''Many people become frustrated, and lose hope. They will resort to any method to get a chance [to go], even if it is unlawful,'' said Mr He. The centre claims it provides a full package of services including filling in application forms, translation, photocopying, preparing documents and assisting with transport and accommodation when applicants go to Guangzhou to meet US immigration officials. The full package costs clients 550 yuan; a single consultation, 15 yuan. Mr He said that since the centre opened, 15 clients had successfully left for the US, most for family reunion and marriage. Thirty other cases are being processed while enquiries are flooding in to the six-staff centre.