TO find gold, sneak by boat; one go, whole family wins gold.'' This is the axiom by which every resident of Changle County, 40 kilometres from Fuzhou, lives. Illegal immigration is an integral part of life for the county's population of 650,000. They see escaping to countries like the United States as the only path to wealth and success. This is despite the detention and harsh punishment of hundreds of villagers apprehended and sent back since last spring. Most of them were headed for the United States. One group of 118 who were caught after their ship, the Golden Venture, went aground off New York last summer, have been returned and are in detention until their relatives pay for their release. This hasn't deterred others from trying. ''I still want to go if I have money,'' said Lin Fangyun (not his real name), a villager who was caught and returned in November. For him, the United States is the Promised Land. ''Everything should be good there. At least, better than in China,'' he told the Sunday Morning Post. ''There are few prospects here, we earn only 300 yuan [HK$266] or about US$35 a month. In America, my friends tell me, we can make US$1,000 a month.'' The 21-year-old says every male in the county wants to sneak away. ''People look down on you if you haven't the heart to go abroad,'' he said. ''And no girl will like you if you don't give it a try.'' His adventure started last October after he paid a snakehead US$1,000, borrowed from a loan-shark. ''I never did meet the snakehead. I just paid the money to a middle man,'' he said. Mr Lin went by bus to Hangzhou with 50 other young men. After a 40-hour trip, they arrived in Zhejiang and stayed in a small hotel. ''Public Security Bureau [PSB] officers suddenly broke down the door of our room and caught us. I was lying on the bed when all of a sudden an officer was standing in front of me,'' he recalled. What had started as a journey of hope became a week-long nightmare. After being sent back to Fuzhou by the PSB, they were locked in a detention centre in Changle county. ''We - 50 of us - were locked in a 60-square metre cell,'' he said. ''It was hot and stuffy, and we got water only twice a day. There were no beds, we all slept on the floor. ''And the food was bad. But they still charged us five yuan a day for living expenses,'' he added angrily. The next day, he was told to pay the 11,000 yuan penalty. ''One PSB official said: 'Since you have the money to illegally emigrate, then you should have the money to pay the penalty.'' They were also questioned about their journey. ''They asked if I was an illegal immigrant and I was beaten by a PSB officer,'' he said, showing the traces of bruises near his mouth. ''I am one of the lucky ones. Some of my friends have been sent to a re-education centre.'' Mr Lin was detained for a week and released after paying the fine, which his family borrowed, again from a loan-shark. He said the fine varied. ''It mainly depends on your relationship with the PSB. Some have to pay up to $20,000 yuan.'' He now owes the loan-shark a total of 20,000 yuan. ''I may not be able to repay the money for the rest of my life,'' he said. The money represents four to five years' income for an ordinary worker, on about 400 yuan a month. But the loan also incurs 20 per cent interest per year. The ever increasing debt will make it hard for Mr Lin to try again. BUT despite the reality of the situation, he refuses to abandon his dreams of leaving the country. ''The communists are very bad, they just want money,'' he said. After being in Changle county it quickly becomes clear why those who live there are prepared to risk everything to leave. Spread around the county are luxurious houses built with money sent back by overseas Chinese. They stand out from the local structures built on incomes from farming or fishing. On top of this, there is the continuous stream of wealthy Chinese-Americans returning for a visit to their hometown. Inside one of the rich three-storey houses are 70-year-old Chen Wenjin and his wife. They are visiting Yangyu village for the Lunar New Year. The couple have four sons and three daughters living in the US. ''All of them have a degree,'' Mr Chen, who owns a Chinese restaurant, said proudly. Meanwhile another successful illegal immigrant, Zhang Ziyang, has just returned from the US to collect his wife and eight-year-old son. Mr Zhang left illegally six years ago, but now his family reunion application has been approved. These examples make every young man in the county anxious to share the same dream. Cheng Wencun is one of the dreamers. Thanks to his brother-in-law in the United States, the living standard of Mr Cheng's family is comparable to that of many Hong Kong families - they have a telephone, a television set and refrigerator, in a three-storey house in Houyu village. ''I want to follow in the footsteps of my brother-in-law,'' he said. ''I really hope one day I can come back from the States proudly, build a house for my family or take my relatives to the US.'' And so he joined the ill-fated voyage of the East Wood in January last year. Together with 524 illegal immigrants, Cheng went first to Guangzhou, took a fishing boat and then boarded the freighter. ''Conditions on board were very bad. There was not enough food and water,'' he recalled. Sometime after the water and food ran out, the boat was intercepted by the US coast guard. That was in February. They were sent home in March. However, the incident has not dampened Mr Cheng's spirits - he is still pining for life in the US. ''There is nothing to do here, I am unemployed,'' he said. Despite having no knowledge of English or other languages, the 20-year-old is confident of surviving in the US. ''I don't fear hardship. I believe I can earn my living if I work hard,'' he said. The tried and tested formula is to borrow from a loan-shark, sneak away to the United States, work in a Chinese restaurant, pay off the debt and prosperity will follow. However, the volume of people leaving for the US has alarmed Chinese authorities, which have responded with a crackdown. According to local reports, at least 70 snakeheads have been arrested in recent months and more than 10 cases of human smuggling has been investigated. The Deputy Director of Fuzhou Public Security Bureau, Mo Zhangcheng, said undercover agents were investigating triads in relation to the problem. In addition, the five counties around Fuzhou city held meetings last month to discuss the problem. But the official said stopping the outflow was a tall order because of the city's long coastline. On top of this, the triads were internationally based and well-organised, Mr Mo said. But the PSB's campaign appears to have already had an impact. When a reporter, posing as a would-be immigrant, telephoned a snakehead in Fuzhou city, the man who answered said he was no longer in the smuggling business. ''I am very sorry, I cannot help you now. The PSB is everywhere,'' he said, and hung up.