Bound For 'Paradise'

In Fuzhou, China, nightclub boss Chen Kai, 38, has achieved what he says "everyone here dreams about." In 1990 he slipped into America and made a small fortune working in several restaurants. After spending three years in the United States, Chen returned to Fujian province and, with three partners, opened a glitzy karaoke club called Kaixuan. With his diamond-encrusted watch and movie-star good looks, Chen admits he's "something of a role model" for locals. Inside the club, customers are surrounded by scantily clad hostesses. Outside, Chen calls the Dover tragedy "awful," but he doesn't have much time to chat: patrons are arriving in black Lexus limousines.

High-flying success stories like Chen's fuel Fujian's booming emigration culture. The bustling coastal region is a breeding ground for China's "human snakes." Fujian has been sending residents off to the West for more than a century. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the migrants are seldom poor and desperate. Zhao Hua, a 34-year-old cabdriver who left his home in Changle county on March 16, bound for Britain, was pulling in $240 a month--more than the average Chinese income of about $1,000 per year. Tiled mansions with Disneyesque turrets, whitewashed Protestant churches and ornate Buddhist temples are testament to the spending power (and sometimes questionable taste) of Fujianese with relatives abroad. The motivation isn't "economic frustration," writes Brian Iselin, a Beijing-based Australian police representative, in a report. "It's a tradition--to get rich."

Wags might call the phenomenon "Keeping up with the Wangs." Peer pressure to strike out for "the Beautiful Country" (America) or "Paradise" (Australia) is deeply ingrained. A former glass-factory worker named Xiao Lu explains the exodus: "If you don't have someone who's found work overseas, you have no 'face'," or prestige. Status is a very powerful incentive. In Monkey Island village a government slogan on a brick wall exhorts people to resolutely attack smuggling activities! But graffiti on a gray-tiled village wall reflects the real spirit of the place: it says simply, in English, beyond.

Snakeheads who take the Fujianese "beyond" are rapacious--and clever. After a serious earthquake in Taiwan last year, underworld gangs got hold of genuine Taiwan travel documents in the names of Taiwanese who'd died in the temblor. The documents were used to funnel illegal Chinese migrants to the United States.

Traveling underground is extremely risky. A man named Zhang Cai, who lives in a village near Tan Tou, has spent $150,000 to send three children to the United States, separately. Five years ago his second son was detained en route; he died of a gunshot during a Honduran prison riot. Two years later Zhang entrusted his only daughter to the snakeheads. She made it, leaving two children behind. "There's nothing for them to do at home," Zhang says. "We don't know they're OK until they call."

Now dozens of Fujianese--including Zhao Hua's wife, who's been sobbing for days--are convinced those calls will never come. In Jiudian village, 70 angry villagers trashed the garish six-story mansion of a wealthy snakehead who'd fled after the Dover tragedy. He'd promised to smuggle his "snakes" by air to Britain, not overland, residents said. "Your money is dirty!" screamed one. But death doesn't stop the grim trade. In an English-language training school in Changle, Zhang Yi, 17, knew about Dover but still plans to get smuggled to the U.K. "I'm going to fly," she says, "It won't happen to me." That's what they all think, until it's too late.