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The Chinatown bus stops here - The News Journal

Rain or shine, Jennifer Pastor usually stands at the corner of Fourth and Market streets, near Fry Korner, in Wilmington, to catch the cheapest bus service to New York City.

She usually buys her tickets online, and until earlier this week she never even knew where the bus would stop because she didn't realize there was a small storefront waiting area. So she would scan the streets for other people standing with bags, and keep an eye out for a bus with big Chinese lettering on it.

"A couple of weeks ago, it was pouring rain and it was 45 minutes late," said Pastor, 26, a celebrity hair and makeup designer in New York, who frequently takes the bus to visit family in Wilmington.

But there's something about the bus company, Double Happiness Travel Inc., and dozens of other so-called Chinatown bus companies that operate between major Northeast cities that has made people like Pastor regular customers: cheap fares.

The discount services have been winning over customers, many of them former Greyhound passengers, because they offer ticket prices as much as 50 percent lower than the competition. They operate on small margins and often rely on curbside stops instead of terminals.

Double Happiness, owned by Lun Bing Chen, is the first such operation in Wilmington. The company employs five drivers and a manager, and has four buses that operate seven days a week. The business has been operating for about a year but is generally unknown outside the circle of commuters familiar with Chinatown buses in big cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

Xiang "Jerry" Liu, manager of Double Happiness, said the bus service offers commuters in Wilmington the same low prices that other Chinatown buses offer larger cities.

Like most of its competitors, Double Happiness has a limited route. It runs between New York and Baltimore with a stop in Wilmington. Its Wilmington-to-New York fare is $20 one way and $35 round trip. That compares with about $32 one way and $64 round trip on Greyhound.

"I have been taking it for the past six months," said Ann Marie Turner, 45, of Wilmington. "You have no idea how much I have spent on Greyhound. It's a big difference."

Chinese-owned curbside buses date to the early 1990s when they began transporting restaurant workers from Washington to their relatives in New York. The independent companies have leveraged their offerings as a group by using a common Web service,, to sell tickets online.

Jimmy Chen, president of IvyMedia, in Cambridge, Mass., said his online bus ticketing company has grown from a handful of bus companies in the early 1990s to more than 100 today. About 40 percent are owned by Chinese immigrants, he said.

Officials at the American Bus Association, which represents motor coaches including Greyhound, said the smaller immigrant-owned bus companies have brought competition to the Northeast market, but they said some members have raised concerns about the safety record of some of the discounted carriers.

"I don't think the industry has a problem with competition, but they have a problem with unfair competition," said Lori Harrison, spokeswoman for the association.

A task force formed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration conducted an investigation in seven states in 2003, and found that most were in compliance. None was ordered to shut down.

Greyhound has been offering more direct routes and focusing on heavy commuter cities, but it said the changes aren't a response to the competition from the Chinatown bus services. "What we offer our customers is not just our price," said Anna Folmnsbee, a Greyhound spokeswoman. "It's our safety, the convenience and comfort that you are leaving from inside of a terminal, the comfort that Greyhound complies with state and federal regulations."

For bus passengers like Pastor, however, there's no turning back. She doesn't want too many people to know about the Chinatown buses and make them too crowded. "Our secret's out," she said.