Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Artists come together to give passengers a playful commute on a popular intercity bus route.
On Saturday, a Chinatown bus will travel from New York City to Baltimore—but this one won’t be your typical ride.
You might find yourself sitting next to two guys singing odes to the different landscapes the bus passes through. Or perhaps you’ll be close enough to enjoy a four-act play crammed between two bus seats, next to the toilet. Needless to say, any plans to sleep peacefully through the ride are pretty much out the window.
But that’s a good thing. All the quirky people you’ll meet on this trip are artists and performers, and they’re there to give you a wonderfully weird ride. The trip is part of a traveling exhibit from the nonprofit Flux Factory, and it pays homage to the unique experience that comes with riding a Chinatown bus.
Named after a now-defunct carrier that was once a major player in the industry, the “Fung Wah Biennial“ takes artists and willing passengers through three of the most popular Chinatown bus routes: NYC to Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The on-board performances explore themes like proximity and personal space, cultural exchange, and migration—what co-organizer Sally Szwed calls the “politics of public transit.”
“Buses in general are kind of like these micro communities that are created for a specific amount of time,” Will Owen, another co-organizer, says of the project’s inspiration. “And you're sitting in an almost theater-like atmosphere, so you have the opportunity to engage with people next to you. Or not.”
Indeed, despite the bare-bones service, bumpy rides, and multiple safety concerns, the buses’ low price and convenience have drawn passengers of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. That means the ride itself can be just as exciting as the city you’re taking the bus to.
The daylong ride to Baltimore and back is the last of the three rides, which have taken place every Saturday throughout this month. The organizers will then compile photos taken during the trips into an exhibit at the Flux Factory gallery in Queens, New York.
One reporter, who took the Philadelphia trip, recounted getting dragged as a third party into a lovers’ spat on the popular messaging app Whatsapp. “It lasts all day,” writes Gothamist’s Scott Heins, who added that it wasn’t long before he got distracted by a man trying to screw a computer monitor into a makeshift table with a power drill. (And as comical as that sounds, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing seen on a Chinatown bus).
If you enjoy personal space, perhaps it’s a good thing you weren’t on the ride to Boston. Artist Sunita Prasad explored the idea of social interaction in transit—and tested her fellow passengers’ patience—by crowd surfing over them. “People have to decide if they want to hold her and bring her further, or they just kind of reluctantly watch what’s going on,” says Matthias Borello, another co-organizer. “So she’s addressing this suspense of engagement or non-engagement that’s there all the time” on a bus.
Not all the performances are abstract, though. Artist and storyteller Ruth Patir gives riders a glimpse into the life of Chinatown bus drivers through intimate interviews about not only their careers, but their dreams. Another piece uses passengers’ smartphones to record and map the emotional state of riders throughout the journey.
The performers come from diverse backgrounds: Some are visual artists exploring the intersection between media and technology, others are researchers or filmmakers. Some are local, while others come from as far away as Denmark. But they have one thing in common: “A lot of the artists in general have a soft spot for the Chinatown buses,” says Szwed.
“We’ve seen artists living in New York City use it as a really accessible way to travel, to get to know other artists, and to check out the cultural scenes in nearby cities,” she continues. “Now we see almost a reverse, where artists are being forced out of New York due to rising costs and gentrification, and they're using these buses to come back.”