Thousands of people ride discount bus service, with some saying it's the only feasible way to travel out of the area. But two crashes have many worried about safety.
At age 75, Mon Ling Ng is hard of hearing and often lonely — a resident of Manhattan's Chinatown who finds a way to fill his days: by gambling.
"I go almost every day; it's exciting, and I have company," said Ng, who takes a bus to a casino hours away.
About 30,000 Chinese New Yorkers per week board discount buses that take them from Chinatown to casinos outside the city — buses like the one that crashed on a return trip from a Connecticut casino, killing 15 passengers.
The crash is illuminating how casinos around New York in many ways treat the city's Chinese-Americans as their bread and butter, a population with an ancient gambling tradition that will reliably hand over money.
"If you run a casino, Chinese business is a major part of the business," said Peter Yee, assistant executive director for behavioral health services at the Hamilton Madison House, which offers Chinese-language treatment for compulsive gambling. "There's no other population that is exclusively targeted by the gambling industry like the Chinese."
Yee noted that Chinese children grow up seeing some form of gambling "as part of everyday ritual."
"We incorporate it in all major celebrations, and it's for money — playing cards, dice, pai gow," he said.
Mohegan Sun, the casino in Uncasville, Conn., from where the doomed bus was returning last weekend, caters especially to Chinese-American gamblers; its website has a Chinese-language section offering gaming and bus promotions. The casino estimates that a fifth of its business comes from ethnic Asian clients.
The typical gambling package includes a round-trip bus ticket, plus cash bonuses subsidized by casinos, some of which also offer meal coupons.
Each passenger on the ill-fated bus paid $15 for the 200-mile round trip to Mohegan Sun, said Matthew Yu, operator of Sunflower Express, the ticket agency that coordinated sales.
The World Wide Travel bus left Manhattan for Mohegan on Friday evening and started the return trip just before 4 a.m. Saturday. The journey ended when the bus flipped on its side just a few miles short of home and slid into a sign pole, shearing it in two and leaving a mess of bodies and twisted metal on Interstate 95.
Two days after the crash, in a neighborhood where many people not only knew the victims but also knew it could have been them, business at Sunflower was down, though Yu wouldn't reveal by how much.
"People are scared," said Yu, holding his head in his hands as he sat in his tiny, windowless office up two flights of stairs from Canal Street, Chinatown's main drag.
"One stupid thing happens, and the whole world stops," he said. "I'm very upset."
Another company, Sky Express, charges $12 for a round trip, with a free $60 casino bonus.
Ng celebrated his birthday Friday by taking to Mohegan a World Wide Travel bus that left about six hours before the one that crashed. Patrick Kennedy, an unemployed car service chauffeur, was also on the trip.
On Monday, Kennedy was at the bus stop, greeting Ng.
"Me and you — we made it back!" Kennedy told Ng as they gave each other the thumbs up in front of a bus operated by Dwayne Smith, a driver for World Wide.
"Some people go almost every day," Smith said, although only a handful of people showed up for Tuesday's trip, which was canceled.
Right behind the World Wide bus was another one, run by Sky Express and leaving for Connecticut's Foxwoods casino at 1 p.m. and returning around midnight, driver Marvin Ha said.
Many Chinese-American gamblers are elderly, looking for company and entertainment. Others are immigrants with few friends or family in the United States. And some are men at risk of losing their homes, jobs and families to accommodate their pastime, Yee said.
"Everyone knows how to gamble in the Chinese culture; it's very normal," said Sai Ling, 57, who lost her parents, whom she described as casual gamblers, in the crash.
As a result, Yee said, when gambling becomes a problem, people don't seek treatment "until they are totally lost — until they lose their homes, their jobs, their families." Others, he said, commit suicide.
Three years ago, Mohegan donated $25,000 to Yee's program, he said.