Yi Ken Ren had one child too many for China's strict family-planning policies, so he scrimped together enough for the smugglers and fled his village in southeast Fujian province.

It took him a month to get to "mee-wohk," or "beautiful country." First to Hong Kong, then Thailand, the Bahamas, Belize, across the mountains of Central America, through Mexico.Finally, he reached the United States, one of tens of thousands of Fujians who make up the biggest wave of Chinese immigrants in the past decade.

Like many of them, he saw the Chinatowns in New York and Los Angeles but turned instead to small-town America. Ren, 46, settled quietly in Petersburg, Va., where he and his brother have opened a Chinese restaurant.

"It's just not as safe in the big cities," said Ren, who was recently granted political asylum. "When I was there, I had no rest and I was constantly afraid for my own safety, even among my own people. Besides, there's more opportunity in small towns - not like New York, where there's already a Chinese restaurant on just about every street."

The Fujians have quietly expanded into cities such as Atlanta; Charleston, W.Va.; and Columbus, Ohio. The migration away from Chinese enclaves is particular to this Chinese ethnic group, some experts say.

"They don't want competition. That's why many of the Fujians don't stay in Chinatowns like the Cantonese," said Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College in New York who has written a book about them. "They're so scattered that it's impossible to really know how many and where they are."

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates between 23,000 and 27,000 illegal Chinese were in the United States in 1996. Some scholars say the number is closer to 50,000 each year, but say it's hard to really know.

"China should be somewhere in the top of the INS list. But the INS does not acknowledge this because they're embarrassed," Kwong said. "The only way they have of tracking people is if their visas expire. They can't keep track of people who don't have papers."

Smugglers, primarily from Taiwan, have helped Fujians make their way all over the world, experts said. Some go to Southeast Asian countries such as Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. Others have settled in Europe. But most come to New York, at least at first.

The Fujians have transformed New York's Chinatown. New businesses, many with the sign "Fu," both for "fortunate" and the province, offer discount fares to the provincial capital, matchmaking services, shipping. Newborn babies are sometimes sent back to China for grandparents to baby-sit since both parents work.

On the streets, the lilting Fujian dialect is heard more often than the Cantonese dialect that once was supreme.

Some may work 16-hour days seven days a week to pay off smuggling debts. They sometimes live in apartments with more than a dozen other occupants, sleeping in shifts on wooden boards.

Authorities say the Fujians have also brought new blood to the ethnic gangs that exploit new arrivals or kidnap more-established Chinese for ransom. And many Fujians are hurt by those gangs, too.