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The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dreamby Patrick Radden Keefe
"Our enlightenment begins with context: most of the migrants came from Fujian Province in southeastern China. This was known soon after the Golden Venture grounded, but Keefe tells us about the place (poor, mountainous, situated on the coast across the strait from Taiwan) and about precedents for "this peculiar type of population displacement, in which the people of a handful of villages seem to relocate en masse to another country within a short span of time" — in New York City they include Calabrians relocating to Mulberry Street in Little Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. Such regional migrations can take on a momentum of their own; Keefe writes, enlighteningly, that they are driven not simply by poverty but, once under way, by the disparities in income between families related to emigrants (who receive remittances allowing them to live large) and families who are not." Ted Conover, The Nation (read the entire Nation review)
Synopses & Reviews
A mesmerizing narrative about the rise and fall of an unlikely international crime boss.
In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian province began arriving in America. Like other immigrant groups before them, they showed up with little money but with an intense work ethic and an unshakeable belief in the promise of the United States. Many of them lived in a world outside the law, working in a shadow economy overseen by the ruthless gangs that ruled the narrow streets of New York's Chinatown.
The figure who came to dominate this Chinese underworld was a middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping. Her path to the American dream began with an unusual business run out of a tiny noodle store on Hester Street. From her perch above the shop, Sister Ping ran a full-service underground bank for illegal Chinese immigrants. But her real business — a business that earned an estimated $40 million — was smuggling people.
As a "snakehead," she built a complex — and often vicious — global conglomerate, relying heavily on familial ties, and employing one of Chinatown's most violent gangs to protect her power and profits. Like an underworld CEO, Sister Ping created an intricate smuggling network that stretched from Fujian Province to Hong Kong to Burma to Thailand to Kenya to Guatemala to Mexico. Her ingenuity and drive were awe-inspiring both to the Chinatown community — where she was revered as a homegrown Don Corleone — and to the law enforcement officials who could never quite catch her.
Indeed, Sister Ping's empire only came to light in 1993 when the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with 300 undocumented immigrants, ran aground off a Queens beach. It took New York's fabled "Jade Squad" and the FBI nearly ten years to untangle the criminal network and hone in on its unusual mastermind.
The Snakehead is a panoramic tale of international intrigue and a dramatic portrait of the underground economy in which America's twelve million illegal immigrants live. Based on hundreds of interviews, Patrick Radden Keefe's sweeping narrative tells the story not only of Sister Ping, but of the gangland gunslingers who worked for her, the immigration and law enforcement officials who pursued her, and the generation of penniless immigrants who risked death and braved a 17,000 mile odyssey so that they could realize their own version of the American dream. The Snakehead offers an intimate tour of life on the mean streets of Chinatown, a vivid blueprint of organized crime in an age of globalization and a masterful exploration of the ways in which illegal immigration affects us all.
"Keefe (Chatter) examines America's complicated relationship with immigration in this brilliant account of Cheng Chui Ping, known as Sister Ping, who built a multimillion-dollar empire as a 'snakehead,' smuggling Chinese immigrants into America. Sister Ping herself entered the U.S. legally in 1981 from China's Fuzhou province, but was soon known among Fujianese immigrants in Manhattan's Chinatown as the go-to for advice, loans and connections to bring their families to America. Her empire grew so large that she contracted out muscle work to the local gang, the Fuk Ching. Keefe points to the Golden Venture — a ship full of Fujianese illegals that ran fatally aground in 1993 — as the beginning of the end for Sister Ping. She was sentenced in 2000 to 35 years in prison for conspiracy, money laundering and trafficking. Despite an enormous cast of characters in a huge underground web of global crime, Keefe's account maintains the swift pace of a thriller. With the immigration debate still boiling, this exploration of how far people will go to achieve the American dream is a must-read. (July 21)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a small, weathered freighter, the Golden Venture, ran aground along the shoreline of New York's Rockaway beach. It was carrying 300 people from China's Fujian province. Most were men, though there was also a handful of women and children aboard. It was in many ways an age-old journey: immigrants risking their lives for a better life. But this was different.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Each had paid $35,000 to smugglers (the going rate is now upwards of $70,000), and when the ship beached (purposefully, it turns out) those on board, who were already weakened by the 120-day voyage, were ordered by the smugglers to jump into the rough surf and swim ashore. The sea was so turbulent that it flipped a 22-foot Boston Whaler sent out to rescue the swimmers. Ten of the Chinese men died. The rest lay exhausted in the sand, tended to by medics, given food and water, and then arrested. "For much of its history," Patrick Radden Keefe writes, "the United States has suffered from a kind of bipolarity when it comes to matters of immigration." And so it was that the men and women on the Golden Venture were not embraced but instead imprisoned, most of them in a jail in York, Pa., where they remained for three years while the government tried to figure out how it viewed them: as illegal immigrants or refugees — or something in between. Indeed, the Golden Venture, which Keefe points out was "the single largest arrival of illegal aliens in modern American history," came to symbolize the tightly wound tension that has long characterized this nation's stance on immigration: the instinct to take in the tired and the poor versus the oft-expressed inclination to return new arrivals to their home countries. "The Snakehead" evocatively captures our ying and yang over immigration policy. Even if you know where you stand, you'll get tossed about enough in this compelling narrative that you won't necessarily end up where you began. "The Snakehead," thankfully, is not a polemic. It's a rich, beautifully told story, so suspenseful and with so many unexpected twists that in places it reads like a John le Carre novel. Keefe, a masterful storyteller with the keen eye of a seasoned reporter, paints a discomforting picture, a worldwide smuggling network so lucrative that an INS agent renowned for his pluck and persistence is himself eventually drawn to the allure and the enormous profits of the trade. The numbers astound. During a two-year period when many Chinese were smuggled from Canada through a Mohawk reservation in the United States (a story captured in the extraordinary movie "The Frozen River"), the Native American smugglers made an estimated $170 million. The spine of "The Snakehead" is the account of Cheng Chui Ping, known to most as Sister Ping, an aloof if not eccentric woman who helped finance the Golden Venture. An immigrant herself from Fujian Province, Sister Ping built and headed a global smuggling empire, an underground network that extended from Asia to Africa and Latin America, all stops along the way to the ultimate destination: the United States. Sister Ping made a small fortune trading in humans, which it becomes abundantly clear is a cutthroat, often brazenly violent business, measured not only by street shootouts between rival smugglers but also by the brutal nature of the travel itself, including the claustrophobic and odorous voyage in the small hold of the Golden Venture which Keefe recounts in haunting detail. Food and water were so scarce that fights would break out. One of the smuggled Fujianese became so unhinged that he mindlessly pressed buttons on a hand-held video game long after the batteries had died. Another passenger told Keefe, "I think it changed many people, being on that ship." The ship also changed others, as well. When many of the Chinese were detained in a prison in the working-class town of York, some of the locals befriended the new captives and then took up their cause, arguing — convincingly — that they should be permitted to stay in this country. But beginning with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and then reinforced by the post-9/11 hysteria, our nation has become less welcoming to those seeking refuge. We now detain roughly 300,000 people, most of them accused of entering this country illegally, most of them awaiting deportation. Yet, as Keefe suggests, it's ingrained in the history of this country that "many an immigration story begins with some transgression, large or small." Indeed, Sister Ping, who is now serving time in prison, has become a folk hero in her Chinatown neighborhood, or as Keefe observes, "a latter-day Harriet Tubman who risked imprisonment to shepherd her countrymen to freedom." This is one of the freshest accounts of modern-day migration I've read, one filled with moral ambiguity, one that doesn't pretend to have the answers, one that in these times feels like essential reading. Alex Kotlowitz is the author of three books, including, most recently, "Never a City So Real." He teaches writing at Northwestern University. Reviewed by Alex Kotlowitz, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A well-told, panoramic international true-crime adventure." Kirkus Reviews
"Patrick Radden Keefe has written a vivid non fiction thriller. The Snakehead reads like a Chinese-American version of The Sopranos, except that the mob boss is a grandmother who runs a human smuggling enterprise, and the story is true." Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side
"The Snakehead achieves what only the finest reporting can: it peels back an astonishing hidden world. Keefe takes the reader on a spellbinding journey from peasant farms in Asia to the treacherous high seas to the violent streets of Chinatown — a journey that will forever change your understanding of what it means to become an American." David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
About the Author
Patrick Radden Keefe is a fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of Chatter. He is a graduate of Columbia College, Cambridge University, the London School of Economics, and Yale Law School, and the recipient of a Marshall Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Slate, and many other publications, he is also a frequent commentator on NPR, the BBC, and CNN. Visit his Web site at www.patrickraddenkeefe.com.
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