The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
by Patrick Radden Keefe
Reviewed by Ted Conover
Sometimes journalists can only describe, not explain. Certainly that was the case when the tattered freight ship the Golden Venture beached itself on New York's Rockaway peninsula in June 1993, disgorging from its fetid hold a cargo of 286 undocumented Chinese, ten of whom died while struggling to swim to shore. The national reaction was one of shock -- at the time there was little public awareness that Chinese were sneaking into the country in this manner, in such numbers and at such expense: $30,000, it was soon revealed, was the starting price of the squalid passage. Passengers in this rust bucket had lived below decks for months without sanitation or adequate food, and been subject to harassment by representatives of the "snakeheads," or smugglers, who set the whole thing up. But who the snakeheads were; why it was happening now; why the nighttime landing, inside New York City, within miles of the Statue of Liberty, was so brazen -- all cried out for explanation.
I knew about smuggling over the Mexican border from crossings I'd made for my book Coyotes. So when The New York Times Magazine assigned me to write a follow-up to all the news stories -- the sort of now-take-a-deep-breath-and-try-to-explain exercise that can only be done well after the fact -- I figured I could come through with the goods. I visited Golden Venture detainees in prison in Pennsylvania, talked with recent immigrants from China, fixers in Chinatown and Chinese-American professors, and got everything I could out of the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service. After a couple of months I had a fine collection of puzzle pieces -- but only hunches about how they fit together. Those who knew weren't talking yet. Lacking the big picture about the Golden Venture, I wrote instead of the state of political asylum (see below) and waited for the day when the explanations would come.
Well, sixteen years later, that day is here. In Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream we finally have a satisfying, comprehensive account of the Golden Venture debacle and its place in the larger story of people smuggling and US immigration policy. In fact, it is not only satisfying; it is excellent. Keefe, a contributor to Slate and The New Yorker with one previous book to his name (Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping), has done an immense amount of research around the globe; if the Golden Venture beaching was the tip of an iceberg, then here, finally, is the iceberg.
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.
He also describes the pull factors, which included not simply the perennial economic opportunities of the Golden Mountain, as the United States is known in China, but the declaration by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 that the United States stood by those whose childbearing rights were trampled by oppressive governments. Bush's executive order made this, if not a matter of law, a clear statement of his preferences, and Chinese had no difficulty reading the tea leaves.
Keefe's main narrative strand is the tale of Cheng Chui Ping, also known as Sister Ping, a Fujianese who immigrated legally in 1981. During an interview for her visa, Cheng Chui Ping had expressed a desire to work as a domestic servant. But it seems that was never in the cards. Not long after her arrival, she responded to the burgeoning demand for passage from her homeland by establishing a smuggling operation out of her variety store in New York's Chinatown. (She also ran a money transfer business by undercutting the fees charged by the huge Bank of China, which had a branch right across the street from her shop.) She arranged for Chinese to be smuggled over the border with Mexico, and over the border with Canada, too. The Coast Guard stopped a boat heading to Florida from the Bahamas that was carrying twelve undocumented Fujianese. When authorities checked the phone records of the man who leased it, they found he had made one call to New York City on the day of the voyage -- to Sister Ping's variety store. Not that she actually guided clients herself; it seems that in most cases, Sister Ping instead was more like a general contractor. She would oversee an operation, handling the money, guaranteeing the result and, with her husband, supervising subcontractors who managed the logistics of transport.
Other criminals in the Chinatown underworld were jealous of her success. One of them was a young man named Ah Kay, the head of a Chinatown gang known as the Fuk Ching. Ah Kay, famous for his brutality in shaking down restaurant owners and other businesspeople, twice in the 1980s tried to rob Sister Ping, whom he figured had a lot of cash squirreled in her residence from the money transfer business. Both times her children were held at gunpoint while Ah Kay's men searched for money. The first time they netted only $1,000; the second, they scored $20,000 from her refrigerator.
Despite this history, business came first for Sister Ping. In September 1992, she had a boat off the coast of Boston loaded with more than 100 illegal migrants who needed to be brought to shore. Ah Kay had provided this "offloading" service to other snakeheads, but he had a different history with Sister Ping. When she approached him for help, according to courtroom testimony, he hastened to apologize for the armed robberies. "Sorry, Sister Ping," he said. "Everyone has their past." She replied, "That's what happened in the past. We're talking business now." In exchange for $750,000, Ah Kay sent a deputy on a fishing boat 200 miles out to Sister Ping's boat. The immigrants were deposited quietly on a wharf in New Bedford, Massachusetts, shortly after midnight: mission accomplished.
They would work together again on the Golden Venture, but this time the collaboration was very different. A third smuggler, Weng Yu Hui, who had himself been brought into the United States by Sister Ping in 1984, was the snakehead in chief behind an aging ship, the Najd II, which left Bangkok for the United States with 240 passengers in July 1992. The vessel ran aground briefly in Malaysia, then developed engine trouble en route to the island of Mauritius, where its Australian captain abandoned ship. Finally, in October, it limped into the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and went no further.
Trying to salvage the enterprise, Weng Yu Hui met with, among others, Ah Kay, who agreed to put up the money for the new boat. Weng also spoke with Sister Ping, assuring her that space would be saved on the boat for twenty clients of hers who happened also to be stuck in Mombasa. She still owed Ah Kay $300,000 for the offloading in New Bedford, and wired it to the people who would purchase a replacement craft.
Among the many interesting revelations of The Snakehead is that the US government knew that a cargo of undocumented Chinese was headed here from Mombasa months before they arrived. Soon after the Najd II docked in Mombasa, Keefe writes, "representatives from Mombasa's Missions to Seamen contacted the small US consulate in the city and explained the situation." Months later, an INS agent based in Kenya alerted American officials that the Najd II had been emptied and a different boat full of Chinese, the Gold Future, was possibly headed for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope. He had the right idea but the wrong ship; American intelligence reports at the time were full of partial and conflicting information.
"Ironically enough," writes Keefe, "the officials could have gained a much better understanding of the situation if they had simply consulted the newspaper." On April 4, 1993, the South China Morning Post correctly reported that "a ship carrying hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants is on its way to the United States." Keefe writes, "The Hong Kong-based newspaper exhibited no confusion about the names of the ships or the sequence of events, and explained that the immigrants were now bound for the United States 'aboard a Honduran-registered fishing trawler MV Golden Venture.'"
Unfortunately, the ship's arrival in the United States would not go as smoothly as the arrival of the vessel that had unloaded at New Bedford in 1992. Ah Kay, though a major investor in the trip, had had to go into hiding in the meantime because of strife with another gang. Nobody could be found to offload the passengers; while the smugglers looked, the Golden Venture waited. And the Coast Guard, Keefe reports, noticed: a surveillance plane spotted the ship southeast of Nantucket the morning of June 4, 1993, and reported it as DIW (dead in the water) -- in other words, not moving. It "was quite close to shore, and as it approached New York its course took it on a trajectory that ran directly perpendicular to the shipping lanes in the area -- a dangerous move, and one that might have attracted some notice," he writes, adding that, as the boat sailed slowly toward Rockaway the next evening, "the Coast Guard dispatched boats to intercept it. But they couldn't find it." (Unfortunately, Keefe is unable to offer further information about why this would be.)
Other disturbing revelations abound. Government officials had Sister Ping and her husband in custody long before the Golden Venture disaster, in connection with smuggling schemes including an incident near Niagara Falls in which four people died. But apparently they figured Sister Ping and her husband for bit players; he never went to prison, and she served only a four-month sentence. Well before the Golden Venture grounded, an INS employee, Joe Occhipinti, had perceived the scope of the smuggling from China and proposed that a multi-agency task force be formed to take it on; the suggestion was never acted upon. Ah Kay, the Fuk Ching gang leader responsible for several murders and untold other violence, became a government witness against Sister Ping and others and in exchange was quietly released from prison. (He is now under witness protection.) And even though there was an active warrant out for his arrest, Sister Ping's husband was naturalized in 1996.
Americans are sadly accustomed to bureaucratic incompetence regarding most matters involving immigration. Ultimately more worrying, however, is our national ambivalence about new citizens; it's hard to find a better example of this than President George H.W. Bush's actions with regard to immigration and China. Following the Tiananmen Square uprising, Bush was clearly tortured. He wanted to show American disapproval while preserving a working relationship with the Chinese. He halted sales of military equipment to the People's Liberation Army, for example, but rejected the idea of broad economic sanctions. He also wanted to protect dissidents, such as the Beijing astrophysicist who sought refuge at the US Embassy during the crackdown, and it was in connection with this that he issued the fateful executive decree. First, said Bush, any Chinese citizen who was in the United States before the crackdown should not be forcibly removed by immigration agents. Keefe, noting that the directive effectively offered safe haven to 80,000 Chinese students, calls it "a kind of founding document for the Fujianese community in America."
A second part of the order, writes Keefe, "would unwittingly facilitate the snakehead trade and set the stage for an epic influx of undocumented Chinese." This was Section 4, where Bush directed officials to provide for "enhanced consideration" under immigration laws for people "who express a fear of persecution upon return to their country related to that country's policy of forced abortion or coerced sterilization." In Keefe's words, "the breadth of the provision led to the de facto result that any fertile Chinese person, whether a parent or not, suddenly became a potential political refugee in the United States." It was an "unambiguous invitation," and the effects were unmistakable: "in 1992 political asylum was granted to roughly 85 percent of the undocumented Chinese immigrants who requested it, a rate almost three times higher than for immigrants from other countries. 'The Fujianese thank two people,' a Chinatown real estate broker who emigrated in the 1980s observed. 'One is Cheng Chui Ping [Sister Ping]. And one is George Bush the father.'"
Keefe consulted an impressive array of sources in piecing together this book. Many were in law enforcement -- agents of the FBI and the immigration service seem to have been especially forthcoming. Where others were not, Keefe dug deeper. His source notes reveal that many details of the scene from that horrific night on Rockaway Beach come from Keefe's Freedom of Information Act requests for the reports of first responders, such as agents of the US Park Service Police. Outside law enforcement, Keefe spoke to attorneys, White House staffers and all kinds of people in New York's Chinatown. In York, Pennsylvania, where many of the migrants spent more than three years in prison, he spoke with volunteer lawyers and a committee of advocates for the men in prison. And he interviewed many of the migrants, including one, Sean Chen, who left Fujian with snakeheads in 1991; traveled overland through Burma to Thailand; languished in Bangkok until July 1992, when he boarded the Najd II; languished in Mombasa until April 1993, when he boarded the Golden Venture; and then languished in York until President Bill Clinton ordered him and all other Golden Venture detainees freed on Valentine's Day 1997.
Sister Ping's life, however, was moving in the opposite direction. In 2006 she was convicted of smuggling-related crimes and sentenced by then-judge Michael Mukasey to thirty-five years in prison. (When Keefe wrote her there asking for an interview, she replied, "What's in it for me?")
Keefe's book ends with his visit to the man who was head of the regional immigration service office in New York at the time of the Golden Venture landing, the man who decided that, instead of releasing the migrants pending disposition of their cases in immigration court, as was the common practice, he would detain them indefinitely. I remember thinking at the time how heartless William Slattery was and, with his inflammatory pronouncements, how nasty. But with a fairness that's characteristic of his approach, Keefe explains some of Slattery's thinking. There was a snakehead boom under way; Chinese asylum seekers were arriving by the boatload. At the top of his agency there was a vacuum: Bill Clinton had been in office only six months, and his nominee for INS commissioner, Doris Meissner, had not yet been confirmed. Slattery tells Keefe that no higher-up told him to detain the migrants, but nor did they say not to. Washington, in Slattery's mind, was "terrified, paralyzed by its own indecision." The brazen landing inside New York City "was a final, unmistakable fuck you from the smugglers to the United States government, and Slattery took it personally." "I led. Washington followed," he brags to Keefe.
Slattery's anger probably reflected that of many; snakeheads like Sister Ping were clearly out to exploit the good will of the United States. Now retired in Florida, Slattery "to this day...is skeptical about the asylum claims of the passengers aboard the Golden Venture," writes Keefe, and once you have in hand this larger picture, it's hard not to share that skepticism. Or to agree with Slattery's current, pragmatic position that, having been here so long, the Golden Venture passengers should of course be allowed to stay.
The immigration official is not the only player in this tale that has found its final resting place in Florida. After being auctioned off by the US Marshals in 1993 (and repainted, and renamed the United Caribbean), the former Golden Venture carried cargo for a while before the new owner abandoned it in the Miami River. Keefe reports that eventually local authorities decided to sink the ship and turn it into an artificial reef for divers. That's its final act, out in the Boca Raton Inlet. I think no one was sad to see it go.
Ted Conover is a writer in residence at NYU. His new book is The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.