The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream – Patrick Radden Keefe

RaddenIn the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a shipping vessel named the Golden Venture ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York.  National Park Service officers began to inspect the incident and noticed human figures jumping over the sides of the boat and scurrying out of the light.  It soon became clear that the ship was carrying human cargo, more specifically, Chinese men and women being smuggled into the United States. The next day, my parents, brother and I watched the news broadcasts in shock.  But what none of us realized was that the smuggling of human beings into the country had been taking place right under our noses. However, my father who was undoubtedly the most street savvy out of the group remarked that people have been smuggled into the United States for years.  But looking back, I do not believe that even he knew the scope of the operation.  Patrick Radden Keefe, the author of the phenomenal Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandjourneyed into the Chinese underworld and explored the complicated network of international human smuggling. And what he found is a story that will surely be remembered for years to come.

Readers may be surprised to hear that the Golden Venture incident is only part of the full  story. It is however, the culmination of a series of critical events that take place over the course of the book.  The story begins in Chinatown where a Chinese immigrant from the Shengmei in Fujian Province named Cheng Chui Ping (1949-2014) and her husband Cheung Yick Tak operate a variety story and other small business ventures.  On the street she was known as Big Sister Ping, the woman to whom all went if they also hailed from  Fujian.  As a native New Yorker, I admit that I did have some embarrassment at my lack of knowledge of the importance of Fujian and Chinese immigration to the United States.  Reefe provides some very interesting information and I was surprised to learn that even Chinatown was split and may be split today, between different demographics within the Chinese community itself. Further, he provides a very thorough discussion on the history of Chinese immigration in America, and makes sure to include the good, the bad and the even the regrettable.  Readers who are interested in learning more about the Asian American experience will highly appreciate Roger Daniels’ Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850, which is invaluable in understanding Chinese and Japanese immigration to America.

As the book progresses, Sister Ping emerges as a titan in the New York Chinese-American community, providing an invaluable link between new immigrants to America and their native homeland. The money comes pouring and smuggling proves to be a highly lucrative business, with uninterested authorities oblivious to a vast network operating freely across several continents.  With the arrival of Fujianese immigrants also came the darker underworld controlled by the tongs, the gangs that preyed on Chinese businesses and in some cases, turned Lower Manhattan into a shooting gallery.   The central Fuk Ching tong figure is Guo Liang Qi who is known simply as Ah Kay. This simple and unassuming immigrant becomes one of the most important figures in the book and permanently intertwined in the story of Big Sister Ping.

The discovery of the Golden Venture left many Americans scratching their heads.  But surprisingly, not everyone was in shock. In fact, Reefe shows that Washington knew far more about Chinese smuggling than it led the American people to believe.  And in New York City, officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were well acquainted with Sister Ping, who surprisingly, had been previously apprehended near Buffalo, New York.  The authorities and Ping engage in a cat and mouse game in which the smugglers know the authorities are watching but unable to make any significant headway.  But all of that changes after the “Beeper Store” murders which placed Ah Kay high on the list of most wanted fugitives.  The grisly fallout from the murders at the store and the inhumane deaths occurring at the hands of smugglers started to awaken the sleeping giant and soon, people in high places within the U.S. Government began to take notice of the growing Chinese underground smuggling ring. And by the time of Ping’s demise, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had its hand in the jar.  But incredibly, official policy in Washington seemed to facilitate the very thing that many sought to eliminate.  Actions by the administration of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) are examined in detail and will leave some readers shaking their heads at what could be described as an incredible lack of foresight.

One part of the story that stands out is the sort or revolving door aspect to the early arrests that take place of Sister Ping, Yick Tak and others.  Few stay in custody for long and eventually make their way back to Chinatown.  The author leaves it up to the readers to decide how they were able to manage such feats but I believe that those closely following the story will quickly put two and two together. Some secrets of Ping’s first arrest and that of her husband are carefully hidden from public light. However, they are only a small part of a story that becomes far more disturbing as the focus moves from New York to the South China Sea and Southeast Asia where Ping is continuing to operate after exiting stage left from New York.  The events that take place in the South China Sea are crucial to the journey of the Golden Venture, originally known as the Tong Sern.  At this point in the book, it becomes clear how the Golden Venture’s final journey began to take shape and the doom that awaited the men and women on board.

After running aground, the passengers aboard the Golden Venture were in for yet another journey, this one through the United States immigration system.  At this point in the book, the story takes yet another turn as Washington finds itself in a tough predicament.  I had always wondered what happened to the people on the Golden Venture and could not recall what became of them.  While I did remember that they were detained as illegal aliens, I was not aware of their ordeal after surviving the journey across the seas.  I am sure that readers may be divided on the Government’s response in this situation.  Some may argue that there was no perfect way to deal with the survivors while others may feel they should have been deported immediately.  What is clear is that they became a political football that landed into the lap of President William Jefferson Clinton.   Ultimately, Clinton makes a final decision that one would assume solved the plight of the passengers.  However, that is not the case and Reefe follows their journeys across America in the country that would become a new home for some of them.   A few of the stories are uplifting and others not so much.  But each highlights the lengths to which people will go for a new life in America. And Reefe does an excellent job of driving home that point.

Sister Ping figures prominently throughout the book and her final capture is straight out of the playbook of Interpol.  However, how she was eventually captured does provoke deep thought and produces even deeper questions.   Mysteriously, records pertaining to the case of her husband Yick Tak, who was arrested shortly before Ping for the second time, remained sealed.  However, her subsequent trial and conviction are explained by the author and even includes snippets of Ping’s bizarre rants in the courtroom.   The fall of big sister was fast and furious but she was only one in a large network of smugglers who see big money to be made by helping those in achieving their dreams of moving to the United States.  To the very last moment, Ping remained defiant and some statements she makes will cause readers to wonder if one person can be that out of touch with reality.   On August 24, 2014, Ping died at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She was sixty-five years old and left behind a legacy that remains intact to those who have come from Fujian and made a new home in America.  But to authorities, her arrest and downfall was a sweet victory following years of investigative work and tragic discoveries of other failed ventures destined for the shores of America.  She may be gone but to a large number of immigrants she will always be known as Big Sister Ping.  And this is the story of the Snakehead, the underground network that opened the eyes of many to the paths taken by those who risk life and death to live the American dream.

ASIN: B002HMJZAA

3 thoughts on “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream – Patrick Radden Keefe

    1. Genyc79

      Absolutely. There is a documentary called Golden Venture that was released in 2009. I have yet to watch it but have added it to my list of things to view. I saw it on Amazon Prime and it may be available on other streaming platforms. While reading the book, I thought back to when the story broke in NYC and I watched the morning news with my parents, it was like something out of a movie for sure.

      Like

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