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

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick

nothing to envyThe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth.  To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films.  Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”.   The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un.  Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens.  The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world.  But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in.   Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.

Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home.  I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation.  Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into.  Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun.  Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends.  But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days.   Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure.  I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.

 

For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II.  Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea.  The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world.  And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.

When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world.  Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly.   But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea.   Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age.  For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways.  And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life.  Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.

Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years.  In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States.  The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy.  While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution.  Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State.  Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea.  However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified.  Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television.   Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for.  But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.

This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.

ISBN-10: 9780385523912
ISBN-13: 978-0385523912

Thirty Years Later: Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes -Myles A. Garcia

1200x630bfFebruary 25, 1986-Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda, relinquish power and flee into exile in fear of prosecution for embezzlement and election fraud.  The former first couple were airlifted from the presidential palace due to growing crowds of demonstrators intent on the removal of the despotic couple.  Their reign of power is still one of the most infamous in modern history and the effects of their tyrannical and avaricious administration are still being felt today in the Philippines as the country still struggles with the remnants the Marcos’ rule.  Myles A. Garcia, a native of the Philippines who relocated to the United States revisits the rule of the couple and the staggering amount of corruption that occurred under their rule.

I remember as a child when the two fled as it was all over the prime time news.  Even today, jokes are still told about the mind-boggling amount of shoes that Imelda Marcos once possessed.  But as we see in Garcia’s expose, shoes were just the tip of the iceberg. A direct path to the coffers of the Philippine government allowed the duo to amass a fortune that was both absurd and criminal. And while all of the financial details of their dealings may never be fully known, the details that Garcia does provide are mind-blowing.  Lavish jewelry,  designer clothing, trips around the world to shop and real estate holdings in multiple cities and countries are just some of the many material assets consumed by the power-hungry duo.   But as we also learn as we make our way through the book, they had help and plenty of it.

No ruler last without those under him willing to help him control and expand his empire. In Marcos’ case, there was no shortage of people willing to get their proverbial piece of the pie. All of the major players involved with the Marcos administration are examined in the book revealing their complicity in the theft of millions of dollars from the people of the Philippines. Their unwavering loyalty and willingness to defraud the general public raises awareness to the deep level of corruption that prevailed throughout the country.   The money was spent high and wide stretching all the way to the shores of the United States.   In fact, it stretched so far that some of it may never be located.   Numerous cases were brought against the two after they flex in exile, in the Philippines and even Hawaii.  Multiple judgments are still pending but to date, the overwhelming majority of them have never been paid.  Almost all of the major players from that era are long gone.  Ferdinand is no longer here to defend himself, having been gone for almost 30 years since his death on September 28, 1989 after a long bout with lupus and kidney issues. But Imelda is still here and still has aspirations to reclaim the throne she once sat upon.  In denial about her past actions, she continues to portray herself as a savior of the Philippines. Her son Bongbong and many others still allied to the notorious regime have a vested interested in Filipino politics.  It is hoped that the new generation of Filipinos have not forgotten a time in the nation’s history where everything was for the taking and a husband and wife used the wealth of the nation for their own personal benefit.   Murder, theft, greed and scandals are all throughout the book showing the real face of an infamous ruling family and the devastating effects of their dictatorial rule.

ISBN-10: 0578175606
ISBN-13: 978-0578175607