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

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe

reefe1The eyes on the cover of this book are some of the most expressive I have seen although only half of the person’s face is exposed.  As they stared back at me from the cover, I felt a chill because I knew they were the eyes of someone who did not fear death.  I did not know who the person was but I found myself compelled to learn more.   As I opened up the book and began to read, I soon learned the name of the woman on the cover whose story is one of several that are interwoven. Her name was Dolours Price (1951-2013) and this truly is a story of murder and memory.

The story begins with the abduction of a widowed housewife raising several children named Jean McConville (1934-1972).  She is taken away and never seen alive again.  There is no explanation given by her captors and her children are forced to fend for themselves without any adult supervision. This incident sets the theme of the book and her murder would come to haunt those involved for years to come.  We are soon introduced to Dolours and her sister Marian, who attend a rally in support of the movement for a united Ireland.  Mayhem ensues as British troops and loyalist forces push back agaisnt the protestors.  The experience leaves the sisters jarred and they make the decision to join the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”).   From this point on, their lives are never the same and the story becomes even darker.

I have to assume that most readers who pick up this book will have some familiarity with the conflict. But for those who do not, I strongly recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916: The Easter Rising , which provides a thorough discussion of the uprising and seizure of the Dublin Post Office.  The events contained therein would later result in the founding of the Irish Free State and the paritioning of the six counties within Ulster Province that compose Northern Ireland.  For the Catholics in Ulster, life became a constant battle to resist discrmination by the Protestant majority and proclaim Northern Ireland part of the Irish Republic. And in this struggle, the IRA became the loudest voice for unification through acts of force and through the voices of figures such as Gerry Adams  Brendan “The Dark” Hughes (1948-2008) who are firmly entrenched in the story at hand.

As Dolours and Marian become deeper involved in the Republican movement, they are given more important task including one that shocked London on March 7, 1973.  In the aftermath, the sisters along with their conspirators, were sentenced and incarcerated in a British prison. Back in Ireland however, the British were ramping up their efforts to break the IRA chain of command and Keefe takes us back to the story of Adams and Hughes, both of whom join the most wanted list of IRA members.  Adams repeatedly denied being a part of the group and readers can make their own assessments.  What is clear is that both sides were playing for keeps and not adverse to using deadly measures to prove their point.

While moving through the book, I noticed that the book is really several smaller stories compiled into one.  There is the disappearance of McConville, Adams and Hughes, the Price Sisters, the Good Friday Agreement and Belfast Project.  They are all interconnected and Keefe connects them towards the end of the book with the right amount of suspenses and everything comes full circle. There are others who enter the story as well, in particualr Bobby Sands whose win in parliament and participation in the second hunger strike made him a martyr in the eyes of the IRA and its supporters.  And for those readers curious about Sands’ life, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s The Life and Times of Bobby Sands, which is by far the definitive biography of Sands’ incredible story. Each story on its own is gripping and full of eye-opening events.  But it is when they all come together that the complete picture is formed and one of the darkest secrets of the IRA comes to light. 

Fittingly, the end of the book makes a return to the beginning as McConville becomes the focus once again.  Hughes and Dolours Price are now deceased, and unable to make any statement in regards to Keefe’s work, but before their deaths they spoke at length in private interviews and some of they revealed is discussed unraveling the mystery surrounding McConville’s final moments.  And when readers learn what did happen, some will be staring in disbelief while others will be shaking their heads.   Had it not been for the actions of Edmund “Ed” Maloney and the members of the Belfast Project, the death of Jean McConville might have remained a deeply buried IRA secret.  Undoubtedly, there are probably some parts of the story that remain hidden to this very day.

The author did provide another aspect of the conflict which I have not seen in other books and that is the issue of the men and women on the Republican side who disappeared during the Troubles.  Jean McConville was one of many who simply vanished after taking the final ride to their deaths.  Keefe revisits a few of the most notorious cases which did result in the closure sought by the victim’s surviving famly members.  However, other families were not as fortunate and have never fuly healed.  It is often said that war is hell.  For the McConville family and others hurt or killed in the conflict, these words are hauntingly accurate.

Opinion of the IRA will certainly vary according to who you ask.  After finishing the book, I have come to see that the IRA, while committed to its goal of a united Ireland, also suffered from internal rivalries, paranoia and in some cases outright murder.  The seriousness of their mission and the infiltration of British spies raised tensions putting all on edge.  The MRF intelligence unit of the British Army has its role in the story and previously, I did not know about its existence.  The revelations regarding the group’s work and who the informers were within the IRA will leave some readers spellbound.  It is simply an unbelievable account of the IRA struggle in the North of Ireland.  However, for the children of Jean McConville, the conflict is a wound that may never heal.

The conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” remains the focus of intrigue as more books are published regarding a dark time in Irish and British history.  And while the violence of the past has subsided, divisions between Protestants and Catholics remain in place to this day.  But perhaps at some point in the future, Ireland will be unified and the IRA will no longer have a reason to exist. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07CWGBK5K