The Snakehead

Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe follows the story of the boss of a human smuggling ring.

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In some sense, The Snakehead was a book just waiting for Patrick Radden Keefe. Newspapers had investigated his central character and the courts had prosecuted her. Both left great paper trails for any patient and painstaking journalist. With hundreds of personal interviews and travel to three continents, Keefe has turned what could have been simply a compelling crime thriller into a masterwork of narrative nonfiction.

The book’s title comes from the nickname given to the boss in a human smuggling ring, and its story begins on the shores of Queens’ Rockaway Beach, where a ship named the Golden Venture runs aground. The landing is the central event holding together a series of tales as circuitous as the illegal immigrants’ journey to America. With decisive skill, Keefe weaves these stories into a single narrative of Chinatown’s smuggling operations – and a singularly American story of the immigrant’s search for wealth and freedom.

Keefe’s central character is Cheng Chui Ping, better known as Sister Ping, a linchpin in the human smuggling ring that may have brought as many as a million Chinese to the US in the 1980s and ’90s. She came here on such a journey herself, just as thousands in her Fujian Province began to view years of dishwashing in America as their best economic hope. Sister Ping controls the narrative as she did the underworld – virtually in absentia. Determined to keep herself out of the public eye, she confined her lavish spending to foreign countries. Her unrivaled reputation among the Fujianese was the only publicity she welcomed.

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Her time on the page is similarly modest. Early in his book, Keefe paints a sympathetic portrait of Sister Ping’s youth and her motivation for joining the smuggling trade, but we see much more of other shady characters – the charming, intelligent Ah Kay, who becomes Chinatown’s most feared gang leader, and his rival for power, Dan Xian Lin. We’re drawn more closely into the inner workings of FBI and immigration investigations than into Sister Ping’s own den, though the book swirls with the consequences of what happens there. Sister Ping moves in and out of Keefe’s narrative almost on the periphery, and yet she is clearly the puppet master. There are quite a few threads to keep track of in “The Snakehead,” but Keefe so completely and immediately earns the reader’s trust that one is willing to wait for each new strand to wind its way back to the puppet master.

Packaged as a book about global organized crime, Keefe’s story is as much a narrative of American politics. At every turn, Sister Ping’s work succeeds, or is thwarted, by shifting political winds that have very little to do with her own business acumen. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 paves the political path to a green card for any Chinese who arrived prior to 1981, no matter how they got here. (It doesn’t hurt Sister Ping that the cutoff date spawned a bull market in fake backdated documents. As her past customers began to send for their loved ones through her channels, Sister Ping was happy to provide the falsified documents as well.) Five years later, Sister Ping is arrested for the first time but finagles a light sentence; at the time, human smuggling wasn’t the FBI’s top priority.

That changed a decade later, with the Golden Venture debacle. After delays in Thailand and Kenya, the would-be immigrants landed on American soil at absolutely the wrong time: The newly installed President Clinton hadn’t named an immigration head, and the hawks and doves of asylum policy were fighting over whether China’s political repressions, especially the one-child policy, counted as persecution. Every case – and its consequences – became inordinately subjective. Some passengers were permitted to stay; others were deported. Of those, some were beaten and tortured. And others borrowed another $30,000 and made the journey again, this time successfully. (One is caught again, deboarding a boat aptly named the Oops II.)

Ultimately, Keefe’s story is about seedy characters who control the crime rings, from the hardened killers who lead Chinatown’s gangs to the hard-nosed smugglers who brought them there. Keefe’s greatest strength is hiding how he feels about these people, reporting on each of them with an attuned honesty that reveals itself not in the moral judgments of the author, but in the deftly observed detail of the reporter. When Sister Ping’s husband hears her sentence – 35 years spread across several criminal charges – Keefe writes, “He added up the numbers on a little piece of paper on his knee.” In the cramped quarters of the safe houses the newly smuggled share with gang members, Keefe notices, “The bathroom ... might have eighteen different toothbrushes in it, accommodating a revolving door of regulars and passers-through.”

He crosses that line, however, in a disappointing final chapter. He clears the air about his feelings on Sister Ping, Ah Kay and the other smugglers, immigration policy, and American politics as he sums up the lessons we’re supposed to learn from this story. He also undermines a fascinating cultural dissonance he’s spent book building: She may be a criminal in America, but Sister Ping is a hero to the many Fujianese who escaped dead-end lives of factory work for America, where their children, at least, can move up the socioeconomic ladder to lives unimaginable in the China their parents left.

But the rest of the book is too good not to forgive him. In this single tale about a global criminal, Keefe finds a story of quintessentially American hope.

Jina Moore is a freelance writer in New York.

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