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The Snakehead

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

By Jina Moore / August 26, 2009



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.

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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.

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.

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