Sometimes journalists can only describe, not explain. Certainly that was the case when the tattered freight ship the Golden Venture beached itself on New York's Rockaway peninsula in June 1993, disgorging from its fetid hold a cargo of 286 undocumented Chinese, ten of whom died while struggling to swim to shore. The national reaction was one of shock--at the time there was little public awareness that Chinese were sneaking into the country in this manner, in such numbers and at such expense: $30,000, it was soon revealed, was the starting price of the squalid passage. Passengers in this rust bucket had lived below decks for months without sanitation or adequate food, and been subject to harassment by representatives of the "snakeheads," or smugglers, who set the whole thing up. But who the snakeheads were; why it was happening now; why the nighttime landing, inside New York City, within miles of the Statue of Liberty, was so brazen--all cried out for explanation.
I knew about smuggling over the Mexican border from crossings I'd made for my book Coyotes. So when The New York Times Magazine assigned me to write a follow-up to all the news stories--the sort of now-take-a-deep-breath-and-try-to-explain exercise that can only be done well after the fact--I figured I could come through with the goods. I visited Golden Venture detainees in prison in Pennsylvania, talked with recent immigrants from China, fixers in Chinatown and Chinese-American professors, and got everything I could out of the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service. After a couple of months I had a fine collection of puzzle pieces--but only hunches about how they fit together. Those who knew weren't talking yet. Lacking the big picture about the Golden Venture, I wrote instead of the state of political asylum (see below) and waited for the day when the explanations would come.
Well, sixteen years later, that day is here. In Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream we finally have a satisfying, comprehensive account of the Golden Venture debacle and its place in the larger story of people smuggling and US immigration policy. In fact, it is not only satisfying; it is excellent. Keefe, a contributor to Slate and The New Yorker with one previous book to his name (Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping), has done an immense amount of research around the globe; if the Golden Venture beaching was the tip of an iceberg, then here, finally, is the iceberg.
Our enlightenment begins with context: most of the migrants came from Fujian Province in southeastern China. This was known soon after the Golden Venture grounded, but Keefe tells us about the place (poor, mountainous, situated on the coast across the strait from Taiwan) and about precedents for "this peculiar type of population displacement, in which the people of a handful of villages seem to relocate en masse to another country within a short span of time"--in New York City they include Calabrians relocating to Mulberry Street in Little Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. Such regional migrations can take on a momentum of their own; Keefe writes, enlighteningly, that they are driven not simply by poverty but, once under way, by the disparities in income between families related to emigrants (who receive remittances allowing them to live large) and families who are not.
He also describes the pull factors, which included not simply the perennial economic opportunities of the Golden Mountain, as the United States is known in China, but the declaration by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 that the United States stood by those whose childbearing rights were trampled by oppressive governments. Bush's executive order made this, if not a matter of law, a clear statement of his preferences, and Chinese had no difficulty reading the tea leaves.
Keefe's main narrative strand is the tale of Cheng Chui Ping, also known as Sister Ping, a Fujianese who immigrated legally in 1981. During an interview for her visa, Cheng Chui Ping had expressed a desire to work as a domestic servant. But it seems that was never in the cards. Not long after her arrival, she responded to the burgeoning demand for passage from her homeland by establishing a smuggling operation out of her variety store in New York's Chinatown. (She also ran a money transfer business by undercutting the fees charged by the huge Bank of China, which had a branch right across the street from her shop.) She arranged for Chinese to be smuggled over the border with Mexico, and over the border with Canada, too. The Coast Guard stopped a boat heading to Florida from the Bahamas that was carrying twelve undocumented Fujianese. When authorities checked the phone records of the man who leased it, they found he had made one call to New York City on the day of the voyage--to Sister Ping's variety store. Not that she actually guided clients herself; it seems that in most cases, Sister Ping instead was more like a general contractor. She would oversee an operation, handling the money, guaranteeing the result and, with her husband, supervising subcontractors who managed the logistics of transport.
Other criminals in the Chinatown underworld were jealous of her success. One of them was a young man named Ah Kay, the head of a Chinatown gang known as the Fuk Ching. Ah Kay, famous for his brutality in shaking down restaurant owners and other businesspeople, twice in the 1980s tried to rob Sister Ping, whom he figured had a lot of cash squirreled in her residence from the money transfer business. Both times her children were held at gunpoint while Ah Kay's men searched for money. The first time they netted only $1,000; the second, they scored $20,000 from her refrigerator.
Despite this history, business came first for Sister Ping. In September 1992, she had a boat off the coast of Boston loaded with more than 100 illegal migrants who needed to be brought to shore. Ah Kay had provided this "offloading" service to other snakeheads, but he had a different history with Sister Ping. When she approached him for help, according to courtroom testimony, he hastened to apologize for the armed robberies. "Sorry, Sister Ping," he said. "Everyone has their past." She replied, "That's what happened in the past. We're talking business now." In exchange for $750,000, Ah Kay sent a deputy on a fishing boat 200 miles out to Sister Ping's boat. The immigrants were deposited quietly on a wharf in New Bedford, Massachusetts, shortly after midnight: mission accomplished.
They would work together again on the Golden Venture, but this time the collaboration was very different. A third smuggler, Weng Yu Hui, who had himself been brought into the United States by Sister Ping in 1984, was the snakehead in chief behind an aging ship, the Najd II, which left Bangkok for the United States with 240 passengers in July 1992. The vessel ran aground briefly in Malaysia, then developed engine trouble en route to the island of Mauritius, where its Australian captain abandoned ship. Finally, in October, it limped into the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and went no further.
Trying to salvage the enterprise, Weng Yu Hui met with, among others, Ah Kay, who agreed to put up the money for the new boat. Weng also spoke with Sister Ping, assuring her that space would be saved on the boat for twenty clients of hers who happened also to be stuck in Mombasa. She still owed Ah Kay $300,000 for the offloading in New Bedford, and wired it to the people who would purchase a replacement craft.
Among the many interesting revelations of The Snakehead is that the US government knew that a cargo of undocumented Chinese was headed here from Mombasa months before they arrived. Soon after the Najd II docked in Mombasa, Keefe writes, "representatives from Mombasa's Missions to Seamen contacted the small US consulate in the city and explained the situation." Months later, an INS agent based in Kenya alerted American officials that the Najd II had been emptied and a different boat full of Chinese, the Gold Future, was possibly headed for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope. He had the right idea but the wrong ship; American intelligence reports at the time were full of partial and conflicting information.