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.