Run Aground on the Shores of Freedom

By Alex Kotlowitz
Sunday, August 2, 2009


An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

By Patrick Radden Keefe


414 pp. $27.50

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a small, weathered freighter, the Golden Venture, ran aground along the shoreline of New York's Rockaway Beach. It was carrying 300 people from China's Fujian province. Most were men, though there was also a handful of women and children aboard. It was in many ways an age-old journey: immigrants risking their lives for a better life. But this was different. Each had paid $35,000 to smugglers (the going rate is now upward of $70,000), and when the ship beached (purposefully, it turns out) those on board, who were already weakened by the 120-day voyage, were ordered by the smugglers to jump into the rough surf and swim ashore. The sea was so turbulent that it flipped a 22-foot Boston Whaler sent out to rescue the swimmers. Ten of the Chinese men died. The rest lay exhausted in the sand, tended to by medics, given food and water, and then arrested.

"For much of its history," Patrick Radden Keefe writes, "the United States has suffered from a kind of bipolarity when it comes to matters of immigration." And so it was that the men and women on the Golden Venture were not embraced but instead imprisoned, most of them in a jail in York, Pa., where they remained for three years while the government tried to figure out how it viewed them: as illegal immigrants or refugees -- or something in between. Indeed, the Golden Venture, which Keefe points out brought "the single largest arrival of illegal aliens in modern American history," came to symbolize the tightly wound tension that has long characterized this nation's stance on immigration: the instinct to take in the tired and the poor versus the oft-expressed inclination to return new arrivals to their home countries. "The Snakehead" evocatively captures our yin and yang over immigration policy. Even if you know where you stand, you'll get tossed about enough in this compelling narrative that you won't necessarily end up where you began.

"The Snakehead," thankfully, is not a polemic. It's a rich, beautifully told story, so suspenseful and with so many unexpected twists that in places it reads like a John le Carré novel. Keefe, a masterful storyteller with the keen eye of a seasoned reporter, paints a discomforting picture of a worldwide smuggling network so lucrative that an INS agent renowned for his pluck and persistence is himself eventually drawn to the allure and the enormous profits of the trade. The numbers astound. During a two-year period when many Chinese were smuggled from Canada through a Mohawk reservation in the United States (a story captured in the extraordinary movie "The Frozen River"), the Native American smugglers made an estimated $170 million.

The spine of "The Snakehead" is the account of Cheng Chui Ping, known to most as Sister Ping, an aloof if not eccentric woman who helped finance the Golden Venture. An immigrant herself from Fujian province, Sister Ping built and headed a global smuggling empire, an underground network that extended from Asia to Africa and Latin America, all stops along the way to the ultimate destination: the United States. Sister Ping made a small fortune trading in humans, which it becomes abundantly clear is a cutthroat, often brazenly violent business, measured not only by street shootouts between rival smugglers but also by the brutal nature of the travel itself, including the claustrophobic and odorous voyage in the small hold of the Golden Venture, which Keefe recounts in haunting detail. Food and water were so scarce that fights would break out. One of the smuggled Fujianese became so unhinged that he mindlessly pressed buttons on a handheld video game long after the batteries had died. Another passenger told Keefe, "I think it changed many people, being on that ship."

The ship also changed others, as well. When many of the Chinese were detained in a prison in the working-class town of York, some of the locals befriended the new captives and then took up their cause, arguing -- convincingly -- that they should be permitted to stay in this country. But beginning with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and then reinforced by post-9/11 hysteria, our nation has become less welcoming to those seeking refuge. We now detain roughly 300,000 people, most of them accused of entering this country illegally, most of them awaiting deportation.

Yet, as Keefe suggests, it's ingrained in the history of this country that "many an immigration story begins with some transgression, large or small." Indeed, Sister Ping, who is now serving time in prison, has become a folk hero in her Chinatown neighborhood, or as Keefe observes, "a latter-day Harriet Tubman who risked imprisonment to shepherd her countrymen to freedom." This is one of the freshest accounts of modern-day migration I've read, one filled with moral ambiguity, one that doesn't pretend to have the answers, one that in these times feels like essential reading.

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of three books, including, most recently, "Never a City So Real." He teaches writing at Northwestern University.

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