September 2009

Richard Wirick


The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Snakehead sets out to be one of those comprehensive, overarching histories of American industry's exploitation of immigrant pools like Riis's How The Other Half Lives or Hapgood's Spirit Of The Ghetto. It is a noble endeavor, as these prototypes set the standard for early 20th Century muckraking, and in many ways are unsurpassed. Even with all the advances of labor laws and trade unionism, the basic premises of these studies are unassailable.

But while Keefe's narrative aims for this target, it hits far wide of its historically dependent bull's-eye. What we get is something equally good, if more limited in scope: a tale of globalization gone wild and of one culture's transformation of that hothouse into a laboratory of human exploitation. It is a spellbinding read, and accomplishes through anecdotal scene-building what more generalized treatments of the phenomena could never pull off.

Keefe's framing device is the mooring of the Golden Venture immigrant ship off Queens in 1993. The craft had departed from China's Fujian province months before, carrying 300 undocumented laborers; between 10 and 12 died onboard the last segment of the voyage from Mombasa, where the Atlantic is at its angriest north of the Sargasso Sea. By the time the Coast Guard and INS reached its portals the ship was listing like a sodden, toppling tower. Hordes of men and women, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, charged out across the dunes; many collapsed and were captured, others simply disappeared into the dark suburban stillness of Breezy Point in Far Rockaway.

After one of the largest and most unusual rescue operations in history, the passengers -- in the hold over 120 days [longer than slave ship passengers in the 19th Century] -- began to be interrogated: where had they come from and to whom were they being sent? Who organized and paid for their passage, and why?

The Asians' intended destination was a labor ring of the ultimate globalist, a middle-aged grandmother named Sister Ping (the "Snakehead") and a self-styled, homegrown Don Corleone of N.Y. Chinatown's Mott Street. Fujianese herself, she had scraped and saved since her own (legal) immigration in 1981, and had spent the subsequent decade trafficking laborers to the restaurant and resort industries of greater New York and New England. The basic transaction was brutally simple: an aspirant to American shores would pay two thousand dollars up front on the Chinese mainland, or in Thailand or Burma, and, if he made it alive to the U.S., another twenty-eight thousand or so, which he worked off over a period of years once interest was figured in.

As with many sinister trafficking figures, Ping had her morally attractive elements. She wired money back to her Chinese village and supplied medical benefits to all of her charges. But for the most part, she supplied a ruthless assembly line of illiterate, desperate workers to sweat shops and marginal service providers. Vast numbers of them found more lucrative pay in gangs, who in turn fostered Snakehead operations of their own. New arrivals who shirked their debts were hounded by Snakehead capos, stabbed on the spot as a warning and, if they didn't make good, were castrated, decapitated, burned alive. Keefe is especially effective in his description of these gangland wars, which he presents as a gripping, true-crime saga, a sort of Chinatown Goodfellas.

Dating back to the patently racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904, smuggling had been part of Chinatown economic life for a hundred years. What fueled demand in the early 1990s -- and what Keefe covers with particular authority -- was a combination of factors: the backwash of a robust 80s economy with its rise of consumer (especially restaurant and vacation) spending; increased property ownership with demand for yard laborers; and Bush One's turning a blind eye to refugees of Chinese oppression after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1986.

Keefe then describes how human smuggling -- entirely voluntary and thus distinct from involuntary trafficking like the Moldovan sex trade -- dovetails with America's botched, bipolar immigration policies, ever the weathervane of fickle politics. On the one hand, both the Industrial Revolution and the late 20th Century's dot com boom encouraged open borders to supply cheap labor. Conversely, acute strands of hostility and xenophobia also dictate immigration perspectives, especially after events like 9/11. The Chinese have clearly suffered more than any other ethnic group from this pendulum swing of attitude toward foreigners. And in the summer of '93, even though the sweat shops were starving for bodies, Americans viewed outsiders with ever-increasing skepticism. In January of that year, a Pakistani terrorist had shot up CIA headquarters in Virginia, and then in March, prefiguring the horror of 2001, the World Trade Center was bombed in an operation masterminded by Ramzi Yousef and Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheik" whose asylum case was pending in the administrative law courts only blocks away. The Clinton administration, six months young, did not yet have an INS commissioner, and the agency was in one of its customary states of disarray.

Enter the Golden Venture. Vice President Al Gore (of all people) decided that the INS, the State Department, and federal police authorities were to make an example, through "deterrent detention," of the Golden Venture 300. Though a hundred were deported and most, if not all of the remainder were eventually given asylum with expedited hearings, it was not without protracted vilification in the press and the Congress. At Sister Ping's trial, and though she was demonized in the mainstream media, she was widely regarded in the Chinese community as someone who had provided a service, lifting sizable numbers of people out of obscure destinies as rural peasants. Acquitted of the money-laundering charge relating to her purchase of the Golden Venture, she was nonetheless convicted of lesser charges and given 35 years in prison. At her sentencing hearing, she offered endless justifications for the "opportunities" she provided her charges, and left the courtroom wearing an awkward smile. Her defense lawyers had cited Adam Smith in briefs, who had written that a smuggler is a person who, though no doubt highly "blamable for violating the laws of the country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."


The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe
ISBN: 0385521308
432 Pages

Buy this book>>>