Human Cargo

Patrick Radden Keefe chased a trail of international intrigue.

On June 6, 1993, a battered freighter ran aground 150 yards off
Rockaway Beach in Queens. Its 286 passengers, who had spent much of
their voyage from China packed into a space little larger than a
suburban garage, were told to jump ship and swim for shore, where their
American dream was to begin. Some drowned. Those who reached the beach
were hailed as survivors, then jailed — this was not part
of the plan — as illegal aliens. Some were deported, others
granted asylum. Some remained in Pennsylvania’s York County Prison for

They’d placed their fates in the hands of Cheng Chui Ping. Having
immigrated from Fujian Province in the 1980s, “Sister Ping” was New
York City’s most notorious “snakehead,” an illegal smuggler of human
beings. She charged $5,000 — a fortune to the average
Mainlander, largely worked off upon arrival, dish by dish, in Ping’s
restaurant. A modern version of an age-old scenario, it made Ping
resoundingly rich.

“She was feared, but also admired and respected,” says Patrick
Radden Keefe
, who will discuss his book The Snakehead: An Epic
Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
Thursday, September 17, at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave.,
Berkeley). “To the Chinese community … she was like Robin Hood.”
Photographs show a high-cheekboned, no-nonsense, makeupless square
face. “You wouldn’t look at her twice if you passed her on the street,”
Keefe notes. “But … she made $40 million.”

Keeping watch over those who owed Ping money was the vicious Fuk
Ching gang, which used surveillance cameras, knives, and hammers to
ensure that debts were paid. Because “this was Chinese-on-Chinese
crime” against undocumented victims, “nobody was paying any notice”
— until the Golden Venture. Then the world heard a tale of
death, dreams, immigration, and a vast criminal empire.

Ping’s customers “were fleeing poverty and what they perceived as
dead-end lives” in China, Keefe says. “Some of them were fleeing
persecution at the hands of the government — whether
because they were democracy protesters, or they had violated the
one-child policy, or they had simply offended some local party
official. People left for many reasons. But they shared a conviction
that the land they were journeying to was both free and full of
opportunity, that by working hard they could make good lives here,
and that things would be more comfortable and prosperous for their

The Golden Venture‘s passengers busied themselves in prison
by making art with recycled paper and toothpaste. Although most had no
previous artistic experience, their work was later exhibited at the

“The snakeheads are still operating,” Keefe says, “and they are more
sophisticated than ever, though there is less of a customer base in
China than there was during the 1980s and 1990s. There are also analogs
for the snakeheads in other cultures around the world, from the coyotes
on the Mexican border to human smugglers who bring Africans from
Tripoli to Italy, or from Morocco to Spain.” 7:30 p.m., free.

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