The Empire of Sister Ping

The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at 47 East Broadway in Manhattan, serving the specialties of China’s Fujian province, from which most of the people in this part of Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown have come in the past thirty or so years. You hardly see a non-Chinese person on East Broadway, a busy commercial street in what might be called Greater Chinatown, which is just across the Bowery from the mostly Cantonese-speaking Chinatown that draws most tourists.

The population density here seems twice that of most parts of Manhattan, and that’s in part because of the street’s shopping and culinary offerings, but also because up above in the tenements that used to be occupied by East European Jews, the recently arrived Fujianese accept crowded conditions as part of the price of admission to the US. In The Snakehead, a brilliant reporter’s account of the Fujianese-American underworld, Patrick Radden Keefe writes about rooming houses where bunk beds are rented out for eight hours a day, so one sleeping place is shared by three people, each of whom spends sixteen hours out, mostly working off the debts they incurred to pay people like Sister Ping and other snakeheads, as the people smugglers are known.

During the past quarter-century, whole villages in districts near the Fujianese capital of Fuzhou on China’s southeast coast have been virtually emptied of young inhabitants, whose departure for the United States has resulted in a major transfer of a population from one country to the other. In the mid-1990s, low estimates put the number of illegal immigrants from Fujian to the US at 50,000 per year, but as Keefe reports, James Woolsey, “who was director of the CIA at the time, told Congress that the number of Chinese being smuggled in each year was closer to 100,000.” How the Fujianese have both ingeniously and ruthlessly managed this, despite the efforts of American authorities to stop them, is the essence of Keefe’s book, with its focus on Sister Ping and her immediate circle of relatives, gang members, confederates, enforcers, and a willing, globalized penumbra of corrupt officials who helped her.

Sister Ping was far from the only snakehead, but she was probably the most celebrated. Keefe reports on the village in Fujian that erected a monument in her honor just as American law enforcement officials, after years of trying, were finally closing in on her and her network. The services she offered were expensive, about $18,000 per person in the 1980s, $30,000 in the 1990s, and they involved journeys by ship whose conditions seem sometimes to have been not that much better than those on the African slave ships: months crammed inside the fetid holds of decrepit trawlers where each passenger was assigned a six-foot by two-foot area of plywood plank, with nothing better than survival rations on the way, no toilet, and the possibility of getting caught and repatriated at the other end. But Sister Ping had a reputation for reliability and honesty, and, Keefe makes clear, her customers expected to endure considerable hardship as part of the cost of getting here.

Today at 47 East Broadway, a metal door leads to a battered stairway, the steps themselves inscribed in red Chinese characters advertising businesses in the offices above the restaurant: insurance and travel agencies, a dental office, several marked with the Chinese characters yi-min, which means “immigrant,” indicating companies offering employment and housing services to recent Fujianese arrivals. In Sister Ping’s day, the ground floor was a variety store called Tak Shun that she had started elsewhere in Chinatown after she arrived in New York from Fujian in 1981. The restaurant, whose name was then transliterated as Yeung Sun, was in the basement, and the family’s living quarters were on the floors above, where the insurance and immigration offices are situated today. When I went to the Yung Sun restaurant wondering if I would find, as Keefe did, expressions of admiration for Sister Ping on behalf of thousands of Fujianese, I asked the hostess whether this wasn’t once Sister Ping’s restaurant.

“I only work here,” she replied.

* * *

The hostess in Sister Ping’s former command center could simply have been evading the subject, or perhaps her nonreply was a sign that things change quickly in Chinatown even if, for outsiders and tourists, the visual impression doesn’t—all those signs in Chinese characters arrayed vertically over the shopfronts, the restaurants with their fish and eel tanks, the profusion of little shops, the street throngs reminiscent of shopping districts in China itself. Chinatown is a more law-abiding place than it was during the 1990s when rival gangs—the Fuk Chings, the Flying Dragons, the Ghost Shadows, the Tung Ons—imposed a reign of terror in Little Fujian, collecting protection money from merchants, kidnapping immigrants who failed to make good on their snakehead debts, and shooting and knifing one another in turf battles.* Keefe mentions in his epilogue that in 2002, the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown didn’t register a single homicide. But his story is set in the earlier, more lawless Chinatown of the 1990s, beginning with the events of June 6, 1993, when a decommissioned Taiwanese fishing trawler called the Golden Venture, packed with three hundred would-be illegal aliens from Fujian, ran aground one hundred yards off the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.

The sudden arrival of the Golden Venture is what awakened many Americans to the world of the desperate and sometimes fatal illegal immigration from Fujian described by Keefe. A Coast Guard pilot named Bill Mundy hovered over the ship in a helicopter, while his copilot shouted, “Do not jump; stay on board,” to what looked to them like a large number of panicky passengers. But Mundy quickly realized that the men on board not only couldn’t hear him above the noise of the helicopter but also wouldn’t have understood him even without the noise. The passengers jumped. Ten of them drowned. The other 290 were held in prison, the first step in a saga that, for some of them, lasted the next several years as they fought to stay in the United States, benefiting in their struggle from the help of a devoted band of American sympathizers who saw in the voyage of the Golden Venture a reincarnation of the journey of the Mayflower four centuries earlier.

Keefe tells the remarkable story of the Golden Venture, whose 17,000-mile, four-month journey from Asia took twice as long as the Mayflower‘s did. The ship started its journey in Singapore as the Liberian-registered Tong Sern. It picked up a first group of Fujianese passengers off the coast of Pattaya, a beach resort in Thailand. This group had set off five months earlier from Fujian itself, gone to Kunming in China’s southwest, then illegally crossed the Chinese border into Burma where they were led to Thailand through jungles controlled by drug warlords. Only shortly before, a crackdown on corrupt officials at the Bangkok airport had shut down an air route to Central America that the snakeheads had previously relied on, so the Fujianese were forced to wait several months while the snakeheads found alternative transport. Finally they were told to board the Tong Sern off the beach at Pattaya.

The ship returned to Singapore for repairs, then set sail for the Kenyan port of Mombasa where another two hundred Fujianese, who had been stranded there for several months, were waiting for transportation to the United States. While en route to Mombasa, in order to throw American immigration officials off its scent, crew members transformed the Liberian-registered Tong Sern into a phantom ship, a vessel of which there was no previous record. They simply lowered themselves over the sides of the ship and painted the words Golden Venture in large white letters over the words Tong Sern, while the ship’s owners reregistered the ship in Honduras. After picking up the Mombasa group, the ship went to South Africa, then across the Atlantic to New York.

Normally, a boat like the Golden Venture would have waited a few miles off the American coast, where it would have been met by small boats dispatched by members of a Chinatown gang that Sister Ping subcontracted to offload its passengers and bring them in the dead of night to shore. But the leader of the gang—a man known as Ah Kay—had, because of an extremely violent gang war, fled to China, leaving the Golden Venture to fend for itself, and exposing the smuggling operation to public view.

* * *

The Fujianese immigration arranged by the snakeheads is one part of the larger immigration from China that has changed Chinese life in America. Since 1965, when a new immigration law revoked a racist policy that had effectively prevented immigration from China for eighty years, the Chinese population has increased twenty-six-fold, from around 100,000 to 2.6 million in 2006, according to Census Bureau statistics.

For roughly a century, Chinatown in New York meant the few square blocks south of Canal Street and west of the Bowery where the community language was almost exclusively Cantonese, and the various organizations, from the benevolent societies that offered private welfare to the tongs that controlled gambling and prostitution, served a Cantonese population. In 1960, the entire Chinese population of New York was 20,000; now it is around 400,000. During that time, new Chinatowns have sprung up. Flushing, in Queens, was a derelict, high-crime district twenty-five years ago and has since become home to a mixed Asian population, including 143,000 ethnic Chinese, most of whom speak Mandarin. Other Chinatowns have cropped up in Elmhurst, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Many Chinese immigrants, especially the 43 percent of them who arrive with bachelor’s degrees or higher, don’t settle in Chinatown at all but are spread around the country, as are many of the more assimilated second- and third-generation Chinese. Still, according to the Census Bureau, about two thirds of the immigrants from China have limited ability in English. A quarter of them have never finished high school, and the Fujianese of New York’s Greater Chinatown make up a large proportion of this group. They are the ones you see scrubbing pots in the back rooms of restaurants, or doing manicures or pedicures in New York’s many nail salons (along with Korean immigrants), or running the small Chinese take-out places that are scattered through the city. For them, immigration is a tough struggle, not only because of the expense and difficulty of getting to America in the first place but also because of the perils they face after they’ve arrived.

A woman I know—she goes by the English name Tina—works as a manicurist in Manhattan. She and her husband came to New York in 1992, having paid a snakehead $50,000 for their passage, which took them by plane from Shanghai to Mexico and then on a clandestine nighttime crossing of the California border. They came at a time when American policy inadvertently helped to promote the snakehead business. The violent suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 led the George H.W. Bush administration to grant what was called “enhanced consideration” to all Chinese applicants for asylum. At the same time, the anti-abortion views of the administration led it to allow people escaping China’s draconian family-planning policies to claim asylum, which, as Keefe notes, meant in effect that any fertile Chinese person who managed to cross the border could potentially be allowed to stay, a consequence that was not lost on the Clinton administration. Around the time of the Golden Venture’s landing, Tim Wirth, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, complained in a memo to Clinton’s national security adviser that “the magnet effect of our permissive asylum policies was primarily responsible for the massive outflow of Chinese illegal aliens into the US over the past two years.”

Tina and her husband, instructed by the snakeheads, whose knowledge of American immigration law was thorough and up to date, applied for asylum, and every year they received papers allowing them to work while their applications were considered, a procedure that takes years. They each had two low-paying jobs, Tina in garment district sweatshops, her husband in restaurants. They paid off their snakehead debts; they had two children. After seven years, however, Tina’s husband’s papers were not renewed, and he became an illegal alien. In 2005 he was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, and the police discovered his undocumented status. He never went home to Chinatown again, but was taken straight to an immigration lockup and nine months later was deported to China, leaving Tina to fend for herself and her two children alone.

The three of them share a single room in a larger apartment in the Fujianese part of Chinatown. There’s a bunk bed, and a couch where Tina sleeps, and a small table for meals and homework. They use a communal kitchen and bath. Despite the hardships of their lives in New York, Tina refuses to consider returning to China, where she would be reunited with her husband. Her older daughter has been admitted to the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s best public schools. The younger daughter, Tina told me proudly, was declared the best English student at the Shuang Wen School, a bilingual, Chinese-English public school in Chinatown where the children of many Fujianese immigrants go.

* * *

Tina’s experience goes a long way to answering the question raised by Keefe, which is why, given the hazards of the journey and the hardships of life in America, the Fujianese were so eager to come in the first place, and why they stay, particularly in view of China’s own explosive economic growth of the past two decades, a growth that has brought considerable economic opportunity to coastal Fujian. Keefe, who visited the province in researching his book, discovered going to America to be not just a widespread ambition of many local people but for most the only ambition, the goal to which practically every young person strove. “The fact remained that a dishwasher in Chinatown could make in a month what a farmer in Fuzhou made in a year, and the Fujianese kept coming,” Keefe writes. “They were willing to take on the debt associated with the journey because of the promise that life in America held. It was an investment, and families pooled their resources to support each émigré.”

Whole villages near Fuzhou, Keefe writes, have been stripped of young people, the assumption being that “any able-bodied young adult who hadn’t made the journey to New York must be shiftless, or just exceedingly dumb.” When villagers learned that one of their own had arrived safely, they would hold a banquet to honor the relevant snakehead and set off firecrackers in celebration.

This “epidemic of outmigration,” as Keefe calls it, made the snakeheads and their teams of document forgers, gang enforcers, and multinational networks of corrupt officials extremely rich. Keefe cites one group of Honduran officials who, he said, “made nearly $20 million selling Honduran passports to the Chinese.” A gang of Fujianese snakeheads and Mohawk Indians made $170 million in the late 1990s smuggling Chinese into the United States through a reservation in upstate New York. The passengers on the Golden Venture alone paid $9 million in fees.

To focus on the squalor of the journey, on the ten dead of the Golden Venture, or the brutal conditions of life in America is, as Keefe puts it, “to indulge in a conception of the preciousness of human life and the primacy of physical comforts that would be foreign to the Fujianese because it would render almost any risk untenable.” Or as the perceptive Chinatown journalist Justin Yu told Keefe, explaining the Fujianese mentality: “Acceptable risk, acceptable cruelty, acceptable lousy treatment, acceptable long trip, there’s no toilet. It’s acceptable. Because of the comparison: the life there, and the life here.”

* * *

That mentality also explains why Sister Ping, a criminal in the eyes of Americans, is seen as a Buddhist saint back home in Fujian. During her trial in New York in 2001, residents of her home village in Fujian wrote to the judge, Michael Mukasey, volunteering to go to prison in her place. Keefe makes clear his conclusion that, both legally and morally, Sister Ping was indeed a criminal, and yet there are ambiguities in her case having to do with the nature of immigration itself.

The moral ambiguity, or at least the inherent poignancy of Sister Ping’s case, is illustrated by the difference in the punishment meted out to her and that given to one of her chief confederates, the man named Ah Kay whose abrupt flight to China in 1993 created the conditions by which the Golden Venture ran aground. Ah Kay, whose real name is Guo Liang Qi, came to New York from Fujian in the same year as Sister Ping, 1981, and over the next few years he became the undisputed leader of one of Chinatown’s most vicious gangs, the Fuk Ching, which, along with handling the offloading of Sister Ping’s ships, ran extortion and protection rackets in Little Fujian, engaged in kidnappings, and committed several cold-blooded murders.

Ah Kay was arrested in Hong Kong in 1993, pleaded guilty to murder and racketeering, and, in a deal to get his sentence reduced, began cooperating with the FBI. Over the years, information he provided helped in fifteen federal cases, including one involving the indictment of thirty-five members of the Flying Dragons, another of Chinatown’s murderous gangs. Sister Ping herself went into hiding for years after the Golden Venture disaster, but in 2000 she was arrested in Hong Kong and brought to trial in federal district court in Manhattan on charges of alien smuggling, hostage-taking, and other crimes. Ah Kay testified for three days against her, which was an important factor in her conviction and her sentencing by Judge Mukasey to thirty-five years in prison; since she was already nearly sixty when her trial took place, she will most likely die there.

For his part, Ah Kay, though guilty of much worse crimes than Sister Ping, got a twenty-year sentence, but following his testimony, Mukasey, though initially reluctant to do so, reduced his sentence to the twelve years he had already served. In the eyes of the law and of much of the American press, Sister Ping was the international gangster who had gotten rich on the backs of illegal immigrants. “Evil Incarnate” was the headline about her printed by the Daily News during her trial. Ah Kay on the other hand was the FBI informant who had helped put her and many other malefactors behind bars.

In Chinatown, as Keefe discovered in his interviews, the view was the reverse. Ah Kay had caused murder and mayhem and yet he lives a quiet life somewhere in America under an assumed name, while Sister Ping, who, as she liked to put it, “helped people,” wastes away in prison. Keefe finds some merit in the Chinatown view of things, and he is disturbed that a bandit and mass murderer was set free while an aging people smuggler, who had murdered no one, went to jail. Still, “the idea that she is some sort of heroic figure is a disingenuous canard,” Keefe writes of a woman who charged a great deal for her services, hired thugs as business partners and enforcers, and was responsible for “many nameless dead who perished as a direct result of her reckless devotion to the economies of scale.” And yet, though it was not her purpose, didn’t she help to make America a richer place?

Meanwhile, since Sister Ping has gone to prison, people smuggling has diminished. The growing economy in China itself has removed some of the incentive for people in Fujian to go deep into debt so they can wash dishes in a Chinese-American restaurant. Still, though there are fewer of them, Fujianese continue to leave their villages in search of what Keefe in his subtitle calls the American dream. The snakeheads are still in business. The lure of America remains strong and people smuggling—the price of a single journey is now up to $70,000 per head—too lucrative for it to die away. After the arrival of the Golden Venture, the government succeeded in getting about one hundred of its passengers deported to China. Since then, Keefe reports, almost every single one of these former deportees has found a way to come back.

  1. Keefe makes clear that, contrary to a common conception, the smuggled people were not held in an indentured condition by snakeheads; instead, new arrivals were given a couple of days to settle their snakehead debt with the money usually raised by relatives and friends, whom the new arrivals would repay over the first couple of years in the US.