- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Cheng Chui Ping slipped into the United States in the early 1980s, part of a huge wave of Chinese immigrants hoping to realize the American Dream. Her path to that dream began with an underground bank for illegal immigrants run out of a noodle shop in New York City's Chinatown. She became known as Sister Ping and built a global people-smuggling conglomerate that stretched from China’s Fujian ...
Cheng Chui Ping slipped into the United States in the early 1980s, part of a huge wave of Chinese immigrants hoping to realize the American Dream. Her path to that dream began with an underground bank for illegal immigrants run out of a noodle shop in New York City's Chinatown. She became known as Sister Ping and built a global people-smuggling conglomerate that stretched from China’s Fujian province to Africa, Europe, and South America, relying on one of Chinatown’s most violent gangs to protect her power and profits.
Sister Ping’s empire came to light in 1993, when a ship loaded with 300 near-starving immigrants ran aground off Queens. It took New York’s fabled “Jade Squad” and the FBI nearly ten years to untangle the criminal network and home in on its mastermind. Sister Ping—finally convicted in 2005—is currently in prison. Before her capture she amassed an estimated mind-boggling $40 million.
THE SNAKEHEAD is a panoramic tale of international intrigue and an inside look at a remarkably successful illegal enterprise and the undocumented immigrants who both fear and depend on it. It is a story about the conflicted issue of immigration in the United States, and a moving exploration of what it means to be—and to become—American.
From the Compact Disc edition.
Keefe (Chatter) examines America's complicated relationship with immigration in this brilliant account of Cheng Chui Ping, known as Sister Ping, who built a multimillion-dollar empire as a "snakehead," smuggling Chinese immigrants into America. Sister Ping herself entered the U.S. legally in 1981 from China's Fuzhou province, but was soon known among Fujianese immigrants in Manhattan's Chinatown as the go-to for advice, loans and connections to bring their families to America. Her empire grew so large that she contracted out muscle work to the local gang, the Fuk Ching. Keefe points to the Golden Venture-a ship full of Fujianese illegals that ran fatally aground in 1993-as the beginning of the end for Sister Ping. She was sentenced in 2000 to 35 years in prison for conspiracy, money laundering and trafficking. Despite an enormous cast of characters in a huge underground web of global crime, Keefe's account maintains the swift pace of a thriller. With the immigration debate still boiling, this exploration of how far people will go to achieve the American dream is a must-read. (July 21)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Chapter One Pilgrims THE SHIP made land at last a hundred yards off the Rockaway Peninsula, a slender, skeletal finger of sand that forms a kind of barrier between the southern reaches of Brooklyn and Queens and the angry waters of the Atlantic. Dating back to the War of 1812, the people of New York erected battlements and positioned cannons along the beaches here, to defend against foreign invasion. Even before white settlers arrived, the local Canarsie Indians had identified in the eleven miles of dunes and grass something proprietary and exclusive. "Rockaway" derives from the Canarsie word Reckouwacky, which means "place of our own people."
A single road runs down the center of the peninsula, past the Marine Parkway Bridge, which connects to the mainland, through the sleepy winterized bungalows of the Breezy Point Cooperative, right out to the western tip of Rockaway, where weekend anglers reel in stripers and blues. Looking south, past the beach at the Atlantic, you wouldn't know you were on the southern fringe of one of the biggest cities in the world. But turn your head the other way, out across the bay side of the peninsula, and there's Coney Island in the distance, the grotty old Cyclone tracing a garish profile above the boardwalk.
At a quarter to two on a moonless Sunday morning, June 6, 1993, a single police cruiser drove east along that central road, its headlights illuminating the dark asphalt. A large stretch of the peninsula is national park land, and inside the car, a twenty-eight-year-old National Park Police officer named David Somma was doing a graveyard shift with his partner, Steve Divivier. At thirty, Divivier had been with the force for four years, but this was his first time on an overnight patrol.
It wasn't typically an eventful task. The Breezy Point neighborhood west of the bridge was close-knit. The families were mostly Irish Americans who had been in the area for generations, working-class city cops and firefighters whose fathers and grandfathers had bought modest summer homes along the beach in the fifties and sixties and at some point paved over the sandy lots and winterized their weekend shacks. At 98.5 percent white, Breezy Point had the peculiar distinction of being the least ethnically diverse neighborhood in New York City. A night patrol of the beach might turn up the occasional keg party or bonfire, but serious crime along that stretch was unheard of. The Breezy Point police force was a volunteer auxiliary. The officers had so little use for their handcuffs that they had taken to oiling them to stave off rust.
Somma was behind the wheel, and he saw it first. An earlier rain shower had left the ocean swollen with fog. But out to his right, beyond the beach, the darkness was pierced by a single pinprick of faint green illumination: a mast light.
The officers pulled over, got out of the car, and scrambled to the top of the dunes separating the road from the beach. In the distance they beheld the ghostly silhouette of a ship, a tramp steamer, perhaps 150 feet long. The vessel was listing ever so slightly to its side. Somma ran back to the car and got on the radio, alerting the dispatcher that a large ship was dangerously close to shore. He and Divivier climbed the dune for another look.
Then, from out across the water, they heard the first screams.
Half stifled by the wind, the cries were borne to them across the beach. To Somma they sounded desperate, the kind of sound people make when they know they are about to die. He had a flashlight with him, and pointed it in the direction of the ship. The sea was rough, the waves fierce and volatile. About 25 yards out, between the rolling...
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Sister Ping? She is one of the most unusual 'godmothers' in the annals of modern crime.
A: Sure. I first found out about Sister Ping in 2006, when she was on trial in New York And it emerged that she was a Chinese woman who had come to the United States in 1981 with no education, didn't speak English, and started smuggling other people-from her home village and then the region in China that she came from-to the U.S. She did this for the better part of two decades, and made $40 million or so in the process, and then went on the lam. She was the FBI's most wanted Asian organized crime figure for another five or six years before they finally tracked her down in Hong Kong, extradited her to the U.S., and tried her.
Q: If you passed her in the street, or went by her place of work, if you were wandering around Chinatown as a tourist, would you have any idea about what she did?
A: You wouldn't give her a second look. This was a part of what was so fascinating about her; she made an enormous fortune but she had a real kind of point of being very humble in her appearance, she worked incredibly long hours, there was nothing ostentatious about the way she carried herself. And I actually think that this studied anonymity was part of what allowed her to do what she did with impunity for so long. And it also secured her a huge amount of respect within the Chinatown neighborhood, where she was regarded as kind of a humble, hometown heroine who hadn't let the success she'd had go to her head.
Q: Isn't it part of the story here, which could apply to any ethnic group in American history, that family ties allow these criminal enterprises to thrive and grow in the shadows where law enforcement isn't looking?
A: Absolutely. I mean, this is part of what was most fascinating, is that these people-this Chinese community that I'm writing about, from Fujian province in southern China-left, basically, because they weren't able to succeed and really enjoy life to the fullest in China. They came to New York and wound up living on the margins of society and built up their own kind of native support structure, and Sister Ping was kind of a paragon of that. And this is what was part of what was interesting about her as a somewhat ambiguous criminal figure, is that when she was tried in New York and really demonized by U.S. authorities, the people in Chinatown-and also in China-rallied around her, and described her as a 'living Buddha' and said that she had actually really materially improved the lives of thousands of people.
Q: Sister Ping was clever enough to distance herself from the more violent aspects of human trafficking. How did she outsource the seedier aspects of what she was doing, and how did that ultimately affect her?
A: Well, this in some ways was what brought about her downfall, in that she was always a perfectionist, and when she started out as a smuggler in the early 1980s she would transport people herself. By that I mean, she would be there in Hong Kong when she put them on a plane; they would be flown to Guatemala, she would be there in Guatemala when they arrived. They would be escorted up through Mexico; she would meet them in California then she would fly back with them to New York City. But as her operation grew, and the word spread-really, around the world-that this was a woman who could move anyone from point A to point B, it got so large that she could no longer oversee everything herself, and she had to start subcontracting. And this, in some ways, was her great mistake, because she subcontracted to a very violent gang of youths in Chinatown known as the Fuk Ching gang, and the gang, ultimately-because they were less scrupulous than she was about issues of safety and things like that-ended up mismanaging things and there were a number of these journeys that ended in death, and then a number of murders as well.
Q: And this wasn't just bringing people over the border, I mean it was an incredible smuggling operation. Guatemala, Africa: there's a whole set piece in the book about Africa, which is bizarre. But her great downfall, the thing that publically brought the whole enterprise to light, was the shipwrecking of The Golden Venture, which people may remember happened outside of Queens, in 1993. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, and also why the ship crashed, which has a lot to do with the bad guys she got into business with.
A: Well, it was interesting. I mean, there was a ship-during the early 1990s, Sister Ping started basically going from a retail business to a wholesale business in putting large numbers of people, I mean often hundreds of people, on ships that would leave Southeast Asia and make their way to the U.S. One of these ships was called The Golden Venture, and there is an irony which is that this, in a way, was the ship that would ultimately bring her down, but she actually had a rather small role: she only had two customers on this ship. But she did help finance it. And there were hundreds of other passengers who were represented by other snakeheads, these other human smugglers.
Q: Tell us what the title The Snakehead means.
A: The snakehead is the name, the Chinese name, to refer to these human smugglers, who basically emerged in China in the 1960s and 1970s, helping smuggle people out of China, but then in the late 1980s and early 1990s-basically after Tiananmen Square-became a massive, many say four- to six-billion-dollar-a-year, industry. These were the snakeheads, and among the snakeheads Sister Ping was the most prolific and certainly the most famous. And in the case of The Golden Venture, what they would do is that they would bring these ships-they wouldn't want to bring them right to the shore in California or Massachusetts or New York; as you can imagine, it would look a little strange to have a freighter coming up, to appear in Brooklyn and dropping off hundreds of Chinese people. So they what they would do is they would bring them to about a hundred miles off shore, out in the open ocean, and then they would send out small fishing boats which would offload the ships. This was called offloading and it was actually a kind of, in its own sort of diversified way, was a niche in the industry. And the gangsters were the ones who occupied this niche. They would take these fishing boats out and bring the passengers back in. And basically because Sister Ping had outsourced offloading to one of these gangs, the gang happened to have a lot of inner turmoil in the early part of 1993, precisely because they were making so much money in the snakehead business and they didn't know how to divide it, and so there was a massive shoot-out just weeks before The Golden Venture arrived, and the guys who were supposed to go and offload the ship were all killed in the shootout. All of the guys who had gone to kill them were hoping they could be the ones to go and offload it and collect the money from the passengers, but they were all locked up and put in prison. So when the ship arrived, there was nobody to offload it, and that was why it came in-all the way in, to the Rockaways, in Queens, and actually ran aground right there on the beach in the media capital of the world.
Q: And several people died in this incident, correct?
Q: Ten people died, and you see in the footage from the TV coverage that these people have been shoved into the hold of a freighter for months, in a ghastly scene. They sort of came like living corpses out of the surf. And certainly there was a media sensation and it led to the downfall of Sister Ping, but it also pointed out the relatively incompetent U.S. immigration policing of what was going on, because the Clinton Administration acted completely dumfounded.
A: They did. I mean, this was one of the things that was so fascinating for me in the research for the book as I actually did a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests and found a lot of sources who were in the government at the time, and it turns out the U.S. knew the ship was coming, at every step of the way. When it left Thailand, originally having picked up the passengers, we knew it was there. Two days before it ran aground, the U.S. Coast Guard had actually spotted the ship off the coast of Nantucket. And yet it ends up running aground, ten people die, and you see in some ways the punishment that these people received for the desperation with which they wanted to get to the U.S.
Q: You really delve into this culture, which is both of America but isn't fully integrated into America.
A: For me, in the research, this is part of what was just so fascinating, was to spend-you know, I basically spent three years in Chinatown, getting to know people, kind of coming to understand the community, and to some extent there were these elements of Chinese culture, and Chinese-American culture, which were really kind of sui generis; I mean, just sort of bearing almost no relation to anything I would recognize as American, quintessentially foreign. And yet at the same time there were all of these elements, once I sort of pushed through that, that were fundamentally American. And part of what's really intriguing is that the Fujianese, when they came-Sister Ping's generation was basically the second great migration of Chinese; the first was in the mid-19th century, the Cantonese who came to America, and the second was in this period of time that I'm talking about, in the 1980s and 1990s-from Fujian province, they all settled on sort of the eastern fringe of Chinatown, the Lower East Side.
Q: Another interesting aspect, that you actually delve into what life is like is for these people. What does it cost to pay these snakeheads if you're a poor peasant from rural China?
A: Well, during the period of time that I'm writing about, in the eighties and nineties, it was about $35,000 to $40,000. Today the fee is about $60,000 or $70,000.
Q: But of course the real payoff for the reader is this reading experience; this is an amazing crime story with incredible twists and turns.
A: Yeah; it's funny, I really didn't anticipate this to be the case when I began the research. But as I started digging in and talking to law enforcement sources and finding out about these various underworld figures, in Chinatown but also in places like Bangkok, and realizing the relationships between them. One of the things that's interesting in the book is that you realize that a whole series of people were actually cooperating with American authorities at different times over the years, that we'd never really known about. And in many cases, they were going to American authorities and giving them information about one another. There was an interesting, almost spy-versus-spy game going on between these ruthless but also very kind of enterprising and business-minded underworld figures.
Posted March 29, 2012
No text was provided for this review.