In the wee hours of June 6, 1993, 286 victims of illegal immigration washed up on the shores of Queens, New York. Ten of them were dead. When the cargo ship The Golden Venture ran aground that morning on Rockaway Beach, few Americans knew anything about Cheng Chui Ping, widely known as Big Sister Ping or the Mother of All Snakeheads in the Chinese immigrant community. Now resting quietly in a U.S. federal prison, this grandmother and convicted human trafficker has her story rendered dramatically by Patrick Radden Keefe. Even more vivid, however, are the stories that The Snakehead tells of the would-be Americans who discover that they are helpless puppets in global underworld schemes. A well-written true crime book with implications for us all.
In a formidably well-researched book that is as much a paean to its author's industriousness as it is a chronicle of crime, Mr. Keefe outlines the way in which the Fujianese were forced out of China, driven to take desperately roundabout and dangerous travel routes and eventually arrived in America courtesy of the lucrative human smuggling business. Snakehead is the term for an entrepreneurial leader of that trade.
The New York Times
Without sacrificing one iota of narrative momentum, [Keefe] untangles a dauntingly complicated human-trafficking operation so a reader can effortlessly follow along. He makes Sister Ping…as memorable as any character in recent fiction…With similar elan, Keefe develops such important secondary figures as Sister Ping's compliant husband, Cheung Yick Tak, and her sometime rival and sometime ally, Ah Kay…of the Fuk Ching gang. To all this riveting material, Keefe adds judicious and informative background on such relevant topics as immigration law, asylum hearings and China's one-child rule. So if one wants a true-crime book of a very high order, Keefe delivers the goods.
The New York Times Book Review
…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 Carre novel…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.
The Washington Post
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.
Expanding on his intriguing New Yorker article, Keefe (Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, 2005) tells the story of a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring that ferried illegal immigrants from China to New York City in the 1980s and early '90s. The ringleader, or "snakehead," was a legal immigrant named Cheng Chui Ping, known to everyone in her Chinatown neighborhood as "Sister Ping." Ping ran her operation, one of the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in the world, from a storefront on Chinatown's Hester Street beginning in 1982. During the next decade, she raked in millions of dollars from poor Chinese desperate to get to America; each paid thousands of dollars to be smuggled in. Ping collaborated with the violent Chinatown gang Fuk Ching, an arrangement that would eventually lead to her downfall. On a June night in 1993, two Fuk Ching members were the victims of a revenge killing by a rival gang-the same day they were supposed to offload a ship of Chinese "customers." With no one to meet it, the Golden Venture ran aground in Queens; ten people were killed, and many more were injured and arrested by police. In the wake of the tragedy, authorities tracked Ping, but it took years before she was finally captured in Hong Kong in 2000. Keefe ably navigates this extremely complex story, interviewing people at all levels, including law enforcement officials and-via written questions and answers-the imprisoned Sister Ping. Most effective are the author's interviews with the illegal Chinese immigrants, who explain their willingness to pay a fortune-and risk their lives on a dangerous journey-just for the chance to reach America. A well-told, panoramicinternational true-crime adventure.
A Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post Book of the Year
“Reads like a mashup of The Godfather and Chinatown, complete with gun battles, a ruthless kingpin and a mountain of cash. Except that it’s all true.”
“Essential reading. . . . A rich, beautifully told story, so suspenseful and with so many unexpected twists that in places it reads like a John le Carré novel.”
—The Washington Post
“A masterwork. . . . In this single tale about a global criminal, Keefe finds a story of quintessentially American hope.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Painstakingly reported and vividly told. . . . As immigration reform languishes in Washington . . . everyone involved—from policymakers to activists to the undocumented—would be wise to read The Snakehead.”
“A formidably well-researched book that is as much a paean to its author’s industriousness as it is a chronicle of crime.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Keefe has written a vivid non fiction thriller. The Snakehead reads like a Chinese-American version of The Sopranos, except that the mob boss is a grandmother who runs a human smuggling enterprise, and the story is true.”
—Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side
“Evocatively captures our yin and yang over immigration policy. . . . 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, The Washington Post
“An eye-opener. . . . Compelling and informative. . . . Keefe maintains a commendable fairness and objectivity reporting a fascinating story.”
“Bracing, vivid. . . . Keefe writes gracefully, perceptively, insightfully. . . . Without sacrificing one iota of narrative momentum, he untangles a dauntingly complicated human-trafficking operation so a reader can effortlessly follow along.”
—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Brilliant. . . . Keefe’s mastery of this chapter of our ongoing immigration saga is impressive. He muses thoughtfully about its many conundrums and highlights how our ethos of welcoming the persecuted gets soured by bad policy and the pervasive exploitation of the helpless. There will be more chapters, no doubt, but this one was pretty riveting.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The Snakehead achieves what only the finest reporting can: it peels back an astonishing hidden world. Keefe takes the reader on a spellbinding journey . . . that will forever change your understanding of what it means to become an American.”
—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Timely and compelling.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Engrossing. . . . Keefe’s narrative delves deeply into Chinatown and the labyrinthine smuggling routes between China and America, but it’s also a glimpse into our conflicted feelings about illegals and the morass of America’s immigration policy.”
—New York Magazine
“Epic. . . . Impressive. . . . A true-life thriller that examines just about every aspect of U.S. immigration policy.”
—The Associated Press
“Riveting. . . . Keefe deftly interweaves the political, legal and gunslinging strands of Sister Ping’s story, rendering scenes of White House policy deliberation and immigration court procedure as engagingly as scenes of Chinatown shootouts and high-seas rendezvous.”
—National Public Radio
“Exceptional. . . . [Told] with a masterful fluidity. . . . An adventure story, crime drama, political thriller and a contemplative look into immigration policy all at once.”
—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Captivating. . . . A page-turner that reads like a crime novel. Peopled with dozens of colorful characters, it offers an authoritative history of the diaspora of the Chinese and their experience in the United States. . . . Keefe’s account reminds us how much hope the American dream inspires and what a steep price some have paid to try to live it.”
—San Jose Mercury News
“Brilliant. . . . 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.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)