Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Snakehead - Tenement Talk Review

Patrick Radden Keefe was studying for the bar exam in the summer of 2005 when he first heard about Sister Ping, a woman whose story had captivated many in the legal community.  On the surface, she seemed fairly ordinary: an immigrant from the Fujian province of China who ran a small convenience store on Hester Street.  But there was another Sister Ping – the savvy and well-connected entrepreneur who ran an unprecedented human trafficking operation, bringing thousands of Fujianese to New York in the 1980s and ‘90s.  

She was a snakehead an “immigration broker” who smuggled people from one country to another.  It is estimated that she made approximately $40 million in her ingenious—albeit dangerous and illicit—scheme.  But in the summer of 2005, Sister Ping’s actions were finally met with retribution when she was convicted and sentenced to 35 years (likely the rest of her life) in prison.

Keefe details Sister Ping’s incredible narrative in his new book, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.  Speaking at a Tenement Talk on October 27th, the author noted that the museum was the “perfect place” to discuss Sister Ping’s story, an odd permutation of the American dream that reveals “a chapter in immigration history” that may be unfamiliar to many.

Born in China during the Great Leap Forward, Sister Ping came of age during the Cultural Revolution and was no stranger to hardship.  Upon moving to New York, she quickly became known in the Fujianese community as “a person who moves people.”  What started as a small endeavor turned into a huge underground business, complete with ties to violent gangs who assisted in her operation.  By the early 1990s, Sister Ping was charging $35,000 per person for passage from China to the US by boat. 

One such ship, the ill-fated Golden Venture, ran aground off Queens on June 6, 1993, after an arduous 120 days at sea with 300 Fujianese in its hull.  When the dust settled, ten passengers were dead, the rest were detained, and Sister Ping was indicted for her involvement.  Shortly after, she fled the country, leaving a wake of controversy with some unlikely players and leading to an FBI investigation that ended in her eventual apprehension in Hong Kong in 2000.

Keefe spoke to the audience about his research process, which included hundreds of interviews with many of those involved, including Sister Ping’s gang associates, law enforcement officials, and Golden Venture passengers and their lawyers.  Upon traveling to China to speak with her friends and family, he found that Sister Ping is regarded in high esteem there, as a sort of “latter-day Harriet Tubman.”  Fujianese immigrants in Chinatown echoed those positive sentiments, holding her to a “Robin Hood” status. 

When asked about his own feelings towards Sister Ping, Keefe was not quite as forgiving.  “Robin Hood wasn’t in it for the money,” he said.  He did note, however, that she was a brilliant business woman with a knack for seeing a need and filling it, not unlike many other successful immigrants have in the past.  And there is little doubt that other snakeheads have now filled the void left by Sister Ping.  While there is no accurate data on the number of people currently leaving the Fujian province for the US, it is estimated that there has been a five-fold increase in undocumented Chinese immigration since the 2008 recession hit.   

Sister Ping’s story may be unique, but it is tied to this larger theme, which is why Keefe’s book is a definite must-read for anyone interested in immigration issues in the US.

For the fascinating account of Sister Ping’s story, check out Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, available online or at the Tenement Museum Shop at 108 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Kristin Shiller, Orchard Street Contemporaries volunteer. 

The Orchard Street Contemporaries is a group of young professionals committed to advancing the mission of the Tenement Museum by connecting the immigrant history of the LES to the vibrancy of the neighborhood today through social events, networking and museum programming. 

The group provides a forum for exploration of our nation’s immigrant heritage, and what that means for us now.  For more info, fan the OSC on Facebook or join the mailing list by emailing

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.