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The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream Hardcover – July 21, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Book Description
A mesmerizing narrative about the rise and fall of an unlikely international crime boss.

In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian province began arriving in America. Like other immigrant groups before them, they showed up with little money but with an intense work ethic and an unshakeable belief in the promise of the United States. Many of them lived in a world outside the law, working in a shadow economy overseen by the ruthless gangs that ruled the narrow streets of New York’s Chinatown.

The figure who came to dominate this Chinese underworld was a middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping. Her path to the American dream began with an unusual business run out of a tiny noodle store on Hester Street. From her perch above the shop, Sister Ping ran a full-service underground bank for illegal Chinese immigrants. But her real business—a business that earned an estimated $40 million—was smuggling people.

As a “snakehead,” she built a complex—and often vicious—global conglomerate, relying heavily on familial ties, and employing one of Chinatown's most violent gangs to protect her power and profits. Like an underworld CEO, Sister Ping created an intricate smuggling network that stretched from Fujian Province to Hong Kong to Burma to Thailand to Kenya to Guatemala to Mexico. Her ingenuity and drive were awe-inspiring both to the Chinatown community—where she was revered as a homegrown Don Corleone—and to the law enforcement officials who could never quite catch her.

Indeed, Sister Ping’s empire only came to light in 1993 when the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with 300 undocumented immigrants, ran aground off a Queens beach. It took New York’s fabled “Jade Squad” and the FBI nearly ten years to untangle the criminal network and hone in on its unusual mastermind.

The Snakehead is a panoramic tale of international intrigue and a dramatic portrait of the underground economy in which America’s twelve million illegal immigrants live. Based on hundreds of interviews, Patrick Radden Keefe’s sweeping narrative tells the story not only of Sister Ping, but of the gangland gunslingers who worked for her, the immigration and law enforcement officials who pursued her, and the generation of penniless immigrants who risked death and braved a 17,000 mile odyssey so that they could realize their own version of the American dream. The Snakehead offers an intimate tour of life on the mean streets of Chinatown, a vivid blueprint of organized crime in an age of globalization and a masterful exploration of the ways in which illegal immigration affects us all.

A Q&A with Patrick Radden Keefe

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about Sister Ping? She is one of the most unusual "godmothers" in the annals of modern crime.

Answer: Sure. I first found out about Sister Ping in 2006, when she was on trial in New York. 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 made a point of being very humble in her appearance. She worked incredibly long hours, and 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: 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. There were a number of these journeys that ended in death, and then a number of murders as well.

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—it 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.

In the case of The Golden Venture, they would bring these ships to the U.S., and 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 drop off hundreds of Chinese people. So 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 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. 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: 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. 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, I began to realize 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 enterprising and business-minded, underworld figures.

(Photo © Sai Srikandarajah)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (July 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385521308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385521307
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #744,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he has been a contributor since 2006. He is the author of THE SNAKEHEAD: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, which was selected by numerous publications as one of the Best Books of 2009 and is currently being developed into a motion picture for director Stephen Gaghan ("Syriana"). Patrick also wrote CHATTER: Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, which was a Foreign Affairs best-seller and a Boston Globe editorial pick for one of the Best Books of 2005.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Patrick is a non-practicing lawyer and a fellow at The Century Foundation, a policy think tank in Washington, DC. A former Marshall Scholar, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Visit Patrick's website at:


Follow him on Twitter @praddenkeefe

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When then-president Jimmy Carter reproached Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping with the latter's reluctance to allow his citizens the 'freedom of departure' from China, the latter famously responded, "Certainly, Mr. Carter. How many millions would you like?"

This excellent book is the story of how untold thousands -- and possibly millions -- of Chinese migrants, particularly from the rural coastal areas of Fujian province, have made their way from China to the United States, despite the fact that it's still hard for them to get official permission to leave and still harder for them to enter the United States legally than it once was. The starting point for the narrative and the discussion of the underlying issues is the misadventures of the passengers on the Golden Venture, which ran aground on a spur of land on Rockaway Beach in New York City, which drew everyone's attention to the magnitude of the illicit business of smuggling humans. Ten died; 300 landed or were rescued by local law enforcement -- people who up until then had had so little cause to use their handcuffs that they had to oil them to prevent them from rusting. Now they ran out of handcuffs when the decision was made to arrest the new arrivals.

On the surface, the story that Keefe is telling is that of Sister Ping, the snakehead (or people-smuggler) of the title, who had helped finance the Golden Venture's voyage and who was owed smuggling fees by two of the hapless passengers. She's essentially a boring character -- a middle-aged, unremarkable woman with a single-minded focus on making money the best way she knows how.
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Format: Hardcover
If you are going to read one book this summer, the Snakehead should be
it. This is a beautifully told story with many twists. We learn about
the elusive Sister Ping, the Snakehead that gives the book its title;
Chinatown gangsters; hardnosed FBI agents and tough NY prosecutors; a
small but fierce community of activists in York, PA; and most
importantly, we learn the very poignant story of the Golden Venture
passengers who endured unimaginable hardship to come to America just
to be put in jail for almost four years. Parts of the book are so
touching, they will make you tear up.

Keefe does not take sides in the polemic illegal immigration debate,
but instead he presents illegal immigration as it is - complex without
easy answers. Keefe, shines a light on the actors, describes their
actions and analyzes their motivations without deciding which side is
right. The Snakehead is a rarity in that it reads like a thriller but
leaves the reader with a much more nuanced understanding of one of
this generation's greatest challenges. A recent review in the
Washington Post said it best - "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."
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Is human smuggling--when the participants want to be smuggled--fundamentally evil or only evil when it goes all wrong.

Interesting question, but not really addressed here? This is a fascinating look into the machinations of a woman who intends to profit -- substantially -- from what she sees [or perhaps merely tries to justify] as a near charitable act. Is she corrupted by the amazing amounts of money it generates or were her motives always merely money? The book does tell the story of the illegal immigration of thousands of Chines. The ones who were successfully transported are, regardless of cost, happy to be in America. The naivete of lawmakers shouldn't surprise us anymore, but once again what was intended as a beneficial change in the law becomes twisted out of recognition.

But if you put aside the "larger issues", the author does manage to cast light into complex (and surely continuing) world of smuggling willing cargo. This is closer to a long magazine article --and an interesting one -- than an exploration of the larger issues. It is worth the read as it becomes entangled in international politics, local gangs, and a horrific abandonment of an entire ship of sick and starving immigrants on the beach. The various threads of the story are well handled, and while the reader might have wished for more, what is there keeps the pages turning.
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Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book hoping to learn more about the human smuggling business that I had heard about here and there, and instead was pleasantly surprised to find myself engrossed in a book that weaves complex characters and events together as fluidly as if it were a novel. The author does a great job of intertwining immigration law and policy within the story without making it boring or interrupting the suspenseful pace of the book. This book was enlightening - it has this enhanced my understanding of the Chinese underground world, the Chinese immigrants that were indirectly a part of that world, and the US and foreign law enforcement that attempted to shake that world, and it did so in a way that was more engaging than I thought possible given the subject matter.
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