Human Cargo 

Patrick Radden Keefe chased a trail of international intrigue.

On June 6, 1993, a battered freighter ran aground 150 yards off Rockaway Beach in Queens. Its 286 passengers, who had spent much of their voyage from China packed into a space little larger than a suburban garage, were told to jump ship and swim for shore, where their American dream was to begin. Some drowned. Those who reached the beach were hailed as survivors, then jailed — this was not part of the plan — as illegal aliens. Some were deported, others granted asylum. Some remained in Pennsylvania's York County Prison for years.

They'd placed their fates in the hands of Cheng Chui Ping. Having immigrated from Fujian Province in the 1980s, "Sister Ping" was New York City's most notorious "snakehead," an illegal smuggler of human beings. She charged $5,000 — a fortune to the average Mainlander, largely worked off upon arrival, dish by dish, in Ping's restaurant. A modern version of an age-old scenario, it made Ping resoundingly rich.

"She was feared, but also admired and respected," says Patrick Radden Keefe, who will discuss his book The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream on Thursday, September 17, at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley). "To the Chinese community ... she was like Robin Hood." Photographs show a high-cheekboned, no-nonsense, makeupless square face. "You wouldn't look at her twice if you passed her on the street," Keefe notes. "But ... she made $40 million."

Keeping watch over those who owed Ping money was the vicious Fuk Ching gang, which used surveillance cameras, knives, and hammers to ensure that debts were paid. Because "this was Chinese-on-Chinese crime" against undocumented victims, "nobody was paying any notice" — until the Golden Venture. Then the world heard a tale of death, dreams, immigration, and a vast criminal empire.

Ping's customers "were fleeing poverty and what they perceived as dead-end lives" in China, Keefe says. "Some of them were fleeing persecution at the hands of the government — whether because they were democracy protesters, or they had violated the one-child policy, or they had simply offended some local party official. People left for many reasons. But they shared a conviction that the land they were journeying to was both free and full of opportunity, that by working hard they could make good lives here, and that things would be more comfortable and prosperous for their children."

The Golden Venture's passengers busied themselves in prison by making art with recycled paper and toothpaste. Although most had no previous artistic experience, their work was later exhibited at the Smithsonian.

"The snakeheads are still operating," Keefe says, "and they are more sophisticated than ever, though there is less of a customer base in China than there was during the 1980s and 1990s. There are also analogs for the snakeheads in other cultures around the world, from the coyotes on the Mexican border to human smugglers who bring Africans from Tripoli to Italy, or from Morocco to Spain." 7:30 p.m., free.


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