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A Snaking Tale Of Tragedy And Human Trafficking

'The Snakehead' book cover

In the early 1980s, a new wave of Chinese immigrants began pouring into New York City, brought in by human traffickers, or "snakeheads," who arranged for the arduous and illicit trip between China and Chinatown. Exploiting both their clients' desperation to leave China and the U.S.'s "arbitrary and erratic" system for accepting or deporting immigrants (especially those from China), snakeheads established mind-boggling international networks for secretly ferrying people from the third world to the first — at the cost of $18,000 per person.

Patrick Radden Keefe's riveting new work of nonfiction, The Snakehead, uses the tragedy of the Golden Venture, a smuggling vessel that notoriously ran aground in Queens, New York, in 1993, as a starting point to explore the larger Chinese human-smuggling underworld. Along the way, we meet Cheng Chui Ping, also known as "Sister Ping," the eponym of Keefe's account who, for nearly two decades, unassumingly masterminded a multimillion-dollar, multinational human-smuggling operation from her small store at 47 E. Broadway in Manhattan's Chinatown. Keefe illustrates the impressive intricacy of Sister Ping's criminal network while simultaneously chronicling the beastly indignities to which her customers were subjected on their hellish voyages to America.

Adding further color to the story is the author's reconstruction of '80s- and '90s-era-Chinatown, which at the time, Keefe demonstrates, was a veritable battleground for rival gangs. As its population and crime rate boomed, a young prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office believed that Chinatown "was growing unpoliceable, completely out of control," and Keefe describes more than enough gruesome episodes to lend credence to the claim.

The Snakehead is a gangland saga, but Keefe, a Yale-trained lawyer, 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 between smuggling ships. Moreover, he doesn't shirk journalistic responsibility; with the U.S. government's ineptitude neatly enabling Sister Ping's criminal callousness, the author is fair in his indictments of both American policy and snakehead practice.

Like most true crime stories, The Snakehead's denouement comes in court, but it is to Keefe's credit that the jury's verdict and the judge's sentence do little to comfort the reader with any sense of finality or with any faith in the American system. Even as he wraps up Sister Ping's case, the author notes and tracks other snakehead operations that continue to profit at the intersection of human misery and governmental clumsiness. The $18,000 snakehead ticket to America may now cost $70,000, but there's still a line of potential buyers that stretches literally around the world.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.