When the Golden Venture ran aground off a New York City beach in 1993 transporting 300 near-starving illegal immigrants, federal officials and the NYPD realized they had a huge criminal operation to unravel. Little did they know it would all lead back to an unassuming middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping, running an underground smuggling empire out of her hole-in-the-wall Chinatown noodle shop.
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, which grew to $40 million. Sister Ping's ingenuity and drive were awe-inspiring not only to the Chinatown community -- where she was revered as a homegrown Don Corleone -- but also to the law enforcement officials who could never quite catch her.
It took the FBI and New York's fabled "Jade Squad" nearly ten years to untangle the smuggling enterprise and hone in on its unusual and elusive mastermind, a charismatic criminal genius who exploited the enduring promise of the American dream with breathtaking sophistication.
Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this story?
Keefe: In 2005, Sister Ping, an elusive and extremely wealthy Chinese human smuggler, was on trial in a federal court in New York City. I began following the trial and became transfixed by the story of this wily underworld businesswoman who built a sprawling empire by smuggling thousands of people from China to the United States and charging $35,000 a head. It had taken the FBI over a decade to bring her to justice, and prosecutors described her as a kind of ruthless kingpin, a criminal mastermind. But at the same time she was revered as a hero in New York's Chinatown, someone who had helped lift people out of dead-end lives of rural poverty and enable them to start a new life in America. That paradox -- that she was both a cunning international criminal and a kind of enabler of the American dream -- was what hooked me on the story and bolstered my interest and my spirits through three years of writing and research.
Where does the title "The Snakehead" come from?
Keefe: "The Snakehead" refers to Sister Ping, the human smuggler at the heart of the book. No one knows the precise origins of this mysterious term, but dating back several decades, people in China and in Chinatowns around the world have used the word "snakehead" to describe human smugglers. For a fee, these immigration brokers can transport anyone out of one country and into another. No passport? No visa? No problem. Snakeheads like Sister Ping developed extraordinarily complex networks, with contacts and subcontractors in dozens of countries around the globe. In fact, one theory about the meaning of the term "snakehead" is that it refers to the incredibly circuitous routes that the smugglers take their customers on, snaking through multiple countries. The smuggler leads the way, like the head of a snake.
How could one low-profile shopkeeper orchestrate a multinational, multimillion dollar human smuggling ring?
Keefe: One thing that fascinated me about Sister Ping was that she had an incredibly good mind for business. She never had much education and operated an illegal operation for most of her career, but part of me thinks that had she chosen a different line of work she would have been running a Fortune 500 company. Global migration is a big business: there are millions of people around the world who want to leave one country and go to another, and, if they don't have the necessary documentation, are willing to pay for the trip. Sister Ping spotted this market and realized that she could charge top dollar for her services. As more and more of her customers began arriving in New York City, she noticed that they would save the money they were making by working in garment factories and Chinese restaurants, and send the bulk of it back to China. They used Western Union, or the Bank of China, but both of those money remittance services were slow and overpriced. So Sister Ping set up an underground bank. By the end of her career she had numerous licit and illicit businesses like this, and in that manner she accumulated a fortune that the FBI estimates topped $40 million.
Why did the smuggling enterprise unravel?
Keefe: Initially Sister Ping ran a very hands-on business, often escorting her customers on different legs of the journey to America herself. But as she became more well-known in the United States and China, her business grew very quickly and she couldn't keep up with demand. In some ways, this is a dilemma faced by many legitimate businesses: how do you maintain quality control once your business grows beyond its mom-and-pop beginnings. Sister Ping started subcontracting, and one of her fateful mistakes was subcontracting to a violent Chinatown murderer and gang leader named Ah Kay. Sister Ping and Ah Kay would cooperate on the voyage of a famous smuggling ship, the Golden Venture, which ran aground in Queens, NY in June 1993. That was the beginning of the end for Sister Ping and she went on the run, though it would be over a decade before authorities could try and convict her.
Is there a hero in this story?
Keefe: There are numerous heroes in The Snakehead. There are the FBI agents who pursued Sister Ping around the globe, and a series of church groups and immigration advocates in York, PA, who rallied around a group of Chinese passengers who endured a 17,000 mile journey to America on the Golden Venture, only to be thrown into the York County Prison for four years. And there's one of those passengers in particular, a young Fujianese teenager named Sean Chen, who left home with nothing but a change of clothes in a backpack and endured a Conradian journey around the world, replete with mutinies and hurricanes and gun battles and shipwrecks, in search of a better life in the United States.
What does this story say about the difficulty of implementing effective immigration policy in the United States?
Keefe: The Snakehead is a story about the learning curve of law enforcement in dealing with highly sophisticated international criminal networks like Sister Ping's. One of the major challenges is that the FBI and Immigration are still very much domestic organizations, and it is difficult for them to make an impact on loosely dispersed global criminal operations. Another paradox is that when the US intensifies border enforcement to curb illegal immigration, that is actually good for the snakeheads and other human smugglers, because when roadblocks to easy entry are established, undocumented migrants looking to enter the country are obliged to turn to the experts. The book also explores the problem of asylum policy: the US is committed to welcoming those fleeing persecution in other countries and allowing them to find refuge here. But what do you do when people make fraudulent asylum claims, or when it's impossible to determine if they're telling the truth about what they are fleeing? And what should the US do when a national policy in another country, like the one-child policy in China, means that hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people might eventually claim persecution and seek a new home in America?
What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't... and what's the answer?
Question: Do you speak Chinese?
Keefe: I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, or, more importantly for this story, Fujianese -- the dialect spoken in Fujian Province, where Sister Ping and most of her customers were from. So instead I relied on numerous trusted interpreters both in the United States and on my trips to Hong Kong and China. The process of researching The Snakehead was intense -- it's a sweeping story, geographically and historically, with many characters and twists, and I ended up doing over three hundred interviews for the book. The language barrier was a hurdle, but an interesting one, and by arranging to do interviews through Chinese interpreters I was able to bring aspects of the story to life that I would otherwise never have been able to.
Patrick Radden Keefe is a fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Chatter. He is a graduate of Columbia College, Cambridge University, the London School of Economics, and Yale Law School, and the recipient of a Marshall Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A regular contributor to the New Yorker and Slate, Keefe is also a commentator on NPR, BBC, and CNN.