American dream wrecked on shoals

Seth Faison is the author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China."

When a rusting old freighter called the Golden Venture crashed on a sandbar outside New York Harbor one moonless night in June 1993, many of the 300 Chinese passengers hidden inside came out on deck and began leaping into the churning surf, desperate to swim to dry land and win asylum.

Park police patrolling a nearby beach heard screams coming from the ocean. A Coast Guard helicopter soon circled overhead, followed by TV crews, with spotlights capturing men and women on deck, some jumping and some scared to try.

To the officers on site and to viewers watching on TV, it was equally stunning and mysterious: Who were these people? Who brought them here? How vast was this Asian migration?

The gripping feel of this opening scene in "The Snakehead," a brilliant account of illegal immigration by Patrick Radden Keefe, is just a first taste. What emerged that dark night was really the latest iteration of a classic American story: Passage from a distant homeland to this place of promise, replete with a harrowing journey across the sea, life-and-death risks, gritty determination and acts of desperation. The story endures, even if the circumstances change.

In Keefe's telling, the Chinese ordeal of immigration has many fresh dynamics. Powerful smugglers who arrange passage and violent street gangs that manage the chattel split a lucrative take of $35,000 a head. There are edgy immigration agents, like the pugnacious Jerry Stuchiner, and savvy Chinese mob informants, like "The Fat Man." There are idiotic immigration procedures, allowing felons to walk free while the vulnerable remain locked up. Keefe grasps many complex themes and weaves them into a compelling narrative.

At the heart of his story lies a crafty woman known as Sister Ping (though she, and this book, might have been called "The Godmother"). An immigrant from Fujian province, she opened a small shop in New York's Chinatown in 1982. Dressed like a shabby grandmother, with a hangdog expression, she hardly looked like a criminal mastermind. Yet she became adept, and then unmatched, as a "snakehead," or smuggler of her compatriots. Using fake passports, cheap flights, blow-up rafts to cross rivers, and underground connections throughout Asia and Central America, she created an extensive assembly of operators who shepherded thousands of Chinese to America.

Sister Ping achieved mythic status in Chinatown by granting favors and lending cash, convincing the helpless that she was a compassionate mobster. In her store, she also concocted a sideline money-transfer business, enabling immigrants to remit U.S. dollars to China without the annoying forms or restrictions of the Bank of China (whose branch sat across the street). From those laboring hard to send money home, she earned millions more.

China's economic bonanza, among other things, fueled a mania in Fujian for spending newfound money on elaborate ways to sneak into America. Demand for passage grew so fast that in the early '90s Sister Ping began contracting out logistics. Middlemen packed people inside old freighters like the Golden Venture, with conditions akin to a slave ship. Keefe writes perceptively about how Sister Ping and other Asian gangsters differed from the Sicilian model that the FBI was used to following. Asian organized crime "did not adhere to any fixed hierarchies or organizational structures," Keefe notes. "Alliances and coalitions were fluid, ever-evolving." Sister Ping reeled through a series of partners, none more fateful than a ruthless thug named Ah Kay.

Ah Kay began as a common hood and had even robbed Sister Ping. When they met again in 1992 to coordinate a smuggling operation, Ah Kay apologized for his previous misdoing. "That happened in the past," she said. "We're talking business now." Business aplenty.

Eventually, the cash flowed too fast. Rivalries within Ah Kay's gang led to shootings. Ah Kay had to go hide in China. Two of his brothers were killed outside a safe house in Teaneck, N.J., ruining Ah Kay's plans to off-load a ship that was about to land, which turned out to be the Golden Venture, which is why it went awry and reached our TV screens.

As a reporter who covered the Golden Venture and its aftermath, I was mystified by its many unanswerable riddles. The early rumor that smugglers had ordered the ship's crew to deliberately run it aground, for instance, made no sense. But now, with Keefe's painstaking reconstruction of the sequence of mishaps that led to that night, the crash-landing and other aspects of human trade become clear. As it turned out, 10 people died fleeing the ship, a handful escaped, some won asylum after years in detention and many others were sent back to China.

Ah Kay was arrested in Hong Kong in August 1993, instantly dissolving his alliance with Sister Ping. Now it was her turn to hide in China. It took the feds several years to track her down and finally nab her in a sting operation at Hong Kong's airport, which Keefe describes with brio.

In custody, Sister Ping was no match for Ah Kay. Facing charges related to human smuggling and many lesser counts, she claimed innocence. Ah Kay, who confessed to multiple murders and became a master informant about unsolved crimes, was the star witness at her trial in 2005. Sister Ping was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years. Ah Kay was set free.

Keefe's mastery of this chapter of our ongoing immigration saga is impressive. He muses thoughtfully about its many conundrums and highlights how our ethos of welcoming the persecuted gets soured by bad policy and the pervasive exploitation of the helpless. There will be more chapters, no doubt, but this one was pretty riveting.

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