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Book Event: The Snakehead

An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

Patrick Radden Keefe, a Fellow at The Century Foundation, discussed his new book, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. The book tells how "Sister Ping," the entrepreneurial human smuggler based in New York's Chinatown, built a global criminal network. The Snakehead also relates the events that led to Sister Ping's downfall, when the "Golden Venture," the ship on which some three hundred undocumented Chinese immigrants had made a four-month journey in a cramped, windowless hold, ran aground off New York City.

In the 1980s Sister Ping immigrated from Fujian province in China to New York's Chinatown, where she became a "snakehead," leading a family-run human smuggling business to bring immigrants from China, along with an underground bank to handle the international network's extensive financial transactions. The wreck of the "Golden Venture" in 1993 led to her exposure, but she took refuge in China, which refused to extradite her, and continued to travel the world operating her human trafficking network until she was finally apprehended in 2000, carrying a Belizean passport. By that point, she had made around $40 million as a snakehead.

Sister Ping's story provides a window into the globalization of criminal networks. Human traffickers have continually frustrated crackdowns by the U.S. government. When U.S. immigration officials targeted flights from Bangkok - a hub for illegal immigration - snakeheads began to smuggle people into the U.S. on boats. When the Coast Guard stepped up efforts to intercept smuggling ships, snakeheads began bringing immigrants through Guatemala and over the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal networks engage in "jurisdictional arbitrage," operating in countries with lax regulations and venal officials. And the greater the restrictions on human trafficking, the greater the rewards for snakeheads: they now command fees of $70,000 per immigrant.

The Snakehead also explores America's own complex relationship with immigration. The administration of George Bush Sr. had been tolerant of asylum-seekers, but beginning with the "Golden Venture" incident, the U.S. government has detained most asylum seekers, including children. Some of the "Golden Venture" passengers were detained for years. (In York, PA, home of a detention facility where many of them were sent, residents rallied around the immigrants, and many York citizens remain committed immigration advocates today.) About a hundred of the passengers were deported to China, but nearly all returned to the U.S. with another snakehead.


featured speaker
Patrick Radden Keefe
Author, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
Fellow, The Century Foundation

Michael A. Cohen

Co-director, Privatization of Foreign Policy Initiative
New America Foundation

Event Time and Location

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 - 1:15pm - 2:45pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Event Materials

Event Photos

A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.