Human Trafficking Revealed In 'The Snakehead' In 1993, a freighter with 300 terrified, half-starved Chinese immigrants went aground off the shore of Queens, New York. Author Patrick Radden Keefe chronicles the incident in his new book The Snakehead.

Human Trafficking Revealed In 'The Snakehead'

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When a rusty, 150-foot freighter ran aground in shallow waters off Queens in 1993 and half-starved Chinese passengers began scrambling from its decks, it was the largest arrival of illegal immigrants in modern times.

Our guest, writer Patrick Radden Keefe, says the dramatic landing revealed something then-little-known to the public, a massive immigration to the U.S. from a relatively small region in southern China that had been underway for more than a decade.

The influx from the Chinese province of Fujian altered the character of New York's Chinatown and made a fortune for the human traffickers who brought the immigrants to American shores. Among the most successful of the traffickers, often called snakeheads, was a middle-aged Chinese woman, known in the community simply as Sister Ping.

Patrick Radden Keefe is a writer who focuses on international security, immigration and espionage. He's a contributor to Slate, the New Yorker and other publications and is a commentator on NPR. His new book is called "The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream."

Well, Patrick Radden Keefe, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's like you to begin by describing this bizarre moment in June of 1993, in the middle of a Saturday night, when these two police officers on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens come upon this strange sight.

Mr. PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE (Author, "The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream"): Well, Rockaway is a strange corner of New York City. It's a really quiet little area with a beach that faces out onto the Atlantic.

You wouldn't know you were in this major metropolitan area. And in the dead of night, just a few hours before dawn, these two park police officers were driving their car, just doing a routine patrol. And they looked out to sea, and they saw that there was actually a steamer, a tramp steamer, a ship that had run aground about 150 yards offshore. And what they realized, they started hearing screams, and they realized that people were actually jumping off of the ship and into the water.

The surf was really rough at that point, and these people were trying to swim into shore, and some of them were drowning. And so it was kind of a - almost ghoulish specter for these officers when they made this discovery, and then immediately radioed for backup, and actually jumped into the surf, trying to save these people.

DAVIES: And as they began to reach them and pull them ashore, who were these folks?

Mr. KEEFE: They couldn't tell at first, but what they noticed was that these people were Asian and, in fact, Chinese, all of them. And they were terrified. They were emaciated. They were in pretty bad physical condition. And as they pulled more and more of these people to shore - first of all, they realized that there were hundreds of them - that this was a fairly small ship, I mean, it was about 150 feet long. But hundreds of people, ultimately almost 300, had been in the hold of the ship and made a journey, and they were in pretty terrible shape as they collapsed on the sand. And they were Chinese. They had come from China.

DAVIES: And when authorities got aboard the vessel, what did they see? What did they figure out?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, they started rounding up the passengers and trying to figure out where they'd come from. I mean, what was this kind of phantom ship that had washed up on the shores of New York? But they actually got onto the ship, and they started questioning some of the people onboard and finding interpreters who could speak to them in Chinese and found out that they had come all the way from Thailand. And they'd actually come to America, they'd sort of gone the wrong way around the world, if you can imagine it.

I mean, if you were in Thailand or China, and you wanted to go to the United States, the smart thing to do would be to go east and cross the Pacific to California. But they'd gone west, down and around Singapore, up through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean to Africa; down around the Cape of Good Hope, back up across the Atlantic. So it was a 17,000-mile journey. And they wondered how long these people had been on the ship, and they found out they'd actually been in the hold of the ship for 120 days.

DAVIES: And when they looked in the hold of the ship, what did they see?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, the hold was this dark area, which had been segmented into two levels. There were sort of steel struts, and they'd actually put plywood out, and people had been living in this space for months. Their belongings were there. It was a pretty dirty and dangerous environment. I mean, there were basically people - each person had had about a two-foot-by-six-foot space on this plywood in which to live for months.

There was one bathroom on the ship, but that was for use only by the women. There were a small number of women, about two-dozen women on board. And the men on the ship either had to go up on board and go to the bathroom or actually do it right there in the space that they were all living in. It was a mess. It was terrifying to think that people had been living in these conditions.

DAVIES: And so what happened to the passengers, you know, that night and the coming days?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, the passengers had thought that if they could set foot on American soil and ask for political asylum, they would have an opportunity to go and hear their claims heard, and during the time it took for that asylum hearing to get set up, they would actually be released into the community, but that didn't happen.

With the ship arriving in this very dramatic manner, it was a major embarrassment for the Clinton administration, which had then been in office for only about six months and in fact had not yet appointed a director of the INS.

And so what happened was that en masse, these 290-or-so passengers who'd come all the way from Asia on this journey, were thrown into prisons in America. And many of them actually remained in prison for the next four years.

DAVIES: Now, these folks had, in the main, come from Fujian. Am I pronouncing this right, this province in southern China?

Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, Fujian, yeah.

DAVIES: Fujian, and give us a sense of the scale of immigration from that part of China in the '80s and '90s, and why so many came from that area.

Mr. KEEFE: Well, what started to happen in the early 1980s is that people started turning up in New York's Chinatown from Fujian Province, which is a small sliver of a province in southeastern China. It's right across the strait from Taiwan - and people started turning up in Chinatown.

Now, Chinatown at that point, had for a century - this is New York's Chinatown - been a very Cantonese community. Most people had been here for a long time, and they'd come from around what is today Guangzhou. But these Fujianese started showing up, first in small numbers and then basically sending for their families. And more and more people came.

There's a great Fujianese expression, which is one brings 10, 10 bring 100. And they really put that into practice, you know, right through the sort of mid-1980s and into the '90s. And nobody really knows, because many of these people were coming illegally, how many ultimately came. And I think that when you're looking at these kinds of underground economies and human smuggling, it's really difficult to assign hard numbers to anything. But just to give you a sense of the scale, in the mid-1990s, the CIA estimated that roughly 100,000 people were coming illegally to the United States from this part of China every year.

DAVIES: And you write that when these people from Fujian went to Chinatown in New York, rather than, you know, integrating within the existing Cantonese community, they tended to build their own neighborhoods. And you also say that if you drove through, you could recognize the Fujianese, that they had a distinct appearance. How could you tell?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, I mean, I should say first of all that I'm not certain that you or I could, necessarily, but people in Chinatown certainly could. And the Cantonese - what was then the Cantonese majority, which was fairly entrenched in the neighborhood - certainly could, because they looked literally as if they were off the boat.

These were people who had come from a sort of relatively poor area in southeast China. A lot of them didn't have a lot of education. They had done anything they could to flee China. They'd endured some pretty terrifying conditions getting to the United States. And the ones who'd come illegally, and that was many of them, had paid smugglers to bring them, and the fee at the time, in the 1980s, was $18,000 per person. And the Cantonese looked down their noses at these - what they perceived as these kind of arrivistes from the countryside who had actually paid to be here. And they actually referred to them as $18,000 men, these new arrivals.

DAVIES: They were thinner, you say, working in menial jobs?

Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, exactly, and dressed not in the American fashion but sort of more like people who came from the very villages that they had left behind. And they tended to cluster in a pretty insular corner in New York's Chinatown, which is sort of, if you know the area, is kind of east of Bowery, sort of the eastern fringe. And they spoke their own dialect, I mean, this was the other thing.

So in a way, it was a kind of a ghetto within a ghetto that emerged during these years.

DAVIES: Now, I imagine people who - these folks who came from China were pretty poor before they set out and could not readily assemble $18,000 for the journey. How did they pay back the cost of getting transported over?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, you're right. They couldn't come up with the fee in totality before they left. So the way it was structured is you'd make a small down payment of, say, two- or three-thousand dollars, before you left, to the smugglers. And the smugglers would bring you over, and if you made it safely, you owed the balance of that fee.

There's a misunderstanding about this business, the human-smuggling business, which is that people would get - the idea is that the people would get over here and effectively be indentured to the smugglers who brought them, that they would work as virtual slaves, paying off the debts. But if you think about it from the smugglers' point of view, that doesn't really make any sense.

I mean, if you're a human-smuggler, and you're bringing lots of people, perhaps thousands of people, to the country, you don't want to spend years chasing after various debtors. So instead, what would happen is you'd have people come over and basically get a grace period, a 72-hour window, and during that time, they'd get a telephone, and they basically had to call everybody they knew -friends family, if they didn't have friends or family to call, then maybe a loan shark - and come up with the balance of that fee.

And then they would go out into the community and have to work like crazy to pay off the people they'd borrowed from. So they were indentured in a sense, but it was to these people that they had borrowed from, not to the smugglers. And they worked, and they worked around the clock, seven days a week -generally in restaurants and garment factories - and that was the way they paid off these debts.

DAVIES: What was the impact on the villages that these folks left? I mean, did some of them become depopulated?

Mr. KEEFE: They did. It was really interesting the way it developed. At first, what happened is that you had these villages, which would have some residents leave, and they would go to the United States. And at that time, which would in the '80s and '90s - I mean, this was before the economic boom we've heard so much about in the last decade or so had really taken hold - you could make, as a dishwasher in New York City, in a year, what you might make in a laborer back in Fujian Province in a decade.

So people were sending back their currency. And what would happen is that the families who received this money from abroad would build these large, quite ostentatious houses, mansions, really, in these rural villages. And so you'd get these four- or five-story mansions that would rise out of the rice paddies, looking just incredibly incongruous. And everybody in town, everybody in the village who would see this mansion would realize, well, that person has family in America. And eventually, more and more people started leaving. And there was a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones aspect to this, where at a certain point, if you didn't have such a house, if you didn't have relatives in the United States, then that said something about your family. It said that you weren't very enterprising. You weren't a risk-taker. You weren't out there trying to kind of get the brass ring.

But then ironically, more and more of these palaces would be built in these little rural villages, and eventually, the villages emptied out, and a lot of the palaces ended up sort of boarded up. There's hardly anyone around because most of them are actually in the United States.

DAVIES: Why would people send enough money back to China to build mansions there, rather than, you know, advancing their ambitions in life in the U.S.?

Mr. KEEFE: I think it's complicated. To some extent, it was actually a form of kind of honoring the family and the home village, to send this money home. There's a statue in downtown Chunglo(ph). Chunglo is one of the really big population centers just outside Fuzhou, where really everyone in Chunglo knows somebody in the United States, so many people have left there to come here. And at one of the major intersections, there's a huge statue of this big, soaring sail on a sailboat.

So it's this massive, steel sail, and it has two little airplane wings. And when I was driving through, I asked the woman who was driving me: What is that? What's that monument? And she said: Oh, it's a monument that we've erected to the many people who left Chunglo on planes and in boats, because they've sent so much money back that we owe our prosperity, today, to them.

So there are some very complicated dynamics, I think, driving, you know, both the decision for people to leave and then also, once they left, their decision to send so much money back.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book is "The Snakehead." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is author Patrick Radden Keefe. He has a new book about emigration to Chinatown called "The Snakehead."

Now, your story deals a lot with the people who smuggle immigrants from southern China into the United States and, in particular, into Chinatown. And the Don Corleone, if you will, of this world is a little, middle-aged woman who goes by the name of Sister Ping. Tell us about her.

Mr. KEEFE: Well, Sister Ping was a woman who'd come from Fujian Province to the United States, and she herself had come legally, with a visa, in 1981. And she settled on the eastern fringe of Chinatown in this, at the time, a sort of fairly small, Fujianese community of people from her home province. And she opened a little shop, which was a sort of convenience store. It had clothing and sort of simple goods. And she also would cook traditional Fujianese food for some of these Fujianese people living in the community, who, in some ways, kind of almost nostalgically would go to the shop to get a taste of the region they'd left behind.

But almost immediately, she started sending for people. And at the time, it was very difficult to legally bring people from Fujian Province into the U.S., for people to get visa to do so. And so, illegally, she figured out ways of getting people in. And initially, it was just family, immediately family, then extended family, then people from her village, then people from the surrounding villages and ultimately people from all over the region.

And she got very good at this, and within Chinatown, developed a reputation as somebody who was just exceedingly clever at smuggling people out of China and into Chinatown. and as word spread, she was actually able to command a higher and higher price for these services. And nobody knows precisely how many people she ultimately brought, but again, with the caveat that you want to be careful throwing around numbers here, and all of this math is emphatically back-of-the-envelope, the FBI estimates that she made about $40 million, ultimately, doing this.

DAVIES: And she was what you call a snakehead, which means she was…?

Mr. KEEFE: She was a snakehead, yes. I mean, she was a lot of things, but she was above all, an entrepreneur, and she had a restaurant, and to this day, the restaurant is in Chinatown - you can go there, it's quite good - and a little real estate company and a legitimate travel agency. And she was a snakehead who would smuggle people in, and then the other thing she did is she had an underground bank, as well.

So she would smuggle customers in from China, and then they would work very hard in the United States and save their money, and they would want to send it back to China. And it was sort of a full-service operation because if you saved U.S. dollars, if you had $1,000, and you wanted to send it back to your family in China, you would then take it - not to Western Union or to a bank - but back to Sister Ping's restaurant, and if you gave it to her, for a very small commission she would forward that money on to your family back in China.

DAVIES: So snakehead meant a smuggler. I mean, it's such a sinister-sounding term. Was it something that one would say with contempt or respect?

Mr. KEEFE: With respect. And this is one of the mysterious and peculiar aspects of this story is that Sister Ping, who in the mind of your average law-enforcement agent, was a big, criminal kingpin - a kind of malevolent figure. In Chinatown she developed a reputation as an almost altruistic pillar of the community, because ultimately, she provided a service, and she enabled really a generation of people to flee very difficult circumstances and to build new lives in America.

DAVIES: And it's interesting. As you describe her operation, she had family members in various places throughout the world - in Hong Kong, in Latin America - and people would get from one point to another and then sometimes be transported by airplane or over land. And you note that she had a reputation for quality, if you will, I mean, a commitment to get you there. And there were moments when people might have gotten stuck in some far-flung leg of the journey, and she would wire $10,000, if they needed to, to get them loose.

DAVIES: Exactly. I mean, the nature of the business is such that there's a very high level of risk entailed. And so Sister Ping, even though there were mishaps, and even though things went wrong, she was perceived as a less risky broker than some of the others, that she was able to move people through all these different routes. If you did get stuck, she would send money. If you were caught by immigration and sent back, she would sometimes allow you to go for free the next time. So there were some peculiar ways in which she set herself out from the pack.

DAVIES: Now, to what extent did she associate with ruthless criminals, some of these gangs in Chinatown that you write about, and if so, why would she associate with them?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, something funny happened with Sister Ping's business, which is that when she started out in the '80s, she was very good and very hands-on. And it was, I think, through this attention to detail that she gained a reputation as being a very good snakehead. But that led to a great increase in demand, particularly after Tiananmen Square in 1989. And more and more people wanted to pay her to bring them to the United States, to the point where the going fee, which had been $18,000 in '80s, actually jumped to $35,000 in the '90s.

And at that point, she really needed to start sub-contracting some of the business, just in order to keep pace with demand, and so she started working with a very violent street gang in Chinatown, a Fujianese gang known as the Fuk Ching. And the head of the Fuk Ching gang was a murderer and an extortionist, a guy who was a real opportunist and a pretty brutal character, whose name was Ah Kay and he was very feared in the neighborhood. But he happened to be getting into the smuggling trade, and his gang members were able to handle some of the logistics that had grown sort of so immense, in terms of all of the people who wanted to pay Sister Ping, that she just couldn't possibly attend to all of it herself. And so at that point, she went into business with this gang.

DAVIES: Patrick Radden Keefe will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Snakehead." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with writer Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book, "The Snakehead," is a story of human trafficking and the underworld in New York's Chinatown. In the 1980s and '90s, a massive migration from a province in southern China changed the character of Chinatown and made a fortune for human traffickers, known in the community as snakeheads.

Wouldn't authorities in New York have noticed this explosion in the population and the growth in crime, and asked the Feds to get on this?

Mr. KEEFE: They did. I mean, I think one problem for law enforcement was that the snakeheads were incredibly sophisticated. They ran these multinational, ever-adapting networks of people where they had contacts in dozens of countries. And they could really, at the spur of the moment, they could change their tactics and adapt very quickly to whatever law enforcement was doing. And in that respect, they were on an - almost at the level of their kind of organizational DNA, they were the opposite of the federal government. They weren't hierarchical. They weren't hidebound. They didn't need to ask permission for anyone. And that mismatch, that asymmetry, made it incredibly hard and, I think to some extent still does today, for federal authorities to pursue them. And then the ship arrives and everything changes. Suddenly there's new momentum and an effort to stop the ships coming and to go after snakeheads like Sister Ping.

DAVIES: And law enforcement decided after this spectacular event to really crack down on the smugglers and on some of the organized crime connections that existed in Chinatown. And you describe in the book a whole series of arrest and prosecutions. And indeed an indictment was returned on Sister Ping - I mean, this elderly smuggler who fled to China where she stayed for many years. What kind of life did she lead in China?

Mr. KEEFE: A pretty good one. She - Sister Ping really, truly was always one step ahead of the authorities. She fled on the eve of this indictment coming down in 1994 and basically went back to the village that she had left, and moved back into the family's big mansion and continued doing her business. The FBI knew exactly where she was and would make appeals to Beijing to do something about it, but she had protection. And the other thing that was happening is, that because so many of her customers were remitting large amounts of money back into the region, she was actually perceived as, in some way, only somewhat indirectly responsible for the new fortunes of the region because all of this money was pouring back in to invest in things in China. And, you know, she was able to really travel around the world. She had - she didn't use her own passport. She had a passport that she got from Belize with her photo and someone else's name and she used that to make trips to foreign countries all over the world - and in fact, I found out, to travel in and out of the United States where she was wanted, where the FBI was looking for her but nobody was able to find her.

DAVIES: And through a combination of guile and sources the FBI managed to trick her, I guess, into Hong Kong, captured her, brought her back. She was tried and then what finally happened when she was taken to court in New York?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, this was the kind of interesting wrinkle in Sister Ping's relationship with this gangster, Ah Kay, who she had first encountered years before when they went into business with one another. Ah Kay was arrested not too long after the Golden Venture came in. He'd been one of the really instrumental people in that operation and was arrested in 1993. And almost as soon as he was arrested, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI and he said, effectively, I can give you Sister Ping, and she was somebody they really wanted. And it took them seven years to arrest her. But eventually, after seven years of chasing her around the globe, and then another five until they could get her into a courtroom in New York. In 2005, in the summer, there was a huge trial and Ah Kay was the star witness against Sister Ping. And she ended up being convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She's now about 60, a little older than that, so she'll be in prison for the rest of her life. And one troubling footnote to this is that Ah Kay pled guilty to five murders. I mean, he's a really violent individual. And after doing what the government wanted and pointing a finger at her in court, Ah Kay was quietly released.

DAVIES: Help us understand the motivation for some of this immigration. You know, if paying $18,000, which was an enormous sum for a Chinese immigrant to embark on this journey, which - with such peril - many, you know, some died, many were caught and turned back. What drove them to undertake that kind of risk and expense? Were things so desperate in Fujian?

Mr. KEEFE: They were and they weren't. One of the wrinkles of this story, and one of the kind of complications of the standard narrative here, is that during the period of time I'm writing about, the economy in Fujian Province was actually growing about 10 percent a year. So in fact, this was not by any stretch the poorest part of China. It wasn't really absolute poverty that was driving people out. There actually had been economic reforms in the region and what was happening is that for the first time really some people were getting much wealthier than others. And demographers have actually looked at this and concluded that often it's not absolute poverty that makes people want to leave a place. It's what they call relative deprivation, and that sort of played into the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing, which I think drove a lot of people to leave.

Having said that, how do you extrapolate from that, to somebody actually going into debt and putting their life in the hands of an unscrupulous criminal? It's a difficult transition to make and I've had a lot of conversations with people who did this trying to fathom what it was. And some of them say that they came for the freedom, because they thought that, you know, living in these small communities where often there was a lot of corruption and party officials really called the shots, they wanted to go to a place where there was a lot more freedom. Some of them were seeking the economic opportunities. But I think that in Fujian Province in particular, America also acquired an almost sort of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEEFE: ...fetish quality. There was a kind of vogue to it and people were just dying to get here. And I think often they had wildly unrealistic senses of what America was actually like. And part of the reason for this was that after making these journeys a lot of people would come and they would call home. And life wasn't actually all that great for them. They were working around the clock as dishwashers and living in flophouses in Chinatown. But they would call home - and you can imagine doing this yourself - their family would say how is it, and they wouldn't want to worry the family or make anyone think they'd made a mistake, so they would say it's great. This is a terrific, prosperous country.

DAVIES: You know, there's been this explosion of economic growth in China and much more employment. Has immigration slowed? Is the day of the snakehead gone?

Mr. KEEFE: It definitely diminished over the last, probably, five years or so. When I - I had this funny experience when I went to actually Thailand initially to do some research for the book, I was talking to some Thai officials and I said, oh, I'm here doing research for a book on Chinese human smuggling and they said, oh, smuggling people into China. Yes, it's a big problem. I mean, the suggestion was that the economy is growing so fast in China that why would people leave?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Getting them in, huh?

Mr. KEEFE: And - yeah, exactly. And that was certainly echoed also in Fujian Province when I went there. I mean, I spoke with a lot of people who said, oh, why would I want to go and live in New York's Chinatown and work as a dishwasher now when I could own a textile factory here in Fujian? So the business slowed down somewhat.

But having said that, the whole story has changed in the last six or eight months with the economic crisis, because the manufacturing base in China has taken a huge hit, and in southeast China in particular. And you're actually now seeing a really massive internal migration within China away from the coast. All these people who had been basically labor migrants working in the factories along the coast are going back to the villages, their ancestral villages, the villages they left behind. My hunch is, and I don't have any hard data to support this, but, judging from the kind of larger arc of this story, that unless the economic situation improves, we are going to see an uptick in the snakehead trade, because I think if you are getting people migrating back to the villages because ultimately there aren't enough opportunities on the coast, I think we'll also get people migrating out of China altogether.

DAVIES: Well Patrick Radden Keefe, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. KEEFE: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book is called "The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream."

Coming up, we speak with Ann Scott Tyson who spent three weeks with American Marines fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is FRESH AIR.

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