The Empire of Sister Ping

Chinatown, New York City, July 2008; photograph by Simon Lee from the cover of Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead

The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at 47 East Broadway in Manhattan, serving the specialties of China’s Fujian province, from which most of the people in this part of Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown have come in the past thirty or so years. You hardly see a non-Chinese person on East Broadway, a busy commercial street in what might be called Greater Chinatown, which is just across the Bowery from the mostly Cantonese-speaking Chinatown that draws most tourists.

The population density here seems twice that of most parts of Manhattan, and that’s in part because of the street’s shopping and culinary offerings, but also because up above in the tenements that used to be occupied by East European Jews, the recently arrived Fujianese accept crowded conditions as part of the price of admission to the US. In The Snakehead, a brilliant reporter’s account of the Fujianese-American underworld, Patrick Radden Keefe writes about rooming houses where bunk beds are rented out for eight hours a day, so one sleeping place is shared by three people, each of whom spends sixteen hours out, mostly working off the debts they incurred to pay people like Sister Ping and other snakeheads, as the people smugglers are known.

During the past quarter-century, whole villages in districts near the Fujianese capital of Fuzhou on China’s southeast coast have been virtually emptied of young inhabitants, whose departure for the United States has resulted in a major transfer of a population from one country to the other. In the mid-1990s, low estimates put the number of illegal immigrants from Fujian to the US at 50,000 per year, but as Keefe reports, James Woolsey, “who was director of the CIA at the time, told Congress that the number of Chinese being smuggled in each year was closer to 100,000.” How the Fujianese have both ingeniously and ruthlessly managed this, despite the efforts of American authorities to stop them, is the essence of Keefe’s book, with its focus on Sister Ping and her immediate circle of relatives, gang members, confederates, enforcers, and a willing, globalized penumbra of corrupt officials who helped her.

Sister Ping was far from the only snakehead, but she was probably the most celebrated. Keefe reports on the village in Fujian that erected a monument in her honor just as American law enforcement officials, after years of trying, were finally closing in on her and her network. The services she offered were expensive, about $18,000 per person in the 1980s, $30,000 in the 1990s, and they involved journeys by ship whose conditions seem sometimes to have…

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