“The Snakehead” in review; new title on Fuzhou -> New York Illegal Immigration Racket

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 3:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

Since I first commenced “Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom” in 2007, I have periodically received offers from authors and book publishers for promo copies of soon to be released books, presumably in the hope I will take a look and dispense some free PR. Since I try to keep commercial interests out of this blog’s content, I typically reply that I’d be glad to accept a copy of the book, but cannot guarantee a review unless I find the book exceptionally relevant to the scope of the blog. Patrick Radden Keefe’s new title, The Snakehead, which was released to the public on Tuesday, was the first promo to fall into this category.

The Snakehead Patrick Radden Keefe
The Snakehead was released to the public this past Tuesday. The official website can be found at www.thesnakehead.com.

“Snakehead” (蛇头 she2 tou2) is not a common term in the American vernacular or through much of China for that matter. However in Fuzhou it is the household moniker for an individual who specializes in sneaking people over international borders. And in no other part of China are the snakeheads as adept at smuggling individuals into foreign lands than they are in Fuzhou.

Radden Keefe’s saga begins with the Golden Venture, a vessel which originated in Thailand, and ran aground off the coast of New York City at 2 a.m. on June 6, 1993. Aboard the ship were 286 illegal Chinese immigrants, mainly from Fuzhou. The sponsor of the ship had been a Fuzhounese woman in Queens who was known throughout Chinatown as “Sister Ping.” Using contacts in New York, Fuzhou, and across the globe, Sister Ping was able to establish a logistical network spanning through China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, Canada, Mexico and the United States, in order to smuggle thousands of undocumented Chinese over the border. She also amassed a fortune of over forty million dollars in the process, all under the cover of a small storefront in Chinatown.

Radden Keefe’s tale documents the trials and tribulations the Fuzhounese who choose to illegally venture to America, which do not always run as smoothly as anticipated. This was discovered by the passengers on the Golden Venture when they were intercepted by the Coast Guard on the beach and subsequently sent to a lockdown facility in York, PA. In addition to the authorities, smuggling enterprises are often subject to the vicissitudes of Chinatown organized crime gangs who also want a piece of the action. Radden Keefe recounts much of this through Ah Kay, a Fuzhounese crime boss, turned FBI informant. As the preeminent gangster in Chinatown, Ah Kay uses his muscle to both cooperate and antagonize Sister Ping as they both battle for their share of the immigration profits, in a complex relationship which stretches from Fuzhou to New York City and ultimately to the federal courtroom.

With a nonlinear storytelling style, at times reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino script, Radden Keefe’s narrative bounces through a veritable merry-go-round of settings including rural villages in China, underground gambling dens in New York City, airport departure counters in Bangkok, the jungle of Burma, the coast of South Africa, the streets of Mombassa, safe houses in Central America, and the US Canada border at Niagara Falls. Each anecdote reveals another piece of the elaborate pipeline by which rural Chinese attempt the journey to the United States where they will work in restaurants, pay off the Snakeheads, and ultimately remit their earnings back to their families in China.

As a former resident of both Fuzhou and Fuqing (one of the small towns frequently cited in the book as a source of illegals) there was no way I was going to pass up on The Snakehead. When I was living in the area, it would have been impossible to carry on without noticing the widespread effects of the human smuggling operations which shape the region. Between the regular fake marriage proposals, the high-rise countryside mansions, and the stories from ever present taxi driver with three cousins and a brother all washing dishes in New York City, illegal immigration and the spoils it brings are in indelible part of life in and around Fuzhou.

The Snakehead is a comprehensive look at the expansive body of the actors in this global enterprise. Appropriately, Radden Keefe lays out the facts and particulars while carefully avoiding explicit value judgments which so often muddle the issues surrounding immigration. While he does share some of his own personal views in the epilogue, the bulk of the text refrains from swaying the reader’s opinion to any particular persuasion. Rather, it provides a equitable exposé on an underground topic which has yet to be documented in such a complete and readable form. For organized immigration enthusiasts, crime buffs, and China hands alike, The Snakehead is a must read.



Neil Armstrong and Chinese Urinals

Posted in Society, Translations at 2:25 pm by Benjamin Ross

On multiple occasions during my stop through Zhejiang this past March, I noticed stickers such as the one below, posted above urinals in Internet bar bathrooms.


It reads 上前一小步, 文明一大步, or in English “Step forward one small step,  (become) civilized one big step.”  This notice, urging male patrons to inch closer to the facilities while urinating, is actually a play on words from another famous quote in China, “这是一个人的一小步,却是人类的一大步,” which is the Chinese rendering of “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the famous words uttered in 1969 by Neil Armstrong upon the first successful Moonwalk, 24 years before Michael Jackson accomplished a similar feat.   

The “XX一小步,XX一大步” slogan format is not uncommon in China, as 40 years ago Mr. Armstrong inadvertently unleashed the perfect template, when translated into Chinese, for parallel metaphorical (I’m sure there’s a more technical term) public service announcements that still resonates today, even in dingy netbar lavatories.

The most prominent example of the “Armstrong template” is probably “个人文明一小步,社会文明一大步,” meaning “One small step for personal civility, one big step for society and civilization.” This slogan can be observed in public areas as a general reminder to people to wait in line, throw away trash, not spit on the floor, or anything else which is associated with “civilized” behavior.

The reason that Armstrong’s quote has stuck so well (in addition to the sheer magnitude of the moon landing) is that short, concise quotations, often with minimal (or no) grammar, are probably the most poignant ways to make witty statements in Chinese.  The prime example would be the 成语 (cheng2 yu3), where four characters are muttered in succession, and communicate an implicit meaning which usually requires several sentences of English to explain.

While Neil Armstrong’s command of the Chinese language is likely far superseded by his knowledge of the universe and astrophysics, I do imagine he would be humored to know that his legacy has produced one of the more indelible slogan templates in the Chinese lexicon…Or at very least to know his speech patterns are memorialized in the coveted real estate above Chinese netbar urinals.



Making a Fashion Statement in China

Posted in Fujian, Pop Culture at 5:38 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been several months since I’ve stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom.  However, my old cohort Rebecca McQuillen, is still in Fuzhou and recently logged these colorful snapshots (and captions) about fashion in China on her Facebook.  I have reproduced them here with her permission.

Real LV which is not seen very often. She went to Hong Kong to buy this beauty.

Retired look; This was at the the torch relay coming to Fuzhou.

Seeing a lot of price tags still hanging off clothing. It used to be the brand on the sleeve of business suits. Price tags are fairly new in the past 2 years.
College girl look

Love the colors and patterns. so cute

She is getting geared up for the 4th of July, I guess. I always wonder where they buy this stuff. Do with have sequenced flag purses at home?

Normal look for weekday afternoon. Gogo dress and high heels riding motor scooter.
Owner of local coffee shop; Her backpack is an over-sized teddy bear. Many adults wear and use things we in the West would consider for children only.

Menswear displayed in a window; This looks like a women’s outfit in the West, but they only sell men’s clothing in this store so was not an issue of only having a male mannequin.

“Less is more in the West.  In China, too much is not enough,” quote by Douglas Bonner, and this is another example.
Arm protectors; seeing less and less of these, but many young women who work in offices still wear them at work. Offices get cleaned maybe once a year, so they are quite dirty.
school boys and me

Face masks are now fashion statements.

Dogs dyed all different colors and made to wear doggy clothes is a normal site. Now more and more large dogs are being seen.

Airport porters with Chinglish, note this is in Shenzhen AFTER the Olympics.

Normal walk in high heels…looks like a homecoming queen, which is suitable cause she was at airport picking up a passenger.

Hanging out at nail salon
These hats are a huge hit on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen.
countryside look
Colored hair is everywhere. Yet they dye bottle color, not much mixing or toning down. It is still in experimental stage.

(I know this from first hand experience.)

What I like about Rebecca’s work is that it provides a pretty accurate cross section of a society which is only 30 years into a complete upheaval of common social practices;  how individuals clothe themselves being a major component of this.  Most of Rebecca’s shots were taken in Fuzhou, where only a generation ago, such photography would have yielded nothing more than monotonous blue and gray suits, straight black hair, and nothing more than a “Quotations of Mao Zedong” book as an accessory.  As China continues to change and develop at a rapid pace, so too will the fashion tastes of the populace. Many of the fashions shown here (sans the “countryside look” of course) will probably be by the wayside in just a couple years.  It’s already looking vastly different from when I left Fuzhou, and that was only August of 2007.

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