“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.



Chinese, Japanese, Shanghainese, Look at these!

Posted in Immigration, Society at 9:11 am by Benjamin Ross

Well, I’ve been in Shanghai for closing in on one week now, and just as my sleep is beginning to acclimate to the time difference, I thought it would be appropriate to give a little update of what’s going on.  The first two and a half weeks of this month-long trip are going to be mainly work related, and so far work has been consuming much of my time.  Unfortunately, without completely violating the trust (not to mention the NDA) of our client, there really isn’t much I can say about the project I’m working, other than that it deals with young Chinese video game enthusiasts.  (Trying to Chinese youth who play video games is about as difficult as finding Chinese people who like to eat rice.)

This is my fourth visit to Shanghai, and every time I come what sticks out more than anything is the level of Westernization.  I’ve always maintained that Shanghai is by leaps and bounds, the most internationalized and cosmopolitan city in China  (Beijing is a distant second.)  This manifests itself in the locals’ mannerisms and attitudes (basically everybody else in China, Beijingers included, are yokels), the clothes they wear (this is the only place in China where I have ever felt under-dressed or out of style), and the cornucopia of Western products they embrace (On my street alone there is a specialty Greek foods shop, a fruit store which sells fruit 3 times more expensive than the vendors who hang out outside the store, a golf course, and multiple golf pro shops.)

All this is great if you are, say, living in a small town in Fujian, and want to experience Western amenities without purchasing a $1000 plane ticket home.  But when you live in Chicago, and are trying to suck up as much China as you can fit into a one month excursion, it’s not quite as appealing.

Thus it came to my absolute delight, when yesterday afternoon I discovered, hidden away behind all the modern glitz and Japanese hair salons, an old “village” which today houses a community of recent immigrants.  In the US when we think of “immigrants” we are often implying those who come from other countries to seek a new life in America.  In China, when we speak of “immigrants” we are usually referring to those people who come from outlying rural areas to the big cities in search of better work and opportunities.  Like many immigrants in the US, Chinese immigrants frequently form their own local communities, and live lives almost entirely separate from the local population.  Thus, while the street on which my hotel lies, (the one with the golf course and the Greek foods shop) caters almost entirely to the Shanghainese and foreigners from Western countries, the “village” is populated almost entirely by migrants from poor rural areas in China’s interior.

Here are some pics of the village.

shanghai village street
One of the main drags in the village.  I must say I like the uniform paint which uniformly tinted the entire row of buildings.
green chinese building
An old residence in which the bottom level has been converted into retail space.
clothes hanging on the line in china
Another residence; Often houses such as these are only ten or fifteen years old, but appear much older do to wear and tear, and poor construction.
old shanghai house
Several gated villas such as this one stand out among the other architecture of the village, and possibly pre-date their surroundings.
shanghai alley
Most of the residences open up to alleys, since the actual streets are lined primarily with storefronts.
Chinese Mike burger Mcdonalds copy
Unlike my street which only five minutes away has virtually every Western fast food chain known in China, the migrants have to settle for “Mike burgers” when they want to sample western cuisine.

I think I know where I’ll be spending a good amount of my free time during the remainder of my stay in Shanghai.  More to come soon from the “Paris of the East.”



A Chinatown in Japan

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Immigration, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:02 am by Benjamin Ross

Note:   I am now back in the US, and have been taking a little hiatus from blogging while I catch up on time, sleep, and Mexican food.  I will be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and the blog should be back up to speed this week.

Japan is home to one of the world’s largest overseas Chinese communities, and the Tokyo Chinatown is a major attraction that I missed in my first round to Japan in 2007.  For me, Tokyo’s Chinatown bears a special significance.  I spent my first fifteen months in the Middle Kingdom living in Fuqing, a small town in Fujian.  Like most small towns in Fujian, Fuqing’s primary export is people, mainly in the form of commissary staff.  For many small towns in Fujian, they have corresponding locations abroad where its residents sneak over to, and then in turn help their friends and relatives make the journey.  Whether by arranged marriage, fraudulent passport, transit via shipping container, or in the rare instances with legitimate credentials, the Fujianese have spread themselves further across the globe than any other Chinese demographic.  Once abroad, the typical program is to find a job in a Chinese restaurant, work 70-80 hours a week for an interlude of 5-10 years, and then head back to Fujian with a veritable pile of money.  Even within Fujian, the residents of Fuqing are known for their prowess in sneaking across borders.  As for their destination, Tokyo is number one.

Where specifically do all of Fuqing’s emigrants end up?  A trip to Tokyo’s Chinatown was in order.  For starters, it’s actually a misnomer to say “Tokyo Chinatown,” as the Chinatown is technically located in Yokohama, a separate city which has now been completely engulfed by the Tokyo megalopolis.  On my second day in Japan, I made the 25 minute pilgrimage from Tokyo to Yokohama, in search of anything Chinese.

Like most Chinatowns, the entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown is marked off by a large 牌坊 (pai2 fang1)*, with the characters 中华街 (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various translations of “Chinatown,” written on it.  Behind the gate is a tangled web of streets and alleys, swamped by mobs of people.  The streets are jammed with stores selling Chinese spices and trinkets, restaurants with names such as “Shanxi Family Chinese Restaurant,” and street vendors galore.  By far, the most common items were smoked chestnuts (板栗) and baozi (包子).

But what was different about this Chinatown were the linguistic sounds emanating from the streets.  The racket of a typical Chinatown is usually dominated by the hyper-tonal sounds of Cantonese, the glottal emanations of various Fujian dialects, and a competing amount of Mandarin, usually spoken with a rough southern accent.  In Yokohama’s Chinatown, all I heard was Japanese.  In fact, it took me seven minutes from the time I walked through the 牌坊 until I first heard any spoken Chinese, during which time I had easily passed several hundred individuals.

If I had to give an estimate, I would say that on any corner of Chinatown, 90% of the people are Japanese, and that’s being conservative.  Like many famous “ethnic areas” in the US, Yokohama’s Chinatown seems to have long expired as an ethnic enclave, and is now merely a destination for Japanese tourists.  Although many of the businesses are still run by Chinese owners, their clientele are primarily Japanese.  The young wait staff can be seen outside storefronts yelling their sales pitches in fluent, but heavily Chinese accented, Japanese.  Even the “Chinese food”  (see picture below), looked and smelled Japanese.  I couldn’t help but conjure images of Homer Simpson eating at Americatown during his own visit to Japan.

So what has happened to the Chinese community in Tokyo?  My best guess (and I would love some feedback from those with more knowledge of the situation) is that as cost of living has risen in Yokohama, the Chinese community has dispersed to other parts of Tokyo.  During my previous visit to Japan, I had been eating Yakitori with a Japanese-speaking American friend in an old neighborhood in Tokyo when it came up that our waitress was Chinese.  She had been from Changle (a neighboring town of Fuqing), and told me that all of the store owners on that particular street were from Fuqing.  In another instance, on my way to Narita airport, I stopped to explore the area near Nippori Station.  While wandering through one of Tokyo’s more neglected neighborhoods, I was startled by an old woman on the street yelling “国际电话卡,”  (Get your international phone cards!)  As I meandered through the run down neighborhood, I encountered a disproportionate number of Chinese restaurants, and even a 刀削面馆 (cut noodle restaurant).  And if that weren’t enough, on my first evening out in Ikebukuro with the same American friend, we were repeatedly solicited services by Chinese hookers standing on street corners.  (I wonder if I could have worked a discount by speaking to them in their native language?)

So as it stands, Tokyo seems to still be a hotbed of Chinese activity.  It’s just no longer confined to a single Chinatown.  If I had more than three days, I probably would have dug deeper into the Japanese-Chinese community, but ultimately I was too distracted by people watching, conveyor-belt sushi, and all of the other stimuli which come with spending three days a city where you constantly feel as if you are inside of a cartoon.  Bottom line, if you’re going to Tokyo and interested in overseas Chinese communities, you might want to take Chinatown off of your must-see list.  Below are some pics from my afternoon in Yokohama.

*I honestly have no idea what you would call a 牌坊 in English.  Maybe “big overhead Chinatown gate thingy,” but that’s my best shot.

Yokohama River
Yokohama has less of an urban feel to it than Tokyo…which now that I think of it, that probably applies to just about every other inch of space in the world, save for possibly Manhattan.
Yokohama Chinatown
This is the entrance to Chinatown with the 牌坊.  The characters read 中华街, (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various Chinese words for “Chinatown.
Japanese Chinatown
This shot probably could have come from just about any other Chinatown in the world.
Tokyo Chinatown
However, I must admit, Yokohama’s Chinatown probably has the  cleanest streets of any Chinatown I have been to.
Chinese food in Japan
Like most Chinatowns around the world, the primary reason non-Chinese go there is to eat.  The picture above showcases the typical fare of most Chinese restaurants in Tokyo.  Usually there is 麻婆豆腐 (ma2 po2 dou4 fu2, spicy Sichuan tofu), some variation of beef with green peppers, and everything else is about as Chinese sashimi and a ham sandwich.
Chinese steamed buns baozi
As is also the case in the non-Chinese parts of Tokyo, baozi are the big rage in Yokohama.  A friend of mine who had been living in Japan for six years describes Chinatown as “basically a feeding ground for Japanese people to eat baozi.”
All in all, I knew I couldn’t make it two trips to Tokyo without a single visit to Chinatown, but it certainly was not a highlight of my trip.  I am quite sure Homer’s experience at Americatown was infinitely more cultural than mine in this assumed hotbed of Chinese activity.  But hey, they got great baozi, so how much can I really complain?



Fuzhou in The Slate

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 11:40 am by Benjamin Ross

The Slate is currently running a 3-part piece on Fuzhou for which I did some pro bono consulting. The articles, written by Patrick Radden Keefe, explore life in rural villages on the outskirts of Fuzhou, which are the source of most of the United States’ Chinese restaurant labor pool. Keefe also details the human smuggling operations which have led to these small villages’ unprecedented economic booms. You can click on the link below for the articles. They’re all worth the read.



Fuzhou People Everywhere! 到处都有福州人

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 12:05 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s 1:30 on a sunny afternoon in Midtown Kansas City. After a walk around familiar environs, I stop for a bite to eat at the “Northern China Restaurant Buffet” on Main Street. While living in China for 3 years has utterly destroyed any affinity I had for American Chinese food, I still try to stop by a Chinese restaurant at least once a week, if anything, just to keep up my language skills.

After a brief conversation with the waitress in Mandarin, I return to my booth to begin my meal. Halfway though a bite of General Tso’s chicken, a familiar sound comes from the back of the restaurant. It’s definitely not Mandarin, and the excessive barrage of garbled nasal sounds don’t sound anything like Cantonese.

The waitress returns to refill my water and I decide to confirm whether or not my suspicious were accurate.

“Where are you from?” I ask her in Mandarin

“Fujian province.” she replies, assuming most people have heard of Fujian, but haven’t heard of any of its cities.

“Where in Fujian?” I reply.

“Fuzhou,” she replies, a little surprised I am continuing my interrogation.

“Where in Fuzhou?” I ask.

fuqing fujian rural china
It is small towns near Fuzhou like Fuqing (pictured here) which are the leading source of Chinese restaurant employees throughout the world.

At this point she gives me a look that I read as “There is no way this gringo could possibly have heard of the little rural town in Fujian where I grew up.”

That would be assuming this gringo didn’t happen to have lived just an hour away from that little rural town which I was guessing I knew the name of before she even told me.

“Changle.” she replied to answer my question.

No, nobody would have ever heard of Changle had it not been quite possibly the single largest source of Chinese commissary employees in the United States. And no doubt the sounds I had been hearing were those of the Fuzhou dialect.

Changle is a county-level city (县级市) just outside of Fuzhou, the provincial capital, and largest city in Fujian province. Fujian province is widely renowned for its mass quantities of migrants who move (often through questionable methods) to other countries, usually in search of amassing great fortunes by washing dishes in Chinese restaurants.

Most Fujianese immigrants come from smaller towns, like Changle, outside of the major cities. Once they go abroad, they often meet up with friends or family members from their hometowns, and establish their own small enclaves overseas. Because of these migration patterns, small towns in Fujian often have corresponding countries where their people migrate. For people in Fuqing (the town where I lived for 1.5 years before moving to Fuzhou), they gravitate towards Japan. For people from Changle the country of choice is the USA.

My return to the USA is beginning to confirm one of my suspicions I have developed over the past few years, and that is that there are quite possibly more Changle natives living in the US than there are in Changle itself. In fact during my time in Kansas City, I ate at 3 different Chinese restaurants, and at each one, my waiter was from Changle. For me this works out great, as when having my weekly Chinese language refreshment course at the local buffet, I can not only reminisce about the country I used to live in, but can tell people exactly where I lived down to the building, discuss Fuzhou area restaurants and shopping districts, and get updates on the latest trends in the city where I lived for 3 years. And hey, maybe those bits and pieces of the Fuzhou dialect I learned over there won’t go to waste afterall.



Coming to America…Fuzhou’s Main Export is People

Posted in Barbershop, Fujian, Immigration at 3:21 am by Benjamin Ross

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You’ve all heard the stereotypes. 15 Chinese workers crammed into a small room in the back of the local Chinese eatery. They never show their faces. They never leave the kitchen. They don’t speak English. They don’t have green cards, and they certainly aren’t paying any taxes. This has caused quite a stir of late as the Bush administration looks to revise the US immigration policies. Some Americans think it’s about time we punish those who have illegally entered our country. Others feel that it’s just another act of xenophobia from an already over-paranoid administration. In a barbershop in Fuzhou, this is a hot topic as well, but for different reasons.

Fuzhou is famous for its opulent banyan trees, its sugary 荔枝肉 (sweet and sour pork), and its scorching hot summers. But more than anything Fuzhou is best known for its legions of expatriates who emigrate to all corners of the world to wash dishes, cook food, and scrub the floors of Chinese restaurants. If you have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant outside of China, chances are you have consumed food prepared by a Fuzhou cook.

Estimates suggest that as many as 40% of all Chinese abroad trace their roots back to Fujian province. The vast majority of them immigrate without the proper documentation.

One of the barbers in my shop is especially interested in this topic. My first day on the job he asked me to give him an English name. I chose “Adam” because it sounded similar to his Chinese nickname.

After giving him a name and teaching him some basic English greetings at his request, I asked Adam why he was so interested in learning English.

“I have several relatives who have illegally immigrated to the United States. It is my dream to one day sneak into the United States as well,” he answered.

Adam is uncharacteristically candid for a Chinese, but dreams such as are not uncommon in the City of Banyan Trees.

Like most of Fuzhou’s illegal immigrant population, Adam is not from Fuzhou city proper, but rather from a surrounding town about two hours away. It is in these small, coastal towns where locals have traditionally looked abroad to achieve their fortunes. My first year in China was spent in one of these towns.

Fuqing is a one hour bus ride away from Fuzhou, and is not a desirable city to live in by Chinese standards. It is small, has poor public infrastructure, and few job opportunities for people with college degrees. Yet, on a casual walk through Fuqing, one will see young women wearing designer clothes, old couples living in 5 storey mansions, and men with long fingernails and hairy moles driving BMW’s. Another suspicious characteristic of Fuqing, is the seemingly low number of people in their 20’s and 30’s.

In the words of my friend Xiao He who grew up in Fuqing “There are two options for young people in Fuqing. If you can make it into college, you can get a good job and move to a bigger city. If you don’t get into college, you just sneak into Japan to work for 5 or 10 years” According to Xiao He, of his 41 high school classmates, 11 of them are currently working in Japan, all illegally.

Each little town outside Fuzhou has a corresponding country in which its locals have existing connections and tend to immigrate to. While Fuqing’s expatriates can be found mostly in the kitchens of Tokyo’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinese restaurants are mostly staffed by immigrants from Lianjiang and Changle, two other small towns just outside of Fuzhou.

The reason people go abroad is simple…money. Most of them spend their entire time working (often up to 13 hours a day), have meals and housing provided by their employer, and rarely go out or spend any money. This lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of barbershop employees in China.

After I initially figured out the hourly salaries of the little brothers and sisters in the barber shop, Adam asked me to calculate what he would be making had he been working in the United States rather than China.

Using the minimum wage of my home state of Missouri ($6.50 per hour) the same schedule as worked by Chinese barber shop employees would net $23,000 per year (before taxes which likely aren’t paid anyway). In China that comes to around 14,500 RMB per month, a salary which easily catapult a worker into the Fuzhou upper class. Looking at these figures, it’s not hard to understand why there is such a draw towards illegal immigration.

This is exactly what Adam and many other Fuzhou people are thinking when they look for opportunities to go abroad. Either way, he will be working 70 hours a week and living in cramped living quarters. It’s just a matter of whether he will be making 50 cents an hour or $6.50.

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