“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.


  1. JB United States said,

    July 29, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    This sounds really great, and living in NYC Chinatown with lots of Fuzhounese friends, I definitely have to pick it up.

  2. Anqi Dai United States said,

    August 2, 2009 at 1:24 am

    I just asked someone in Lucky Dragon the cost to get here from China. He told me $80,000. Only 4 years ago the cost was $60,000.
    Kansas City

  3. Xuexiansheng United States said,

    August 6, 2009 at 8:14 pm


    I enjoy reading your blog, keep up the great work! I happened to catch an NPR interview of the author this afternoon, here’s a link if anyone is interested:


  4. Ben Rosen United States said,

    October 19, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Ben –

    I stumbled upon your blog after reading The Snakehead when I was looking for more information. I was intrigued by your posts (and the realization that, hey I know this guy). I was especially intrigued by your stories of the barbershop. It reminds me of a Chinese version of “The Office”. I imagine I will run into you at a random “sibling” event sometime in KC. Keep posting.

  5. Edna Zhou United States said,

    January 28, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Hey, you know my dad was actually one of the key leaders of the Golden Vision, the group of people who worked to release the Chinese immigrants? I remember as a child going to the York County Prison nearly every weekend for our weekly vigils; when Harry Wu was released I got to hand him a celebratory bouquet! Really unique experience to be raised in. We all still keep in touch and frequently get together to reminisce about the GV days.
    Some of the Chinese that were released have done pretty well for themselves since, a few remain good family friends and one even runs a Chinese/Spanish grocery in downtown York after living in Venezuela for a few years! He just got a front page article in the paper last month, wish I could find the link now… anyway. If you’re ever in southern PA, you should pop by!

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