Friday, July 10, 2009

Patrick Keefe's "The Snakehead"

Reading Patrick Keefe's superb Sister Ping book, "The Snakehead," reminded me of how artful prose can tell a story with a descriptive depth and level of complexity that a mere film can never acheive.

It was a once in a lifetime experience to read a book that recounted a story that I thought I already knew everything about. After all, I spent 10 years making "Golden Venture," a documentary on much the same subject. Turns out there was a lot I didn't know that amazed me, and much of what I already knew, in the retelling, took on new power.

"The Snakehead" chronicles the rise and demise of Sister Ping, the Susan Boyle of international crime. Cheng Chui Ping appeared to be a frumpy grandma behind the counter of a discount store on E. Broadway, but was in fact the Godmother of Chinatown, the mastermind of a multi, multi million dollar business that profited from the transport of undocumented immigrants from China's Fujian Province.

Ping was actually a side player in the story of the Golden Venture, the freighter that ran aground off New York City in 1993 with 285 undocumented Chinese immigrants aboard. Only two of her clients were on the boat. Ping did, however, provide a loan to Ah Kay, the Fuk Ching gang leader who ran a profitable co-venture with Ping involving the off shore pick up off immigrants for delivery on shore. This loan was used to buy a decrepit tramp steamer in Singapore, the ship the eventually was renamed Golden Venture.

But for the New York media in particular, Sister Ping was the Dragon Lady behind the Golden Venture disaster. The Hong Kong police finally apprehended her in 2000, she was extradited to the US and put on trial in a NY federal court five years later, and sent to federal prison for 35 years. The great irony of the New York media muck fest during the Sister Ping trial is that the community she was accused of exploiting -- the new wave of Fujianese immigrants in Chinatown -- largely viewed her as a folk hero.

"The Snakehead" intertwines the tale of the Golden Venture with the story Sister Ping. The Golden Venture strand begins with the night of the grounding, then drops back to where it began, in Fujian Province and the immigrants who paid $35,000 each for passage to America. Sister Ping's story begins as news of the grounding reaches Ping, and then backtracks to the Sister Ping's early career and advances through Golden Venture and into the criminal investigation that led to her arrest.

Keefe's previous book, "Chatter," penetrated the world of electronic intelligence gathering, and Patrick writes particularly well when his characters are INS agents, cops and figures in the Asian underworld. The pulp in the book -- and I mean that as a compliment -- maintains high entertainment value, providing enough chuckles to make for a straight-through good read.

I first met Patrick when I was at the end of making "Golden Venture" and he was at the beginning of researching the New Yorker article that turned into the book. It was quite thrilling to encounter another human being who showed an interest in a topic I'd lived with for so long. I remember when he came to my old office on W. 72nd St. I felt like an obsessed stamp collector, who had spent years steaming envelopes with stamps from Andorra, suddenly given an opportunity to share my philatelic minutiae with another interested party.

"Golden Venture" the documentary told only the most abbreviated version of the Snakeheads behind the voyage. Sister Ping's trial and conviction took place just as we were completing post production. Tim Robbins, who was kind enough to do our narration, came into the studio for a few minutes to record the Sister Ping voice over we needed before we could lock picture.

I had always been ambivalent about the criminal aspect of the Golden Venture story. Beverly Church -- Golden Venture advocate and dear friend -- was always protective of her "Golden Venture boys" and was highly defensive about any media types who wanted to come in, interview Golden Venture passengers, and then focus on Snakeheads torturing immigrants with hot forks.

I agreed with Bev. What's more, most of the stories about teenage gangsters extorting monthly payments from immigrants working as indentured laborers in Chinatown sweat shops distorted the true nature of Fujianese immigration. In reality, Fujianese raise the money to pay the Snakeheads (the cost of passage more recently has been reported at about $70,000) by taking loans from extended family members. Most slip into America, find jobs in Chinese restaurants, work tirelessly for four or five years to pay off their loans, and then go into business for themselves.

But it's pretty hard to resist a story that has figures in it with names like "The Fat Man" and narrative strands like the Goldfish Case, which involved heroin stuffed into the bellies of dead ornamental goldfish

More on Keefe's terrific book in next week's "Open Border Central!"

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