Thursday, June 6, 2013

Golden Venture, 20 Years Later

Local coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the Golden Venture grounding shows that the story still resonates.   Newsday (subscription required!) has run a couple of stories and the York (PA) Daily Record also published a number of retrospectives.  Patrick Keefe, author of the book about Sister Ping and the Golden Venture, Snakehead, blogs in the New Yorker.

Photojournalist Katja Heinemann has done a particularly excellent job marking the date with a photo essay and also a Storify page that will take you to all of the Golden Venture stories mentioned above and more.

June 7 update: StoryCorp, the superb oral history project that also airs on NPR, did a conversation between a former York prison detainee and  the local York man who was his translator.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Approaching the Golden Venture 20th Anniversary

June 6 will mark the 20th anniversary of the grounding of the Golden Venture.  I've been in touch with supporters of the Golden Venture former detainees over the past several months, in anticipation of the upcoming landmark date.   Although there has been some talk about a commemorative event or an organized effort at political lobbying on behalf of the former detainees who still do not have legal status, as of today I don't know if anything has really been planned.

According to Bev Church, there are still 20 men from the ship who were released from federal detention in the York County Jail in 1997 who have not been able to obtain legal status.   Bev is still active on their behalf: her main focus has been to stay in touch with members of Congress about the issue, and to make sure that the "private bill" that would award status to the 20 is reintroduced in each Congressional session. 

Bev is tireless in her work, and is now talking about the hope of getting support from Marco Rubio.

It's gratifying that this anniversary comes at a time when America seems to be coming to its senses on the immigration issue.   There's now a decent chance that comprehensive immigration reform can make it through Congress (thanks to the Latino vote and the scare it's giving to the Republican Party).

I've been hearing from the press.   At least one major New York daily is working on a story.   The World Journal visited me and my wife Zhihong up here in Yonkers, and just ran a nice story:   Zhihong was my translator when we made the documentary "Golden Venture" in 2006!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Golden Vision to Reunite For June 9 Vigil

On Sunday, June 9 at 4 p.m.,  across from the York County Prison,  the grassroots inter-faith group, The People of the Golden Vision, will once again gather to remember the struggle for freedom and justice.  The vigil is open to everyone.   There will be a recreation of the vigils held each Sunday.  Facilitators of the service include attorney Jeff Lobach, then President of the York County Bar Assoc., who will give a brief history of the Golden Venture passengers;  Joan Maruskin, United Methodist minister, who will lead the vigil, Byron Borger, Hearts and Minds Bookstore owner, who will preach; Mary Weaver, Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center Executive Director, who will give an update on the asylum seekers, and Rod Merrill, Golden Venture troubadour, who wrote a new song every week for 3.5 years to tell the plight of the asylum seekers. 
The public is invited to join the People for the Golden Vision for the 20th anniversary vigil.  For more information, please contact Joan M. Maruskin at or 202 203-0676

Monday, April 1, 2013

Golden Venture: At Your Local (Chinatown) Pay Phone

I was happy to be a part of the New Museum's exhibit, Recalling 1993.  They called me and asked me if I could record a one minute recollection about the Golden Venture.   They put the soundbyte into an audio databank -- and anyone who calls 1-855-FOR-1993 from a pay phone in the  Chinatown area gets to hear my recording!
Had no idea there were any payphone left.   Very cool.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Exhibiting at Museum of Chinese in America

Thrilled to report that "Golden Venture" will be playing at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), 211 Centre St. in downtown Manhattan. Excerpts from the film will run continuously as part of an exhibit that opens in time for the Independence Day. The exhibit will be there for several months.

MOCA has been involved in the Golden Venture story from the beginning -- their early exhibit of the artwork made by the GV detainees in prison played an important role in obtaining release for many of the individuals who were held for four years.

Of course this new exhibit comes against the backdrop of the recent heating up of the immigration issue, sparked in large part by Arizona's xenophobic new anti-immigrant legislation. And with health care reform and financial reform now off the front burner in Washington, there's talk that immigration reform may come next. Hard to believe any progress can be made in the poisonous political environment that exists before the midterm elections.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Back to York: A New Call for Action

About two dozen Golden Venture passengers returned to York yesterday, making their presence quietly known at a book event hosted by the York Historical Society. Michael Chen, long the chief spokesman for the passengers, made an emotional plea for support in the former-detainees' quest for permanent legal residence. He was followed at the podium by Lin Man Ying, the detainee who narrowly avoided deportation in 2004.

It's been more than 16 years since the Golden Venture ran aground and 12 years since the final group of detainees (about 50 men) was released from jail on "parole." Advocate Beverly Church has found a way to protect the detainees from deportation -- a "private bill" that has been pending in Congress for years.

The political wheel in Washington has finally turned. The Democrats are now back in power -- just as they were when the ship ran aground in June, 1993. And it is now incumbent on the new Democratic administration to make up for the mistakes made in the early Clinton era. It can be done quietly, with little political downside, but it is the administration's moral duty to grant permanent legal residence to the detainees.

The book event was designed to promote the publication of Patrick Keefe's "The Snakehead" -- Keefe spoke passionately on the Golden Venture issue and read from his excellent book, which generated brisk sales after the event as buyers -- including many of the Golden Venture passengers -- signed up for autographed copies. Byron Borger, host of the event and owner of a York book store, manned the cash register.

Keefe had pointed out during the presentation that even William Slattery, the beefy, gung ho, xenophobic INS official who proudly claimed that he was the moving force behind the detention of the immgirants has come out on the record in favor of getting the Golden Venture passengers their green cards.

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!"