The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe

Fujian ( 福 建) Province:

There is not much arable land in Fujian Province in China. It is mostly mountains and the coast. Its coast is opposite Taiwan. Fujianese are also called Fukienese. Many Fukinese have gone abroad for opportunity. 

Little Fuzhou:

In the 1980s New York’s Chinatown, traditionally Cantonese, became more Fukinese. Men emigrated from Fukien Province first, then sent for their wives and children after they had established themselves in the United States. The New York City Fukinese settled in their own enclave, Little Fuzhou, in east Chinatown, where they could speak their own dialect. The Cantonese looked down on the new Fujianese immigrants. In Chatham Square in Little Fuzhou there is a statue of the Fujianese hero, Lin Zexu, who opposed the British during the Opium Wars. 

New York Chinatown Gangs:

Before the Fujianese arrived in New York, there were the traditional Cantonese Tongs. The word tong ( 堂) means meeting hall. The tongs started out as benevolent associations to help immigrants. But they developed a dark side, involving heroin, prostitution, protection and gambling. Reading about the Chinese, I often come across the prominence of gambling. There must be something about the Chinese character that draws them to gambling. Perhaps it is their love of money, or their lack of belief in a deity that controls everything that happens, so some things are left to chance. The two main New York Cantonese tongs were the Hip Sing (協 勝) and the On Leong (安 良). Benny Ong (Uncle Seven) directed the Hip Sing tong and its Flying Dragons gang. The main rival of the Hip Sing was the On Leong, with headquarters on Mott Street in Chinatown, and which was affiliated with the Ghost Shadows street gang. During the 1990s, Ah Kay (Guo Liang Chi) was the leader of the Fujianese Fuk Ching gang in New York City’s Chinatown. He started with extracting protection money from Chinese restaurants, and later got involved with immigrant smuggling. 

Chinese Immigrant Smuggling

The immigrants smuggled into the United States were not indentured servants. They did not spend years working off their debt to their smugglers. Instead, they spend years working off their debt to their families already here. The family members already here paid the smuggler within a few days of the arrival of the new family member. Canada had more open immigration policy during the time that U.S. policy was more restrictive. Many Chinese go first to Canada and then sneak across the border to the United States. Human smuggling became attractive to organized crime, due to short jail terms if caught. After the Tiananmen Square confrontation of June 1989, the United States government became more sympathetic to Chinese immigration and Chinese activists seeking asylum. Ah Kay was able to stay in the United States, because he claimed a connection to the pro-democracy movement in China. After the 1986 U.S. immigration act, the Chinese underworld made money providing backdated documents for illegal immigrants to prove that they had been in the country for awhile already. For example: pay stubs, employment records, leases, bills. Chinese were smuggled not only across the Pacific Ocean to California and Mexico, but also across the Indian Ocean, around Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean to the East Coast of North America. There were many way stations, including Bangkok, Thailand. The fact that there are Overseas Chinese and Chinatowns throughout the word facilitates their travel. Sister Ping (Cheng Chui Ping) was one of the main snakeheads during the 1990s. She was involved not only in the human smuggling business, but also money transfers. She charged only 3%, which was less than what the banks charged. She had a reputation for reliability in the smuggling of Fujianese immigrants. 

Golden Venture:

Ah Kay and his Fuk Ching gang handled the transport of the Chinese immigrants from a snakehead’s ocean-going vessel sitting in international water to the land using smaller fishing boats. Sister Ping used Ah Kay’s people and their boats for her offloading. The main case discussed in this book is the Golden Venture. The immigrants started in Fujian Province of China, stopped over in Bangkok, Thailand, then took the ship Najd II under the control of the Fujianese snakehead Weng Yu Hui. The ship made it as far as Mombasa, Kenya. The people transferred to another ship, the Golden Venture, to make it around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic to New York. When the Golden Venture arrived in New York, Ah Kay was in hiding from a rival gang, so there was no one to do the offloading. Instead, the Golden Venture was run aground on New York’s Rockaway Beach. The book tells the story of what happened to the immigrants after they arrived, and how law enforcement handled the smugglers.