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The Snakehead

Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe follows the story of the boss of a human smuggling ring.

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In some sense, The Snakehead was a book just waiting for Patrick Radden Keefe. Newspapers had investigated his central character and the courts had prosecuted her. Both left great paper trails for any patient and painstaking journalist. With hundreds of personal interviews and travel to three continents, Keefe has turned what could have been simply a compelling crime thriller into a masterwork of narrative nonfiction.

The book’s title comes from the nickname given to the boss in a human smuggling ring, and its story begins on the shores of Queens’ Rockaway Beach, where a ship named the Golden Venture runs aground. The landing is the central event holding together a series of tales as circuitous as the illegal immigrants’ journey to America. With decisive skill, Keefe weaves these stories into a single narrative of Chinatown’s smuggling operations – and a singularly American story of the immigrant’s search for wealth and freedom.

Keefe’s central character is Cheng Chui Ping, better known as Sister Ping, a linchpin in the human smuggling ring that may have brought as many as a million Chinese to the US in the 1980s and ’90s. She came here on such a journey herself, just as thousands in her Fujian Province began to view years of dishwashing in America as their best economic hope. Sister Ping controls the narrative as she did the underworld – virtually in absentia. Determined to keep herself out of the public eye, she confined her lavish spending to foreign countries. Her unrivaled reputation among the Fujianese was the only publicity she welcomed.

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