Her time on the page is similarly modest. Early in his book, Keefe paints a sympathetic portrait of Sister Ping’s youth and her motivation for joining the smuggling trade, but we see much more of other shady characters – the charming, intelligent Ah Kay, who becomes Chinatown’s most feared gang leader, and his rival for power, Dan Xian Lin. We’re drawn more closely into the inner workings of FBI and immigration investigations than into Sister Ping’s own den, though the book swirls with the consequences of what happens there. Sister Ping moves in and out of Keefe’s narrative almost on the periphery, and yet she is clearly the puppet master. There are quite a few threads to keep track of in “The Snakehead,” but Keefe so completely and immediately earns the reader’s trust that one is willing to wait for each new strand to wind its way back to the puppet master.
Packaged as a book about global organized crime, Keefe’s story is as much a narrative of American politics. At every turn, Sister Ping’s work succeeds, or is thwarted, by shifting political winds that have very little to do with her own business acumen. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 paves the political path to a green card for any Chinese who arrived prior to 1981, no matter how they got here. (It doesn’t hurt Sister Ping that the cutoff date spawned a bull market in fake backdated documents. As her past customers began to send for their loved ones through her channels, Sister Ping was happy to provide the falsified documents as well.) Five years later, Sister Ping is arrested for the first time but finagles a light sentence; at the time, human smuggling wasn’t the FBI’s top priority.