2009-08-07 / Community

Snakehead' Recalls One Of Rockaway's Most Infamous Episodes

New Book Details Voyage Of The 'Golden Venture' A Wave Review
By Howard Schwach

New Book Details Voyage Of The 'Golden Venture'
A Wave Review

"Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream" tells of the voyage of the "Golden Venture," a shipload of illegal immigrants that landed on Rockaway's shoreline. "Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream" tells of the voyage of the "Golden Venture," a shipload of illegal immigrants that landed on Rockaway's shoreline. I remember it well. At about 3:30 a.m. on June 6, 1993, I got a call from a police source telling me to get out of bed and get to the beach near Fort Tilden, where hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants were running free after jumping from a tramp steamer into the ocean near Breezy Point.

I went, and found a surreal world where poorly dressed immigrants carried plastic baggies containing hundreds of dollars and a Chinatown telephone number; where several men lay dying in the surf; where dozens of men hid and dodged in and around the summer bungalows of Breezy Point, attempting to stay away from police.

I have been following the story since that time. The arrest of Sister Ping as the woman who funded and planned the round-the-world trip from China to Rockaway; the attempt of the arrested immigrants to stay in America; the story about how the scow wound up on Rockaway's shores. It was worthy of a book, and now that book has been written.

The "Golden Venture" sits on the Breezy Point shoreline. The "Golden Venture" sits on the Breezy Point shoreline. "Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream," written by Patrick Radden Keefe, opens with the Golden Venture on the Rockaway shoreline and traces its voyage back to its genesis.

It is a captivating tale about human smuggling, modern-day slavery and the lengths to which people will go in order to achieve their dreams.

The title refers to a term the Chinese use for an "immigration broker," a person who arranges for those unable to enter a country legally to do so illegally.

The Golden Venture sailed from Singapore through the Straits of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to Africa. It then rounded the Horn of Africa and plowed steadily across the Atlantic Ocean and then to New York City.

The most feared and respected Snakehead of that time was Cheng Chui Ping, better known as Sister Ping, a pudgy woman who ran a variety store in Chinatown.

She is called in the book, "The Cadillac of global human smuggling."

It would take ten years and thousands of man-hours to bring Ping to justice.

Keefe's book reads like a novel, with a cast of characters that will leave you believing that they could have never really existed. But, they did, and they shined a spotlight on Rockaway for the rest of the world to see.

To get to the bottom of the story, Keefe interviewed smugglers and cops, government informants and FBI agents, White House officials and undocumented immigrants. He journeyed to Canada, where Sister Ping's network sent customers over the Niagara River in rubber rafts; to Hong Kong and Bangkok, where corrupt officials allowed undocumented immigrants to board planes to America; to the rust belt town of York, Pennsylvania, where the Golden Venture passengers were imprisoned for four years; and to Fujian Province, China, where many villages are completely empty now - because everyone has left for America. When I went on board the Golden Venture with other reporters later that day, I was amazed and angered at how its passengers had lived for 120 days.

I hope never to see anything like that again.

The book, however, helped me put that remembrance in context and helped to explain how something like that could happen and might well happen again.

The book is published by Doubleday and is available at book stores and on the Internet.

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