Top positive review
Heavy read worth reading
Reviewed in the United States on March 30, 2021
Review of The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe
I do not often choose to read nonfiction but when I came across The Snakehead I felt compelled.
In the 1990s, I worked for the public library system in York, PA. One of the volunteers I knew there was involved with a group of inmates at the York County Prison. These inmates were detainees from the Golden Venture, which had run aground on Rockaway Beach in New York City in 1993.
Although there was a lot of coverage about this group in the local news, I do not recall spending a lot of time reading about them. I do remember that they created some spectacular artwork by folding paper into intricate figures, including ships, birds, and dragons, to pass their time in prison. What I had forgotten was that the reason they were on that ship, and the reason they came to New York City in that way, was to enter the United States illegally.
I am not sure how to clear any of them were about the illegal part, but they had been told, and expected, that they would likely be detained briefly in New York City's jails and then released on their own recognizance. Once released, they would melt into the bustling Chinatown area and likely never be sought, or found, for further charges. They would become part of the neighborhood. They would find a job and do their work and live with others doing the same thing. They would save their money and send it back to China to enable other family members to board another ship and come to the United States, just as they had.
A trip to York County was not in their plans. It effectively kept them from disappearing into a community and avoiding legal charges.
A snakehead is a person who organizes these voyages. The trips are not direct. They are exceedingly dangerous. Ships are overloaded. The passengers go from port to port, often changing ships and changing their names – and owners change ships' names! – making traceability difficult at best. But a group of determined immigration officials made it their business to find out what they could and try to stop as much of this human trafficking as they could.
Patrick Keefe has written a fascinating and well-researched account of what happened with the Golden Venture and why. But he also looks into the history of how the United States has handled this issue over the years.
Many of the people charged in the Golden Venture debacle were involved in other, similar schemes. Mr. Keefe anchors the book with Sister Ping, the snakehead who assisted many passengers on the Golden Venture. At the time, she was one of the most successful snakeheads in the business. He writes about her early life, how she got into human trafficking, and how and why she became successful. Keefe also writes about the passengers and what happened to some of them. He describes some of the people who worked for her, with her, and against her. Sometimes one person took all three approaches.
America is said to be built by its immigrants. The Snakehead is a story about immigration with deep roots and sticky questions for us to examine. And as we see in the news every day, immigration is a story that continues to unfold and becomes even harder to assess and control. The Snakehead helps to enlighten the reader about the snags and difficulties encompassed by clashing perspectives on what it is to be involved in human trafficking and immigrate to a new country.
For those of you who are looking for a light read, you should look elsewhere. It was a slow but worthwhile read that requires close attention.