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Chinatown And Human Smuggling


June 6, 1993, on the shore of Long Island — an amazing, terrible spectacle. A leaky tramp freighter, The Golden Venture, run aground in pummeling midnight seas.

It had come from halfway round the world, by way of Africa, with a hold full of would-be illegal Chinese immigrants. Half-starved, disoriented, tumbling out in the surf. Some drowning.

They were just part of a huge trade, run out of New York’s Chinatown, smuggling humans into America. “Snakeheads,” the smugglers were called.

This hour, On Point: The snakeheads, underground Chinatown, and a wild chapter in pursuit of the American dream.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


We’re joined in our studio by Patrick Radden Keefe.  He has written for The New Yorker, Slate, The New York Times, and many other publications, and he is a fellow at the Century Foundation.  His new book is “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.”

Read the first chapter of “The Snakehead” (pdf).

More links:

Patrick has been discussing the book in an extended online exchange with sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh at Slate.

The book’s website offers notes on the key characters, maps of the Golden Venture’s voyage and the Chinatown neighborhood, and links.

Here’s a video trailer showing Chinatown’s streets and the restaurant run by Sister Ping:

In an On Point blog post, Tom Ashbrook recalls his days on the “snakehead” beat as a rooking reporter in Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post.

Also check out WBUR’s “Inside Out” documentary “Snakeheads and Slavery.”

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  • Peili Zhang

    Hi Tom,

    being a long-time fan of On Point, I appreciate your taking the time to dig into the human smuggling in chinatown, which is one of the most well known and most talked-about aspects of the Chinese immigrants in the US.

    however, in the recent 2 to 3 decades, there’s another growing chinese population in American societies that’s composed of legal and well-educated chinese professionals, seeking to fulfill their American dreams by working hard and making contributions to America.

    I moved to the US in 1990 for my graduate education, obtained my Ph.D. at Harvard, and am currently a research scientist in the bio-pharmaceutical industry. there’re probably tens or even hundreds of thousands of such chinese people in the US. I hope the ‘new’ chinese immigrants can be featured more so that the word ‘chinese’ is not just associated with chinatown and chinese restaurants although who doesn’t love chinese food :)

    all the best,

  • Mari McAvenia

    A very eye opening segment.

    In Quincy, MA, where I live, there has been an explosion of the native Chinese population over the past 10 to 15 years. North Quincy is now known to many as “East Chinatown”.

    I have often wondered how my Chinese neighbors got here in such numbers, so rapidly, but don’t dare to ask. I don’t think that they would want to answer my probing questions, either.

    Thanks for satisfying a bit of my curiosity.

  • Than Shwe

    The bookcover shows a silouhette of a snake… but actually the “snakehead” is a fish… check the chinese character…

  • HapKlein

    I am over seventy years old and have enjoyed America despite its faults and because I recognize its excellencies. I survived poverty and hunger as a youth and by my energy and wit managed to have an enjoyable life.

    But I have always been embarrassed by three American consequences of history.

    The first is the absolute destructive instinct of america to its native people, Long before Bended knee and the jailing of innocent Native Americans by the Federal Government I was familiar with conditions on tribal lands and thought I witnessed the destruction of a noble folk.

    Then we have the absolute corruption of slavery and and the de-humanization of African Americans to the extent they are still not a part of our society and shame. shame shame on everyone for this.

    But the treatment of all orientals in America escapes all despicable conduct by any nation or society anywhere. They were imported as cheap labor then denied access to the laws of the land. After Pearl Harbor good decent American citizens were rounde up and placed in camps distant from their homes and stripped of all rights.

    Sadly the sons of many of these deprived Americans joined the military and served with extreme distinction.

    As a nation we should be ashamed of our conduct and admit our continuing inability to cope with the promise of equality. Until we live up to our hypocrisy we fail our tenets in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,

  • Maria

    Oh, no!! What happened at the end?? The show is cut off at minute 30. Please fix this so I can find out the end of the story!

  • JH

    Hi Tom, it was a huge surprise to hear a show on the “snakeheads”. And I feel compelled to share my family’s story. My grandfather came decades ago and settled in NYC Chinatown back when there were few Fujianese in the US. Then he brought some of his children. In the 80s, sister Ping apparently helped my aunts and uncles to make phone calls to my mother who at the time remained in China. Yet at the same time they also paid hefty “protection fees” monthly to different gangs. After a generation’s struggle and sacrifice, my cousins and I all had advanced degrees from top American universities. But my parents, aunts and uncles kept reminding me to conceal our Fujianese origin, which I usually manage successfully, except whenever I fly back from a foreign trip, the custom officer at the airport always detain me for extra minutes to ask extra questions (e.g. “who did you marry to come here” to an 18-year-old ivy league college freshman), as if determined to prove that I was illegal. Older people in my family are convinced that it’s because of our Fujianese origin, which the custom officers can see in their computer…Again, thanks for presenting this fascinating subject to a broader audience, and giving me an opportunity to reflect on our family’s past.

  • raul

    Tom I know is not your fault I don’t even blame who ideas was to bring this program to the air, if maria is right and the show cut off before ending I am glad I left when my fellow american caller, the ex agent, was saying what a petty and smile at the same time, this book is a nothing but another exploitation of illegals shame.

  • Tim

    Great show! The story is fascinating. I look forward to reading the book.

  • marc

    It seems to me that there is no difference between New York restaurants and garment factories that want cheap third world labor and the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both use unscrupulous labor traffickers who cheat and lie to disparately poor third world peasants. On second thought I guess there is a difference, the lies that got the peasant to Iraq or Afghanistan can get them maimed or killed.

  • Elizabeth

    What I take away from this story: floods of immigrants are the natural, inevitable and completely justifiable result of the American refusal to address comprehensive human rights — economic as well as legal and social — in other countries. Our kleptocrats on Wall Street and in Congress have taken our jobs away twice — once when they closed our factories, and again when they opened them overseas in ways that inspire large numbers to try to do better here.

  • Mike

    The Corruptor 1999 New Line Productions Inc. – Chow Yun-Fat, Mark Walkberg. (Fiction, but entertaining and relavent).

  • millard_fillmore

    Good point! I wonder why the book cover features a snake, and whether the publishers were fooled, or just decided that a snake would be more appropriate than the fish.

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