The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream Review

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
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The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream ReviewWhen then-president Jimmy Carter reproached Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping with the latter's reluctance to allow his citizens the 'freedom of departure' from China, the latter famously responded, "Certainly, Mr. Carter. How many millions would you like?"
This excellent book is the story of how untold thousands -- and possibly millions -- of Chinese migrants, particularly from the rural coastal areas of Fujian province, have made their way from China to the United States, despite the fact that it's still hard for them to get official permission to leave and still harder for them to enter the United States legally than it once was. The starting point for the narrative and the discussion of the underlying issues is the misadventures of the passengers on the Golden Venture, which ran aground on a spur of land on Rockaway Beach in New York City, which drew everyone's attention to the magnitude of the illicit business of smuggling humans. Ten died; 300 landed or were rescued by local law enforcement -- people who up until then had had so little cause to use their handcuffs that they had to oil them to prevent them from rusting. Now they ran out of handcuffs when the decision was made to arrest the new arrivals.
On the surface, the story that Keefe is telling is that of Sister Ping, the snakehead (or people-smuggler) of the title, who had helped finance the Golden Venture's voyage and who was owed smuggling fees by two of the hapless passengers. She's essentially a boring character -- a middle-aged, unremarkable woman with a single-minded focus on making money the best way she knows how. But the business she selects is anything but boring, and it makes Sister Ping a heroine in her Fujianese hometown, for her role in scooping up peasants from the Chinese countryside and magically transporting them to the streets of lower Manhattan, where -- after repaying her $18,000 fee -- they can set about carving out new and more prosperous lives for their children, working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Sister Ping, as Keefe points out, isn't a morally complicated person -- she has a 'reckless devotion to the economies of scale'. But the issues that lie behind her action -- and the broader issue of migration, poverty and economic opportunity, at the end of the 20th century are about as morally complicated as issues can become these days, particularly in the United States, which was founded as a nation of immigrants, whose people cherish not only their own motley backgrounds but also the ideal of a society that is open and welcoming.
Keefe does an excellent job of laying out for the reader the tug of wars between ideals and pragmatism in immigration policy, as seen in the case of the Golden Venture passengers and that of immigration from China more broadly. He moves between the general and the specific, the conceptual and the anecdotal, with enviable agility, making this book not only fascinating but a pleasure to read. He himself is clearly torn. On the one hand, he feels empathy for the Golden Venture's passengers, who have spent twice as long reaching America on a horrific voyage as did the passengers of the Mayflower in their 17th century trip via sailing ship. The passengers arrived with rashes due to showering weekly with saltwater; rations on the long trip were so poor that one man had a bowel movement only once a week. "At times, the journey seemed so harrowingly unforgiving, so calculated to test and break the spirit and enduracne of the passengers on board, that the Golden Venture took on the aspect of ... an aimlessly floating madhouse." But Keefe is also keenly aware of the dilemma of INS officials, most of whom are all too aware that they hold the power of life and death over asylum seekers. If they fail to identify a well-founded fear of persecution, the asylum claimant can end up imprisoned or dead on their deportation. And their task isn't easy -- a limp handshake, a garbled timeline, a failure to meet the eyes of their questioner, can send even those with a solid case back to the country they fled. Keefe shows how that affected the Golden Venture's passengers.
This is a remarkably good book in that it helps make sense of the complex issues surrounding both the concept of migration and immigration laws, bringing together the violent and chaotic world of the smugglers and their 'clients' with the policymakers and law enforcement personnel who must try to impose some kind of order on that chaos. Keefe also does an excellent job of capturing the experience of the participants in this human smuggling chain at each stage along the way, from the beaches near Bangkok in Thailand, to the police in upstate New York trying to crack down on smuggling across the Niagara River. Above all, he has a deep understanding for what it is that drives migrants like Chung Sing Chau -- now known as Sean Chen -- to make this arduous trip, and how both the trip and their experiences transform them. "Like generations of foreign people with foreign names from all over the world who had peopled this country and made it what it was, Sean Chen had become, unmistakably and irreversibly, American."
I'm rating this 4.5 stars and rounding down only because of the relatively skimpy attention paid to the long and troubled history of Chinese immigrants in time, and their later experiences assimilating. It would have been fascinating -- and, I think, within the scope of the book -- to have juxtaposed the experiences of the descendants of those earlier arrivals with those of the Golden Venture passengers in a more explicit manner. Also, while the Fujianese community has been a prime mover in global people smuggling (of the economic variant, rather than the forced prostitutes, child slaves, etc), a glimpse of how this fits into the bigger picture of the overall immigration debate would have been helpful. For instance, I find it hard to believe that the furor surrounding the illegal immigrants of Latin American origin slipping across the Mexican border has not had an impact on immigration policy that has affected those coming from further afield, such as Chinese.
What this book did contain, however, was a solid and dramatic narrative of the struggles of a particular community trying to better their economic and social fate by taking the same kinds of risks our ancestors took to reach the United States -- but in a different century and with different results. If you're interested in the experiences of the asylum seekers and the INS officers who have to make the Solomon-like judgment of whether their claims of persecution are just or invented, I'd urge you to take a look at an excellent (although pre-9/11) documentary film, Well-Founded Fear. It puts some faces behind the kind of stories that Keefe tells in this book.The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream Overview

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