Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Snakehead, by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden Keefe

In June of 1993 a decrepit tramp steamer named the Golden Venture ran aground in the dead of the night near Queens; the police officers who discovered the wreck were stunned to find over 280 Chinese immigrants being smuggled into the country leaping into the water and swarming the beach in an effort to abandon the sinking ship. With this startling opening, the book jumps back in time a bit and begins to tell the true story of the smuggling ring behind the accident and their trip to justice. This is a fascinating read and full of vivid prose; the heartbreaking descriptions of the immigrants take on a greater depth of horror when you realize this isn’t fiction, but actually happened: “It was a primordial scene—an outtake from a zombie movie—as hordes of men and women, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, walked out of the sea. ... There they collapsed, vomiting saltwater, their bodies shaking, they faces slightly purple from exposure. ... They were dressed only in their underwear, and ... they looked like "something from a concentration camp." They were all angles, bones and ribs, not a finger-and-thumb’s worth of body fat between them.”

Keefe does an excellent job of explaining how the smuggling ring worked worldwide, intermixing the stories of the ringleaders, the FBI investigation, and the Golden Venture and its passengers. I was surprised at how complicated the human-trafficking operation was, and how willing the people trying to get to America were to enter the scheme. Many, even after enduring the indignities of being treated like cattle and then forced into a form of indentured servitude, would send for their families via this same illegal channel. “Even an illegal existence in the United States was better than a legal existence anywhere else.”

That said, the one viewpoint that seems to be missing is that of the immigrants themselves. What happens to the group after being rescued is covered, but very little of the journey itself. Sean Chen is the closest we get, but his story largely starts when he is detained after the wreck and his path through INS seeking asylum. Regardless, for anyone interested in either true-crime or the sad state of our immigration laws will find this book difficult to set down.

First Sentence:
The ship made land at last a hundred yards off the Rockaway Peninsula, a slender, skeletal finger of sand that forms a kind of barrier between the southern reaches of Brooklyn and Queens and the angry waters of the Atlantic.

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