Imagine this journey: Fuzhou-Hong Kong-Bangkok-Moscow-Havana-Managua-Tuscon. Or this: Fuzhou-Hong Kong-Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore-Dubai-Frankfurt-Washingon.
These aren’t round-the-world leisure trips, but the dangerous routes orchestrated by snakeheads to bring illegal immigrants from Fujian province in China to the US.
At US$30,000 a head.
Snakehead is the term for human trafficker–the brains behind the multinational network of customs officials, military officials, organized crime, and airline officials.
Last week I read The Snakehead (Doubleday, 2009), Patrick Radden Keefe’s thrilling account of this multi-billion dollar industry.
The book centers around a short, middle-aged mother of four. Sister Ping legally immigrates to the US in 1981 as a domestic helper, but never works in that trade. Instead, she becomes the world’s leading snakehead. Her husband, sister, brother, and children all join the family business in some capacity or other.
But this story is so suspenseful, I plowed through The Snakehead‘s 300+ pages in three days.
A strong substory involves a group of Fujianese men and women who trek across China, sneak over the Burmese border, congregate in Bangkok, only to be brought down to Pattaya, the booming sex-industry hub of Thailand. There they board the Najd II, a Saudi ship that flies a Panamanian flag. When the Najd II arrives in Mombasa, Kenya, it’s on its last legs. The captain jumps ship and abandons the passengers.
So Sister Ping arranges for some Fuk Ching gangsters to buy a boat with a Taiwanese snakehead and continue the voyage to the US. Some of the Fujianese passengers remain in Kenya, but most are determined to reach New York.
In Singapore, the Taiwanese snakehead buys the Tong Sern, an old cargo boat that’d been used to transport goods between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Registered in Panama, it’d never made a trip across the Atlantic. Once at sea, the new crew rechristens the Tong Sern into the Golden Venture, lowering the Panamanian flag and raising one from Honduras. And thus the Tong Sern disappears forever.
There’s so much going on in this book, I won’t spoil more. It’s quite amazing to me that the peak of human smuggling between China and the US occurred between 1988 and 1993, the very years I first started traveling to China and Southeast Asia.
A companion novel to The Snakehead is Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010), a semi-autobiographical novel about Chinese sweatshop workers in New York.
I also loved the film, Combination Platter (1993), about illegal Chinese restaurant workers in Queens.
And later this summer I look forward to reading Chris Thrall’s Hong Kong triad/drug memoir, Eating Smoke (Blacksmith Books, forthcoming). Thrall leaves the British Royal Marines to find his fortune in Hong Kong. Instead, he finds himself addicted to crystal meth and working for Hong Kong’s largest organized crime family. (We lived in Hong Kong at the same time, so I’m anxious to read about his experience there!)