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The Snakehead

An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

by Patrick Radden Keefe

The cover of this book uses the outline of a snake's body, in six tight curves, to crop a night-time photo of what I took to be NYC's Chinatown, and the story it tells is just as complicated and twisty-turny. That it's also highly readable and, in the end, tells a pretty cohesive story is to Patrick Radden Keef's credit, because I've been staring at a blank text field for a while now, trying to think of a way to summarize the book's contents and it's hard. What's making it harder is that one of the things I took away from the book was a deeper understanding of migrant labor patterns and illegal immigration into the US, and so of course I'd like to find a way to draw some connection between the things I learned from The Snakehead and the dumb-ass new law in Arizona that empowers state and local police to enforce immigration laws in the crudest and most prone-to-exploitation manner possible. Do I need to bother? People want freedom of movement, and the more I put off getting my passport renewed this year because I'm ticked off about how how I have to pay the government (too much!) money just to have permission to leave my own country, the more I think I sympathize with the people who simply cross borders by the side door. Too bad for me I prefer to travel by plane, preferably without a stopover in a detention facility on arrival.

Anyway, though this book was presented and marketed as more of a true-crime narrative than anything else, it's really a story about immigration. Specifically, Chinese immigration, and though Keefe is writing about a rather modern development in China/US immigration patterns, he takes the time to describe the history of the phenomenon, beginning with the post-Civil War labor shortage that led to active importation of 'Coolie' labor for, most notably, railroad construction. Also this: "Young Chinese men began abandoning their villages and leaving for America in droves. Two thousand arrived in 1848; four years later, 20,000 entered through the port of San Francisco alone. But for all their numbers and the vastness of the nation in which they were born, the nineteenth-century Chinese who came to the Golden Mountain originated from a remarkably small corner of China - a handful of counties on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, around the southern city of Canton [or, as it's known today, Guangzhou]. In fact, until the 1960s, most Chinese in America could trace their roots to an area roughly half the size of the state of Delaware." p. 21 Shifting attitudes toward immigrants, exacerbated by generally-crappy attitudes toward non-whites over the following century tended to result in insular self-sustaining communities of Chinese in America, though there are Chinatowns in pretty much every city in the world. (There's a great interlude about some would-be immigrants stranded in Kenya by a dead boat - when a replacement vessel arrived, most continued their journey, but some decided to stick around, as the restaurant they'd opened in Mombasa had turned into quite a success. p. 141) A big part of that insular immigrant culture was cultivated by tongs: organizations most publicly recognized for their involvement in vice and organized crime, but also civic pillars that provided welcome wagon-style assistance and commercial services to members of a community who couldn't count on, say, being able to open an account at a local bank.*

So, that's the background-background. The real background is that patterns of migration out of China changed in the 1980s, and obviously this had its own impact on the Chinese-American immigrant community. As more migrants from the Fujian province of China arrived in the US (a tenfold increase in NYC between 1960 and the mid-80s [p. 63]) the established order, vice and all, was upset, and the tongs were supplanted by turf-conscious street gangs in the more familiar mold. And that brings us to the titular snakehead,** known in her community as Sister Ping. Shop owner, underground banker and, above all, human smuggler par excellence. Keefe uses the story of a shipload of would-be migrants who ran aground off Long Island in 1993 as the frame for Sister Ping's life and work, and the larger cultural and economic trends that influenced migration patterns (including American asylum policy)*** if not, perhaps, an epic exploration of the American Dream as promised in the subtitle. Keefe also follows the paths of the ship's passengers as a group, through detention and incarceration (where one group gained some notoriety by creating papier mache sculptures that eventually landed in pretty prominent art collections) and deportation (which sometimes was only a setback in eventually successful attempts to enter the US.)

As I said, lots and lots of threads that actually form an eye-opening and enjoyable whole that made me really crave a three-dollar tofu banh mi from a little takeout place on Harrison street in Boston.

This book made it on the to-read list via the New York Times, which published two reviews, one positive, and one (by comparison, at least) negative.

* Dating back to the nineteenth century, when the Chinese in America were mainly male sojourners, the tongs oversaw the vice industries: the brothels, the opium dens, and above all the gambling parlors. These activities were just another business interest, albeit an especially lucrative one, and to stay profitable and orderly they needed to be policed with a firm hand. The tongs did this, and did it well, and for tolerating and regulating the unsavory side of the local economy, they drew substantial commissions, which they funneled back into the community. In this manner these fraternal organizations became deeply entrenched in San Francisco and New York, welcoming migrants to the United States and accruing the loyalty of generations of new arrivals. They became a dominant fact in Chinatown's political and economic landscape - the bedrock of the local civil society. And before long they had history on their side. After all, the two oldest tongs in New York, the On Leong and the Hip Sing, predated the Communist government in Beijing by half a century. When New York's tongs were first established, an emperor ruled China. (p. 58-59)
** Keefe goes into the (murky) etymology a bit, but I'm more intrigued by the notion of the Chinese Snakehead as compared to the Mexican Coyote, and whether other migrant groups have similarly totemic/talismanic terms for the people who organize human smuggling operations.
*** It was said in New York's Chinatown that some of the actual student leaders from Beijing, who had been offered asylum and prestigious fellowships at universities in the United States, would come to town from time to time to make a little money, charging would-be asylees a few hundred dollars to pose alongside them for Polaroid pictures, which could then be included in an application as proof of involvement in the democracy movement. (p. 161)
There's also a lot about the use of China's One Child policy as a justification for asylum claims (and how asylum claims got caught up in the neverending American debate about abortion) that's really fascinating.

Some miscellaneous notes:
...Tobing resurfaced off the coast of Washington State, when the Coast Guard stopped a sailboat he was skippering, which happened to contain five tons of Cambodian marijuana. "Why Smuggle Pot to NW?" the local press wondered. "Authorities Puzzled: There's Plenty. Here." (p. 206)
Toward the end of the 1990s, local entrepreneurs in Chinatown, many of them Fujianese, were beginning to realize that the labor market in Chinese restaurants in Boston and New York was very fluid - that demand seemed to fluctuate not just seasonally but weekly, and owners could never predict in advance how many people they would need to wait on tables or fire the woks. Soon a no-frills passenger van service was shuttling restaurant workers from New York to Boston and back again for a few dollars each way, allowing undocumented busboys and dishwashers to save on the cost of a ticket and avoid having to navigate their way from Port Authority or South Station to their ultimate destination. The Chinatown bus, as it came to be called, formed a direct transit link from one Chinatown to the other, from the ornamental arch on Harrison avenue in Boston to Confucius Plaza or the foot of the Manhattan Bridge.
The Fujianese are great imitators of business ideas that seem to work, and before long there were multiple Chinese-owned minivans tearing along the highways between New York and Boston, and new routes were devised to the Chinatowns in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. The proprietors invested in full-sized air-conditioned coaches and gave their companies names like Fung Wah Transport Vans, New Century, Dragon Coach, and TravelPack. A price war between several of the companies drove the cost of a ticket lower and lower, until even on the larger buses, the one-way fare to Boston was a mere $10 - a 200-mile journey for the price of a cross-town cab. As word spread of the cheap new bus route that managed so dramatically to undercut Greyhoud and Peter Pan, college kids began entering Chinatown and queuing up with their Walkmen and backpacks to join the restaurant workers for the trip...Eventually mighty Greyhound was obliged to slash its prices on routes where it was competing with the Chinatown bus. (p. 264-265)



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