BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

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

Snake HeadThat the book opens with a three-page list of characters seems a bit daunting … how in the world would my little brain keep track of so many names and descriptions? But Patrick Radden Keefe knows how to tell one heck of a story and this is one of those fast-paced, heart-thumping adventures you can’t put down. That it’s all true – Keefe has over 50-pages of blinding-size font at title’s end documenting everything – makes the book that much more potent.

Keefe captures the ultimate story of the American Dream by exploring the mind-boggling events that led to the tragedy of the Golden Venture, a leaky vessel carrying some 300 undocumented Chinese aliens that crashed on the shores of Rockaway Beach off new York’s Long Island in June 1993. The survivors were made an example by the U.S. government to prove that illegals would not be tolerated – regardless of the horrific persecution and punishment some were fleeing. Those who were not immediately deported spent lingering years in jail. Only tenacious public outcry and a Presidential pardon finally released them from prison, but many entered American life with a nebulous status that still does not allow them full rights as legal immigrants.

As newsworthy as the event was, the Golden Venture fiasco was a mere blip in the long history of desperate Chinese immigrants who arrived on U.S. shores any way possible. Keefe is surprisingly sensitive and knowledgeable of Chinese American history – the Chinese being one of the oldest ethnic groups in the U.S. – highlighting the too-many times that Chinese immigration has suffered within the U.S. legal system: “Whether through some accident of history or because of the industriousness with which they have answered America’s siren call, or perhaps because their foreignness is written so indelibly on their faces, the Chinese seem to have suffered more than other immigrant groups at the mercy of the pendulum swing of American attitudes toward immigration.”

Amidst all the grey lines of the good and bad guys of the immigration experience, with impeccable precision, Keefe uncovers a staggeringly international smuggling network that leads back to one Sister Ping, a shopowner in New York City’s Chinatown revered by most of the Chinese American community as a guardian angel and savior. To the U.S. authorities, she proves to be an elusive, nearly untouchable mastermind who amassed a $40 million fortune “helping” thousands of desperate American wannabes.

“Every shipwreck tells a story,” Keefe concludes. “… a story about the awesome power of optimism and bravery and hope, about the many twisting paths that bring strangers to this country, and about what it means to be –  and become – American.” Amen to that.

Other notable points not to be missed: Daddy and Barbara Bush rode bicycles like the locals (!) in Beijing when they spent a diplomatic year-plus there in the late 1970s; more than half of the Chinese diaspora throughout the world can trace their roots to Fujian Province, including over half of Asia’s 40 billionaires of Chinese ancestry in the year 2000; and if you’re a scuba diver, you can visit the Golden Venture off the coast of North Carolina!

Most importantly to us at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, check out page 278 … while our unit isn’t mentioned fully by name (boo hoo), the Smithsonian part at least is. The traveling exhibit,Fly to Freedom hosted by the APA Program in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, is also a memorably bittersweet part of the Golden Venture legacy.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009


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