The Snake Head by Patrick Radden Keefe

On June 6th 1993 near Breezy Point in New York, a ship, the Golden Venture, ran aground and amidst many screams two police officers witnessed hundreds of chinese immigrants jump from the ship into the sea and swim or be washed to the shore. Shivering, without clothing, near the point of starvation, a massive rescue operation was put in place. But the timing for the immigrants was awful with political pressure to hold all immigrants, not to just process them and then release them. And so, this group of Chinese people, mostly men, were placed in prisons outside of New York to hide them away and to use lawyers who were not used to immigration law to refuse admission to the country.

The Chinese who had the misfortune to be lured with the promise of work in the gold mines or on the railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, only to arrive and experience anti-Chinese pogroms and the advent of Chinese exclusion, experienced (and perhaps precipitated) one of these moments of sharp nativist reaction. The passengers aboard the Golden Venture happened to arrive during another.


The book tells the story of how and why chinese immigrants land in New York through the use of Snake Heads who front up large businesses transporting people, otherwise known as people smuggling, from China via other countries including Thailand and Mombasa to the States for large amounts of money. It also details the conditions and horror of such a journey.

The book focuses on one Snake Head, Sister Ping, an immigrant herself, who worked in a small shop in Chinatown in New York and who was business minded enough to set up money transfers for the local community and then eventually people smuggling. The book concentrates on what the judicial systems in America had to do to capture, going to trial, and it took years and in parts came down to a bit of luck and a lot of hard work with Ping’s team turning on her and offering up evidence of her feats to obtain reduced sentences for themselves.. The immigration system does not come out of this account well, often under-funded, sometimes run by men with particular views about immigrants and a country that is not sure what it wants. But that doesn’t stop people from coming, often re-entering the country after being denied settlement.

One of the parts in the book that I really enjoyed was when the male immigrants in prison started to fold paper and create objects and eventually sculptures out of it. Bit by bit, more joined in and soon they were turning out amazing works of art that were sold by their supporters to raise money for legal fees. I don’t know how but they discovered that you could make a paper paste out of toilet paper, water and toothpaste and soon were making bowls and finishing them to a very high standard. Incredible.

If you like the writing of Patrick RaddenKeefe you might enjoy Empire of Pain about the Sackler family and OxyContin. Other stories told from the immigrant’s point of view are The Fortune Men and Behold the Dreamers .

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