The Snakehead 

The Don Corleone of Chinatown
New books dissected over email.
July 21 2009 6:48 AM

The Snakehead 

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Patrick,

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I enjoyed working my way through your new book, The Snakehead. As someone who has studied the American underground economy, the international focus was illuminating. And as an ethnographer who tries to access hard-to-reach groups, your penetration into the Chinatown underworld was quite impressive. By way of full disclosure, this was actually the second time I read the book; the first reading motivated me to give you a blurb for the jacket.

Let's start with a summary of some of the book's central themes. The title of the book is taken from the colloquial use of the word snake to refer to a "circuitous smuggling route." The book's subject is the complex and clandestine network of people, places, and organizations that facilitates human smuggling. Specifically, it is a detailed account of how one human smuggling operation was created and carried out between China's Fujian province and New York's Chinatown.

The character at the center of the story is Sister Ping, an entrepreneurial leader who rose to become a notorious figure in Chinatown's underworld. Picture a Mafia don or, more accurately, a Harlem madam. Ping not only directed large-scale smuggling operations but also became invaluable to families wishing to stay connected to China—she transferred money and goods for them and offered basic credit in the absence of financial institutions. So important is her role in the community that when she is eventually brought to justice by U.S. law enforcement, the locals portray her as a Robin Hood helping the disenfranchised Fujianese peoples find a better home in America.

Ping typically worked out of backrooms and stores in New York's Chinatown, but her operation was truly global, as is the scope of The Snakehead. The book takes us to the rural villages in China where the migrants originate and to the coasts of Africa, Guatemala, Hong Kong, and other ports where migrants stop over on their journeys; obtain visas, fake IDs, and passports; and otherwise find transport to enter the United States. If globalization is often celebrated for the dissemination of ideas and the use of technology to create widespread quality-of-life improvements, we leave this book wondering about the darker side of human progress.

Upon arriving in the United States, Mexicans, Chinese, Somalis, Senegalese, Haitians, Jamaicans, etc., create cloistered, insular spaces where tradition and the ways of the old country still dominate—along with food, cafes, satellite televisions, and newspapers that keep people connected to their place of origin. On one level, this is the American dream; immigrants to the United States usually understand that the ethnic enclave is their first stop but that their children may move on—both culturally (away from their native traditions) and geographically (to new neighborhoods).

Yet the book suggests that things have gotten way out of control. Chinese and other ethnic migrants are increasingly transported in the dead of night, exposed to great personal danger along the way; they are working in unsafe work conditions; and many are wrapped up in criminal activities. To make matters worse, their families back home go into debt to help them make the voyage, thereby exposing many relatives to the capriciousness of underworld figures and rogue government officials.

The immigrants are also isolated from the social mainstream. In Chinatown, the Fujianese you describe have little access to education, health care, social services, and over time, they seem never to grow more assimilated and in touch with American society. Indeed, it is Sister Ping, the underground kingpin, who seems the most in touch with our cultural ideals of economic growth and prosperity!

In the epilogue of The Snakehead, you observe the parallels between different ethnic immigrant streams. For example, you allude to The Godfather—Francis Ford Coppola's epic saga of Italian-American life—as a potential point of comparison to the modern Chinese-American experience. The question I have is: How do we situate the Chinese experience within the historical context of U.S. immigration? That is, what similarities and differences did you find between the late-19th-/early-20th-century settlement of predominantly European migrants and the more modern versions rooted in Asian, African, and Latin American peoples?

Is America less hospitable than it was in the past? Is it possible to welcome the new—mostly darker-skinned—migrant streams, as we did the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Germans who landed on our shores? Although their lives were no cakewalk, the European arrivals found work in corporations, government, and higher education and eventually assimilated into mainstream institutions. Why can't the Asian, African, and Latin American hopefuls do the same? A service economy offering only menial work? Cultural barriers? Racism? Or do the strong connections that the Fujianese people maintain with China even after arriving dampen their desire to forge a productive association with America?

Your book challenges conventional portraits of immigration and settlement. Stories of immigration usually describe a linear progression in which each succeeding generation becomes more "American." I'm not so sure that the Chinese experience falls into this category. Instead, the story seems to be one of halting progress. We find ourselves viewing a fragile community that not only depends on the underworld for spirit and sustenance, but that shows no yearning desire to move into the suburbs and live next to the Joneses. Whither the American dream?

Sudhir

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.