The Snakehead 

What Does New York's Poor Chinese Enclave Have in Common With Chicago's Poor African-American Enclave?
New books dissected over email.
July 22 2009 7:00 AM

The Snakehead 

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Patrick,

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I have been studying the illegal economies in America's urban ghettos for more than a decade. It was hard not to notice the parallels between The Snakehead and my own fieldwork. In our last exchange, we touched briefly on the world of unregulated commerce, in which humans become yet another commodity to be bought and sold. But we did so in the context of the American dream and its impact on different immigrant groups. Let me push this in a slightly different direction, in the process addressing the query you posted to me at the end of your message: Does the notion of "joining the mainstream" have the same meaning in a poor African-American enclave in Chicago as it does in a poor Fujianese enclave in New York?

I will never forget the answers I received from young black men in Chicago's drug trade when I asked them how they defined "success." Unlike the classic immigrant narratives, in which the new arrivals wish a better life for their children, these young men pointed to their mothers (and other guardians: aunts, grandparents, etc.). For them, the risks of the drug trade—prison, shootings, hostile relations with the community—could be tolerated if there was a chance of moving their kin out of the ghetto. They would say to me, in only half-joking terms, "I want to move my mother to the suburbs and mow her lawn." For these young blacks, the "lawn" and the "suburb" were real desires but also symbolic: If the inner city is viewed by most Americans as isolated and culturally pathological, then they were signaling a wish to live at the heart of the social and geographic mainstream.

The historically aware among them would point to the Italian Mafia—and other ethnic groups—as having climbed into the mainstream via the underworld. "If the shady world was good enough for white ethnics, why then for blacks is it disallowed?"

The young men drew these parallels because the underground economy included a legal system: There may be crimes, but there also is a structure in place through which disputes get resolved, prices are set, money can be borrowed and invested. The popular view of illegal commerce as "lawless" doesn't capture the complicated web of relationships that actually regulate the "un-regulated" world. How many times in The Godfather (Part I) did local folk come to Don Corleone to broker a peace or regulate a transaction? Michael Corleone grows up believing a good and powerful man provides such services. Similarly, inner-city youth see numerous people in their communities who broker truces, provide financing, and otherwise smooth the rough-and-tumble ghetto trade. So the underground becomes acceptable, in the short run, and a means of entering the mainstream over the long haul.

The Snakehead fascinates because Chinatown appears as both a chaotic world, where hope is held up by a thin string, and a highly structured world: Everyone knows where "on the street" to borrow money, find a good or service, smuggle a relative into the country, and so on. A parallel economy, with its own regulatory system, seems to be in place, such that when things go wrong, a whole host of local characters are called upon. Some are brokers, like Sister Ping, whose influence in one area allows her to expand her power. But it seems that others might be less visible, less heinous, less interested in accumulating power.

I wondered if you could say more about the people and relationships that make the illegal trade flower and flourish. For example, at one point in the book, one of your characters, Sean Chen, has to borrow money within the Fujianese community to start a small business because he is undocumented and can't access a bank's line of credit. The business fails, Sean is embarrassed, and his family comforts him. Can Sean borrow again? Are there financial penalties for failure to pay back the loan, for either Sean or his family? This is one specific example, but it made me wonder about the scope and character of the underground economy for Chinese Americans. Specifically, I had these questions:

Is the underground economy largely restricted to criminal operations, like human smuggling, or has there developed a parallel economy for Chinese immigrants that is much broader in scope and important for daily life? In other words, would documented Chinese immigrants draw on informal connections for credit and services, and if so, why?

You mentioned that second generation immigrants would become American in the usual ways—move to other neighborhoods, learn English. But would they become entirely divorced from the underground economy in the process? I can think of some second-generation South Asians who still pay off-the-books for marriage services, astrological readings, food, day care, language instruction. … Assimilation can mean one foot in the mainstream and one in the old neighborhood.

Did you find any police or law-enforcement officials who felt that the underground economy was actually more ordered, more stable, more trustworthy than the legal, government-regulated commercial realm? I ask because many immigrant communities will respect local traditions more strongly than the larger societal norms. And because police can sometimes be the most knowledgeable sources of illegality.

Sudhir

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