Procrastination gets a bad rap, but my new book The Snakehead actually grew out of my tendency to procrastinate. I had just finished law school in the summer of 2005, and was studying for the bar exam in New York City, with plans to become a lawyer. But as anyone who has done it will tell you, studying for the bar is, to put it mildly, kind of a drag. As it happened, that particular summer a sensational trial was unfolding in a New York courtroom not far from where I was studying. A mysterious Chinatown woman known as Sister Ping was charged with running a huge smuggling racket, in which immigrants from her native village in China paid her $35,000 each to be transported illegally into the United States. After a dramatic shipwreck in 1993, in which a freighter carrying 300 Chinese immigrants ran aground off the coast of Queens, Sister Ping had gone on the run, outfoxing the FBI and avoiding trial for over a decade.
This was pretty intriguing stuff – much more so than, say, the law of wills and trusts – so I began following the case, casually at first, and then obsessively. The more I learned about it, the more I realized that I knew very little about Chinatown, apart from the handful of restaurants I would go to on the weekends. For that matter, I knew almost nothing about the lives of the estimated twelve million people of every imaginable ethnicity who now live illegally in the United States: How did they enter the country? What drove them to take on debts and often risk their lives to leave their homes?
Needless to say, this newfound obsession did nothing to help my studies. When the exam rolled around I somehow managed to pass, but by that time I had decided I would not become a lawyer. Instead I would write about Sister Ping and the lives of the people around her: the Chinatown gangster who served as her muscle but would eventually betray her; the dogged FBI agents who tracked her around the globe; and an adventurous kid named Sean Chen, who while still a teenager said goodbye to his family in China and journeyed around the world in the hold of a smuggling ship in search of a better life.
For the past four years I have followed the story wherever it led, from the streets of Chinatown to the “widow’s villages” of China, where all of the able-bodied men have left town and now work in the United States. The story I discovered sometimes felt more like a novel than non-fiction, full of gangsters and scallywags, tenacious investigators, slippery government informers and above all, immigrant dreamers who risk everything to make a new life in the United States.
I hope it’s as much fun for you to read as it was for me to write.
Patrick Radden Keefe
Visit thesnakehead.com to watch a short trailer and to learn more about Sister Ping.