The Snakehead: An Epic Tale Of The Chinatown Underworld And The American Dream begins with a forgotten news flashpoint from Bill Clinton’s first presidential year: the early-morning beaching of a fishing boat off Brooklyn, with some 300 undocumented immigrants jumping into the water and scattering in all directions. Some drowned, some made it to shore without waiting for rescue boats, and others simply escaped into the dark during the chaos. From that dramatic opening scene, Keefe turns back to the ’80s, launching into a speedily comprehensive history of the changing face of Chinese illegal immigration in the ’80s and ’90s.
Keefe’s fulcrum is Sister Ping, putatively a small businesswoman in New York’s Chinatown, really a major human smuggler; the Golden Venture was one of her ships, and ultimately her legal downfall. In Chinatown, she was a hero, allowing people to build up a better future for their children. To the FBI and INS, she was a major target whose indifference to human life lost in the dangerous smuggling process was appalling. Ping’s saga frames a larger portrait of the changing aspects of immigration. There are predictably entertaining tales of the changing face of Chinese gang warfare, and colorful global detours (a chapter telling of a refugee’s inadvertent layover in Mombasa, Kenya is terrific), but also sober political analysis: At the very least, Keefe provides a new way to think about Tiananmen Square. Under pressure from pro-life forces to do something about China’s forced abortions/sterilizations and respond to the incident, George H.W. Bush signed an executive order effectively granting free asylum status to any Chinese nationals entering the country. Simple economic refugees could fall back on political claims. “The Fujianese thank two people,” a real-estate agent notes: Sister Ping and “George Bush the father.”
Keefe’s meticulously sourced book is the product of three years of journalism, but it never gets bogged down in the usual curses of trying to show the research on every page: characters are allowed to enter and leave without irrelevant background sketches, overwriting is avoided, and everything remains pleasantly streamlined. If anything, by pacing itself like an epic non-fiction thriller—full of violent incident, global conspiracies, and strong antagonists—Keefe risks making his material seem shallow. Though The Snakehead’s content seems authoritative, the prose is the very definition of functional, and its restless jumping from one incident to another flattens it from a definitive history in entertaining thriller form. Enlightening as it is, the book fails to leave any greater impact than an equally colorful fictionalization would.