The Snakehead

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Modus Operandi PRK: pick an interesting subject, research the f out of it, and write a looong book. He saves his opinions and judgements until the end. A wise choice, you don’t have to agree with his politics to enjoy his work.

‘The Snakehead’ is about illegal migration to the USA in the 1980s and 90s from the Chinese province of Fujian. New kids on the block in New York’s Cantonese-dominated Chinatown, the Fujianese started to form their own gangs. The most famous was the Fuk Ching, whose leader Ah Kay robbed and then worked with a big-time people smuggler, or snakehead, known as Sister Ping. I’d learnt about these characters from researching my own book but PRK filled in a lot of gaps.

‘The Snakehead’ is centred around the disastrous running aground of the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with illegal Chinese immigrants, in Queens, New York. Ten people drowned. Sister Ping and other snakeheads had contracted Ah Kay to unload the passengers onto fishing boats. However, because of a turf war amongst members of the Fuk Ching, he didn’t come through for them.

The second half of the book deals with the legal cases of Golden Venture passengers fighting to stay in the USA, and eventually the trial of Sister Ping. PRK is an exhaustive writer and can go into too much detail, but I didn’t get as bogged down here as I did in his new book about the opioid epidemic, ‘Empire of Pain.’




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