The Snakehead begins in 1993 when a couple of National Park Police officers on a graveyard shift patrol discover a ship that has run aground just off the Rockaway Peninsula in New York. The ship, Golden Venture, is fully loaded with skeletal, malnourished Chinese illegal immigrants, many of whom have drowned in their attempts to make it to shore. The officers call in for backup and the media circus begins.
The actual story Keefe tells begins much earlier, with the discovery of gold in northern California in 1848 and the coming onslaught of railroad construction not long afterward. Keefe gives a brief but fascinating history of the Chinese in the United States leading up to the emmigration of Sister Ping to the U.S. in 1981. She came to this country to work as a domestic and soon ran several flourishing businesses which allowed her to bring her family to the U.S. as well. The family business, smuggling people, flourished as well. In 1960 there were 236,000 Chinese in America. By 1990, there were 1.6 million Chinese in the country. Sister Ping was flying in immigrants by the plane load at $30,000 or more per passenger. When the INS cracked down on the flights, she began to bring them by boat and that is where Sister Ping's story merges with that of the Golden Venture and its unfortunate passengers. What they went through, and continue to go through, is truly heartbreaking.
Keefe researched mountains of court and police interview transcripts as well as conducting untold numbers of interviews with everyone he could track down. There are extensive notes in the back as well as an index. I was excited to learn that a documentary (it is also called Golden Venture) had been made spotlighting the plight of the passengers of the Golden Venture and I look forward to watching it very soon.