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The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
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The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  1,368 ratings  ·  183 reviews
A mesmerizing narrative about the rise and fall of an unlikely international crime boss

In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian province began arriving in America. Like other immigrant groups before them, they showed up with little money but with an intense work ethic and an unshakeable belief in the promise of the United States. Many of them lived in a world outside
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published July 21st 2009 by Doubleday
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Nancy Oakes
Jul 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
According to the author, a "snakehead" is someone who charges a huge amount of money to "take people out of China and into other countries." This book focuses on one of these people, Sister Ping, who came to the US legally and then proceeded to cash in on every opportunity she could, including smuggling human beings into the country for millions in profit. It was the wreck of the ship Golden Venture near Rockaway NY in 1993 in which several people died that captured the attention of the Federal ...more
David Quinn
Aug 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
All of the elements of a thriller are here (murder, corruption, double-crosses, huge sums of cash, intimidation, among others) but it really doesn’t read that way. Instead it’s more of a sweeping view of the snakehead trade between Fujian Province, China and Chinatown in Manhattan. In particular we learn about a small handful of major players in the late 80s and early 90s.

The author writes extremely well and, quite similar to Sebastian Junger, has an informatively digressive style. He never gets
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business, audiobook
Snakehead is a term for people who bring foreigners into a country illegally, outside of immigration laws. Mostly through the book the storyline follows a particularly successful snakehead, Sister Ping. The book details Sister Ping and other snakeheads smuggling Chinese citizens to the US, as well as their plentiful helpers from many different countries. For human smuggling, you could say it takes a village. Law enforcement in the US is also examined here, with profiles of a few of the people ...more
Aug 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019-books
Patrick Radden Keefe has quickly become one of my favorite non-fiction writers. I came to this book after reading his latest, “Say Anything” and I am gobsmacked that not only is/are the story/stories in “Snakehead” true but happened where I live— albeit before my time here.

I highly recommend this book and his other work— including his New Yorker writings. Radden Keefe painstakingly investigates and researches his books for years and it makes the wait to read his work worth it. He is an
Sam Mlyniec
Dec 23, 2009 rated it it was ok
The Snakehead provides a thorough and well researched look at both sides of the immigration fence. Keefe does a very good job of explaining the political and social complexities that lie behind American immigration policy. Keefe also shows the constancy of demand for human smuggling and the difficulty of combating such smuggling in a modern and increasingly globalized economy.
Keefe asserts human smuggling exists in a nebulous territory between illegality and socially acceptable behavior and the
Oct 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, asia
Truly fascinating. Keefe did an awesome amount of research, and organized the overlapping stories on different continents so that the pacing was right. Epic in scope and mouth-dropping in detail, these interlocked stories touch so many lives and so many parts of the world, it must have been difficult to know where to begin. The characterizations are rich, however, and Keefe gives us a human-scaled drama. What struck me at the end was how persons of every ethnicity, political stripe, and ...more
Sep 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: murica
A huge book that spans a massive network: it helped me comprehend what we talk about when we talk about migration not as much in the human sense, but in the gears that grind it along and churn billions of dollars out of it along the way. He is so intimate with the subject matter (and without knowing any Chinese...?) that it makes sense of it all and is still a page turner. A reminder also of how different the dialogue around immigration was even 10 years ago when this book was published—in a lot ...more
Jan 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china, crime
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At a time when illegal immigration again tops the US news, this book is a timely, detailed, and fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the world of human trafficking, specifically the smuggling of illegal immigrants from China into the USA. In exquisite detail the author traces the smuggling route from the south China coast to its rugged southwest, into the jungles of Burma and Thailand, then to Kenya and finally the US east coast and Manhattan Chinatown, from the viewpoints of those fleeing ...more
Eavan Hooke
May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lorraine
This is a well researched in depth book about the Chinese human smuggling network. It starts with the Chinese boat that ran aground in Rockaway, Queens. The Golden Venture. It traces the steps of the Snakeheads and those who pay for their passage out of China. It examines motivations and gives a personal human face on the victims and the Snakeheads.
I read this book because I read his latest book, Say Nothing. I believe Snakeheads was approached with more emotion and sympathy than Say Nothing.
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Just like Say Nothing, I would recommend this to anyone. What a talent!
Amanda Misiti
Sep 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
This truly was stranger than fiction.

The characters had many layers and contained surprises.

I learned a lot about Chinese organized crime in America, immigration in the nineties and the trafficking trade.

Especially cool to read if you’re familiar with the area.
Nov 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I'm biased - I know and like the author very much. But I can say with assurance that this is a great book. The story is captivating - it's a page turner, which isn't always easy with ambitious non-fiction. I found it's not the best book to curl up with if you want to go to sleep. But it's a great book to get to sucked into. The subject - human smuggling - is a good one. Despite my interest in managing transnational problems, I read the book knowing very little about the subject. The book ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Feb 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
This is the fascinating true story of the "snakeheads", those NYC Chinatown based purveyors of human traffic from China. I had not realized the number of people who were fleeing from China in the 1990s and the extent of the network of human smugglers who were making millions of dollars from this business. The major player in this nefarious business was the infamous Sister Ping, an unassuming Chinese woman who owned a restaurant in Chinatown. She reached legendary status with those that she ...more
Nov 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Snakehead is not as concise or as enthrallingly brilliant as Patrick Radden Keefe’s recent Say Nothing, but it is still a completely fascinating examination of criminal ingenuity, greed, the conflict between immigration and isolationism, and the quest for the American Dream.

In particular, the first half of the book that details how a little old Asian lady in NYC’s Chinatown set up an expansive, complex international criminal enterprise was brilliant. This book is the kind of property that
Oct 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Positively superb account of Chinese human smuggling in the 80s and 90s. A riveting tale that captures the enticing drama of organized crime, the moral complexities of immigration enforcement, and the insufferable measures people endure to achieve the American dream. Perfection.
Aug 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
I would have been much more into this had it been a longform article and not an entire book. Well-researched and competently written, but I was pretty bored throughout and skimmed a lot.
Christian Allen
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
I read this because I had really enjoyed the author's most recent book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland written in 2019. It's a descriptive profile of a particular role played in the illegal immigration world: that of the "snakehead" that sets up, finances and facilities the smuggling of people into the US. Though there have since been many other more successful snakeheads, the author highlights that of Sister Ping in Chinatown in the late 80's and early 90's ...more
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, journalism
Lake vacation read and it blew by but not because it wasn't careful and smart! Keefe has sympathy for all of his characters and uses the framing of the Golden Venture crash expertly to explode myths about illegal immigration, asylum, and the justice system. He doesn't portray the Fujianise immigrants as purely victims as those on the current Left are apt to do, because he has spent tons of time talking with them and trying to understand why people come to the U.S. and he knows most of them are ...more
Alex Stevens
Feb 25, 2020 rated it liked it
I got into this book after reading PRK's "Say Nothing," which blew me away. While the Snakehead was not as compelling/disciplined in terms of its writing style, the story is undeniably incredible.

The strongest section of this book was the opening, where PRK goes into dramatic detail about the doomed Golden Venture voyage, where scores of malnourished Fujianese end up drowning (or just barely making it) when the ship crashed 200 yards from Rockaway Beach at 3am on a Sunday morning in 1993. From
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
An exhaustively researched look at the human smuggling trade, focusing on the disastrous arrival of the Golden Venture and the way it unraveled one of the biggest players in the business, an otherwise humble Chinese woman who for years held thousands of people travel around the world to start a new life in the U.S. or Canada.

Radden Keefe is a writer up to the task of writing action scene, sprawling exposition and deep dives into policy. He has a novelist's gift for description and I'm not sure
Raymond Urrutia
Jul 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of those books where I had waited for a while to read it and was afraid my hype for reading it would be a detriment for when I actually picked it up, but I can happily report that the hype was warranted! This was a very well researched read about the Snakehead trade of the 80’s and 90’s; particularly in regards to the New York City Chinatown of that time. Though it is not particularly action-packed, the thoroughness of which this story is told really does help elevate it in ways ...more
Sep 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
No easy answers on immigration, that's for sure. Keefe describe the Snakeheads who smuggle Chinese into USA. Mercenaries, but also helping their fellow villagers who want to get to the US. Long view--I come, my child gets a US education and instead of being a farmer may be a doctor or lawyer. Snakeheads have some of their smuggled clients die. Attitude is: Bad luck. You know risks when you come. In Chinatown, Snakeheads are respected. Keefe makes it clear that whenever someone shows up at our ...more
Ladan Golshanara
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book was recommended to me by a friend who had a relative that was smuggled to the USA by a snakehead (smuggler). I really enjoyed reading this book. It is very well written. I learned about the history of china during 1970s to 1990s. Also the history of Chinese in the USA. If I go back to NewYork's Chinatown again, I have a different image: there might be still underground banks or many other underground things. Sister Ping's story was very fascinating, she was so smart but used it in a ...more
Sean Lynn
The Snakehead tells the story behind the 1993 tragedy, when the freighter, the Golden Venture, ran aground off coast of New York, forcing it's cargo of 286 illegal Chinese aliens to jump ship, and sink or swim to shore. It explains the history of the gangs, the snakeheads (human smugglers), the migrants, and law enforcement officers. It's a fascinating look at organized crime of the NYC Chinatown in the 80s and 90s, and the how political and economic pressures in China drove demand for their ...more
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely fascinating story about a Chinese human smuggler. I knew absolutely knowing about sister Ping before reading this book.
We always hear about illegal immigration from countries south of the border but at one time a lot of the illegals were Chinese. This covers it all, gangs, gang violence, smuggling, government incompetence, corruption all over the world, as well as the very human stories about those who will risk everything and pay anything to get into this country.
This is the
ِEiman Jafar
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Amazing book about one of the biggest human trafficking networks. It describes the methods used by Several people in China Town/New York, specially Miss Ping, who managed to bring thousands of Chinese from a certain district to the United Stated illegally. What amazed is the methods they used and what saddened me is the dangers and risks those immigrants had to go through in order to achieve their dreams.
Linda Suri
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book, but didn't finish it. It gets a little difficult to keep all the people straight; there are a lot of people in the book, and many of them go by 2 or 3 names. Even though I didn't finish it, I enjoyed the part I read. (60-70%? I read it years ago, so I can't remember.) If this topic interests you but you are not sure whether you want to read it, look for an interview with the author on NPR; that's how I found out about the book, and the interview was very good.
Jan 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
I read this book only because I read Say Nothing and wanted to read something else by this fabulous author. This book seems as meticulously researched as the other one - and is just as interesting in its own way. Before reading this book, I was fairly naive about the business of immigration. This is eye-opening and fascinating and troubling and touching. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the topic of immigration.
Bharat Krishnan
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
Very well-researched, but never gripping. It reads like an old history book. If you want a crime thriller, this isn't it. If you want to read some nuanced history of immigration policy and how it shapes the nation in all kinds of ways, you'll enjoy the book.

Also, Sister Ping is barely in large sections of the novel. One of the most frustrating parts of it. The book is mistitled and miscategorized IMO.
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Beijing CS Book Club: Snakehead, by Patrick Keefe 1 7 Feb 28, 2012 08:29PM  

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Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Snakehead and Chatter. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, New York, and The New York Review of Books. He received the 2014 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing, for his story "A Loaded Gun," was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 2015 and 2016, and is also ...more