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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

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  1,666 ratings  ·  219 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 th
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published July 21st 2009 by Doubleday
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Average rating 4.03  · 
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 ·  1,666 ratings  ·  219 reviews

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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
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
Jul 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Snake Head by Patrick Radden Keefe

This history of the Chinese smuggling trade into the United States was penned in 2009. While not as popular as his 2019 blockbuster, Say Nothing, about the violence in Northern Ireland, Snake Head is a fascinating read.

This history follows Cheng Chui Ping, a Chinese immigrant to NYC, as she bankrolled and worked with the Fuk Ching gang to smuggle thousands of Fujianese into NYC during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Her nickname is Sister Ping and she is revered in
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 th ...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
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 incredib
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.
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 religiou ...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 s
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 Chin ...more
May 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics, china
There was a lot of great information in this book. It is a great work of journalism, but it just read like a few dozen long magazine articles stapled together with no real cohesion. There isn’t much in it that propels you forward. I found the same true in Patrick Radden Keefe’s book about the Troubles in Ireland.

I have been trying hard to research the Chinese community where I live in Spain, but it’s almost impossible to find the thinnest shred of information. There is NEVER anything in the pres
Ankur Shah
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing
really good book. it’s primarily abt this famous snakehead (immigrant smuggler), sister ping, who sets up shop in chinatown and proceeds to build one of the world’s largest human smuggling operations in the US from the late 80s to the early 00s.

the narrative structure is really engaging and clever cuz he ties all these different topics together through the story of the Golden Venture, a ship carrying a bunch of Chinese migrants that ran aground near long island and caused a huge hubbub in the U
Dec 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
How is Patrick Radden Keefe so damn good at writing non-fiction? This doesn't reach the heights of Say Nothing (really what can?) but it's a fascinating story in its own right and Keefe tells it well and thoroughly, providing enough detail without larding the narrative. He also takes an eagle's eye view on economic migration, the plight of Fujianese folk in both China and America, and the complexity of human migration. It was both fascinating and horrifying and I appreciate how he gave Sister Pi ...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.
Rachael Faith
Jan 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Meticulously sourced, fascinating story

The American dream, the Chinatown underbelly, and the mastermind behind one of the largest human smuggling rings.

This book was long in the middle and at times not quite as engaging as the beginning. But I kept coming back to it day after day and it was fully worth it.
Aug 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Complex history told in a style that is appealing to readers who want the story without the stuffiness of a text book.
Bridget Johnson (Jameson)
Jan 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
An examination of human smuggling from China to the US in the 90s.

I knew nothing about this topic and I couldn’t put this book down. I loved Patrick Radden O’Keefe’s newer book, Say Nothing, and his investigative and storytelling skills are just as hard at work here.
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.
May 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book was an intriguing topic that it was hard to put down. In addition the author’s writing style of weaving narrative with history carefully blending in the opinions and perspective of the characters from his interviews made it feel as if he was there or as if we were reading it from the characters’ perspective like a well-written fiction - except this was all non-fiction. Very well written and memorable book about snakehead trade, the influence from immigration policy and an unseen perspe ...more
Mar 29, 2020 rated it liked it
The term snakehead refers to a Chinese person who facilitates the smuggling of fellow Chinese into other countries, namely Western nations. The use of the verb "smuggling" should be noted here, as smuggling and trafficking are not synonymous. Smuggling is the illegal transportation of a cooperative person from location A to location B. Trafficking is the illegal transportation of an uncooperative person from location A to location B and generally involves sex and/or slavery, among other things. ...more
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 provide ...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 broug ...more
John Jung
Aug 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Story of the notorious woman in NY, known as the snakehead, who ran the smuggling operation in which exorbitant fees were charged to Chinese immigrants from Fukien province brought into the U. S. The unfortunate accident off the coast of NY in which many of these immigrants died when their ship ran aground blew the operation open. Keefe's book traces the development of this illegal trade and describes the human suffering involved even for those who survive the voyage for many years afterwards. ...more
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.
Bemused BookBoy
Jul 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
I recently read a different book by Patrick Radden Keefe called, Say Nothing. It was a book about The Troubles in Northern Ireland and it was good. I liked The Snakehead significantly more than Say Nothing. The Snakehead, originally released in 2010, is the story of Sister Ping who organized and ran the largest known human smuggling operation between China and New York City and the FBI investigation that brought her down. This book reads really fast and the details are striking. I especially rec ...more
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 a ...more
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 n ...more
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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 t ...more

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