The Woman Who Would Smuggle You Stateside For $35,000

In Requiem for a Snakehead, Patrick Radden Keefe writes a quick and fascinating profile of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, for The New Yorker. Sister Ping, who died of pancreatic cancer in federal prison last week, operated a “sophisticated immigration-smuggling ring” that brought thousands of people from Southeast China to the U.S. She is a hero, a villain, or both, depending who you ask:

Sister Ping’s customers knew that, in a single year slicing broccoli in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., they could make a sum that might take them a decade to earn back home. So they came on airplanes, using phony documents, or on rafts across the frigid rapids of the Niagara River, and eventually on big ships full of immigrants, which deposited them on U.S. shores. In the nineteen-eighties, the price for this kind of illegal passage was eighteen thousand dollars. By the early nineties, it had jumped to thirty-five thousand.

Sister Ping was hardly blameless. When her customers arrived safely in the United States, they were expected to pay her smuggling fees in full, and she hired a violent Fujianese street gang to hold them, in some instances at gunpoint, until relatives or friends (or a loan shark) agreed to supply the funds. Sometimes people were arrested on the journey and sent back; some who entrusted their lives to her ended up dying before they ever reached the U.S. But for Sister Ping’s clientele these were regarded as acceptable risks, and her business continued to flourish.

Ping herself emigrated to the U.S. in 1981, though she fled back to her home village in China in 1993 amid Clinton-era crackdowns. She continued to operate her business until her arrest in 2000. Radden Keefe ended up writing a book on Sister Ping, interviewing her in writing passed through a translator. I love this detail:

Later, when my book was published, she had a bilingual inmate read it aloud to her. A mutual friend from Chinatown told me that Sister Ping discovered one day that a used copy of the book could be had for just a dollar or two on the Internet. Ever the entrepreneur, she sniffed, “He will never make money on this venture!”

Photo: geographyalltheway

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