8 The Mother of All Snakeheads

By Casey Carroll

Preface

The following is a work of fiction based on the real life biography of Cheng Chui Ping. The narrative is in first person. The internal thoughts and responses to historical events mentioned throughout the story are based off of documented research describing her personality and interviews of how she viewed herself. When Cheng Chui Ping actually speaks, the author used actual direct quotes from various sources, including transcriptions of her statements in court or in other records of conversations. Dialogue of other characters was created by the author and is based on researched descriptions and records of conversations Cheng Chui Ping had with other characters. Finally, italics are used when the author is emphasizing words or phrases that indicate how the character is feeling.


March 16, 2006

New York City, New York

 

I would like to leave the jury with this timeless quote: ‘I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you…’”[1]

I zone out during my attorney’s ramblings as my trial comes to a close. Lawrence Hochheiser is my lawyer. He is one of the best criminal defense lawyers around. What a joke.[2] After months of his counsel, I still can’t tell whose side he’s really on. Throughout the entirety of my trial, he failed me in many ways. Most importantly, he failed in providing Chinese translations of any and all English documents.[3]

Everyone in the courtroom acts as if I am a human trafficker, stealing people from their homes and forcing them into labor or prostitution. That couldn’t be further from the truth. All of my clients asked me to bring them to America. I never got any complaints. Even when conditions were not up to par, they all accepted their circumstances because they knew they would soon be building a better, brighter life in the land of opportunity. They say I dehumanized others, but I am the one who became victim of dehumanization throughout my trial. The one who became an evil, otherworldly being in their eyes.

Cheng Chui Ping—more commonly known as Ping Jia or Sister Ping—is being tried for conspiracy to engage in alien smuggling, trafficking in ransom proceeds, hostage taking, and money laundering.[4] She is guilty. She deserves to be imprisoned for her crimes. She is a danger to society.

There is no emotion behind the prosecutors’ voices as they discuss my so-called faults. I once thought there could be nothing worse than the thick, bitter shouts of hatred spewed by the crowds gathered outside the courthouse. At least in the crowds there were always voices advocating for me, calling me a hero and praising my name.

The prosecutors never ask why I did what I did. They simply accuse.

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.


November 10, 1981

Manhattan, New York

           

Guilty.

I would probably be imprisoned for saying this back in China, but I am proud to be in America. If it’s a crime, so be it. I’m guilty as charged—Cheng Chui Ping is finally where she belongs: in the home of the brave.

I stare up at my small storefront on Hester Street, right outside of Chinatown. I bought this small space a couple of months ago—almost immediately after I arrived in America—and it already feels like home. My shop has become the unofficial center of the Fujianese community. Many of the citizens I’ve encountered are ignorant about the number of Fujianese people living in their city. They all know about the giant sector known as Chinatown, or I guess it should actually be labeled ‘Cantontown,’ since the Cantonese have turned their backs on us. The Fujianese have been pushed out of the small town and are forced to inhabit “Fuzhou Street.”[5] I find it extremely ironic that we are being treated this way by our “own people.” It almost perfectly mirrors the treatment I faced back in China.

I was born January 9, 1949 in Shengmei, a poor farming village in the Fujian province of China. My parents told me I was born during a time full of joy and light, but I don’t remember ever having that privilege. Ten months after my birth, Mao Zedong—our most gracious and caring ruler—gained power. His reign brought on the Cultural Revolution in China, a time where hundreds of millions of Chinese people shared a single goal, survival. During this time characterized by fear and intimidation, I was punished for suspected crimes and recidivist bourgeois habits.[6]

I was a child.

I was forced to endure a state of brutal violence for nearly two decades because Mao neglected my entire region. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I saw my first sliver of hope. Deng Xiaoping—China’s great reformer—chose one of our cities to be the first special economic zone. Since we were secluded for an extended period of time, the Fujianese began to make money their own way. Fujian was the first place Taiwanese smugglers entered when they made it across the small stretch of water to the mainland. Mao neglecting Fujian led to the creation of strong ties between the two lands, causing a shared dialect and, unsurprisingly, black markets. What was expected, when we were left to fend for ourselves? We needed to survive somehow. One of the more comical markets that prospered during this time was for cassette recorders. Dozens of fishing boats from Taiwan and Fujian were meeting in the sea halfway between the territories to exchange the product for money.[7] After we became a major economic zone, Deng and the rest of the Chinese government decided to let these illegal activities continue. It didn’t matter how money was being made as long as it benefitted the Chinese economy.

“It doesn’t matter whether the mice are black or white…as long as they avoid the cat.”[8] Every time I or one of my four siblings doubted whether the different businesses and actions we witnessed were allowed, we would get this response. I don’t know where it came from, but father recited the quote with such certainty that I never questioned it.

A short time before Deng took power, I married my husband, Cheng Yick Tak. We have known each other since we were children. I met him while working in a neighboring fishing village—his home village. We became fast friends because we were the two oldest workers on a job. After the job was done, he occasionally visited me in Shengmei. In 1969, we married and moved to Hong Kong, where we had four children.[9]

And now, here I am, in America. I had to leave Tak and my children in Hong Kong for the time being. I couldn’t get them papers as quickly as I’d hoped. I plan to send for them soon, though, since I am doing so well here. When I bought my convenience store, I was not expecting business to take off. My wage service, of course, not the store.

It all began when I first moved in. The Fujianese in New York soon discovered there was a new Fujianese immigrant-owned store right outside Chinatown. A handful of visitors soon became fifty, the number growing each day. We all became fast friends since there were so few Fujianese in New York at the time. We would talk about everything from our villages, to work, to our families we were missing desperately. Another popular topic was how slow the Bank of China was at getting money back to their loved ones. I heard this complaint so much that, one night, after my little shop was closed and the streets were dark, I sat at the counter, devising a system to get money to their families faster.[10]

The next time the issue was raised, I said I could get the money to their families the following day for a small service fee.

“Impossible!” I heard countless times.

I didn’t let them down. I never fail.

When word of my business got out, more Fujianese immigrants emerged and requested my services. The business grew and grew and suddenly I was making more money than I ever imagined. I had a business back in Hong Kong, where I made important contacts and earned a good enough reputation where I could make this system work, but I never imagined success like this. I loved it.

I loved helping people. This is a good business, but I’m not completely satisfied.

I want to do more.


 June 6, 1993

Chinatown, New York

 

I finally understand the American saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

As I sit back in my favorite chair, I am in shock at what I see on my television screen.

The scene is total chaos.

Helicopters swarm the Golden Venture, a hundred-and-fifty-foot tramp steamer that has run aground. Chinese immigrants are jumping over the sides, falling twenty feet into the massive waves below. After the people responsible for offloading the boat failed to show up, the boat stopped one hundred yards off the long stretch of beach on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens.[11]

How do I know these specific details? It’s because I played a major role in setting up the operation.

This has been the worst operation I’ve ever been a part of. I went to prison for four months in 1989 because I was set up during an operation in Canada, and this is still worse. I knew I never should’ve started working with Ah Kay.

Ah Kay, born Guo Liang Qi, is a fellow Fujian immigrant who is the leader of the Fuk Ching gang. His charisma and brightly colored hair are capable of tricking the average person disguising his true, wicked self, but I know better. He leads the most deadly and vicious gang in Chinatown. I hired them to work for me because I would do anything to help my business succeed.[12] After my money service was so successful, I decided to do more for my community. I started up a business and became Sister Ping, the savior of the Chinese community. Being Sister Ping has given me a plethora of opportunities I would have never had otherwise. Initially, I came to this country to be a servant in a household. Upon arrival, I immediately saw the array of opportunities I now had as a Chinese-American. Without hesitation, I opened my shop and gradually made my way to helping anyone who reached out to me. The financial and social status that comes with being Sister Ping has been greater than anything I could have imagined. I quickly became the most prominent entrepreneur in the business. My business grew so much that I could no longer keep up with the orders. I needed help.

However, I didn’t hire Ah Kay at this point. I actually first met Ah Kay because of my success. He robbed my home and held my daughter at gunpoint as he destroyed my belongings, looking for my hard-earned money. It wasn’t until years later that I heard of his success with offloading immigrants. He’s able to take his small boat out to meet the cargo ships, gather the passengers, and bring them to shore with few glitches. My business has always needed to be the best, so I asked if he would like to work for me. I still remember that amusing phone call:

“Ping Jia, I am so sorry for robbing your home and threatening your daughter. I hope we can move past—”

“That’s what happened in the past. We’re talking business now.”[13]

We went on to lay out the details of our first operation together. When he successfully—and impressively—finished his first operation, we decided to continue our partnership. He seemed to be one of my best investments…until now.

A few days before the Golden Venture was set to arrive, Ah Kay told me that he was not currently in the country. He was in hiding. In a petty attempt to avenge his legacy, he sent two of his men to kill a defected member of the Fuk Ching. He failed and, worried for his life, went into hiding with his personal bodyguard. When I tried arguing with him about his actions, he promised me his two brothers would be there to get the job done. I was fine with this adjustment, but, just before the offload took place, the brothers were attacked and killed by the defected gang member. So, no one was there for the boat. His one job. By the time I heard about the problem, it was too late to do anything. The boat’s crew told my immigrants that they had to swim to shore.[14]

The police were alerted of the issue, the helicopters arrived, and now, here I am, sitting in my beloved shop on 47 East Broadway, watching this event play out on the news. I hear the newscaster repeatedly refer to me as a Snakehead. Why am I being referred to as such a disgusting creature?

My shock over the event quickly turns into a deadly calm. This is going to be traced back to me. I need to start planning—now. All the years of covering my tracks and working with the FBI amounted to nothing. This won’t be good for business. I am Sister Ping! I don’t mess up this badly. I earned my title by rescuing over three thousand people, and now, I will need to relocate and rebuild my business structure.

I stand up from my chair.

I will leave tonight. I will book a ticket and go back to Shengmei. The few remaining villagers are eternally grateful to me for helping their families escape from that hell. They will hide me. This will not be what breaks me. I have connections all around the world. If I’m found somewhere I shouldn’t be, I will just keep moving. All the while, I will continue to help the people I encounter. I will get them to a better place. A place where opportunities are endless as long as you have a big enough imagination.

I am sorry to be leaving this fantasy land but don’t mourn because I know I will return.

I don’t know how or when, but I’m sure of it.

I’ll always make it back to where I belong.


March 16, 2006

New York City, New York

 

I wonder how they would feel, if our positions were reversed.

The prosecutor’s actions usually don’t grate on me this much, but today, the courtroom is full of my family and friends. They know I did what was right, but I don’t want them to witness me being slandered.

I can’t take this anymore. Hochheiser has told me time and again to remain quiet, but his counsel hasn’t helped me thus far. I won’t listen to him now. As he finally sits down after delivering his closing remarks, I rise. Ignoring his scalding eyes and the way his graying mustache sticks out from his reddening face, I signal to my translator that I would like to speak. I give her only a second’s notice before I speak.

“I only cried once in court,” I slowly begin, relaying the time I was in court after Ah Kay robbed my house and held my precious daughter at gunpoint.

“I was a small businesswoman in Chinatown. If Ah Kay had come and robbed me those times, you can imagine how many other people took advantage of me. In every event described, I was not the criminal, I was the victim.”[15]

By the time I finished recounting how every major episode used against me in my trial was concocted by Snakeheads, I think I have convinced them. I am the victim. I don’t feel bad denying these allegations. I never acted out of malice. I helped people achieve their goals. Even if my actions could be perceived as wrong, how can I be fully blamed? I am still a victim in this case; I am a victim of my environment. First, growing up in China during one of the country’s most trying times and then witnessing the lack of financial stability of my fellow immigrants in the states. I did what needed to be done for survival. I did what I could for my children to have a life. Isn’t that the most human thing someone can do?

I was so lost in my passionate speech that it takes me a minute to orient myself. First, I look at the clock and see I have been speaking for over an hour. I then look over towards Judge Mukasey and freeze. He is clearly upset and irritated. His glasses fog up as he tries to temper himself.

After a prolonged lecture about court etiquette and the reasons why I am an evil liar, I hear the worst declaration of my life.[16]

“Cheng Chui Ping, you are hereby sentenced to thirty-five years in prison on all counts. This includes two counts of hostage taking, two counts of…”[17]

Maximum sentencing. Suffice to say, this was not what I expected. I thought my monologue was inspiring. I thought I could get out of this. I’m taken aback but quickly compose myself, not wanting anyone to see how devastated I am by the verdict. My outward composure soon seeps into my thoughts as I consider what just happened.

I know I’m innocent. All I ever did was help those in need. I helped a countless number of desperate immigrants escape their awful lives in China and come to this land. I never did anything wrong.

Martyr. That’s what I am. I would die for this cause. Spending life in prison has to be on par with death. I’m giving up my way of life for them. For all the immigrants I helped achieve the American Dream. After my sentence is read, I am ushered toward both the door of the courtroom and the car that will take me to the place I will spend the remainder of my life.

In this moment, I do not feel afraid. I do not feel regret or disappointment. I feel pride. I would do it all again if given the chance.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I am able to look up as I pass my family. I smile and give them a small wave.[18] I lock eyes with Tak, my husband of thirty-seven years. My rock. His look of confusion quickly turns to one of realization as he reads my thoughts. He knows what I did was right and is proud I was able to help so many individuals that came from nothing, like us. His is the last face I see before I’m pushed through the door.

I hear the courtroom door close behind me.

I don’t look back.


[1] Sister Ping’s lawyer, Lawrence Hochheiser, was reported to have quoted Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in his closing remarks to the jury (https://www.justice.gov/osg/brief/ping-v-united-states-opposition)

[2] The thoughts of the main character are fictional and based on her personality and actions documented in research

[3] After her trial, Sister Ping argued her 6th Amendment rights were violated as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel (https://www.justice.gov/osg/brief/ping-v-united-states-opposition)

[4] Crimes listed on the United States Department of Justice’s website at https://www.justice.gov/osg/brief/ping-v-united-states-opposition

[5] This information can be found in “Sister Ping: The Pirate Whose Treasure Was the American Dream” by Laura Duncombe (https://pictorial.jezebel.com/sister-ping-the-pirate-whose-treasure-was-the-american-1713747344)

[6] Detailed information about Mao Zedong’s rule was found in Chapter 14 of Misha Glenny’s McMafia

[7] Information about China during the Cultural Revolution was found in Chapter 14 of Misha Glenny’s McMafia

[8] Quote and popular saying of Deng Xiaoping; found on page 317 of McMafia by Misha Glenny

[9] This information was taken from “The Snakehead” by Patrick Radden Keefe (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[10] This is based off her first business in America, described in “Sister Ping: The Pirate Whose Treasure Was the American Dream”

[11] Information found on the Golden Venture was found at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead

[12] Description of Ah Kay and the Fuk Ching found in “The Snakehead” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[13] Based off of the actual phone conversation they had described in “The Snakehead” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[14] The information regarding Ah Kay’s dispute and his fleeing were found in “The Snakehead” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[15] These are direct quotes from Ping’s trial on March 16, 2006 (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[16] This sequence of events is based off of Keefe’s recollection of events in his article “The Snakehead” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

[17] This is based off of the sentences Sister Ping received in court (https://www.justice.gov/osg/brief/ping-v-united-states-opposition)

[18] Sister Ping smiled and waved at her family as she was escorted from the courtroom (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-snakehead)

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