A Smuggler of Immigrants Dies in Prison, but Is Praised in Chinatown

Corey Kilgannon and Jeffrey Singer, New York Times, April 27, 2014

To the authorities, Cheng Chui Ping was the “mother of all snakeheads,” a ruthless businesswoman who smuggled thousands of Chinese emigrants into the United States.

Prosecutors said she ran a smuggling ring that amassed a $40 million fortune in two decades putting desperate passengers on faulty ships. Many drowned. And, they said, for those who made the trip safely but could not pay, Ms. Cheng sent vicious gangs to abduct and beat, torture or rape them until relatives made good on their debts.

When the Golden Venture, a rusty freighter loaded with 300 starving immigrants, ran aground off the Rockaways in 1993, and 10 people died, Ms. Cheng became the enduring symbol of the traffic in human cargo, and helped popularize the term snakehead, from the Chinese translation for human-smuggler.

But along East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown this weekend, where Ms. Cheng was known as kindly Sister Ping, the untold numbers of Fujianese immigrants who arrived here with her aid, or knew others who did, were mourning her death at age 65 in federal prison with the respect accorded a folk hero.

“Without Sister Ping, I could never have dreamed of coming here,” said Zhang Yuanjing, 69, a Chinatown resident, whose passage to New York from Fujian province in 1989 was financed and arranged by Ms. Cheng. Like other Fujianese quoted in this article, he spoke in Mandarin.

Here, far from the Texas prison where she died of cancer on Thursday, Ms. Cheng was remembered for living modestly, working long, hard hours in a restaurant at 47 East Broadway, and above all, helping immigrants–whether wiring or lending money, or finding them jobs as wok chefs or deliverymen. They called her a snakehead who truly cared about her passengers: They said she would forgive fees if things went awry, and paid for the burials of passengers who died in transit.

In smuggling circles, her name had been synonymous with dependability, said Mr. Zhang, who recalled making his way to New York via Hong Kong, Belize and Mexico, and paying Ms. Cheng a $20,000 passage fee in installments once he found work.

“We can only say good things about her,” he said.


In Chinatown, Ms. Cheng built what officials called the biggest immigrant-smuggling operation ever investigated in New York–one that had a sizable role in a great migration of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, many of them Fujianese, to the United States in the 1980s and ’90s.

Hers was also one of the most lucrative smuggling rings, utilizing a maze of countries and transport methods.

She charged a hefty price–as much as $35,000 or more per person–and her life story became well known: her childhood in the village of Shengmei, learning the smuggling trade, then moving to New York in 1982 and setting up an illegal banking network that helped immigrants wire money to China.

After the Golden Venture disaster, Ms. Cheng fled the United States. She was arrested in 2000 in Hong Kong and eventually tried in federal court in Manhattan. She was serving a 35-year sentence after being convicted of smuggling charges in 2006.


Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • How many more of these vile creatures are out there, smuggling in untold numbers to drown us in a sea of mud races. The crime should carry the death penalty, as a deterrent. And where’s the $40 million that she earned from her crimes? And why are her clients still here in the US after being smuggled in? They should have shared a cell with her.

    • borogirl54

      They probably have pending asylum cases so because of that, they have been released pending their court hearings.

    • So CAL Snowman

      This Cheng Chui Ping reminds me of another female “immigrant” by the name of Griselda Blanco – known as La Madrina, the Black Widow, the Cocaine Godmother and the Queen of Narco-Trafficking, was a drug lord of the Medellín Cartel and a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine drug trade and underworld during the 1970s and early 1980s. She was a main member of the Medellín Cartel and the mentor of Pablo Escobar

      • shmo123

        I can only hope the American taxpayer wasn’t footing the bill for Cheng Chui Ping’s cancer treatments, but at least “La Madrina” got her comeuppance and was deported before she was shot down in the streets of Medellin.

      • SouthronKittie

        I saw Blanco featured on a series called “American” Gangsters. Of all the features I’ve seen, the only White gangster has been an Italian mobster. All the rest have been black and brown “Americans.”

  • borogirl54

    I guess she did not do what the Mexican coyotes do, abandon their charges in the desert.

  • Martel

    Even though Asians are clearly less harmful then say, African, Mexican or Arab immigrants, every American should prefer the majority of immigrants coming from Europe.

    • Einsatzgrenadier

      Many would argue that the East Asians mass immigrating to the US are far more dangerous than blacks, hispanics and others because of their greater self-selection, intelligence and love of hard work, combined with their strong ethnocentric tendencies. This allows them to infiltrate the upper echelons of western society, driving whites out of both the professions and government.

      • Martel

        Both present unique risks and challenges to whites.

      • benvad

        Don’t count on them for loyalty to the nation, they are for themselves. That’s something whites clearly don’t comprehend anymore.

  • David Ashton

    Where’s John Engelman when we need him?

    • Magician


    • FeuerSalamander

      maybe she booked a vacation for him…on a boat

      • IstvanIN

        Me make rove to Engerman wrong time, or until I get gleen card.

        • FeuerSalamander

          oh rook at you, you cannot speak engrish! It is “make ruhv”, not “make rove”

    • FeuerSalamander

      at the foonerarhr

    • FeuerSalamander

      still waiting for his mail order, Sister Ping bride

    • Strike_Team

      That troll ran him/them off. No doubt the crew is still here, just posting under other names with adjusted scripts.

    • HamletsGhost

      He’s probably going to her funeral to pay his respects and to thank her spirit for bringing in all those wonderfully superior Asians to the US.

    • benvad

      Helping the family with funeral arrangements.

    • JohnEngelman


      • David Ashton

        This means “still” (here) in Chinese phonetics, folks!

      • FeuerSalamander

        How about that RECOVERY eh john. Guess you think economic growth slowing down to 0.1% is a recovery.

        • And, in spite of the fact that the definition of GDP now includes some of the most nebulous things, all we can accomplish is 0.1%.

  • FeuerSalamander

    Sister Ka-Ching! “One mohl immiglant … Ka-Ching”

  • FeuerSalamander

    She killed Manhattan’s “Little Italy”

  • IstvanIN

    5th columns, 6th columns, 7th columns, we are not a nation anymore!

  • shmo123

    I wonder what the penalty for smuggling is in China? Would they shoot her and send her family a bill for the bullet?

    • IstvanIN

      They wouldn’t charge the family for the bullet but they would parade her through the streets from the prison to the execution grounds. (yes, they do that on the back of a flatbed).

      • Outside Nanjing in 1987, I watched an execution. The men who were executed had lured young women into the city with promises of good jobs, and then raped them and forced them into prostitution. Two of the men were brothers.

        They all went down right away.

  • Bossman

    Your post is confusing to me. Is the USA great or is it not? Many countries aspire to become rich like the U.S. This article is about a Chinese woman yet you’re ranting about black people.

  • Whirlwinder

    Those poor people could have saved their money by just coming to America and asking for political asylum. This seems to work for everybody now, why not then? Our immigration system needs a serious overhaul and laws that will be enforced to reduce the numbers of people in this country who could not even be counted as assets in their own country.

    • model1911

      Or going into Mexico and sneaking into the US that way.

      • Jen Anderson

        Chinese people need a visa to travel to Mexico, as well. Cost for Chinese to get smuggled in through Mexico averages $50-60k per person (2011-2012 figure).

    • Jen Anderson

      Residents of many countries (including China) need a visa to come to the US. If they can’t prove significant ties to the community in their home country that ensure that they will return, (owning a house, having a good paying job, etc.) their visa application is denied and their application fee (often several month’s salary) is not refunded. They can’t apply for asylum unless they find a way to enter the US.

  • Annabelle Pettyjohn

    I read an article which stated that 25% of China wants to immigrate to the western world. This is our future if we do not ban together as a group and start demanding representation from our government.

    • Magician

      The maistream media in China must be continuously showing the viewers beautiful young blond women instead of the current situation of Detroit or the residents of the city

    • Intrep1d

      That percentage is actually relatively low compared to what it is in other countries. In any case, keep in mind that the US purposefully markets itself as a desirable place to be.

  • Intrep1d

    Chinese Americans are 1% of the US population. They don’t make up a significant portion of our government, media or businesses. They aren’t given the pity heaped on other minorities. Pick your battles carefully.

    • FeuerSalamander

      Silly woman, a catastrophic dam breach begins with a hairline crack. It is the size of the reservoir behind the dam that is important.

  • Truth Teller

    Another RAPIST, russian, armenian, arab, asian, persian israeli indian and other snakes and thieves story from the nationwide headquarters of white collar ( immigrant) crime) Los Angeles.

    I was at kinko’s on a Sunday am with a big job. They told me it would take at least an hour, did I want to wait or come back? That kinko’s has coffee, cookies, newspapers % magazines and a nice seating area. So I opened a paper and poured some coffee.
    I heard a voice, “are you a native speaker”? It was a middle aged chinese woman wanting me to translate and explain for her. I hear it all the time and I usually do it.
    She explained that although she spoke and understood English well, she could not read it and would I read her the lawsuit she had just copied out loud for her.
    I did so.
    She owned 2 apartment houses, value 1.2 million and 1.7 million and Glendale Federal Savings was foreclosing. A deed of trust is a legal document attesting that (1) one owns a piece of real property and (2) the amount of equity vs mortgage and other debts of the property. In California, a deed of trust can be used as a down payment to purchase other real property. Both properties had been purchased with deeds of trust as the down payment.

    During the foreclosure process, Glendale Federal discovered that both deeds of trust were not exactly fraudulent. The woman’s brothers had come to the US and started a legitimate trust company. They then issued deeds of trust on properties including govt properties, schools etc. They issued these deeds of trust to other chinese and to themselves. The brothers paid the mortgage for 2 years and then stopped but of course still collected the rents. When Glendale Federal began fore closure proceedings, they gifted the buildings to the sister. I guess they did not realize that mortgages are a debt on the property, not a personal debt on the owner.

    Out of town friends and relatives often ask me, “How in the world do you know these things?” I reply, I just live in Los Angeles in the middle of it all.

  • Truth Teller

    Another model minority story that goes back to the 1930’s at least. It’s Re ghost employees and unemployment insurance fraud. The chinese sweatshop owners create a ghost employee, say Linda Liu. They pay the unemployment, but not the social security, medicare, workmen’s comp etc. The different agencies are not compatible and don’t cross check. The chinese sweatshop owners know exactly how long and at what wages an employee needs to work to scam off the biggest amount from unemployment.
    After a couple years Linda Liu gets laid off from “lack of work”. Nowadays it is all internet.
    At one time the claimant actually had to got to an unemployment office. But with the chinese facility for forged IDs that was no problem.

    The chinese sweatshop owners often managed to pay their actual work force and support all other expenses from these fraudulent unemployment claims.

    Some years ago i read about a mexican immigrant woman who did the same thing. She did not even have a real business, just a corporation and a post office box. She got away with more than $300,000 before she was caught But the San Francisco chinese have been doing it since the 1930’s at least.