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.

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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.

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