by HEATHER HARLAN
It’s been more than a decade since the freighter Golden Venture, packed with hundreds of Chinese illegal immigrants, ran on the ground at a beach in Queens, killing 10 and stranding many of the rest for years in the legal limbo of INS detention.
Last month, federal prosecutors finally claimed total victory with the conviction of Chen Chui Ping, 57, dubbed the “Mother of all Snakeheads.” Some community observers, however, say the government is overstating their case.
Ping, also known as Big Sister Ping, was hit with the maximum 35-year term by Federal Judge Michael Mukasey, who said Ping’s continued claims of innocence were “simply incredible.”
“I love the United States,” Ping told Mukasey through a translator. She insisted she was a hardworking immigrant helping relatives with loans to pay off smugglers. Ping said that she herself was the victim of threats and extortion by gangs.
The sentencing of the Chinatown grandmother and shopkeeper marked the latest chapter in the sad saga of the Golden Venture. The ironically named vessel’s tragic journey began in Spring of 1993 when the rusty freighter carried 282 Chinese immigrants, in a human smuggling scheme.
During Ping’s monthlong trial, prosecutors described a harrowing 100-day journey, in which the immigrants — who had paid up to $40,000 each — endured overcrowded, squalid conditions and lived in terror of the gang members who guarded them.
When the ship arrived on June 6, off the shore of the Rockaways, gang members panicked when the small fishing boats that were supposed to have been there to offload the ship’s human cargo, did not show up. The ship ran aground on a sandbar 600 feet from shore.
Six drowned in the 53-degree surf. Two others plucked from the water by rescue workers died later at hospitals. Two more bodies washed ashore days later. The survivors were taken to INS detention centers. Half chose to return to China under threat of deportation. Several dozen were given asylum after proving persecution in their homeland. Others fled to Canada or went into hiding. About 40 were held in a county jail in Pennsylvania for four years while their cases wound through the U.S. immigration system. In 1997, President Bill Clinton ordered them released. Many of those still have not been granted permanent residency.
The case also popularized a word few Americans had heard before — “snakehead” — slang that had been used by Chinese to describe the vicious gang members who led people-smuggling operations.
Prosecutors described Ping as the “mother of all snakeheads.” After the incident, Ping fled to China and was finally nabbed by the FBI in 2000 in Hong Kong, while boarding a plane with a false passport. Following a three-year extradition battle, she was returned to New York to stand trial.
Peter Kwong, professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College and an expert on Chinese illegal immigration, questioned whether Ping was truly “the mother of all snakeheads.”
“The fact is, the way these networks operate, there really isn’t any one person completely in charge.” Kwong said. “It’s not a top-bottom operation. It’s more like a partnership with different people, each of whom do their own part. One person specializes in getting the customers, another the boat. And most of the bigger people aren’t in the U.S., they are in China. So when they are able to catch someone, it’s usually a lower player who doesn’t even know what is further up the chain.”
The passengers themselves seemed to show an uneasy ambivalence over their ordeal. Two of them spoke to Newsday in 1998.
“When I see the boat, I feel uncomfortable. How do you put 300 people in there?” asked David Zhang. “I feel sad because people from the Golden Venture died.”
But other passengers did not seem as torn by anger and sadness.
“Seeing this boat again,” said Dennis Liu, 36, “it brings back a lot of memories. It’s what we used to get to freedom.”
More than 20 people have pleaded guilty to charges connected to the trafficking of the immigrants. But Ping’s sentence is by far the longest. Others are serving less than 12 years, including the alleged mastermind of the scheme, Lee Peng Fei; captain of the Golden Venture, Amir Humantal Lomban Tobing; owner of the ship, Lee Kin Sin; and Kwok Ling Kay, ex-boss of Chinatown’s Fuk Ching gang, which operated the human trafficking schemes.
“It would just seem unseemly … that she would receive more time than the murderers who testified against her,” Ping’s attorney said. “I think she’s a better person than they are. I think her crimes have less enormities than theirs did.”
Copyright 2006 Asianweek.com