The Snakehead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

The Snakehead
by Patrick Radden Keefe
Anchor Books HK$136

The Snakehead is waiting to be made into a movie, although any director would have a tough time doing a better job than Patrick Radden Keefe at portraying New York's Chinatown in its various nefarious shades. The story centres on the Golden Venture, which in 1993 ran aground off New York. Of its 300 passengers, each of whom had paid US$35,000 to be smuggled into the US, 10 died. Helping to finance the venture was a Fujianese immigrant, Cheng Chui-ping, whose portrait Keefe paints with dexterity. Cheng, who was eventually nabbed in Hong Kong in 2000 and handed a 35-year sentence, contributed to the book by responding, from jail, to questions posed by Keefe (although her initial reaction to his request was 'What's in it for me?'). The book also benefits from interviews with some of the boat's passengers, who were held for three years while the US government worked out what to do with them. Among the book's many characters, Cheng stands out for being the most complex, and amoral. However, as Keefe points out, she was regarded as a hero by her compatriots desperate for a new life in America. The Snakehead is a keeper.