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Cheng Chui Ping (simplified Chinese: 郑翠萍; traditional Chinese: 鄭翠萍; pinyin: Zhèng Cuìpíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng Ts'ui-p'ing), also known as Sister Ping (萍姐 Píng Jiě; January 9, 1949 – April 24, 2014), ran a notorious Chinese human smuggling operation from New York City and Hong Kong from 1984 until 2000, when she was arrested in Hong Kong, extradited back to the United States, and held in U.S. Federal prison until her death in April 2014.
Ping was born January 9, 1949 in the poor farming village of Shengmei ("Prospering Beauty") in northern Fujian province, China. Ping's father, Cheng Chai Leung, who was from Shengmei, and mother, who was from a neighboring village, had five children in all. Ping was 10 months old when Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China. She attended the village elementary school as a child and worked on the family farm, helping raise pigs and rabbits, chopping wood, and tending a vegetable garden. According to Ping's biographer, Patrick Radden Keefe, who interviewed her in 2008, Ping said that as a girl of 12 years old she survived the capsizing of a rowboat in which she had been traveling to another village to cut wood for kindling. She recalled of the incident that all of the people in the boat who had been rowing and had been holding an oar when the boat turned over managed to survive, while "the two people who were lazy and sat back while others worked ended up dead. This taught me to work hard." Ping also said that during the Cultural Revolution, she became a leader of the Red Guard in her village.
When she was 15, her father left the family and traveled to the United States as a merchant marine crewman. He stayed in the US for 13 years, working as a dishwasher and sending money home to the family every few months. He was apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities and deported back to China in 1977. When he returned to China, Ping's father entered into the business of smuggling people.
Sister Ping married a man from a neighboring village, Cheung Yick Tak, in 1969. They had a daughter, Cheng "Monica" Hui Mui, in 1973; Ping later had 3 other children. The family moved to Hong Kong in 1974. Passing through Canada, they settled in New York City's Chinatown, in the United States, in 1981, where they opened a shop, the Tak Shun Variety Store, catering to homesick Fujianese immigrants.
Chui Ping Cheng died on April 24, 2014 at the age of 65 of cancer. She was interned at a prison in Texas.
Sister Ping began her smuggling career in the early 1980s as a one-woman operation, smuggling handfuls of fellow villagers from China into the United States a few at a time by commercial airline using faked identification documents.
Business picked up after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 when the U.S. government offered Chinese students present in the United States at the time the opportunity to stay. Thousands flooded into the country from abroad using false papers to establish a claim to residency under the new rule.
Mass operations by cargo ship
By the time she was arrested in 2000, she had smuggled more than one thousand[disputed ] people into the United States, sometimes hundreds at a time via cargo ship, where her "customers" were imprisoned below deck for months at a time with little food and water. On at least one occasion, one of the rickety boats Sister Ping used for offloading customers from a larger vessel capsized, drowning fourteen.
Ping's smuggling operation was fraught with numerous problems, some of which made headlines. One such story involved a cargo ship named the Golden Venture which was intentionally run aground off the beaches of Queens, New York in June 1993 when the offloading vessel failed to rendezvous with it. The Golden Venture had 286 would-be immigrants from China in its hold, all of whom had been traveling for months, many near starvation. Ten people drowned in the incident.
International network and collections
Sister Ping hired scores of people in several different countries to move her human cargo for her, hold them hostage until their smuggling fees were paid, and collect those fees from them. Sometimes her customers were lucky and arrived safely in the United States where they paid the exorbitant fees Sister Ping charged, and were released.
To ensure her customers paid their smuggling fees, Sister Ping hired armed thugs from the Fuk Ching, Chinatown’s most vicious and feared gang, to transport and guard her customers in the United States. The presence of these gang members guaranteed that Sister Ping got paid the $25,000 to $45,000 fee she demanded for the trip.
Sister Ping also ran a money transmitting business out of her Chinatown variety store. She used this business to collect smuggling fees from family members of her own customers, and also collected ransom money on behalf of other alien smugglers.
Scope and notoriety
Individuals who conducted such Chinese alien smuggling operations are known as "snakeheads" from the Chinese translation for human-smuggler. Almost all of the immigrants whom Sister Ping harbored came from Fujian province. She was renowned as the most notorious snakehead, operating the largest, most sophisticated operation of its kind, which became international in scale. The U.S. Department of Justice declared at her sentencing that "Sister Ping is one of the first, and ultimately most successful, alien smugglers of all time."
Ping fled the United States in advance of an indictment in 1994. The FBI and INS spent the following six years attempting to apprehend her, but she was believed to reside mainly in China, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. In 2000, she was arrested in Hong Kong, and eventually extradited to New York. After a jury trial before the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York she was convicted in June 2005 on three separate counts, including one count of conspiring to commit alien smuggling, hostage taking, money laundering and trafficking in ransom proceeds and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Sister Ping served part of her sentence in Federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut (BOP #05117-055) and died in a Texas prison in April 2014.
Sister Ping and the Golden Venture are the subject of Patrick Radden Keefe's 2009 book, The Snakehead. The Snakehead is currently being developed into a motion picture for director Stephen Gaghan.
The Golden Venture disaster and the lives of some of the passengers are the subject of Peter Cohn's 2006 documentary Golden Venture.
- Preston, Julia (2006-03-17). "Ringleader Gets 35-Year Term in Smuggling of Immigrants". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
- Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385521307.
- "Cheng Chui Ping: 'Mother of Snakeheads'". BBC. March 17, 2006. Archived from the original on November 12, 2012. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
- Kilgannon, Corey; Singer, Jeffrey E. (April 27, 2014). "Cheng Chui Ping, a Smuggler of Immigrants, Dies in Prison, but Is Praised in Chinatown". New York Times (New York, New York: New York Times). Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- Hadad, Herbert; Gaffney, Megan; Tasker, Heather; Kelly, Bridget (March 16, 2006). "Sister Ping Sentenced To 35 Years In Prison For Alien Smuggling, Hostage Taking, Money Laundering And Ransom Proceeds Conspiracy". U.S. Department of Justice. New York, New York: United States Attorney Southern District of New York. Archived from the original on April 28, 2014. Retrieved April 24, 2014. "CHENG CHUI PING, a/k/a "Sister Ping," was sentenced today to 35 years in prison for her role in leading an international alien smuggling ring. Sister Ping is one of the first, and ultimately most successful, alien smugglers of all time."
- Finckenauer, James O. (December 6, 2007). "Chinese Transnational Organized Crime: The Fuk Ching". National Institute of Justice. Washington, D.C.: National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Archived from the original on September 13, 2008. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- Patrick Radden Keefe, "The Snakehead: The Criminal Odyssey of Chinatown's Sister Ping," The New Yorker, April 24, 2006
- Patrick Radden Keefe, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (Doubleday, 2009)