Sister Ping

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Sister Ping
Native name
Cheng Chui Ping
Born(1949-01-09)January 9, 1949
DiedApril 24, 2014(2014-04-24) (aged 65)
Resting placeKensico Cemetery
OccupationRed Guard leader, shopkeeper, human smuggler
Years active1984 until 2000
OrganizationFuk Ching (Snakeheads)
Home townShengmei, Fuzhou, Fujian, China
Criminal statusConvicted
Spouse(s)Cheung Yick Tak
Criminal chargecommit alien smuggling, hostage taking, money laundering, trafficking in ransom proceeds
Penalty35 years in prison

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), was a woman who ran a successful human smuggling operation between Hong Kong and New York City from 1984 until 2000. She was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000 and extradited to the United States in 2003.[1] She was held in U.S. Federal prison until her death in 2014. Nicknamed "The Mother of All Snakeheads", a translation of the Chinese word for "smuggler".

Early life[edit]

Ping was born January 9, 1949, in the poor farming village of Shengmei, Mawei, Fuzhou ("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.[2] Ping was 10 months old when Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China.[2] 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 twelve 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."[2] Ping also said that during the Cultural Revolution, she became a leader of the Red Guard in her village.[2]

When she was fifteen, her father left the family and traveled to the United States as a merchant marine crewman. He stayed in the U.S. for thirteen years, working as a dish-washer 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 people smuggling.[2]

Sister Ping married a man from a neighboring village, Cheung Yick Tak, in 1969.[2] They had a daughter, Cheung "Monica" Hui Mui, in 1973;[2] Ping later had three sons.[3] The family moved to Hong Kong in 1974, where Ping became a successful businesswoman and opened a factory in Shenzhen, China.[2] In June 1981, with the help from an elderly couple, Ping successfully applied to be a nanny in New York[4] and the family passed through Canada,[5] and on 17 November 1981, they settled in Chinatown, Manhattan, in the United States, where they opened a shop, the Tak Shun Variety Store, which catered to homesick Fuzhounese immigrants.[2] During her time in New York, Ping lived at 14 Monroe Street, Knickerbocker Village, a modest lower middle class development.[6]

Smuggling business[edit]

Early career[edit]

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 forged identification documents.[7] She charged $35,000 or more to transport interested immigrants into the United States.[1]

In the spring of 1989, evidence against Sister Ping was gathered in sting by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Toronto International Airport. Several months later, Ping was arrested and pleaded guilty to alien smuggling. She was sentenced to six months in prison in Butler County, Pennsylvania. As she spoke little English, she was isolated from other prisoners and readily agreed to provide a Chinese-speaking FBI agent with information on Chinatown's underworld, she received a reduced sentence and served four months.[8]

Business picked up after the Tiananmen Square protests of 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.[5]

Mass operations by cargo ship[edit]

On June 6, 1993 the Golden Venture ship ran aground in Queens, New York with 286 illegal immigrants on board. One of the criminal leaders, Guo Liang Chi, named Ping as an investor. In December 1994, an indictment was brought before a Manhattan federal court, stating that Ping had smuggled around 3,000 Fujianese to the United States since 1984 with the help of the American-Chinese gang Fuk Ching.[9] Sometimes hundreds of people were smuggled in at a time via cargo ship and imprisoned below deck for months at a time with little food and water. In 1998, one of the smaller boats Sister Ping used for offloading customers from a larger vessel capsized off the coast of Guatemala, drowning fourteen.[7][8]

International network and collections[edit]

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.[7]

To ensure her customers paid their smuggling fees, Sister Ping hired armed thugs from the Fuk Ching,[10] 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.[7]

Sister Ping also ran a money transmitting business out of her Chinatown variety store.[7]

Scope and notoriety[edit]

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."[7] It is estimated that Ping amassed around $40 million.[11]

Legal pursuit[edit]

In 1994, Sister Ping was invited to Beijing, China along with other overseas notables of Fujianese descent to celebrate an anniversary celebration of the Communist Party. She was arrested when she arrived but according to police and friends, she paid bribes to escape custody. Later in December 1994, Ping learned of the US indictment and she fled, returning to China where she continued her business.[12]

The FBI and INS spent the following five 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. On April 17, 2000 Interpol searched passenger lists for flights from Hong Kong to New York, they found her son's name. More than 40 agents from the Hong Kong narcotics bureau waited at the airport, apprehended her at around noon and she was fingerprinted and arrested.[12] At the time Ping was carrying three passports, including a fake Belize one with her photo but in the name of Lilly Zheng.[8] She fought extradition but was eventually sent back to New York in July 2003 and held at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn[11][13][12][14]

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.[7]

Ping was interviewed in Danbury in June 2013 and said, “Being locked up for over 10 years allowed me to think about my previous life, my heart calmed down and I started to feel that jail was the safest place for me. I keep telling myself not to think much about the future and live life by the moment." She also said "I cannot believe they jailed me for 35 years! 35 years! In a way I was killed by the FBI agents and tainted witnesses.".[15]

Sister Ping served part of her sentence in Federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut (BOP #05117-055). In 2013, it was announced that Danbury would be reverted to a male-only facility. In the same year, Ping was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and transferred to the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Texas, to receive cancer treatment.[3]


Ping's health had deteriorated in prison, with high cholesterol and blood lipids; she lost 17 pounds in the last two years of her life. Aged 65, Ping died quietly at noon on April 24, 2014, surrounded by her family at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Texas.[3]

Her funeral took place on May 23, 2014 at the Boe Fook Funeral Home on Canal Street in Manhattan with thousands of mourners.[16]

Her body was laid to rest at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla.[17]

Cultural references[edit]

Sister Ping and the Golden Venture are the subject of Patrick Radden Keefe's 2009 book, The Snakehead.[18]

The Golden Venture disaster and the lives of some of the passengers are the subject of Peter Cohn's 2006 documentary Golden Venture.[19]

In August 2016, it was reported that a motion picture entitled The Snakehead had been nine years in the making, written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong. The film has not yet been released.[20]


  1. ^ a b Preston, Julia (2006-03-17). "Ringleader Gets 35-Year Term in Smuggling of Immigrants". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385521307.
  3. ^ a b c "Stolen Emperor Ping Sister died sixty-five years old". World Journal. April 26, 2014. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  4. ^ "Stolen Queen". July 24, 2017. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "Cheng Chui Ping: 'Mother of Snakeheads'". BBC. March 17, 2006. Archived from the original on November 12, 2012. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  6. ^ "Where the Snakehead Slithered". New York Media LLC. July 26, 2009. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g 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" (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice. New York, New York: United States Attorney Southern District of New York. Archived from the original (PDF) 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.
  8. ^ a b c Keefe, Patrick Radden (April 24, 2006). "The Snakehead". The New Yorker. New York, New York: The New Yorker. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  9. ^ Bradford, Sarah (August 1, 2002). "'Big Sister Ping' closer to US trial as extradition appeal rejected". South China Morning Post. Hong Kong: South China Morning Post. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  10. ^ Finckenauer, James O. (December 6, 2007). "Chinese Transnational Organized Crime: The Fuk Ching" (PDF). National Institute of Justice. Washington, D.C.: National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 13, 2008. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
  11. ^ a b Zimmer, Amy (December 15, 2003). "Journey to the Golden Mountain". City Limits. New York, New York. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  12. ^ a b c Barnes, Edward (July 23, 2000). "Two-Faced Woman". Time. New York, New York: Time. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  13. ^ "The Case of the Snakehead Queen". FBI. March 17, 2006. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  14. ^ Patrick Radden Keefe, "The Snakehead: The Criminal Odyssey of Chinatown's Sister Ping", The New Yorker, April 24, 2006
  15. ^ Li, Hong (June 14, 2013). "Sister Ping: A 'snakehead' with a kind heart". Sino-US. Beijing, China: Rhythm Media Group. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  16. ^ Xiaoqing, Rong (May 27, 2014). "Opinion: What Praise of Smuggler Sister Ping Signifies". Voices of NY. New York, New York: Voices of NY. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  17. ^ Destefano, Anthony (May 23, 2014). "Notorious smuggler Sister Ping mourned in Chinatown". Newsday. New York, New York: New York Times. Retrieved August 6, 2018.
  18. ^ Patrick Radden Keefe, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (Doubleday, 2009)
  19. ^
  20. ^ Bai, Stephany (August 26, 2016). "'Linsanity' Director's First Feature Film 'Snakehead' Is Nine Years In The Making". NBC News. Retrieved August 6, 2018.

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