Cheng Chui Ping, known as Sister Peng, died in early June in New York’s Chinatown of pancreatic cancer. Serving a thirty-five-year sentence for operating a sophisticated immigration-smuggling ring that transported untold thousands of undocumented migrants from southeast China to the United States, Cheng Chui Ping died in a federal prison in Texas.
In the summer of 2005 the New York Post and the Daily News were among several newspapers that reported on the widely publicized trial of Sister Ping. In China, human smugglers are known as Snakeheads, and the prosecutors who put Sister Ping on trial called her “the mother of all snakeheads.” Despite being heralded by the tabloids with headlines such as “Evil Incarnate,” many in the community of Chinatown rallied to her cause, defending Sister Ping as a heroic figure who had escorted a generation of immigrants out of poverty in China to a better life in the United States.
Sister Ping’s customers knew that, in a single year slicing broccoli in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. would yield a sum greater than a decade’s earning back home. Immigrants entered the country via airplanes, using phony documents, or on rafts across the frigid rapids of the Niagara River, and eventually on big ships.
Sister Ping was a ruthless personality. To prevent any defaulting of fees, she hired a violent Fujianese street gang to hold her customers, in some instances at gunpoint, until relatives, friends or a loan shark provided the funds.
In June 1993, a tramp steamer called the Golden Venture ran aground off of Rockaway, Queens, with nearly three hundred undocumented Fujianese passengers on board. Sister Ping was one of the snakeheads behind the voyage and fearing a crackdown on immigrant smuggling, slipped out of the country and returned to her home village in China. She controlled operations remotely from this new location. However, in 1998, another one of her ships capsized off the coast of Guatemala, killing fourteen passengers from China and she was finally arrested in Hong Kong, in 2000.
Sister Ping remained defiant to her crimes. Illegal migration is a dangerous business and Mattathias Schwartz recently wrote for The New Yorker about the lengths that African migrants will go to wash ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Jim Dwyer, at the Times, published a heart breaking piece about the death of a young Ecuadorian girl seeking to reconnect with her parents in the United States.
According to Sister Ping, her contributions to her customer entering the country, outweighed the costs. “My life remains valuable,” she insisted, during the sentencing phase of her trial. “It remains valuable.”
In Chinatown, many people agreed with her view. Her death was front-page news in New York’s Chinese-language newspapers, with articles describing her “righteousness,” and calling her an “immigration hero.” “Her warmth moved everyone,” a local man who came from her village back in Fujian told the Times.
Sister Ping’s family still owns a Chinese restaurant at 47 East Broadway, opposite which lies the Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple. In this vestibule, incense burns alongside platters of apples and little bowls of dried fruit, and a framed photograph of Sister Ping sits in a brightly lit main room. A group of monks in orange robes can be found leading mourners from Chinatown in a funereal chant.
Source: The New Yorker