Work hard, and you can be anything you want to be. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take advantage of the Land of Opportunity. Slogans like these have become the tired parlance of political campaigns on both sides of the aisle, every candidate arguing that the American dream is suffering, but they can revitalize and reinvigorate it. Millennials saddled with mountains of school debt and working minimum wage temp jobs are hard-pressed to muster up a belief in our nation’s central fable, but beyond our shores, the siren call still sings out strongly. Would-be immigrants all over the world bet their life on this dream—braving unimaginable deprivations and danger for a chance to call an American existence their own.

Today there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although numbers are leveling off from the 1980s and 1990s, there are still anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 coming in each year. Two percent of those immigrants come from China—and about half of the Chinese illegal immigrants settle in New York City. They comprise the 2nd largest immigrant group in NYC and are the largest group of Chinese in the US. In New York’s Chinatown, illegal immigrants can read signs in their native language, eat delicacies from back home, get married, shop, and find work. One woman explained to the New York Times in 2001 that she had to come to the US because all of the men from her village had come here. If she wanted to find a spouse, she had to come to America.

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Illegal immigration is more than a policy issue: it is a billion-dollar business. Human smugglers, known as “snakeheads” in China, demand thousands of dollars to assist people to illegally enter the United States. Those transported endure months-long journeys, being stashed in safe-houses in several far-flung countries along the way before arriving at our shores. Transportees are routinely undernourished and under-ventilated, and many die before setting foot on American soil.

Yet these snakeheads are viewed as heroes back in China. According to a DOJ study, the smugglers are mostly in their 30s and 40s, married, and uneducated, with 90 percent having less than a high school degree. They are also 82% male. One woman, however, rose to the top of the smuggling game and made international headlines as the “mother of all snakeheads.” This woman was Cheng Chui Ping, human trafficker and modern pirate.

Cheng Chui Ping never—as far as I know—lifted a sword. She did not sail the seven seas searching for booty or wear an eye patch and a parrot. At first glance, she does not seem to fit under the mantle of a pirate. Many sources, however, included the Wall Street Journal, have called her one, lumping her into the same category as another woman who shares her name: Cheng I Sao.

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Piracy, at its heart, is about stealing something that someone else doesn’t want you to take. Cheng Chui Ping, known as “Sister Ping,” certainly did that. What she stole was the idea that the American dream had to be purchased through legal channels. She used her treasure—the dream itself, monetized—to fund a massive smuggling operation that lasted over two decades and to make herself into a sort of folk hero for the people she helped come into America.

Cheng Chui Ping’s arrest and subsequent trial caused a media storm which made several details of her life widespread, but her early life remained veiled in mystery. Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the New Yorker article “The Snakehead” and the 2009 book of the same name, compiled virtually all that’s know about Sister Ping’s early life. (His work is a must-read for a thorough examination into Ms. Cheng’s life and into the Chinese human smuggling operation in general.)

She was born in Shengmei, a poor farming village in the Fujian province of China, one of five children. Ten months after she was born, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and the Great Leap Forward. Her childhood was spent helping out on the family farm in a life Keefe says she described as “brutal.” As a child, she was traveling by boat to a neighboring village to cut firewood when the boat capsized. Those who had been rowing (like herself) held onto their oars and lived while those who had been sitting idly had nothing to cling to and drowned. Ms. Cheng told Keefe this incident taught her to “work hard.”

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In the 1960s, when Cheng Chui Ping was a teenager, her father left their family to work in the Merchant Marines in America just as the Cultural Revolution swept China. Sister Ping became a leader of the Red Guard—Mao’s paramilitary student group—in her village. When her father was deported home, he began working in the people smuggling business and became a snakehead.

She married Cheng Yick Tack, a fisherman, in 1969. The couple moved to Hong Kong soon afterwards. In 1981, she moved to America without her husband or children. She told the immigration officer in Hong Kong that she planned to work as a servant in America
“for the sake of [her] children’s future,” and she somehow made it to the United States and was able to obtain naturalization papers.

Sister Ping did not work as a servant in America, but instead set up a small convenience store on Hester Street in Manhattan, in the outskirts of Chinatown. Fellow Fujianese expats gathered at her store and it became an unofficial center of the Fujianese community. She started a small service where immigrants could send wages back home to China. The Bank of China offered a similar service, but it took longer and charged a large fee. Sister Ping’s business did so well that she was able to send for her husband and children a year after she was naturalized.

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It was a good time to be coming from China. After a nearly 80-year ban on Chinese immigration, the United States had relaxed several policies, opening up trade and tourism between the two nations. The Bush Sr. administration’s anti-abortion stance meant that couples of childbearing age could claim persecution from the Chinese government and be granted asylum. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, President Bush offered asylum to all students currently in America. As a result, the Chinese population in New York City grew from 20,000 in the 1960s to over 200,000 in the mid-1980s.

Cheng Chui Ping was a part and facilitator of that massive influx of immigrants. After she brought her own family over, she began helping other families make the journey. She started very small, personally supervising each aspect of the trip. Her sister handed out ID documents in Hong Kong, her brother handled the passengers in South America, and Sister Ping herself met the new Americans in San Francisco, where she escorted them to New York City.

In the beginning, all travel was done by airplane and bus. The fee was $18,000, but only a small down-payment was required to start the journey. Upon arrival in Chinatown, the passenger has a few days’ grace period to raise the money, either from relatives or loan sharks. They could also indenture themselves to sweatshops or other places of employment to pay off the debt. Sister Ping’s business model was a successful one and before long she was running a multi-million dollar business.

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Things did not progress without the occasional snag. In 1989, she was caught by an undercover RCMP while trying to smuggle four people into the USA via Canada. She was sentenced to six months in prison, but only served four, due to her willingness to work as a government informant—a role she would continue to play well into the 1990s, even as she continued to smuggle people into the country. Her husband served nine months in prison after he was linked to a raft capsizing near Niagara Falls, drowning four people.

Nonetheless, her reputation was that of a reliable and humane smuggler, which stands in stark contrast to what the prosecutors and the newspapers said about her during her trial. Sister Ping was known to forgive fees if people came into circumstances where they could not pay, and she also paid for the burials of the people who died in transit. A fellow restaurant worker named Song Lin said of her, “She is even better than Robin Hood because he stole from the rich. Sister Ping never stole anything and still helped the poor. She is a good person.”

It seems incomprehensible that a woman who crammed people into ships scarcely better than slave ships where they were fed survival rations of peanuts, rice, and water and charged them handsomely for the privilege could be heralded as better than Robin Hood—but for the Chinese who wanted to come to America, she was a savior. They knew the risks involved in the perilous, often months-long journey, and they accepted them anyway. These immigrants did not expect to be transported to America in luxury; they only wanted to make it there. Sister Ping offered them that chance.

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In the end, Sister Ping became a victim of her own success—the fact that her empire was growing by leaps and bounds, and she could no longer handle the details of every trip herself. She bought a $3 million dollar property at 47 East Broadway to use as a base of her operations and built a restaurant on the first level, Yung Sun—which still stands today and is still owned by her family. She also sub-contracted part of the smuggling business to Ah Kay and his ruthless Fuk Ching gang. Ah Kay and Sister Ping had shared bad blood in the past, but Sister Ping decided that nothing would stand in the way of her business.

Ah Kay, real name Guo Liang Qi, also a Fujianese immigrant, was the leader of the Fuk Ching gang and had developed a useful specialty in the people smuggling business: he was an expert boat off-loader. After a crackdown at the Bangkok airport, Chinese smugglers had switched to sea travel. It was cheaper and required fewer faked documents, but it also made the journey much more dangerous. The passenger boats would wait safely in international waters; Ah Kay would send out small rowboats and fishing boats to collect the passengers and bring them to shore. This procedure was harrowing; off-loaders relied on large waves to raise the small fishing boats high enough that the passengers could leap from one boat to the other. Passengers were sometimes crushed between the two boats or drowned during this endeavor. But Ah Kay did it better than other operators, and Sister Ping hired him to perform the service for her.

Ah Kay’s failure to do his job would be the end of Sister Ping’s career. In 1993, he and his gang were supposed to offload the ship the Golden Venture, a ship paid for by Sister Ping full of more than 300 immigrants (only two of the passengers were Sister Ping’s, the others were all traveling under a rival snakehead’s protection). But some intra-gang warfare prevented Ah Kay or any of his deputies from making the rendezvous with the Golden Venture. The ship was radioed this information and they decided to run the ship aground just outside Rockaway, Queens. The beached ship caused a commotion. Helicopters circled the scene, shouting orders at the passengers in English—a language none of them spoke. Passengers began leaping from the ship to swim ashore, but in their emaciated state many of them lacked the strength. Ten passengers perished, one of whom had been Sister Ping’s. This incident shed a spotlight on the world of human smuggling and alerted the authorities that Sister Ping was still in the game. They vowed to capture her and dismantle her organization.

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When Ah Kay was captured in 1993, he promised to give the FBI Sister Ping. They carefully began to collect evidence and build a case against her, raiding the 47 East Broadway building and interviewing people. In 1994, Sister Ping fled the US and disappeared into her home village of Shengmei, which had benefited greatly from her wealth and took great pains to hide her from the people who were hunting her down. She continued to run her smuggling business from home, sending people in ever more circuitous routes through Asia and South America before they arrived in America. In 2000, Sister Ping was apprehended in the Hong Kong airport, with three passports and $31,000 on her person.

During her 2005 trial, Sister Ping was vilified in the press with headlines like “Mother of All Snakeheads” and “Evil Incarnate.” Star witness Ah Kay (who testified in exchange for a reduced sentence, despite admitting to several murders) explained the ins and outs of the business, while Sister Ping insisted that she was just a businesswoman giving people a better life. Over two decades, she had brought over hundreds of thousands of immigrants and made $40 million dollars.

But eventually, she was convicted of smuggling and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Murderer Ah Kay received only 25 years and ended up serving 12.

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Last spring, Sister Ping died of cancer in a federal prison in Texas. People in Chinatown mourned her effusively, claiming “her warmth moved everyone,” and “I want to be just like her.” Chinese newspapers lamented the death of an “immigration hero.” Even the anti-snakehead activist Steven Wong said “I have no doubt she is a good person… I have heard a lot of bad things about snakeheads, but never anything bad about Sister Ping.” A statue was erected of her in Shengmei. Chinatown’s temples were flooded with mourners praying for her. One man told the New York Times: “I wish to be just like her. I like to help people too.”

The life awaiting her smuggled immigrants was not much more comfortable than the miserable journey. But they could find a job, earn more money in a month than they would in a year, wire it back home for relatives to use in building houses to display their family’s American-based prosperity. It is this strange and universally appealing chance—this possibility of making a name for oneself, of building a big house, of having more freedom—that causes people to climb into leaky boats and airless trucks. For many people, Sister Ping was their gateway to that chance. And so, despite what the Department of Justice said about her, she will always be their hero.

Was Cheng Chui Ping a savior or a villain? An immigration hero or a human trafficker? People will keep debating that. But what’s not in debate is Sister Ping’s rise from poverty to the head of a million-dollar empire, her influence on immigration in Manhattan, the fact that she gave thousands of Chinese the unlawful, attractive chance to start a new life in America.

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Laura Sook Duncombe is either a lawyer who writes part-time or a writer who practices law part-time. She loves all things Sherlock Holmes, musical theater, nerd, and feminist. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her wonderful husband and her giant mutt, Indiana. Her work can be found on The Hairpin, The Toast, or on her blog.