Mourned by the thousands of Chinese who now call Canada and the US their home and vilified by the police in North America, a woman who helped smuggled thousands of illegal immigrants into North America died last week in a Texas prison.
At the height of her prowess in moving people, Cheng Chui Ping the one-time queen of Manhattan’s Chinatown used her underground bank in New York to funnel US$40 million in illegal earnings back to China.
She had turned a mom-and-pop migrant smuggling sideline into a vast global empire with links to organized crime, especially with the notorious Fuk Ching triad and became known as the “Mother of all Snakeheads" - a term used to describe those involved with human smuggling.
Brian McAdam, a former Canadian Immigration Control Officer based in Hong Kong was among the first to warn Ottawa about her exploits.
McAdam was based in Hong Kong in 1991 when he learned about Ping aka " Big Sister Ping" who was bringing in large numbers of illegal immigrants to North America.
"She was likely working on behalf of the Communist Chinese government as one cannot carry out what she did without the complicity of many government officials," he told The Asian Pacific Post in past interviews.
"But at that time everyone thought I was nuts for suggesting what they thought was an absurd idea," said McAdam, who blew the whistle on the Sidewinder project that looked at the involvement of Asian tycoons and triads in Canada. (See Asian Pacific Post, ‘3,500 Chinese spy companies identified in Canada and U.S.’, Aug 7, 2003)
In 2006 , Cheng, 57, who ran her operations out of New York’s Chinatown was sent to jail for 35 years.
US authorities said her jailing puts one of the world’s most prolific human traffickers - or "snakeheads" - behind bars.
She was primarily convicted for organizing the voyage of the Golden Venture, which had about 300 Chinese immigrants on board when it ran aground off New York in 1993. Ten of them died after being pitched into the sea.
The ship had earlier visited Vancouver port without attracting notice.
Prosecutors said the woman ran a multimillion-dollar ring using the violent Fuk Ching Chinese street gang that crammed immigrants into planes, cars and trucks with fake floors and ships with dungeon-like conditions where one bathroom served hundreds of people.
In a New York court, Cheng maintained her innocence, and said she was merely a small business owner in Chinatown who was subjected to threats from gangs and lent money to newly arrived immigrants.
"I did not have the ability to arrange for them to be smuggled. When they were short of money, I lent it to them. ... I simply don’t have the courage to challenge the FBI. The FBI should be helping me. I was taken advantage of a lot in Chinatown," she said.
Nabbing Cheng was no easy task.
For over two decades, police in Canada, the U.S. and Hong Kong were tracking her operations while she smuggling thousands of Chinese migrants into North America and Europe via boats, planes and trucks.
In addition to the Golden Venture disaster, investigators said she financed a deadly 1998 trip in which a ship capsized off the coast of Guatemala, killing 14 people.
She had direct connections with the Public Security Officials in Fuzhou and used them to obtain entry and exit visas for her clients said investigators, confirming what McAdam had warned about 1991.
In Canada, her name began cropping up on wiretaps as the RCMP began tracking Fuk-Ching Triad members, suspected of using native reserves to smuggle people across the Canada-U.S. border. Cheng’s husband, Cheng Yick Tak, was also caught at U.S. airports and border points trying to bulk-carry cash back to China.
In 1989, Cheng’s gang are alleged to have smuggled two women, including a Malaysian and two children, aged 13 and seven, across the Niagara River into the U.S. in a cheap rubber raft. They all drowned.
In another case, the gang is said to have kidnapped three Chinese women in Vancouver who had entered Canada illegally in the early 1990s. The gang demanded ransoms from their families in China after threatening to rape them and force them into prostitution.
Cheng was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to smuggle aliens into the United States, and sentenced to six months in prison after the Niagara drownings.
While serving time, she became an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, providing information on other migrant smugglers called "snakeheads" as well as on the Fuk Ching.
Special agent Peter Lee, her FBI handler said, she "was continuing to engage in illegal activities even while she purported to be co-operating with the FBI."
Both Canadian and U.S. authorities put together major cases against her competitors based on Cheng’s information, according to U.S. court documents. After she got out of jail, Cheng had abandoned the simple small shipments and was allegedly putting together massive loads of migrants. In September 1992, 130 Fujianese arrived in a ship off the coast of Massachusetts. In April 1993, 120 were discovered off the coast of Mexico.
During one month in 1993, at least 25 ships, carrying thousands of immigrants, set off from Fujian crammed with human cargo.
The migrants paid "or promised to pay" amounts ranging from US$20,000 to US$35,000 for the journey. Many were held hostage by members of the Fuk Ching, according to the FBI, and were tortured and beaten until they produced the cash or made payment arrangements, often over several years. Others were threatened with having their feet amputated and sent to their families. Some victims had cellphones taped to their heads so their families overseas could hear them being tortured, one report said.
Born in 1949 in the poor farming village of Shengmei in China’s coastal province of Fujian, Cheng’s parents were peasants and life was hard under the brutal communist regime.
She somehow made her way to Hong Kong and later with the help of human smugglers, to Canada and later New York in 1981. She came alone leaving her husband and family behind.
Shortly after arriving in New York, she began selling clothes on Hester street and cheap food along Chinatown’s East Broadway.
According to New York police she was naturalized shortly later and her husband and children joined her in New York. For 13 years, Cheng worked in Chinatown as a businesswoman and became quite well known in the area, said Justin Yu, a writer.
In 1990, business for Cheng started booming after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
She moved to 47 East Broadway, in New York’s Chinatown paying US$3 million in cash, for a building directly across the street from a branch of the Bank of China - Beijing’s central bank. She later bought the building next door.
Steven Wong, a social activist in New York’s Chinatown who worked for the U.S. government on Fujian migrant cases, said in an earlier interview with The Asian Pacific Post that Cheng was very well established by the late eighties and early nineties.
"People really liked her because she was kind.. she ran a reliable and smooth operation," said Wong. Wong, who has interviewed Cheng said the Yung Sun restaurant was a major activity centre for Fujian migrants.
"It was right across from the Bank of China and she was running a better operation than the bank," he said.
Cheng set up an underground bank in her restaurant and could transfer money overnight just by making phone calls to China. "Nobody wanted to use the bank anymore...they were slow and bureaucratic," said Yu. "The Bank of China took three weeks, charged a bad foreign-exchange rate and delivered the cash in Yuan. Sister Ping delivered the money in hours, charged less and paid in American dollars. It was a better service."
Her prey was mainly mainland Chinese farmers and displaced workers who viewed North America as the "Gold Mountain." Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College in New York, described Ping thus: "There was something very normal, very nondescript about her for someone so powerful. She was plump and dressed like any other middle-aged woman in Chinatown."
Investigators said Cheng was working hand-in-glove with Harvard lawyer Robert Porges. New York prosecutors and investigators allege that Porges and his wife Sheery Lu ran an operation filing thousands of political asylum cases for Chinese immigrants and were the front for international alien smugglers.
The firm, run by Porges, had pocketed over US$13.5 million over filing bogus asylum cases, according to indictments in Manhattan Federal Court.
Porges allegedly advised the smugglers on the best ways to sneak immigrants into the country, and helped concoct false stories of political persecution for the ones who were caught by immigration officials.
Shortly after the 1993 Golden Venture debacle Cheng was invited to China along with other overseas notables of Fujianese descent for an anniversary celebration of the Communist Party.
She saw this as an opportunity to get away from America and use the shelter of her connections in China.
But when she arrived in China she was arrested.
According to police, she bribed her way out of custody and fled to her native village of Shengmei and took refuge at No. 398 Shengmei village "her house" a three-story structure with a pagoda on the roof. She has erected other buildings in town as well. Police say Cheng turned Shengmei into her new headquarters and continued to travel extensively.
She legally held three passports: one from Hong Kong, one from the U.S. and one from Belize. While in China, she allegedly explored new routes and techniques for getting people into the U.S.
One of her key contacts is believed to be Zhuang Rushun the former Public Security Bureau chief in Fujian who has been executed for corruption.
She also worked with another high ranking official in Fujian identified as Fhang Wei. Fhang Wei has been indicted by the US government after a sting operation showed him running passports out of his office.
A contract intelligence operative based in British Columbia played the key role in infiltrating Fhang Wei’s gang in an operation codenamed Squeezeplay.
In April 2000 as Operation Squeezeplay unraveled, her luck ran out.
Interpol agents began checking passenger lists of flights from Hong Kong’s international airport to New York after getting word that she may be trying to slip back into the U.S.
They already suspected she had made at least one undetected trip back to the United States, likely in January 2000, by using a false passport. In the end, it wasn’t her name that gave her away, but that of her son. Interpol agents spotted his name on a flight manifest to New York on April 17, 2000. With more than 40 agents staked out in the Hong Kong airport on the morning of the son’s flight, Cheng eventually was spotted wandering around the airport at about noon.
She was carrying her three passports at the time of her arrest.
For three years, Ping, was housed at Hong Kong’s Tai Lam prison for women, fighting depression and a deportation order to the United States.
In 2006, as she was led away to prison in New York, Cheng said she loved the United States and was happier in jail here than on the street in China.