**A Smuggler of Immigrants, Dies in
Prison, but Is Praised in Chinatown
To the authorities, Cheng Chui Ping was the “mother of all snakeheads,” a ruthless businesswoman who smuggled thousands of Chinese emigrants into the United States.Prosecutors said she ran a smuggling ring that amassed a $40 million fortune in two decades putting desperate passengers on faulty ships. Many drowned. And, they said, for those who made the trip safely but could not pay, Ms. Cheng sent vicious gangs to abduct and beat, torture or rape them until relatives made good on their debts.
When the Golden Venture, a rusty freighter loaded with 300 starving immigrants, ran aground off the Rockaways in 1993, and 10 people died, Ms. Cheng became the enduring symbol of the traffic in human cargo, and helped popularize the term snakehead, from the Chinese translation for human-smuggler.
But along East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown this weekend, where Ms. Cheng was known as kindly Sister Ping, the untold numbers of Fujianese immigrants who arrived here with her aid, or knew others who did, were mourning her death at age 65 in federal prison with the respect accorded a folk hero.
“Without Sister Ping, I could never have dreamed of coming here,” said Zhang Yuanjing, 69, a Chinatown resident, whose passage to New York from Fujian province in 1989 was financed and arranged by Ms. Cheng. Like other Fujianese quoted in this article, he spoke in Mandarin.
Here, far from the Texas prison where she died of cancer on Thursday, Ms. Cheng was remembered for living modestly, working long, hard hours in a restaurant at 47 East Broadway, and above all, helping immigrants — whether wiring or lending money, or finding them jobs as wok chefs or deliverymen. They called her a snakehead who truly cared about her passengers: They said she would forgive fees if things went awry, and paid for the burials of passengers who died in transit.
Odd that the people (or at least some of them) who were “exploited” by Ms Cheng seem grateful to her for making it possible to get here.