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A Chinese stowaway with no legal status in US

Rescuers help illegal Chinese immigrants from the grounded Golden Venture in 1993. Photo: Mike Alexander/AP

"The cabin (of the Golden Venture), which was crowded with more than 200 illegal immigrants from China, was just a place for animals to live," Liu Ronggui (alias) told The China Press when he recalled his agonizing experience of being smuggled into the US by a ship 20 years ago.

When he was 27 years old, Liu, an undereducated man from a village in southeastern
China's Fujian province, spent US$20,000 to sneak into the US by sea. Having lived in the US for 20 years, the middle-aged man is still single, and still has no status in the dreamland he has been longing for.

Liu Ronggui refused to show his face when he was interviewed by The China Press. Photo: Li Hong/The China Press

Life on Golden Venture

Liu boarded Golden Venture in Thailand, from which the ship sailed. "The ship was shabby and was disguised as a cargo ship with mooring ropes and empty containers piling up on the deck," Liu recalled.

As Liu remembered, 30 or 40 stowaways had been in the cabin before he got on the ship, which then headed to the eastern coastline of the US after it picked up more than 200 illegal immigrants at different stops.

"The cabin where we lived was somber and congested with terrible odor emanating from the toilet mixed with body odor. Bugs would creep on my body and my quilts," said Liu, adding "what's worse, we had to stay in the lousy cabin for several days and even over two weeks if anything went wrong outside."

When the ship was docked at Bolivia, dozens of stowaways jumped into the sea and fled away because they could not tolerate the harsh condition, Liu recalled.

Worse still, the evil side of human nature is ignited when people are mired in such dreadful situations.

According to Liu, the illegal immigrants often fought for water, food and women. "At the hardest time, every 10 people shared one bottle of mineral water. I was told that somebody died for a glass of water."

One day, the stowaways forced the captain to turn on the radar, which was often turned off to evade detection, to find a rain belt. When the ship moved to the rain belt, everybody rushed to the deck, collecting rainwater. Some even opened their mouths and drank it.

"I felt paralyzed when the rainwater dropped into my mouth. I desperately opened my mouth and was reluctant to close it," Liu recalled.

In order to survive the long journey, some female stowaways had to have sex with stronger male stowaways and even the smugglers, or the snakeheads, and their hatchet men.

"Those women found they could get food and water and have a more comfortable cabin to live after they had affair with those puissant men," Liu exclaimed.

Getting to the shore of New York

When the ship got close to the international waters off New York City, Liu overheard that they had to wait for a fishing boat to secretly carry them to the US. But seven days later, no fishing boat came. With food and water running out, the illegal immigrants petitioned the captain to steer the ship to the territorial waters of the US, but the answer was "no".

The anxious stowaways had no patience to wait. At this critical moment, a water leakage combined with the shortage of food and water fuelled their rebellious sentiment. Headed by several bold men, they launched an "uprising" on the ship, snatching the snakeheads' weapons and hijacking the ship.

"Some were setting their quilts on fire on the deck while some were waving their weapons in hope of being noticed by some people who could save our lives," Liu said emotionally.

The captain was coerced to sail the ship to the direction of New York till the lamplight of the city could be seen. Some of the stowaways jumped off the ship in an attempt to get to the city, unaware of the distance they needed to swim to reach the shore.

"They did not know how cold the seawater was and how far they would swim. It was said that many people drowned in the sea. I was told later that it would take half an hour to reach the beach by a small boat," Liu said sadly.

Rescued Chinese stowaways have a break on the beach. Photo: New York Times

Vexed about what to do next, the rest of stowaways suddenly saw helicopters hovering above their heads and ships heading toward them from the opposite side. "When we heard somebody (the United States Coast Guard) shouting at us, we knew we were safe," Liu said.

Life in the US

The survivors were taken into custody and were held in various prisons throughout the US. Liu was sent to a jail near White Plains in New York. 20 days later, Liu was fortunately bailed by his relatives. He was one of the first people who were released on bail.

After being freed from the prison, Liu earned his living by working as a dogsbody in Chicago.

Liu once hired a lawyer to help him get an identification card, but resolutely refused to make a court appearance after his girlfriend, who he met at his workplace, broke up with him.

"My pregnant lover was introduced as girlfriend to a nephew of my boss' wife when I worked in another state. I was outraged when I heard the news," Liu recalled woefully, adding that he was completely devastated when he received another bad news that his mother passed away.

Now in his 40s, Liu is still a single man and does not have his own business or proper job. "I made some money (by working for others), but I squandered it on gambling. And, up to now, I have no identity," Liu said helplessly.

"I think I have a bad luck," Liu concluded.

Sean Chen, who came to the US 20 years ago on the Golden Venture, works at a Japanese steakhouse in suburban Philadelphia. He was among the detainees sent to the York County Prison after their ship ran aground in New York. Photo: Jason Plotkin/York Daily Record/Sunday News

This article is translated and edited by Ding Yi.

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