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Savior Zhou recounts ordeal

Zhou Zehao holds the paper handicrafts given by the detained Chinese immigrants.

The Golden Venture survivors who were released from prison in the 1990s are indebted to the help of one man who they would never forget.

He is Zhou Zehao (周泽浩), now a Chinese American professor at the York College in Pennsylvania.

Known as “Savior Zhou” by those illegal immigrants, he shuffled between court, prison and community 20 years ago, offering support and acting as their translator.

Chinese immigrants rescued from the Golden Venture on Rockway Beach, New York. Photo: Paul DeMaria

Clinton shows no mercy

The Golden Venture case sent shock waves to the US authorities in June 1993 when President Bill Clinton was struggling with domestic issues during his first term. It’s widely believed that if Clinton managed to handle the case, he would turn the tables, Zhou told the China Press.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton played hardball on the case as nearly all the 286 aliens, apart from some minors, were sent to prison. Some 117 were later transferred to Yorkshire prison in Pennsylvania.

Zhou said that prior to the Golden Venture case, the US law provided that any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States, irrespective of the alien's status, will be released after trial and may apply for political asylum. But the way in which Clinton dealt with the Golden Venture aliens was unprecedented.

“When the vessel ran aground at Rockway Beach, some dived in the sea in a desperate attempt to swim to the shore, knowing they would be physically present in the US territory. But they succumbed to the piercing cold water and long distance,” said the professor.

Chinese people were a rarity in Yorkshire 20 years ago, let alone Chinese lawyers. Bilingual Zhou jumped in to help translate in the course of the legal battle and media coverage to draw local people’s attention.

These 286 illegal immigrants, aged from 17 to 45, are mainly from Fujian Province. They paid the snakehead about $30,000 for the voyage to the US. Although it’s still unknown why the ship was grounded, the eventual arrival at Rockway Beach was definitely out of everyone’s expectation, Zhou said.

This eagle, crafted of recycled magazines, toilet paper, wire, glue, and paint, is one of thousands of sculptures created by the detained refugees. Photo:

 From confrontation to recognition

“I remember that the detainees in Yorkshire prison went on hunger strike for three times in protest against the legislature’s harsh penalty which deprived them of petition right,” he said.

“As a result of language and cultural barriers, they ran into conflict with guards and endured a rough patch. Later, they turned the confrontation into recognition as they learned English, religion and culture.”

There is a craftsman surnamed Yang who taught his skills to cellmates and they together created more than 10,000 paper handicrafts, including American eagle, flowers, fruits, statue of liberty and a golden venture, which were exhibited in New York and Washington.

“Hearing that Clinton likes stuffed birds, Yang sent  a paper-made American Eagle to the President through a Federal congressman,” Zhou recalled.
To the tune of Amazing Grace, the final 52 people were released in October 1997 holding flowers given by guards.

Retired American Air Force General Robert Merrill wrote a song about Golden Venture and director Peter Cohn spent 10 years shooting a documentary named Golden Venture to record those aliens’ travails for a legal life.


“20 years after, some survivors run Chinese restaurants, some own grocery store or saloon, some have houses but some of them haven’t obtained legal status so far. They have to report to immigration authorities regularly and may be deported at any time,” said Zhou.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration amnesty (Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), legalizing three million undocumented immigrants who entered the US before January 1, 1982. This year the congressmen are discussing a new immigration reform draft, which may legalize 12 million aliens. Are Golden Venture survivors eligible for it?

“It is unfair if Golden Venture survivors are excluded from the amnesty. But it is equally unfair to those documented immigrants if they were legalized,” said Zhou.

Zhou said immigration amnesty is utilitarian and it is subject to considerations such as whether it would benefit economic development or political reform before we make a decision.

Zhou called on more Chinese immigrants to take part in the immigration reform and make their voice heard.

“Either by e-mail or telephone, we need to express our opinion. Democracy means getting involved.”

(The article is translated by Wu Jie)

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