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Sister Ping: A ‘snakehead’ with a kind heart

Danbury Federal Correctional Institution (FCI Danbury) is located in southwestern Connecticut, approximately 55 miles from New York City. Photos:CP

Twenty years after the rusty steamer Golden Venture ran aground only kilometers from New York, exposing a bustling underworld of human smuggling, a woman who federal officials say was a vicious ringleader of the operation completed her own voyage from Asia to America.

Cheng Chui Ping, better known in New York's Chinatown as "Big Sister Ping," was hit with the maximum sentence after being found guilty in a federal court on charges of conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, money laundering and trafficking in ransom proceeds.

In an exclusive interview with the China Press (CP), Ping for the first time talks about her imprisonment and complex feelings about her past.

Sister Ping. Photo: Courtesy of the NYPD

Sitting in the visiting room of women’s federal prison of Connecticut, we were expecting “a short and stout woman with little education”, like the picture released when she was arrested. Instead, a slim Asian woman with neatly trimmed long hair appeared.

In prison

Ping's daughter on the way to visit her mother at prison

“Being locked up for over 10 years allowed me to think about my previous life, my heart calmed down and I started to feel that jail was the safest place for me,” Sister Ping said. “I keep telling myself not to think much about the future and live life by the moment. I’m fine,” Ping said. “She prefers to keep the sorrow confined to  herself for the sake of our peace, mom is always like that,” Ping’s daughter added.

Ping was given the nick name “Ma Ma Cheng” in the women’s federal prison of Connecticut due to her accommodating personality. She tried her best to provide food and clothes for the poor while offering help to the diseased. “I experienced ‘three years of natural disasters’ when I was a kid, therefore I understand poverty and hunger better than others. To the best of my ability, I'm willing to take care of the worse offs,” Ping said.

“I was almost killed!”

“I cannot believe they jailed me for 35 years! 35 years! In a way I was killed by the FBI agents and tainted witnesses.” Speaking about the past, her voice choked and her eyes became wet.

According to the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York,Ping fled to China in 1994 right after the Golden Venture tragedy and settled in her home village in Fujian province, where she enjoyed the protection of the Chinese authorities and proceeded to continue running her business for six long years,until she was found in Hong Kong in 2000 with false papers. Ping was extradited to the United States for trial in 2003,where she was hit with the maximum sentence after being found guilty in a federal court  on charges of conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, money laundering and trafficking in ransom proceeds.
“Being shocked by these charges, I felt weak and speechless in the court,” Ping said. “It was a mixture of gossip, lies and half-truths. They were making up stories that I had not heard of. Though very angry, I held back my emotions to avoid further media exaggeration. Until the moment I listened to Yuhui Weng’s testimony; I could not  restrain myself anymore and broke down. He was one of the robbers who once put a gun at my child’s head and I have had absolutely nothing to do with the man besides the robbery! He was just like those other tainted witnesses, trying to find his way out. Since their motive behind the lies was survival and freedom, I am willing to forgive them now.”

Ping admitted that she did help smuggling a handful of fellow villagers from her very own village into the United States by airplane with fake identification documents in the 1980's. “I used commercial airplanes only, never ever through cargo ways. Putting hundreds of people below deck for months is too risky, someone could actually die,” Ping said. She quit the business soon after her first arrest. Unfortunately, by that time, she had become one of the most recognizable faces in Chinatown. “Other snakeheads always used my name, simply because those would-be smugglers trusted me. My reputation, which brought me fame and wealth, eventually sent me to prison.”

In the eyes of her client

Yungsun Seafood Restraurant is still running by Ping's family

Described by the authorities as “mother of all the snakeheads” and “the snakehead queen”, Ping was charged with operating what prosecutors called “a conglomerate built upon misery and greed.” However, according to the words of her Chinese fellow, she was viewed as a benevolent figure and was affectionately called  a "living Buddha."

Yihui Zheng, who came to America 20 years ago as a smuggled undocumented immigrant, said that Sister Ping was the most friendly and trustworthy snakehead at that time. It is not easy to become her customer since she only deals with her fellows from the same village. In Fujian community, Ping was reputedly generous to her customers. She often found jobs for them to help them settle into their new surroundings and sometimes even offered to pay compensation and smuggle the next kin in the family free of charge if any of her clients died during the journey to the US.”
“I believe her reputation of reliability and kindness was the key factor that made her business so successful. Actually, Big Sister Ping is the only ‘nice’ snakehead I have ever knew, ” Zheng added.

The article is translated by Jiayi Li









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