Opinion: What Praise of Smuggler Sister Ping Signifies

The family of Sister Ping performed a ritual for her in front of a restaurant owned by her family. (Photo by Mike Liu via Sing Tao Daily)

The family of Sister Ping performed a ritual for her in front of a restaurant owned by her family. (Photo by Mike Liu via Sing Tao Daily)

“A kind person with integrity,” “a female hero,” who “spared no efforts serving her duty,” and “will be remembered by history.”

Among Chinese, such high praise is normally reserved for revered national leaders or people who have contributed a great deal to humankind. But this time, the person held in such esteem was different.

She was not a martyr who died for her country, nor a civic leader who devoted her life to worthy causes. She was an infamous smuggler known as “Sister Ping” who died last month from cancer in a Texas prison where she had been serving a 35-year sentence for smuggling since 2006.

Born as Cheng Chuiping in a poor village in Fujian and barely educated, Sister Ping taught herself business skills. She went to Hong Kong and then the U.S. in 1981. With her connections in both the U.S. and China, Ping started to help people in her home province to come to the U.S. Thus, she played a major role in the rapidly rising human smuggling wave of the 1980s and early 1990s that brought hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants to the U.S.

She became a target for law enforcement in 1993 when the Golden Venture, a ship that carried almost 300 immigrants from China, including her clients, ran aground near the New York shore and was surrounded by police on the beach. Many jumped into the ocean to try to escape and 10 people drowned. Ping fled and remained at large until she was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000. She was later convicted on three counts of immigrant smuggling, money-laundering and trafficking in kidnapping proceeds and put in prison.

After “Sister Ping” died, the newspaper stories quoted people who knew her using terms like “hero” and “modern Robin Hood.” The accolades were printed on the ribbons that decorated the numerous wreaths supporters brought to her funeral, which was held on May 25 and created a sensation in Manhattan’s Chinatown as thousands of people came to pay their last respects.

Many of the people who said kind words about her are, in the eyes of law enforcement, her victims. They paid her smuggling ring huge amounts of money to get to the U.S., and endured perilous months-long journeys hiding in cargo ships.

Ping was known for her willingness to offer a hand to those in need. She took care of “snakes,” as the smuggled are known, and helped them to find jobs once they arrived. Many of them are thankful because without Ping they couldn’t have gotten to the land of their dreams.

But she was not a philanthropist. She hired the fiercest gangsters to transport her “snakes” and collect smuggling fees from them, which started at $18,000 per person and rose to more than $30,000 in later years. Those who couldn’t pay were offered predatory loans by Ping. Abductions and torture were common if the money wasn’t repaid. According to court documents, she made at least $40 million from the “snakes.”  She was at best a businesswoman who earned a fortune from an illegal business.

(Photo by Mike Liu via Sing Tao Daily)

(Photo by Mike Liu via Sing Tao Daily)

But judging by the posthumous tributes, the uglier side of Ping’s life was clearly forgotten and forgiven. And she became a larger-than-life legend to many.

Legends never mirror the reality. Instead, they reflect the wishes of the people who believe in them.

Geoffrey Sant, a special counsel of the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, has been studying how myths like this come into existence for his forthcoming book. Legendary heroes such as Robin Hood, Liao Tianding, a heroic thief in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, and Song Jiang, an outlaw hero in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China featured in the classic novel “Water Margin,” are based on real historical figures –  whose lives, and virtues, were much less significant than their portrayals.

They were often transformed into mythical heroes at times when people couldn’t freely express their frustration and anger about a grim reality.

This theory also fits well in Ping’s case. She got her fame and wealth at a time when the peasants in her home province felt they were being abandoned in the urban rush to embrace China’s economic reforms. They were desperately looking for ways to change their lives, but were not offered equal opportunities. “Sister Ping” filled the void left by China, which was not taking care of its poor farmers well.

It was also a time when the U.S. provided few legal avenues for these farmers to come here. (That is still the case today.) Without relatives who are American citizens, acceptance by a U.S. college or university, or sufficient funds to buy their way into the U.S. by various methods, such as “investment” immigration, the only way for these farmers who didn’t want to live in poverty forever to come to the U.S. was to take the rough ride on Ping’s boat. With her offering a hand, those who felt ignored by governments and societies suddenly had someone to look up to.

Of course, the U.S. has no obligation to open its doors to everyone in the world who doesn’t want to live in poverty. But the cheap labor these people brought into the U.S. has long been contributing to the prosperity of the economy in this country. The U.S. government is very well aware of it.

French film director Jacques Perrin and his team spent four years following migratory birds and recording their tough journeys to make the documentary film “Winged Migration,” released in 2001. The film was wildly acclaimed for its breathtaking beautiful scenes. But Perrin once said: “Flying for birds is not just for fun as we humans imagine. It is a battle for survival.”

Surviving by mobility is a natural born instinct of all animals. But humans are not as lucky as birds.  Those who were born into poverty, with little legal opportunity to climb out of the pit into which they were born, cannot simply fly. They face huge hurdles at home, and numerous man-made obstacles to migration.

It may be illegal for people to cross the border to another country without permission. But aren’t those seeking a better life through migration following a basic law of nature? This might be the real sentiment expressed by the people who contributed to the creation of the legend of “Sister Ping”: Rigid immigration laws are more  “illegal,” and harder to endure, than the actions of those who break them.

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