Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Explaining the Fujian Conundrum

July 6th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Over the holiday weekend, in addition to bidding farewell to our dead-tree labor o’ love, we found a few spare moments to start reading The Snakehead, the new book from Chatter author Patrick Radden Keefe. We’re only 50 pages in, but so far this tome gets Microkhan’s equivalent of an Ebert-ian “thumbs way up” rave. Just an endlessly compelling account of the Golden Venture disaster, in which hundreds of Chinese immigrants washed ashore in Queens after their freighter ran aground.

What we really dig is the way Keefe uses that narrative as a way to explore immigration patterns&patterns which often defy our assumptions of what makes people “vote with their feet.” Early on, for example, Keefe adroitly explains why the vast majority of Chinese immigrants who’ve arrived in New York over the past few decades come from nothern Fujian, a relatively wealthy province:

Demographers who have researched migration find that it is not actually absolute poverty that drives people to leave one country for another. The poorest provinces in western China have rarely been a source of outmigration. When everyone around you shares your own meager lifestyle, there is actually less of an inclination to leave. Instead, it is “relative deprivation” that tends to drive migration: income disparities, the experience of watching your neighbor do better than you. So, ironically, economic development sometimes causes people to leave rather than stay put. Some did better than others when economic reforms came to Fujian, and those who did not fare as well—the subsistence farmers and schoolteachers, the local [Communist] Party officials who had fallen out of favor—were suddenly able to glimpse the kinds of material comforts they had lived without their whole lives.

We’ll certainly have more to say about The Snakehead as we keep plowing through. In the meantime, check out Keefe’s Slate dispatches from his reporting trip to China. And this recent documentary is worth a gander, too.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Bobby

    I’d also suggest a look at “Buying In,” a piece that Bret Sparling did for Chicago Review last year (issue 54:4), a set of interviews with various Chinese people in Fujian province. It too is very attentive to the effects of everyday economic realities in China.

    One of the interviews is with a guy who gets suckered into a pyramid scheme, another with a Burmese prostitute/masseuse, another with a gamecock enthusiast, and yet another with a prospective emigrant. Since the piece isn’t online, here’s a taste:

    Did you ever consider Canada?

    “I’ll tell you, I’ve applied for visas to a lot of places. Once I applied for Ireland. Also Britain. Just last July my sister introduced me to a snakehead that sends to Canada. I went out and met him and he said you have to…he does labor. He charges 320,000 to Canada. That’s good, because usually Canada is four to five hundred thousand. That day I’d brought all my papers and everything with me. At first I was really happy, because I’d found a boss who could do it so cheap. I was wondering if it could be real. But then he said, If you go over through the labor service, you’ll be locked down. You have to stay in the factory for two years. You can’t leave. That seemed uncomfortable. So I told him maybe I’d go with the next group, but then when the time came I didn’t give him my papers. Then I heard that salaries are low in Canada anyway.

    “My brother says Britain isn’t good for girls. For him, he can work as a chef, but girls there mostly end up…they get there and there isn’t much work. My brother’s been in Britain about five years. He went by airplane, like a direct flight, only it took him twenty-some days. They stopped over in the middle. Twenty days is about the fastest. My brother-in-law went to Britain too, and it took him a lot longer. At some point they took a wrong turn. He went in—he took the wrong turn—it seems there was some place where he went in through the wrong door, and then he was arrested. He was kept there several months. After that…it was a long time…it took him one year till he got to Britain.”

    (It’s Microkhan comment day for me apparently. But I’m done now, I swear.)

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Bobby: We need all the comments we can get over here, believe me. Keep ‘em coming.

    Thanks for the Chicago Review tip. Def. need to check this piece out–hope I can maybe access a copy electronically here at the Columbia U. library.

    That’s an outrageous snakehead fee to Canada, by the way–either that, or the price has gone way up since the heyday of Sister Ping (the woman behind the Golden Venture). Keefe has this great passage where he talks about how the long-settled Cantonese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown referred to the newly arrived Fujianese as “Eighteen-Thousand Men”–a reference to the average snakehead fee in the late 1980s.

  • Patrick

    Hey Brendan — thanks for the post, and really glad you’re enjoying the book, and Bobby — thanks for the reference, I haven’t seen that, and definitely need to read it.
    At least in terms of the Fuzhou-NYC route, the price was approx 18k in the 80s, then jumped up to 35k after Tiananmen. During the period I spent reporting the book (from mid-05 to early-09) there was agreement among sources in law enforcement, China, and Chinatown that the fee had jumped to approx 70k. But that’s for air travel, generally with phony docs. So you’re paying more, but you’re also not spending four months in the hold of a ship, which is often what you got for your 18k or 35k in the past. The other wrinkle is that now that some of the risks associated with passage over here have diminished, snakeheads often demand the whole fee up front (rather than a small downpayment, followed by the balance upon arrival, which is the way it was always done in the past…).

  • Bobby

    Sorry, that price discrepancy is the fault of my lax copy-and-pasting: the price mentioned in Bret’s piece is in yuan, not dollars. Google tells me that 320,000 yuan comes out to about 46,000 dollars, which squares better with Patrick’s numbers.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Patrick: Thanks a mil for the comment. We love hearing from the proverbial horse’s mouth over here on Microkhan.

    Is there any refund policy should the journey end in deportation or death? I’d actually be curious to know about the success rate, though I guess we can only speculate (much in the way that law enforcement officials often speculate re: what percentage of drugs they interdict).

    Really looking forward to the rest of the book. As noted above, you are crushing it so far. Congrats.

  • Patrick

    It’s funny, one of the things that Sister Ping (the central smuggler in the book) became famous for in China and in Chinatown was essentially giving a satisfaction guarantee. To some extent because of the way the payment system was structured everyone who didn’t make it but nevertheless survived (they were picked up somewhere along the route, arrested, deported, etc.) got their money back insofar as they didn’t end up paying the balance upon safe arrival. But Sister Ping is said to have upped the ante: if you paid her to bring you to the U.S. and you died along the way, she would supposedly offer free passage to one of your immediate relatives, to make up for the loss. Which begs the question, if your brother or sister got on that bus, and that bus never made it, and then someone offered you a free ticket to ride, would you?

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