In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian Province began arriving in America. Many of them lived in a world outside the law, working in a shadow economy overseen by the gangs of New York’s Chinatown. The figure who came to dominate this Chinese underworld was a middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping. Her path to the American dream began with an unusual business run out of a noodle store on Hester Street, where she ran a full-service underground bank for illegal Chinese immigrants. But her real business was smuggling people.  

As a “snakehead,” she built a complex global conglomerate, relying heavily on familial ties, and employing one of Chinatown’s most violent gangs. Sister Ping created an intricate smuggling network that stretched from Fujian Province to Hong Kong to Burma to Thailand to Kenya to Guatemala to Mexico. Based on hundreds of interviews, Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story not only of Sister Ping but of the gangland gunslingers, the immigration and law enforcement officials, and the generation of penniless immigrants who braved a 17,000 mile odyssey so that they could realize their own version of the American dream.