Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo December 30, 2017

Reporting on Human Snakes in China

Media file: rong_6.jpg

Why are people who were smuggled to the U.S. from a rural high school in China three decades ago now...

The bridge across the Min River. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.
The bridge across the Min River. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.

The bridge across the Min River, unveiled in 2014, is called Langqi Minjiang Bridge. On one end of the bridge (the one closer to the viewers) is Tingjiang County, where Tingjiang Middle School is located.  On the other end is an island called Langqi, where the Min River, the major river in Fujian Province, bifurcates and then flows into the ocean.  In the early 1990s, when ships became a major way to smuggle immigrants from Fujian to the U.S., thousands of Chinese, including most graduates from the high school, said farewell to their loved ones and took the precarious trip to the land of opportunities. Such trips often took months and in some cases even more than a year, including numerous life and death moments.


The community office in Chang'an. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.
The community office in Chang'an. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.

When the Chinese immigrants were successfully smuggled in, they normally went to work in a restaurant on day one. With tens of thousands of dollars in smuggling fees owed to the snakeheads [smuggling gangsters], they had no time to explore the U.S., which is literally translated as “the beautiful country” in Chinese.

But after a few years, many of them would not only be able to pay back the debts but also open their own take-out restaurants. Then, when their businesses got bigger and they were no longer pinching the pennies, they’d start to make donations to their hometowns. Many villages in Tingjiang County owe their modern roads, kindergartens, and senior centers to the donations of smuggled villagers living overseas. This building, located in the village called Chang’an, is one such facility. It hosts the office for the village committee, a community center where people play mahjong, a senior center, and a branch of the Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese NGO focusing on environmental protection.

The Tingjiang Middle School Alumni Association in the U.S. was officially formed at the end of 2015 after many years of preparation. A major force behind the association is an 81-year-old man named Zheng Guangda. He was a teacher at the school for about 30 years before he retired. He came to the U.S. in 1993, sponsored by his son who was smuggled there in the 1980s, and then naturalized.

When Guangda was calling on the alumni to get together to form an association, a former student immediately answered the call by promising a $40,000 initial donation. Her name is Cheng Chui Ping, or Sister Ping, the most notorious snakehead in America’s contemporary history. Sister Ping was sentenced to 35 years for human smuggling in 2005 and died in a Texas prison in 2014.

In this video, Guangda recalls some details of Sister Ping, who despite her violations of the law, remained a hero in the minds of many immigrants from Fujian. Guangda may not be able to appear in many more video clips. He was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.

Reporter: Do you remember what Sister Ping was like when she was a student?

Guangda: Her academic performance was average. But it was clear that she was not very money driven. She was kind to her classmates. Her father once brought her a new bicycle from Singapore (a rare luxury in those days). And she lent it to her classmates who wanted to learn how to ride a bike. She was also very a bold person. When the students worked on the farmland, they often saw earthworms. Other girls would be scared but she would hold the worms in her hands and play with them.

Reporter: Could you see she would become who she was then?

Guangda: Not necessarily. She was a girl, after all.

Reporter: When she got ill in prison, you did visit her, did you?

Guangda: I visited her many times in prison.

Reporter: Do you remember what did she say when you saw her the last time?

Guangda: The last time I saw her she didn’t tell me she was ill. She was still confident that she would be out of the prison soon. She knew I wanted the alumni association to set up a fund for scholarships for our younger generations. She said she’d collect all the money other people owed her when she was out of prison and donate it all to set up the fund. Who would know she’d die soon after that? This made me very sad. I thought the hopes for establishing the alumni association were slim. At a get-together event of former students, I told them now Sister Ping has died I am afraid it [the plan of setting up an alumni association] may have died with her...​

Graduates of Tingjiang Middle School, pictured many decades after their matriculation. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.
Graduates of Tingjiang Middle School, pictured many decades after their matriculation. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.

Many graduates from Tingjiang Middle School came to the U.S. in the 80s and 90s. They had to work 12 or 14 hours a day to make ends meet. Many lost touch with their classmates even though they were almost all in the U.S.

Only in recent years, with the help of WeChat, the most popular social media platform in China, have they started to reconnect. Many of them didn’t even get a high school education. So the middle school classmates basically are their only childhood friends. Once they find one another, they really try to stay close. In addition, many are middle aged and running established businesses. They frequently travel between China and the U.S. Dinner gatherings of former classmates happen as often as every few weeks in both their hometowns and in the U.S.

Different from the younger versions of themselves decades ago, they all have rich experiences now. In this picture of a gathering of a group of students who graduated in 1983, taken on June 11 at a restaurant in Tingjiang, those who enjoyed meals and Karaoke together include a woman who runs two restaurants in the U.S. and who recently went back to China visit her family, a man who went back to explore business opportunities for an American company, a man who was deported back to China a few years ago because he didn’t have proper immigrant status, and a woman who was among the very few students from those days who decided not to come to the U.S.

A village in Tingjiang County. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.
A village in Tingjiang County. Image by Rong Xiaoqing. China, 2016.

Tingjiang County, a 41-square-mile area or less than two Manhattans, hosts 17 small villages. Many of them are nestled in the mountains around the edges of the Min River, and some have a history dating back more than 1,000 years. With picturesque landscapes and historic relics, these villages could possibly be turned into tourist attractions. But the immigration wave in the 1980s and 1990s took away most of the original villagers. Now these villages are eerily quiet most of the time, give-or-take the occasional chitchat among a few idling seniors.

A school visit turned into a local news story. Screenshot courtesy Rong Xiaoqing. 2016.
A school visit turned into a local news story. Screenshot courtesy Rong Xiaoqing. 2016.

I visited Tingjiang Middle School on May 20. I arranged this trip by directly calling the school without being completely sure whether interview requests by journalists working for overseas media have to go through some special procedures in China (such as going through the propaganda department). But everything went well. I interviewed the principal and some teachers. And to my surprise, they even allowed me to randomly interview some students I bumped into on the campus without even standing nearby to monitor the interviews. This kind of freedom is not even possible at schools in the U.S. where you may have to at least get consent from the parents.

But another surprise came a few days later when the school sent me a link of an article on a local news website. My visit to the school became a news story in itself with a picture of me interviewing the principal.  Before I wrote about them, they wrote about me. I thought this was amusing. So I sent the links to a few friends just for fun. But the link soon couldn’t be accessed, though a few days later the link was mysteriously back up. At the same time, I got a message from the school: “Per the request of our supervising governmental agency, can we read the story before it is published?”

So here you have censorship 101 in China: It is not as bad as you may think. But it is definitely there.


teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues