Two-Faced Woman

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She has no visible halo, but the stocky, uneducated Chinese woman is a saint to thousands. For 13 years Cheng Chui-ping sold clothes and cheap eats along East Broadway in New York City's Chinatown. During lunch hours she would chop vegetables, wash dishes and wait on tables at a restaurant that served dishes from her native Fujian province. Occasionally she could be seen tottering down the street struggling with bales of clothes, dragging them into her general-merchandise store. But to many she was a veritable goddess, dispensing both mercy and fortune. Her devotees called her Dajie Ping--Big Sister Ping.

To the U.S. government, however, Big Sister Ping is a big-time crook and people smuggler. She may have puttered around the Yung Sun restaurant and the Tak Shun variety store, but federal investigators say she also ran a global crime network that netted her more than $40 million, made her a major competitor of China's central bank, helped her corrupt foreign government officials and changed the face of New York City. For years, law enforcement called her the Mother of All Snakeheads, a leader of the species of international gangsters who specialize in the brutal trade in humans from China. And next month, after a six-year manhunt, they expect to have her back in New York for a trial.

So who is the real Sister Ping?

She entered the U.S. as an illegal herself. Born in 1949 in the poor farming village of Shengmei in China's coastal Fujian province, she made her way to Hong Kong and then to the U.S. in 1981. After opening a small variety shop on Hester Street, then on the outskirts of Chinatown, she somehow obtained naturalization papers. A year later she was joined by her husband and children. According to Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College and an expert on people smuggling, she appeared at a fortuitous time, when ties between China and the U.S. were warming, opening trade, travel and tourist links. "For years the only way out of China was to work as a seaman and then jump ship," says Kwong. "She was here when other means became possible and started by helping friends and family out. Then she recognized the business potential in the trade."

Almost single-handedly, according to the police, she put the pieces of a global smuggling network together, at first making the trip to China herself and acting as guide to small groups, using Mexico, Belize and other Central American states as staging points. Police say she did it by buying off corrupt immigration, tourist and other officials, using fake or purchased papers and then transshipping immigrants to America. She charged a small down payment, and hopefuls promised to borrow the rest of the money upon arrival from families already in the U.S. Those who couldn't pay were found jobs at restaurants and garment factories and allowed to pay off the debt, with interest, in installments. In the 1980s, according to police, the fee for the trip to America was $18,000. It is now $60,000.

She survived a couple of major brushes with the law. In 1989 she was arrested for paying an undercover U.S. policeman to smuggle a group of Fujianese through Canada to New York. Earlier that same year she was carrying $50,000 and an address book that police said had the phone numbers of safe houses around the world. She pleaded guilty to smuggling charges in Buffalo, N.Y., and served four months in prison. A few months earlier her husband had been arrested for trying to smuggle another group across the Canadian border near Niagara Falls in a $59 raft. The raft capsized, and four people drowned. He served nine months.

After getting out of prison she moved to 47 East Broadway, paying $3 million in cash, according to government sources, for a building directly across the street from a branch of the Bank of China, Beijing's central bank. She set up her restaurant in the building, and it quickly became a hub of the illegal Fujian Chinese community. It also became a major competitor of the bank. According to police and a number of Ping's clients, she used her connections in China to begin transferring money from those she smuggled back to their families in China. She proved more efficient than the bank across the street. Says a female immigrant who patronized Ping's service: "The Bank of China took three weeks, charged a bad foreign-exchange rate and delivered the cash in yuan. Sister Ping delivered the money in hours, charged less and paid in American dollars. It was a better service." Steven Wong, an outspoken critic of snakeheads, says that things became so bad that the bank began offering color televisions and prizes to those who used them to transfer money. "Still," he says, "no one came."

Ping's not-so-secret bank was also used to enlarge the smuggling operation, according to the police. Kwong says it enabled the snakeheads to lend money in China to those who couldn't afford the down payment on the trip or who didn't have relatives already in the U.S. to sponsor them. "They charged 30% annual interest, enough to keep someone working to pay it off over a very long time," Kwong says. It also enabled Ping and others to transfer the payments for the smuggling fee immediately after they were made, opening up a whole new pool of financing for would-be immigrants.

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