Golden Venture survivor’s family escaped venom of Snakeheads
Zheng Shi Ji survived the beaching of Golden Venture in New York Harbor and was released from York County (Pa.) Prison in February 1997. He stayed with Ann and Don Wolcott until he found a job. Background posts: ‘York: A Key City in the Keystone State’ and York’s Chestnut Street fortress bad symbol of York’s past and All famous York visitor posts from the start.
The term “snakehead” re-entered York County discourse in the past few weeks with the release of Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.”
That book tells the story of the Golden Venture passengers who ran aground in New York Harbor in the 1990s. Some of these passengers from China stayed in York County Prison for months, attracting widespread community support about their plight.
The York Daily Record closely covered the story of the approximately 40 detainees in the prison, including their fear of snakeheads, who smuggled them out of China and then often fiercely demanded payment from their families.
A March 1, 1997, Daily Record story tells about one fortunate detainee, who escaped the Snakehead bite:
Zheng Shi Ji is a rare young man who left the York County Prison Wednesday free of debts and free of the fear of “snakeheads.”
Snakeheads is the Chinese term for the men who smuggle humans from China to the free world. Many of the former Golden Venture detainees are terrified of being found, kidnapped and beaten until their relatives and friends can pay off the snakeheads. Not Zheng.
His experience shows not all snakeheads are alike. During his nearly four years in prison, Zheng’s family in China felt the village snakehead had bungled his job. They convinced the snakehead to return the money they had paid for their son’s voyage.
Zheng’s story began five years ago when his family paid about $25,000 to the village snakehead to smuggle their middle child to America for a better life. The trip entailed a flight to the Burmese border, a month-long walk through the jungles in which two of the twelve Chinese hikers died.
They spent six months in Thailand before being flown to Kenya, where they boarded the Golden Venture. The freighter had no bathrooms. The nearly 300 passengers were confined to tight quarters below deck with sparse food.
The ship almost capsized rounding the Cape of Good Hope. After four months at sea, it became beached on a sandbar off Queens, N.Y. That was June 6, 1993. Ten men drowned trying to reach shore. One of those was Zheng’s cousin. The other Chinese men and women were scooped up and sent to prisons the next day. Zheng came to York.
He learned to make dragons and eagles and baskets out of paper and glue. He met Ann Wolcott, a member of the People of the Golden Vision. She said she encouraged him on his down days, the days he toyed with the idea of returning to China. He would later thank her for her support.
When freedom came with Wednesday’s parole, Ann Wolcott got to touch her newest “child” for the first time. She brought Zheng home to live as long as he wishes with her and her husband, Donald, in their Spring Garden Township home. The Wolcotts learned the voyage story Friday when a Chinese-speaking friend came to visit and translate.
“That was so devastating to me,” Ann said. “How can you deal with so many things at one time and still smile and say “I am so happy?”‘ Ann said Zheng taught her humility through his ability to get by with nothing. “He wanted freedom so badly that he sacrificed everything,” Ann said.
“Not only him, but his whole family sacrificed,” Donald added. Ann said she asked Zheng if he would like to talk with his mother Wednesday night. “He was so happy to talk with his family,” she recalled. “He talked to his mother, father, grandmother, sister and brother for the first time in five years. He was very excited, very excited. That was my first present to him. I thought it was very important for them to know he was safe and out of prison.” Zheng consented to an interview along with his American “mother” and “father.”
He worked toward a high school equivalency diploma while in prison and hopes to finish up when he joins relatives in America. In the future, he said he would like to build houses.
“He is so good with his hands,” Ann said. “He is so precise.” Ann and Donald are taking Zheng out and trying to give him the time he needs to adjust. “He was in awe at the grocery store,” Donald said. “He couldn’t believe all the foods.”
On Thursday’s visits to the grocery store and Border’s Book Store, patrons shook Zheng’s hand and welcomed him to freedom. Their lunch at Wonderful Garden Chinese Restaurant ended with the owner presenting Zheng a New Year’s cake to celebrate his release. Ann and Donald had been a bit uneasy after reading recent letters to the editor expressing intolerance for the Chinese men.
“Not everybody is unkind,” Ann said. A Friday afternoon caller to the Daily Record spoke of the reality that made the couple uneasy. The caller identified himself as a grocery store employee and would not give his name.
“I hate to say it,” he said. “They have taken the place of people who are trying to get here legally. They have wasted my tax dollars on them. Just stand in a check-out line. People have no sympathy for these people. Charity begins at home.”
Such comments puzzled Donald. “From what I understand, these fellows will pay their debts within a couple of years,” Donald said. “That’s an obligation. They will not be on welfare. We should be so lucky to have more people in this country like them.” From time to time, Zheng joined the conversation. He tried to explain why he left China.
“I love my home,” Zheng said. “I love my family. I do not like Chinese government because Chinese are not free. Many, many people don’t have freedom in China. Many, many people don’t have freedom in American prison. I hope China will become free.”</blockquote