Is Snakehead Based on a True Story?

‘Snakehead’ is a drama film that follows Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), an undocumented Chinese immigrant who arrives in Chinatown, New York, to look for her daughter but first has to pay the $50,000 she owes the human traffickers who brought her to the Big Apple. She quickly proves to be quite tenacious and draws the attention of Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the leader of the human-trafficking operation and the unofficial queen of Chinatown.

Sister Tse rapidly rises through the ranks to become one of the most trusted subordinates of Dai Mah. The latter even considers making Sister Tse her successor over her son, Rambo (Sung Kang). Predictably, this leads to a conflict between Rambo and Sister Tse. ‘Snakehead’ offers a dark and mortifying depiction of the seedy underbelly of Chinatown. If that has made you wonder whether the film is based on real-life events, here is what you need to know.

Is Snakehead a True Story?

No, ‘Snakehead’ is not based on a true story. The characters that appear in it and their stories are largely fictional. However, the film, for the most part, draws inspiration from the life of Cheng Chui Ping or Sister Ping, a human trafficker who brought a large number of undocumented immigrants predominantly from Hong Kong to New York City between 1984 and 2000.

Image Credit: FBI

Born in the northern Fujian province, China, in January 1949, Sister Ping was a successful businesswoman before she began her smuggling operation. She came to the US in 1981 with her husband and children and began residing in Chinatown. She started her career as a human trafficker in the early 1980s and gradually became one of the most powerful and influential figures in that sector.

At the height of her career, she was allegedly bringing in hundreds of people at a time aboard cargo ships. Sister Ping was ultimately arrested in Hong Kong in 2000 and extradited to the US, where she was found guilty of money laundering, human trafficking, and hostage-taking, among other things, in June 2005 and given a 35-year prison sentence in March 2006. Sister Ping was still serving her time when her health began to decline. She passed away in April 2014 at age 65.

‘Snakehead’ is the first feature film in the career of writer-director Evan Jackson Leong, who has garnered recognition as a documentary filmmaker. In different interviews, Leong stated that he grew up watching movies like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Scarface’ and wanted to make films like those with characters who looked like him.

He also wanted to tell a story of the underdogs because he felt that people belonging to the Asian community had to be twice as good to survive in the western environment. He implied that this was why he made the smuggler in the film the biggest smuggler in the history of New York. Moreover, the underdog aspect of the protagonist made her incredibly relatable to the audience.

Leong reportedly spent more than 10 years developing the project. In the late 2000s, he began speaking to a variety of people to understand what goes on in the more shadowy areas of Chinatown. Leong met people from the FBI and other branches of law enforcement as well as former and current gangsters. He relocated to New York in 2009 but didn’t start production until 2016. In the intermediate period, he earned these people’s trust so they would open up to him. Evidently, ‘Snakehead’ is not completely based on a true story but is loosely inspired by one.

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