Finding An Anchor For A Life Set Adrift By A Shipwreck | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Finding An Anchor For A Life Set Adrift By A Shipwreck

Play associated audio

In 1993, a freighter ran aground off Queens, N.Y. The Golden Venture had nearly 300 people on it who were being smuggled into the U.S. from China.

Passengers cited China's forced-sterilization program and governmental persecution from political expression as reasons to climb aboard the Golden Venture. Some paid the smugglers $30,000 to board the ship. An organized crime syndicate would front the money, and the passengers would have to work off the debt, often in restaurants like indentured servants.

Some people jumped from the ship, trying to swim ashore. Ten people drowned, while about 200 people were treated for exhaustion and exposure. Shengqiao Chen was among 110 people smuggled in the ship who were detained in U.S. prisons while they waited for political asylum.

'This Is United States'

"After three months, we finally see the land," 38-year-old Chen told Zehao Zhou during a recent visit to StoryCorps in Philadelphia. "They told us, 'This is United States.' "

The two men met while Chen was in prison. Zhou, an academic librarian at York College in Pennsylvania, was his translator. At StoryCorps, Zhou asked Chen how long he swam that day.

"You can't really swim. The waves move you back, and I passed out," Chen said. "And then a couple of my friends carried me out of the water.

"When I woke up, I was in the hospital," Chen said. "I had my hand handcuffed on the bed."

Shrines And Letters

Chen was sent to a detention center in Pennsylvania.

"I think the most difficult time is after six months, and you don't know what your future is going to be," he said.

Chen's mother thought he was dead and had set up a family shrine for him.

"I have 20 letters that you wrote me while you were detained," Zhou said. "The letters described all the, you know, suicidal thoughts, attempts, people giving up. Remember we had the vigils outside the prison?"

Every Sunday, Zhou and others held vigils, while Chen and the other detainees watched through the window.

"A lot of us would tear up because there's still good people in the world who have a kindness heart," said Chen, who has now lived in American longer than he lived in China.

"I told my mom, I said that, 'I will either die or I will arrive to the United States.' After 20 years, I feel like I'm a part of this country, you know? I would do it again," he said.

Chen was released on parole in 1995 and was allowed to wait for political asylum outside of prison. He is still waiting for asylum to be granted, though he is able to work in the U.S. legally while he waits.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher with Matt Martin.

Diptychs are composite images by photographer Katja Heinemann who has been working on a long-term photo project about the Golden Venture.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

A Most Vibrant Year For Cinematographer Bradford Young

The man behind the look of Selma and A Most Violent Year talks about depicting violence, participating in history and being a black cinematographer in Hollywood.
NPR

Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through 'Adopt A Cow'

The cheeses of the Italian Alps are prized for their flavor. But the tradition of cheese-making here is dying off. Now remaining farmers are banding together around an unusual adoption program.
NPR

How Is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Washington Visit Playing In Israel?

The prime minister is headed to Washington to address Congress despite objections from the White House. Host Arun Rath speaks with NPR's Emily Harris iabout how Israelis regard the controversial trip.
NPR

A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College, about the dress that has the whole Internet asking: What color is it?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.