Snakehead Author : Peter May
Country : China

These illegal Chinese are worth big money. Up to sixty grand a head these days. Which by my crude reckoning means that there’s nearly six million dollars worth of dead meat in that container. And no one in their right mind is going to waste six million bucks. (May 2002: 19)

The fourth novel in the Beijing series, Snakehead starts when a truckload of dead Chinese immigrants is discovered in Texas near the US-Mexico border, apparently infected by the extinct Spanish flu virus. Dr Margaret Campbell is summoned to join in the investigation that is conducted together with his ex-lover back in Beijing, Li Yan, who is now in the United States as Criminal Justice Liaison at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. As they rekindle their relationship, Li Yan and Margaret discover the virus was genetically engineered by a fanatic intent on infecting the United States with the Spanish flu virus using illegal Chinese immigrants as carriers as a way to protest against the lethal side-effects resulting from US crop-spraying actions in coca plantations in Colombia. The novel delves deep into the conditions in which illegal Chinese citizens are brought and live in the United States, their dangerous sea passage, their tortuous journey from South America to the United States, and the multiple forms of abuse they are subjected to by the snakeheads who smuggle them in in exchange for years of indentured servitude as workers in sweatshops, prostitutes in massage parlours or as drug mules working for the triads: “a slightly more sophisticated version of what the British did to the Africans two hundred years ago” (May 2002: 272). Meanwhile, Beijing is complicit in the trade with illegal Chinese immigrants since “there are too many people already in China and too few jobs” and once they are abroad “all those illegal immigrants send money home” injecting “millions into [a] local economy … that would probably collapse without them” (May 2002: 273). In spite of its implausible plot, the novel is a heart wrenching exposé of the fates of illegal Chinese immigrants hoping for a better life in Meiguo (America, the ‘Beautiful Country’ in Mandarin Chinese) only to find poverty, destitution and lives of virtual slavery instead.

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