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 America 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.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Twenty years ago this week, a freighter called the Golden Venture ran aground just outside New York City. On board were nearly 300 people who were being smuggled into the United States from China. Ten people drowned trying to reach land. Many who made it ashore were detained in U.S. prisons for years, waiting for political asylum.
In today's StoryCorps, we hear from one of those survivors. Shengqiao Chen sat down with his friend Zehao Zhou. They met while Chen was in prison. Zehao was his translator.
SHENGQIAO CHEN: After three months, we finally see the land.
ZEHAO ZHOU: You knew that was America?
SHENGQIAO: They told us: This is United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: The freight ship that carried them ran aground off the coast of Rockaway Peninsula, in Queens. Some people actually jumped from the ship, to try to swim to shore...
SHENGQIAO: The water was very cold.
ZEHAO: How long did you swim? Do you remember?
SHENGQIAO: You can't really swim. The waves move you back, and I pass out...
ZEHAO: You passed out...
SHENGQIAO: And then a couple of my friends carried me out of water.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: ...About 200 people were treated for exhaustion and exposure...
SHENGQIAO: When I woke up, I was in hospital. I had my hand handcuffed on the bed.
ZEHAO: You were in a hospital bed, handcuffed.
ZEHAO: Then you were sent to a detention center.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: Immigration officials shipped off 110 of the illegal aliens to a prison in York, Pa., this morning...
SHENGQIAO: I think the most difficult time is after six months, and you don't know what your future - going to be.
ZEHAO: You mother thought you were dead, and she set up a family shrine for you.
ZEHAO: I have 20 letters that you wrote me while you were detained. The letters described all the - you know, suicidal thoughts, attempts, people giving up. Remember, we had the vigils outside the prison?
SHENGQIAO: I remember. Every Sunday, when you guys were outside, we would watch you through the window. A lot of us was - tear up because there's still good people in the world who have a kindness heart.
ZEHAO: You have lived longer in America than in China, correct?
ZEHAO: When you came, you were only 18 years old. And you went through so much. But is it worth it?
SHENGQIAO: I told my mom, I said that I will either die, or I will arrive to United States. After 20 years, I feel like I'm a part of this country, you know? I would do it again.
ZEHAO: You would do it again.
SHENGQIAO: I would definitely do it again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: Shengqiao Chen, who survived the Golden Venture shipwreck, with his friend Zehao Zhou, in Philadelphia. Their conversation will be archived, along with thousands of other StoryCorps interviews, at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. You can get the podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.