On a pre-dawn morning in June, twenty-five years ago, a rusty freighter, the Golden Venture, ran aground off the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, New York. More than 280 Chinese migrants in its cargo hold leapt into the churning, freezing surf below. When the news broke about the incident, I was living in the Bay Area. Now I live in Brooklyn, about fifteen miles from the shoreline where it all went down.To make contact across time, I set out to find the site where the freighter crashed.
There’s no physical marker commemorating the spot where the Golden Venture made landfall. All I had to go on were vague references from news accounts and a tip I’d gotten that the site was somewhere close to the Silver Gull Beach Club, a private cabana that has occupied a strip of public beach for more than fifty years. I’d never heard of the Silver Gull until that moment. It was the closest thing to a destination I had to work with.
On the far edge of the Rockaways, the sky was so immense it seemed to swallow sound. There were no tall buildings to block the winds blowing in from the Atlantic. Even though it was spring, the winter hadn’t entirely lifted. The air was sharp. I took the Q22 bus and got off at the end of the line at the mouth of Fort Tilden. The entrance gate was closed: it was off-season. I kept walking for another mile and a half along the two-lane traffic on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, the wind whipping around me.
When the migrants were transported off the beach, more than a hundred of them ended up detained at the County Prison in York, Pennsylvania. After five months cramped elbow to elbow at sea—from Thailand to Kenya and around the Cape of Good Hope—the men of the Golden Venture found themselves again confined to close quarters awaiting an uncertain fate.
The first detainee to make a paper sculpture chose to make a pineapple. The man who made it finished the magazine he’d been looking at—one he’d probably flipped through many times—and began ripping the pages out. He folded them into tiny triangles, nesting them together until they took shape. Others admired the pineapple and began making their own paper pineapples. As the men’s ambition and skill level grew, they moved on from pineapples to birds and bowls, dragons and pagodas, miniaturized models of the boat they came in on—ten thousand sculptures in all. Earlier this year I went to a museum exhibit of these sculptures. The curator had given me the tip about the Silver Gull.
For materials, the detainees used magazines discarded by prison guards and legal pads from their pro-bono attorneys. They cleverly repurposed Styrofoam cups and instant noodle packaging. They fashioned papier-mâché from toothpaste, water, and toilet paper. They made Chinese lanterns from manila folders and loosened the thread from orange prison-issued bath towels for the dangling tassels. The work was painstaking and time-consuming, though the one thing the men had in excess was time. Given what we know today about the psychic and physical toll of indefinite detention, the sculptures may well have helped some forestall complete mental breakdown.
As I trudged along the two-lane boulevard to the Silver Gull, my plan was seeming less and less like a plan. The sun sagged low in the sky. The air had cooled significantly. I passed the desiccated carcass of a raccoon that must have been flung to the shoulder of the road after being struck by a car, the white wedge of its jawbone exposed. The road ran parallel to the shore, but was cut off from it by a long barbed-wire fence with few turn-off points. I started to worry: if the entrance to the Silver Gull was off-limits, I’d have to find some other way onto the beach. This workaround would have involved a lot more walking and a lot more time, and I wasn’t even sure what, or where, I was looking for in the first place. But it was too late to turn back.
The paper sculptures, which had begun as a way for the detainees to kill time, soon served another purpose. They were offered by the prisoners as gifts to their pro-bono attorneys and supporters who kept vigil outside the prison walls and wrote impassioned letters to elected officials. These individuals became the migrants’ emissaries and de-facto art dealers, selling the sculptures to raise money for their legal defense.
By then the men of the Golden Venture had done their market research. They abandoned pineapples in favor of bald eagles and American flags, modeled after the porcelain figurines and other Americana tchotchkes they’d seen advertised in the back pages of magazines. Two guards overheard having a conversation about a weekend hunting trip were gifted a pair of papier-mâché deer with delicate antlers.
Can you craft your way out of your own fate? The whimsical paper creatures I had seen in the museum made me think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I’d recently watched the movie version on Netflix. It had been so long since I’d read the novel that I’d forgotten an important element in the plot brought to life in the film: the clones make art.
The story begins at a boarding school for clone children whose purpose in life is to have their organs harvested by humans in need of transplants. But until the harvesting, the clones are allowed to live some semblance of an ordinary, if brief, life. The boarding school clones are even encouraged to draw and paint and make sculptures. When two of the young clones grow up and realize they are in love, they catch wind of a rumor: clones who can prove the sincerity of their love can get a “deferral”—a temporary reprieve from the organ removal procedures that will inevitably kill them.
But how to prove such a thing? The boy clone has a theory: he remembers a teacher saying that the art the clones made in boarding school was capable of revealing their souls. Could art, then, legitimize the love between two people? Every quarter, at the boarding school, the best artworks had been culled and taken away. But the boy hadn’t had any of his work selected back in the day. Art wasn’t his thing then. To make up for it, he starts drawing with pencil and charcoal at a feverish pace. He’s already been cut open for three organ donations. Hardly anyone survives a fourth.
The clones have too little time; the men detained in York County Prison, too much of it. Prior to the arrival of the Golden Venture, asylum seekers in this country were processed, given a future court date, and freed to go. But this was before the first bombing of the World Center, before waves of Haitian refugees began arriving on the Florida coast. And now here were over two hundred Chinese people jumping off a boat in Queens and swimming madly to shore. It was, as they say, very bad optics. The incident confirmed the xenophobe’s worst fear—a horde of desperate outsiders arriving with nothing but the wet clothes on their backs. So President Clinton locked them up. Twenty-five years later, the legacy is this: the US is home to the largest immigration detention system in the world.
In Ishiguro’s story, the young clone lovers track down their former headmistress to make a personal appeal. By then the school has long since shuttered. They bring an entire portfolio of artwork to show her. She agrees to talk, but is distracted by the presence of moving men who are there to pick up an armoire.
The headmistress explains that the deferral was just a rumor. As for the paintings and drawings: “We didn’t have the gallery in order to look into your souls. We had the gallery to see if you had souls at all.”
Ishiguro has said in interviews that the overtly sci-fi aspects of his story were never of much interest to him. His aim had been to write about love and friendship, and how the fact of mortality—that our bodies are destined to last only so long—affects our actions. Nor was he was much interested in the possibility of a clone revolt. The novelist was fifty years old when he wrote the book; his life was already half over. What interested him was how unquestioningly most people go along with the terms of their fate.
When I reached the end of the long driveway of the Silver Gull Beach Club I could see that no one was manning the security booth: the club was shuttered for the season. I walked past the booth and onto the grounds of the compound, climbed a short flight of stairs to the second floor of the long row of cabanas. From the open-air deck overlooking the ocean, I tried to imagine, based on the handful of news photographs I’d gleaned from the Internet, the spot where the boat might have grounded on a sandbar.
It was late afternoon. The sun dazzled. No one else was around. I watched a seagull drop a clam from on high over and over, trying to crack the shell with gravity as the tide swept the shoreline. Walking further along the beach toward Fort Tilden, I came across an abandoned concrete structure covered in graffiti. Had any of them taken shelter here?
Once I learned the club was in proximity to the crash site, my obsession with calculating the distance between the two quickly overtook any other interest. The sedimentary layers of history, and how close they are to the surface, give me vertigo. I wanted to feel time spin.
When you take the audio tour of Alcatraz Island, you learn that, on some nights, when the wind blew a certain direction, the prisoners could hear the sound of partygoers laughing and clinking their glasses from the yacht club across the bay. Were the season-pass holders at the Silver Gull close enough to see the roving spotlights from the rescue boats? Did they hear ambulances howling from the windows of their cabanas?
Another case in point: Recently my friend Anelise and her mother, who was visiting from LA, got into a New York City cab. Her mother asked the cab driver whether he was an undocumented immigrant in that blunt, openly curious way of Chinese people. In fact, he was, and was more than happy to talk. He had come to America by sea—on a boat that was right behind the Golden Venture. But once the crew of his boat figured out what had happened, they steered their vessel away from Breezy Point and pointed it toward Mexico. The cab driver had had to cross the Mexico border to make his way here.
After my trip to the Rockaways, I contacted the photographer whose pictures had been featured in the museum exhibit, including one of a barren strip of beach near where the Golden Venture migrants presumably stood that early morning in June, shivering under the baby-blue emergency blankets they were given. But the photographer, too, was fuzzy on the exact location of the boat. I emailed the curator, who said he didn’t know the specifics either, but encouraged me to search for an aerial photo he had consulted in his research. That clue led me to an image online, which seemed to show a distance of just under half a mile between the club’s low-lying buildings and the beached boat. In other words, they were a world apart.
In 1996, five Golden Venture asylum seekers were reclassified as aliens of extraordinary ability in the arts and granted asylum. One year later, so the story goes, a Republican congressman in Pennsylvania who had gotten swept up in the Golden Venture cause managed to press a paper sculpture of a bald eagle in President Clinton’s hands. Clinton, who collects bald eagles, was suitably impressed. Soon after, he paroled the remaining fifty-three detainees still in custody.
Ironically, by that time, sculpture-making at York Prison had ground to a halt. After nearly four years in legal limbo behind bars, with no end in sight, the remaining detainees had become cynical and despairing. What good were their paper animals?
Toward the end of Never Let Me Go, the young clones have overstayed their welcome at the headmistress’s house. The movers are preparing to leave and the headmistress, too, is eager to be on her way.
“There was a certain climate and now it’s gone,” she tells her former charges. “You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.”
The girl clone has never been one to make waves. She has, until now, accepted her lot with exemplary forbearance. But she can’t bring herself to let this one go. “It might have been just some trend that came and went,” she says quietly. “But for us, it’s our life.”
All migrants and refugees arrive at a certain point in a process. As I write this, there are over 39,000 people incarcerated in ICE detention facilities on any given day across the country, most of them locked up in private for-profit jails. Trump wants $2.8 billion for the 2019 budget year to lock up 10,000 more.
Of the other passengers on the Golden Venture, ten died after leaping into the ocean. Four escaped from the hospital where they were treated for hypothermia. A few were granted asylum; 111 were deported. Fifteen remain here in uneasy purgatory, their status indeterminate. Six ran for the dunes that early morning in June 1993 and were never heard from again.