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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-06-21
- Reviewer: Staff
A thoroughgoing look at the historical record of early Chinese immigration to San Francisco unearths the heartening story of one rags-to-riches family. Columbia history professor Ngai (Impossible Subjects) characterizes her work as history, situating the union of two young working people in San Francisco in 1875 within a larger frame of Chinese immigration, which had been encouraged by the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, attracting impoverished men mostly from the Guangdong Proivince. Jeu Dip, an enterprising drayman who had come over at age 12, and Mary McGladery, an indentured Chinese servant (mui tsai) who had emigrated as an orphan and was then rescued from prostitution at 11 years old, thanks to the Ladies' Protection and Relief Society, both became acculturated English-speakers and ambitious to live among the white middle-class. Despite recent legislation limiting Chinese immigration, and growing anti-Chinese racism due to the resentment from the displacement of the white workforce, Jeu Dip, renamed Joseph Tape, flourished as a deliveryman and broker for new immigrants; Joseph and Mary grew prosperous and even sued to have their daughter Mamie attend the local white public school. Ngai traces their descendants, especially their son, Frank, who was tried for extorting money from new immigrants, and his estranged wife, Ruby, who joined the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Ngai fashions a terrifically readable, compelling work about the little-known middle-class in the Chinese immigrant experience. (Sept.)
The Chinese in America
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a moral blot that was second only to the stain of slavery on American ideals of liberty and justice for all. The Act was, as Columbia University history professor Mae Ngai writes in her fascinating study, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America, “the first—and only—U.S. immigration law to ever name a specific group for exclusion on grounds of its alleged racial unassimilability.”
But paradoxically, Ngai shows, the Act helped engender the Chinese-American middle class by fostering a set of professions—interpreters and “in-between” people—that brokered relationships between Chinese who lived mostly in the Chinatowns of America and mainstream, white America. Her case in point is the story of four generations of the Tape family.
Jeu Dip arrived in San Francisco from China as a young boy on his own in 1864. He had an entrepreneurial spirit, found work on a farm in the outer reaches of San Francisco, far from the Chinese Quarter, and later became the sole agent for Chinese people dealing with the Southern Pacific Railroad. His future wife arrived in San Francisco more traumatically. She had likely been sold by her family to work in domestic servitude in a Chinatown brothel and, later, to be trained as a prostitute. She was rescued by missionaries and raised in a mission home as Mary McGladery. When the pair married in 1875, Jeu Dip changed his name to Joseph Tape. Joseph and Mary raised four children as the Exclusion Act was taking full force. The Lucky Ones follows the family’s fortunes and misfortunes until the Act was repealed in 1943 “to counter Japan’s war propaganda that American immigration laws were racist.”
The Tapes left behind little in the way of personal records or correspondence. But they were involved in two prominent legal proceedings. In the first, daughter Mamie won a landmark constitutional case granting her the right to a public education. Many, many years later, her ne’er-do-well brother Frank was tried, and eventually acquitted, of extorting bribes from Chinese people while employed by U.S. Immigration. The Tapes also left behind a remarkable set of photo albums documenting their middle-class lives in Berkeley. Through these documents and through outstanding sleuthing in public records, Ngai has put together an intriguing chronicle of an exceptional family. Even better, she uses the Tapes’ unusual experiences as early members of the Chinese-American middle class to illuminate the experiences of all Chinese immigrants in the troubled era of the Exclusion Act.