China Beat Archive



Angilee Shah

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December 13, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright December 13, 2010 Angilee Shah. Used by permission.


Hyphenated cultures seem to be a natural part of California’s landscape today, but it wasn’t always so. The Lucky Ones by Mae Ngai offers a fresh look at California history by reconstructing the lives of immigrant and second generation pioneers who lived between cultures when it was not such a common phenomenon. Ngai’s narrative brings Chinese Americans into a richer tradition of historical storytelling by humanizing an ambivalent, middle-class immigrant family, situating their lives within the more well-known histories of Chinese laborers and those who suffered from the 1882 Exclusion Act.

Ngai is a professor and immigration historian at Columbia University. She spent 10 years researching one family, the Tapes, and their lives as “in-betweens and go-betweens” who “found in their bilingualism and biculturalism opportunities for economic and social advancement.” She explores the family using public and private records, filling in the blanks with what is known about Chinese Americans’ lives at the turn of the century.

The trials of the Tapes’ lives provide a compelling backdrop for the problems of immigration today. The Tape family begins with Jeu Dip, a houseboy turned wealthy self-made businessman, and Mary McGladery, a Chinese slave girl rescued, raised and renamed by Protestant missionaries in San Francisco. The couple met in 1875, had a six-month courtship — trading endearments in English — got married and renamed themselves Joseph and Mary Tape.

Their daughter, Mamie Tape, was the plaintiff in a well-known civil rights lawsuit which won Chinese Americans access to public schools. The case for inclusion was two-fold: Mamie’s lawyer argued for civil rights for Chinese Americans, but also argued that Mamie was assimilated enough, “white” enough, that she should be admitted to school. The Tapes lived on the edges of Chinese society and the San Francisco middle class, never truly accepted or comfortable in either world.