Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Mae Ngai’s history of the Tape family is a microhistory, focusing on a singular family in order to explore wider transformations in American life during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. While not grounded in argument per se, Ngai’s exploration of several decades of this family nonetheless takes readers through several significant chapters in U.S. history such as the industrialization of California, the Supreme Court case Tape v. Hurley, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 in St. Louis, the destruction of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906 by earthquake, and the experience of Chinese immigrants in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Tape family was impacted by and navigated these events in ways that illustrate the significance of race and class in American life at the turn of the 20th century.
From the very first, the Tapes were unique Chinese Americans in that Joseph (originally Jeu) and Mary had come to the United States as individuals instead of with a family. Chinese families that immigrated to the U.S. were much more likely to settle in ethnic towns (hence San Francisco’s China Town) than immigrants who came alone. Ngai writes that their paths of assimilation into American ways of life were facilitated by the fact that they largely had to forge their own paths from adolescence upon arrival to the U.S. In his early years in the states, Joseph performed domestic work and drove a milk cart, which allowed him to learn English and interact with many more American people than other young boys his age. Mary was raised in a young girls’ home largely made up of white children, which was where she learned English and became accustomed to American ways of life.
Ngai performs a great deal of speculation in attempting to figure out how Mary came to be placed in such a home. A variety of hypothetical scenarios explore where she came from in China, what ship she disembarked from, her potential for being solicited by brothel-keepers, and her final “rescue” into an orphanage created by the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society. This is not the only place Ngai speculates throughout the book. In attempting to place the Tape family within the larger context of Chinese America, Ngai becomes distracted from sources specifically pertaining to the Tape family. While the goal itself is admirable and indeed interesting, this piecing together of various aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience often seems forced. Because there is so much available information on the Tape family, the hypothetical seems unnecessary and distracts from the most interesting aspects of the Tapes’ lives.
Throughout the book, Ngai comes back to the idea that “the Tape family was exceptional, yet it was also archetypal of the first Chinese middle class” (223). Their exceptionality is explained within the context that this Chinese middle class, the first one according to Ngai, was very limited in the number of families who achieved it. Perhaps the most interesting exploration of the book is the means by which the Tape family was able to become middle class. Joseph, the patriarch of the family, and his son Frank, balanced their assimilated American identity with their Chinese heritage in order to make a profit. For Joseph, this meant acting as a teamster and broker for Chinese immigrants come to shore in California. For Frank, this meant working with the federal government in exposing Chinese immigrants who had smuggled themselves into the U.S. While Joseph was perhaps more successful in this venture, Frank’s crazy life (Frank is indeed a fascinating character to follow) is very much informed, according to Ngai, by the pressures placed on Frank to be as successful, as American, as his father. This is what connects this book to the study of gender in American society; at its center is the family and the various roles and expectations of different members of the Tape family. Frank’s success was dependent upon making a respectable, middle class living like his father, while the success of his sisters (Mamie, Gertrude, and Emily) was dependent upon them marrying a respectable, middle class man. As Ngai points out, these expectations rarely played out as Joseph and Mary had intended.
What Ngai essentially presents to the public is the story of one family’s journey navigating American life at the turn of the 20th century. Like other families, the Tapes experienced successes, failures, marriage, divorce, vacations, disappointment, and a variety of experiences general to the American middle class. However, the Tapes also combated racial discrimination and stereotypes in a way that most other middle class Americans did not. While a couple of Joseph and Mary’s children became involved in Chinese culture in California, Joseph and Mary themselves were not. They made deliberate decisions not to live in Chinatown and wanted their children to go to an American public school and faced challenges because of these decisions.
As a work of factual history, this book is somewhat ineffective. As a work of story-telling, however, it is compelling while also illuminating some crucial moments in America’s past.
The Tape family, 1884 (from left to right: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary).