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 The Lucky Ones follows the family’s fortunes and misfortunes until the Act was repealed in 1943 “to counter Japan’s war propaganda that American immigration laws were racist.”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.

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