The Lucky Ones

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Mae Ngai. The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010. pp. 288. $26. Cloth: ISBN: 978-0-618-65116-0

Summary

In her book The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America, Mae Ngai argues that the example of the Tape family between 1864 and 1964 shows that Chinese exclusion laws in the U.S. provided an opportunity for a small group of Chinese immigrants to enter into the middle class. But, the path to economic success in the exclusion era placed them between two cultures. The Tapes were prevented from fully integrating into American society and were also separated from the larger Chinese American community. This example disproves the idea that there is a successive path for immigrants leading from exclusion to inclusion. Rather, exclusion and inclusion are “concurrent and dynamically intertwined” (p. 225).

In order to prove her argument, Ngai recreates a narrative of three generations of the Tape family. The patriarch of the Tape family, Joseph Tape, arrived in San Francisco in the 1860’s at the age of 12 with no family. He worked as a servant for a wealthy businessman and soon began delivering milk for his employer. Ngai suggests that his work placed him in a higher status than the average Chinese laborer. He soon started his own business as a broker for Chinese immigrants. In this capacity, he arranged Chinese labor for American businesses and served as an interpreter between employer and employee. He also transported new Chinese immigrants and their luggage from the port to Chinatown, provided funeral services, and provided bonds for Chinese sailors on shore leave.

The matriarch of the Tape family, Mary McGladery, arrived in San Francisco in the 1860’s at the age of 11 with no family. After some unknown difficulties, she is taken in by the Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society and was the only nonwhite child in the home. Both Joseph and Mary had little contact with the Chinese American community before they met and both fully embraced American customs. After they were married, they live in a middle class neighborhood far from Chinatown where they have four children. Although their neighbors were white, most were middle class immigrants as well. Ngai states that “the Americanized Chinese family would not have seemed so anomalous: they were in-between people living among other in-between people.”

But, with increasing fear and resentment of Chinese Immigrants, the Tape family began to feel more excluded from the culture they embraced. When Joseph and Mary’s oldest daughter, Mamie, was old enough to attend school, the Tape’s discovered that there was no opportunity for the public education of a Chinese American student. They sued and Mamie became the plaintiff in the court case Tape vs. Hurley. The result of the very public lawsuit was the establishment of a segregated public school for Chinese students. Ngai focuses much attention on Joseph and Mary’s son Frank. He initially worked for his father as a broker and interpreter but then began a career interpreting for the Bureau of Immigration. He was investigated for corruption and extortion of Chinese Immigrants. Frank’s career was ultimately unsuccessful and none of Joseph and Mary’s children were able to break out of the “broker” niche which brought success to Joseph and Mary. Of all the members of the second generation, only Frank’s second wife, Ruby, was able to do this after separating from Frank and serving in the military as a WAC during and after WWII.


Commentary

Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

Ngai’s focus on narrative makes it likely that she wrote The Lucky Ones for a non-academic audience. Despite this, Ngai provides a sound academic argument. She lays out how discrimination against Chinese Americans provided opportunities to those who were willing to “exploit opportunities created by cracks in the edifice of exclusion, and who dared to break the rules” (p. 225). But this came with the price of “helping to manage the continued marginalization of other Chinese” which led to their exclusion from the larger Chinese American community (p. 223). Her argument could have been better supported by providing perspectives directly from the Chinese immigrant community. While she gives examples of white resentment of the Tape family, she only alludes to Chinese immigrant resentment of the Tape family throughout the book. She never provides a concrete example of how individuals such as Joseph and Frank Tape were viewed from the perspective of the Chinese laborers they were in contact with. While a limitation of sources may prevent this, it is essential to proving her argument.

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