Friday, July 16, 2010

The Lucky Ones; One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America – A Review

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with the assistance of Net Galley for review. The views expressed here are honest and are in no way influenced by the publisher or the author.


If you’re Irish American or African American or Eastern European Jewish American, there’s a rich literature to give you a sense of your family’s arrival-in-America story. Until now, that hasn’t been the case for Chinese Americans. From noted historian Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones uncovers the three-generational saga of the Tape family. It’s a sweeping story centered on patriarch Jeu Dip’s (Joseph Tape’s) self-invention as an immigration broker in post–gold rush, racially explosive San Francisco, and the extraordinary rise it enables. Ngai’s portrayal of the Tapes as the first of a brand-new social type—middle-class Chinese Americans, with touring cars, hunting dogs, and society weddings to broadcast it—will astonish. Again and again, Tape family history illuminates American history. Seven-year-old Mamie Tape attempts to integrate California schools, resulting in the landmark 1885 Tape v. Hurley. The family’s intimate involvement in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair reveals how the Chinese American culture brokers essentially invented Chinatown—and so Chinese culture—for American audiences. Finally, Mae Ngai reveals aspects—timely, haunting, and hopeful—of the lasting legacy of the immigrant experience for all Americans.

My Review

The Lucky Ones is essentially a historical account of the Chinese Americans in California. The book features one family in particular, the Tapes of Russell Street in San Francisco who were among the first middle class Chinese American families in that area. If you are not familiar with the history of California, Chinese labours came to this state firstly during the gold rush in the 1840’s as a cheap, abundant source of labour. However when the gold rush era panned out, large numbers began to come into the state around the 1860’s to work on the transcontinental railroad. The fact that their labour was cheap angered the Occidental population and led to discriminatory laws against the Chinese well into the turn of the twentieth century. It is under this climate that the Tapes, Joseph and Mary lived in California.

Ngai has done a great job telling the story of this family. It is not so much analysis as it is a narration of the family's life, their battle against segregation in education and  how they retained or in some instances assimilated there culture with that of America. The author used mostly family photos and official documentation to reconstruct their lives, the former can be found throughout the book.

I was really inspired to do my own little investigation into this family. Most of the stuff that i found online however were already emphasized in the book for example:

- Mary Tape the matriarch of the Tape family successfully challenged the segregation laws in California that prevented her children from going to school and obtaining an education.  This infamous case is known as the Tape vs. Hurly (1885).

- The judgment by the California Supreme Court forced the development of the Chinese Primary school, a school specifically geared towards educating Chinese American children.

- As a result of their opportunities in education and their positions in government and civil posts, the Tape family was among the first educated, Chinese American middle class families in the area. This social position was unheard of among minority groups.

- Mary Tape is California’s earliest known Chinese American Woman Artist.

At 304 pages, this book is not a light read and may be mostly suited to history buffs like myself yet the content of the book gives you a story not just about this family but about Chinese (and Japanese) Americans during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century and more importantly the development and growth of one of the most populated states in America, California.

Aside from reading the book to learn more about the Tapes, you can also visit these websites.

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