Mae Ngai's "The Lucky Ones: The Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America"

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By Carolyn See
Friday, September 24, 2010


One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America

By Mae Ngai

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 288 pp. $26

Anyone observing the controversy over illegal Latin American immigration should remember that today's high emotions are pale evocations of how the United States treated Chinese immigrants from 1882 to 1943.

The Exclusion Laws were just what the name implied: Chinese merchants were allowed entrance, but laborers and unattached women were unequivocally barred from this country. In the last quarter of the 19th century, irate American citizens -- especially on the West Coast, from where I write -- looked around and saw entirely too many Chinese people. A strong physical, spiritual and emotional aversion possessed our country, and working-class Chinese became anathema in America. The exclusion laws weren't lifted until 1943, the middle of World War II, when the Chinese, beaten up by Japan for a decade or so, became our de facto friends.

This book is not about the exclusion laws per se, though it could not exist without them. Mae Ngai has chosen to write about the class of Chinese who, in the early days of immigration, owed their existence to "profiting from the legal regime of racial discrimination. . . . [They] became labor contractors, transportation agents, and government interpreters." These people, under white supervision, monitored the traffic from Asia to America. They were meant to help stem the tide of Chinese people who were lying like mad to reach the comparative safety of this country.

The Chinese interpreters were one step ahead of the unfortunates they tried to control. They had access to immigration papers, boardinghouses, transportation -- something as simple yet potentially lucrative as getting an immigrant from a ship to a place to stay; their hands were on all the ropes. The author calls these people "the lucky ones," and her new book traces the story of three generations of a Chinese interpreter's family -- hard workers who attained a place in the upper middle class very early during this wave of immigration.

They did it by working for the white man, and everything that implies. Their loyalties were toward their employers. Some of them conformed to the values and rules of their Caucasian bosses, and some of them were shameless crooks, extorting money from Chinese who were desperately trying to get into the country. They also took commissions on steamer tickets, made money by posting bond for people believed to be flight risks, and charged job seekers finder's fees.

These interpreters were disconcertingly similar to today's "coyotes," who drive their illegal cargo across the Sonoran Desert and then pile them up in anonymous tract houses on this side of the border. The interpreters rose inevitably in the United States, but they weren't exactly beloved by either race.

With remarkable -- some might say chilling -- objectivity, Mae Ngai follows the fortunes of her chosen family, the Tapes of San Francisco. Joseph Tape, whose Chinese name was Jeu Dip, came to this country in 1864. He was only 12. He went to work as a drayman at first, with one horse and one cart, and worked like a fiend for his whole life, mainly doing interpreting work for immigration officials. He amassed real estate, hunting lodges and luxury cars. His female relatives dressed beautifully. He married a girl by the name of Mary, who didn't even have a recorded Chinese name. The couple avoided Chinatown like the plague. (In fact, in 1900, 22 people in San Francisco died of the plague, most of them Chinese. Whites wanted to raze Chinatown, but never got around to it.)

The Tapes had children, three girls and a boy. Joe's son made extra money from extortion and had a checkered, somewhat shameful career. Two of the girls married interpreters. Their whole thrust was to become "American," but this came at a considerable cost. Three of the four Tape children divorced or separated; the women tended to suffer from depression.

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