The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America

The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America

By:  Mae Ngai

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.

Available Resources

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547504285

  • ISBN-10: 0547504284

  • Pages: 304

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 09/15/2010

Mae Ngai
Author

Mae Ngai

MAE NGAI’s Impossible Subjects, on illegal immigration, was called “deeply stimulating” and “highly original” by the Los Angeles Times. It won the AHA Littleton-Griswold Prize for best book on American law and society, and the OAH Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book on any topic in American history. Ngai is a professor of history at Columbia University.
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  • reviews

    “The Lucky Ones is nothing short of a revelation. It insists that we rethink and enlarge our ideas about American immigration. The Tape family story has the texture and the range of great fiction. Mae Ngai has accomplished the admirable task of providing us with a wealth of historical material, while creating a narrative that pulls us thrillingly along in its wake.” 

    — Mary Gordon, author of Final Payments and Circling My Mother

    “Mae Ngai tells a story we haven’t heard, and very much need. Provocative, groundbreaking, and revelatory, The Lucky Ones is a great read, to boot — as pleasurable as it is enlightening." 

    — Gish Jen, author of Typical American and World and Town

  • excerpts

    The boy, jeu dip (zhao xia), was twelve years old when he left southern China for America. He was from Skipping Stone (fushi) Village in Xinning County, Guangdong Province. The boy's ancestors were one of thirty-three clans that migrated to Xinning in the thirteenth century, during the southern Song dynasty. Because the founder of the Song dynasty was named Zhao, people in Guangdong with that surname often claimed royal lineage. But in the nineteenth century, there were mostly poor farmers in Xinning, not princes. 

     

    Xinning is the old name for Taishan, one of the Siyi (four counties) in southwestern Guangdong from which ninety percent of Chinese immigrants in California came in the nineteenth century. A great chain migration of sons and husbands poured from the Siyi, one of the least prosperous regions of Guangdong. Siyi's hilly terrain and rocky soil, its cycles of drought and flood, and its relative isolation from the market impoverished its farmers. Instability from British economic penetration in the wake of the Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) and political violence caused by secret brotherhood societies made conditions worse. Xinning produced only enough rice to feed its people for half the year. Farmers supplemented rice production by growing sweet potatoes and peanuts on the hillsides. Many Siyi men made seasonal migrations to more prosperous counties near Guangzhou (Canton) to labor as peddlers, hired hands, or factory workers. Increasingly, they sought work across the ocean that would sustain their families. Perhaps, if they were lucky, California gold would make them rich. 

     

    At twelve, Jeu Dip was young to be emigrating on his own. Most boys of that age traveled with a father, uncle, or cousin or had one of those waiting in California, but we have no evidence that Jeu Dip emigrated as part of a family strategy. He may have been orphaned or fled a cruel father, or perhaps he simply escaped from a cruel life. We do know that he never looked back. 

     

    When he left Xinning in 1864, Jeu Dip traveled what was by then already a well-trodden route from rural Guangdong to California — Jinshan, "the gold mountain." He first made his way to Guangzhou, where the Pearl River flows into the South China Sea. Guangzhou is not far from Xinning as the crow flies, about eighty miles, but a mountainous terrain stands between Xinning and the Pearl River delta. In the early twentieth century, an enterprising emigrant named Chen Yixi would return from Seattle and build a railroad from Xinning to Jiangmen, at the edge of the delta. But before that, those with funds traveled by sedan chair, carried by coolies; those without money walked. Jeu Dip probably walked, at least as far as Jiangmen. If he had any money at all, he'd have taken a small boat when he could, a sampan, along the little rivers that thread the delta, as he made his way to Guangzhou. 

     

    There he found an emigration agent willing to loan him money for a ticket to cross the ocean, the debt to be repaid in California. The credit ticket was the common method of financing passage to California, Australia, and Hawaii (the destinations of choice for voluntary emigrants), but it is unclear how a twelve-year-old obtained such a loan without family collateral. Emigrants of lesser means had to sign indentures to get passage for work on plantations in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The poorest rubes were lured or simply kidnapped by coolie traders and sent off in old slaving ships to harvest sugar in Cuba and guano in Peru. But Jeu Dip was a wily kid, smart and ambitious. And lucky, too — a blessing for any emigrant, but one especially appreciated by the Chinese, who understood the currency of luck in a fateful world.

    Jeu Dip traveled by riverboat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, which under British rule had grown to be the busiest entrepôt in East Asia. Rice, silk, tin, opium, and coolies flowed through Hong Kong to and from China, Southeast Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. The U.S.-China trade initially ran mostly to New York, by way of the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. But in the early nineteenth century, Yankee merchants also ran a transpacific route that traded in sandalwood from Hawaii and sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest (the latter being the source of John Jacob Astor's fortune, before he went into Manhattan real estate).

    The transpacific China trade, after eventually suffering from the depletion of sandalwood and pelts, was rejuvenated when the gold rush opened California to hundreds of thousands of people in 1848. Jeu Dip's crossing in 1864 was via the route between Hong Kong and San Francisco that had opened that year. Beginning in the early 1850s, Chinese began coming to California in large numbers, traveling in merchant sailing ships carrying the stuff of the China trade: silk, tea, rice, sugar, curios, herbs. Ships did not sail on schedule, but left only when there was enough cargo and passengers to make the transoceanic journey profitable to the shipper. Like other hopeful emigrants, Jeu Dip had to wait around — perhaps he picked up odd jobs for cash while he did — either in Guangzhou or in Hong Kong, until a ship was ready to sail.

    In San Francisco, the Daily Alta California carried a column, "Shipping Intelligence," which listed the items of cargo and the number of passengers on each arriving vessel. It gave the names of European and American passengers — merchants, ministers, an occasional family — but never the names of the "Chinamen" on board, so we don’t know which vessel Jeu Dip traveled on. It might have been the Arracan, a square-rigged trading ship that left Hong Kong in July 1864 under one Captain Kulken. She carried ten Euro-American passengers and ninety-one unidentified Chinese, along with "7 pkgs opium, 8775 bags of rice, 946 cakes of sugar, 250 gunny bags, 550 rolls matting, 100 baskets ginger, 14 cartons of champagne, 5 millstones, and 4109 pkgs of merchandise," its cargo intended as much for the growing ethnic Chinese market in California as for Euro-American consumers. The journey took four months, with a stop in Nagasaki to water and provision.

    On board, Jeu was assigned a berth, really a hammock, on the lower deck, a dark area between the top deck and the cargo hold. Each passenger brought his own bedding and chopsticks. The men slept, gossiped, gambled, and smoked opium. Occasionally, they went up on deck for fresh air, but mostly they stayed below. Jeu Dip picked up whatever information he could about Jinshan. His focus remained on the future.

    When Jeu Dip arrived in San Francisco, the gold rush was finished, but the transcontinental railroad had not yet been built. The city had begun to shed its character as a feverish and rough through station for people heading for the hills. It was more settled and stable. In addition to being the center of western mining and other extractive industries, the city's robust economy included the port, financial and mercantile services, and local manufacturing. Jeu Dip arrived in the midst of San Francisco's first industrialization, a long upswing that lasted for more than ten years, one fed by capital that was accumulated locally. Still isolated from the national market, prices and wages were both high. A labor shortage persisted even though former miners drifted into the city after the placer, or surface, mines had been depleted.

    Chinese were among those moving from the mining districts to the cities, but there they did not have access to the same jobs or wages as white workers. The Chinese were already cast as a subordinate group — not universally disdained but held at a racial distance, seen by some as exotic and by others as threatening. With

Available Resources

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547504285

  • ISBN-10: 0547504284

  • Pages: 304

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 09/15/2010

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