29 January, 2011

Review: The Lucky Ones by Mae M. Ngai

Are you tired of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother yet?

It would be interesting to see what Mary Tape would make of Amy Chua's book. While both women's belief in the power of education brought them media attention, Mary Tape was trying to give her children as Western (for lack of a better term) an experience as possible. It is through the records connected to Tape v. Hurley that author Mae Ngai really brings to life the matriarch of this early San Francisco family. Using public records, Mary's photographs, and the few private sources available, Ngai uses the story of the Tape family to tell the story of Chinese America.

Through the Tapes, Ngai shows how the early push for full citizenship rights by California's Chinese emigrants challenged the white idea of what Chinatowns were. Copying the architecture from popular 'ethnic' exhibits, offering 'chinese' food, the emigrants defined generations of lives after them. This early middle class had to find (and defend) their place when white America had not quite decided how to treat them. Tape v. Hurley predates Brown v. Brown more than fifty years resulting in a ruling that "Respondant here has the same right to enter a public school that any other child has." It's never that simple. Despite living a life identical to their white counterparts, the Tape children were refused their right to a public education. The Tapes did not relent until a new school was created on the edge of Chinatown.

A self made and successful business man, Joseph Tape diversified his interests and made the most of opportunities that presented themselves. Mary, a talented photographer, left a wealth of information in the form of her photos. Early pioneers of San Francisco and Berkeley, many of the Craftsman homes they built for their family stand today. Then, as now, these talented pioneers push white America to recognize that there is no distinction between us. Their family saga is America's, and their details could stand in for so many emigrant families trying to achieve the promise of America. It is a shame that so much of what the Tape family faced still exists in our national conversation.

The Lucky Ones is a family saga in another sense of the phrase as well. Its the sort of family story ABC used to run miniseries about in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Emigrant parents of uncertain background, affluent children determined to set their own course. The Lucky Ones is more than an important story, it's a good read. Set your book club up with this one and leave the Mommy Wars to burn themselves out.


  1. I have heard about Amy Chua's book - yes, it reached even here! But not about this book. I don't read many non-fiction books, but this does sound very interesting. Thank you for the review!

  2. This is a great site about the family, found it today - includes some of her letters.


    Race in America is complicated, the Asians have this weird place between white and black that means they get it from all sides, really. Can't win.