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The Chinese Struggle to Become American
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Mae Ngai
The Lucky Ones:  One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese Americans (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2010, 276p.)

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Ngai has assembled a compact and coherent saga of the Chinese immigrants into the United States over the 1800s.  She follows the story of the Dip (Tape) family to tell the detailed story of the hardships faced by the Chinese who migrated to California.

Mae Ngai tells the story of individuals and generations of the family of Jeu Dip.  Dip's name was adapted to a phonetically similar English form Joe Tape.  Ngai comments that the name is a German name the family took, but the German name would be pronounced Tah-puh).  The Chinese were known for their industry and business skills.

They were successful at various levels of business because they worked hard as family units and moved into "respectable" levels of society and life as they were able.  The Tape family were fixtures in the San Francisco area, and helped newcomers and fostered investment from China and promoted Chinese business interests in the United States.  They likewise encouraged the Chinese government to open up to the rest of the world and build international relationships.

But there was a huge dark side to all this, related to the corrupt and complicated immigration process.  The Chinese immigrant experienced longterm confinement while under "processing."  Fear and resistance to Chinese immigration grew as the flow increased.  Corrupt immigration officials exploited the immigrants, and local Chinese were involved in this exploitation of newcomers.  A large illegal immigration racket grew up and offered many more levels and stages of exploitation.

Ironically, one of the Tape family members was on the shady side of Chinese immigration, involved in the huge smuggling industry that brought great numbers of Chinese to California illegally.  He exploited these immigrants, extorting bribes to assist them after landing, in addition to his fees from the smugglers.  His nefarious activities at times cast negative attention on the generally respected and upright Tape family.

Because of the respect they had gained and the contacts they had developed at high levels of government in San Francisco, California and Washington, members of the Tape family became advocates for the exploited and discriminated against.  Even so, especially early on, they suffered discrimination also, children being denied enrollment in the schools, bullied and made fun of.

Despite their disadvantages, the Tape family proceeded and succeeded in their desired assimilation and gained education for their children through their own channels, meanwhile becoming advocates for those less familiar with the US system.  The Tape family story entails the whole history and social dynamic of the Chinese saga in the US.  Ngai is a clear and engaging writer, dealing with all the pertinent factors without getting bogged down.

She tells of the war heroes, enlisting to fight for the honor of the United States and the freedom of Europe, even while their people were suffering in California.  No novel can tell the story better.  Read this book.

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Written 26 September 2011
Final review posted 22 October 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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