Why Does Ngai Title Her Book, The Lucky Ones? In What Ways Were the Tapes “lucky” Compared to Other Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Americans?
The United States has always remained the ‘Promised Land’ for millions of immigrants searching for the American Dream. A trend that started during the age of exploration continues to date. For instance, the state of California is revered not only for its spectacular natural scenic beauty but also for its amazing human diversity. However, behind its astonishing diversity, the stories of these immigrants tell of a sad past not worth celebrating. For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to bar Chinese people from entering America in large numbers. In fact, the law only allowed merchants to enter the country and barred unattached women and casual laborers. This restrictive entry of Chinese people into America gave rise to a special class of the Chinese who worked as transportation agents and interpreters for the government. Their role was to monitor the human traffic from Asia to the United States. They were supposed to aid Americans to stem the tide of Chinese immigrants. In return, they were accorded a higher social status. However, the rest of the Chinese immigrants went through some of the dehumanizing acts. This class of Chinese immigrants was not as lucky as suggested by the title The Lucky Ones.
In the 1850s, China was a hotbed of political unrest and economic turmoil that significantly affected the social setup. This situation resulted in thousands of Chinese people moving towards the western parts of America to search for temporary work. The immigrants took menial jobs ranging from agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and service industry jobs. By 1890, their population hit 300,000 with some choosing to go back to China after a short stint in the United States. The vast immigration caused a wave of anti-Chinese sentiments (Starr 2007). Over time, ethnic discrimination against the Chinese immigrants culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 by the US Congress. This law was meant to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers to America and effectively barred the population from acquiring US citizenship. Although this law was eventually repealed in 1943, it was only after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, when the Chinese immigration became permitted by law.
Amidst the raging racial discrimination against Chinese immigrants in the United States, the Chinese interpreters found themselves at least one step ahead of the unfortunate masses they controlled. For instance, they were accorded almost unlimited access to immigration papers, transportation, as well as accommodation. They were the “lucky ones” since they earned a special place in America’s upper middle class quite early during the immigration period. However, the privilege did not come on a silver plate. They had to work for the whites as loyal servants, including mistreating their own relatives. They were used by their white masters to commit atrocious acts against the rest of the Chinese immigrants. Some of them even became crooks, extorting money from the unfortunate Chinese immigrants who were desperate to come to the United States. All this was for the promise of social acceptance and a few privileges by the Americans. Due to their middle position between the whites and the Chinese immigrants, they were never loved by either side (Ngai 2010). The whites treated them scornfully due to their Asian roots while their fellow Chinese immigrants hated them for their inhuman acts against them. In the end, they never really knew happiness despite their privileged social position. Mae Ngai traces the story of the “lucky ones” from a few families who were involved in the interpretation jobs. He traces the life and times of Tapes in San Francisco, who came to the United States around 1864.
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Originally known as Jeu Dip, Joseph Tape came into the United States when he was 12. He did several menial jobs from the moment he set foot in America, rising much later to an interpreter for the US immigration officials. During this time, Tape amassed so much wealth in different sectors of the economy, ranging from the real estate to luxury cars. Growing up, Tape married a woman named Mary. Mary, unlike Tape, did not have any recorded Chinese names to boast of. The couple, despite their “high social status” experienced their share of troubles as Chinese immigrants (Ngai 2010). In 1900, whites escaped to Chinatown where they lived after 22 people had died of plague in San Francisco. Most of the deceased were Chinese immigrants. These people were not safe in America regardless of their social status. The Americans considered them inassimilable and, therefore, tried to push them out of the United States. There was just too much loathsome rhetoric against these immigrants. The writer highlights an incident where the Chinese immigrants were notoriously locked in railroad cars and leaves the readers to guess the reasons behind the incident. It was a classical case of the attempt at the exclusion of the immigrants. In another incident, the writer narrates briefly about the life of immigrants in Angel Island immigration station. However, the narration leaves out a great deal of horrific tales of the immigration station. Based on existing photographic evidence as well as information from descendants of the survivors, the details are better concealed as they are potentially divisive. In essence, the troubles that riddled the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States were painful and grossly inhuman (Sucheng and Spencer, 1996). They are better discussed in a low tone to avoid evoking racial animosity. Even the “lucky ones” who had much more social privileges as compared to the ordinary immigrants had nothing to be proud of.
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The book The Lucky Ones reveals the experience of Joseph Tape as an immigration broker. Indeed, the situations discussed were typical of the lives of the first middle-class Chinese Americans. The book illuminates the larger America’s immigration story given that most of them underwent the same experiences. For instance, Mamie, a seven-year-old kid faces a great challenge in an attempt to integrate into California schools. Mamie had been denied admission to a school in San Francisco due to her Asian ancestry. As a result, her parents filed a case in court in protest of the violation of her fundamental rights to education. Fortunately, the High Court ruled in their favor, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the high court. Although this incident opened a space for Chinese immigrants to get the education, a law was soon passed to allow for the creation of a school for “Mongolian” children. Thus, the book highlights some of the challenges that faced the Chinese immigrants (Ngai 2010). However, it portrays Joseph Tape as a man of different faces. While on one side, he is accused of exploiting fellow Chinese immigrants, this particular lawsuit shows a man ready to fight for his people.
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In conclusion, Chinese Americans have a painful history of their immigration into the United States. Unlike other immigrants, Chinese immigrants were exploited both by their masters as well as by fellow immigrants who served as interpreters for immigration officials. Although the interpreters enjoyed some social privileges over the other immigrants, they still had their share of troubles. In fact, they found themselves challenging some of the issues faced by their underprivileged colleagues. In fact, they were not lucky after all. They were just like the rest of the Chinese immigrants given that they faced the same problems.