Some biographers get lucky, and their subjects leave behind detailed diaries and letters chronicling their lives. Ironically, Mae Ngai didn’t have such good fortune when writing The Lucky Ones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp.), the story of the Tapes, a family of Chinese-American immigrants. She did, however, get access to their photo albums and public records, and spoke to descendents. It also helped, of course, that the Tape family made such significant impressions on the Chinese-American community.
Patriarch Jeu Dip, or Joseph Tape as he came to be known, left China in 1864, when he was 12 years old. On his own he made it San Francisco, where he became a successful immigration broker, married, and had four children. His family was the first of the “Americanized Chinese”: They lived in a middle class white neighborhood, had white friends, and wore American clothing. Still they were subject to the discriminatory laws and violence associated with the Chinese, despite their protests. It was their daughter, Mamie Tape, who attempted to integrate California schools in one of the first Chinese-American civil rights cases, and their son Frank who years later was the first to serve on a jury.
The Tapes' lives, Ngai notes, were a paradox: exceptional, yet archetypal at the same time. In the end, it’s no matter that the family didn’t write down its history – Ngai does it for them more than aptly.