Webcast Recap

Author: Mae Ngai, Professor of History, Columbia University; Commentator: Franklin Odo, Director, Asian Pacific American Program, Smithsonian Institution

"I feel in some ways I was the lucky one," said Mae Ngai during a discussion of her new book, The Lucky Ones. The book explores an alternative narrative to the traditional story of Chinese Americans' working-class experience in America. Following the Tape family through three generations from the 1860s to World War II, Ngai found a path for Chinese Americans to middle-class life that was distinct from the experiences of the herbalists and merchants who stayed within Chinatown. By serving as interpreters, or brokers, between Chinese immigrants and the institutions (such as banks, police, or schools) in their new home, the Tape family carved out a significant—and lucrative—role for themselves.

The Tape family offers as a singular case study of the larger phenomenon of brokering. It was one way in which the "Chinese had access to American institutions and therefore a [different] type of American life."In the midst of a racially divided San Francisco, where all doors to mainstream America were closed, this family found the one door that was open to them. Brokering and interpreting have long been strategies for advancement for all immigrant groups, regardless of place or time, said Ngai. By having a monopoly on knowledge, interpreters became wealthy and were able to enter into a society that otherwise excluded them.

Ngai made it clear, however, that the story of the Tapes was no fairy tale. The high degree of ethnic segregation to which the Chinese were subjected allowed the Tapes to leverage their knowledge beyond the first generation of immigrants, but it also meant that they continued to experience the detriments of racism and discrimination well after they and other Chinese had established themselves within the United States. It was their protest and resistance to this segregation that originally brought the Tape family to Ngai's attention. The Tape v. Hurley case, which protested Mamie Tape's rejection from a California public school, was well-known in Chinese-American scholarly circles. The family's wealth and status, which were built on the fact of segregation, enabled them to mobilize and bring the case to court, yet it was this same segregation that they were protesting. This paradox refutes the conventional wisdom that "exclusion and inclusion are successive phases to assimilation," Ngai asserted. "[The Tapes'] story suggests that they are not necessarily successive phases in a linear path but concurrent and dynamically intertwined even if they seem to be opposite vectors in the immigrant experience."

Franklin Odo reiterated the importance of this idea in his comments on the book. He expanded Ngai's focus on the Chinese American broker experience to other immigrant groups, noting that other successful immigrants recognized the weaknesses in the practice of exclusion and sought to profit from it. Odo praised Ngai for "unabashedly" recognizing that there was indeed a wealthy immigrant class, in essence and pointing to the need for scholarly research on something other than the immigrant working-class experience. Furthermore, he argued, acknowledging that wealth is part of immigrant history can add a new dimension to present-day cases for affirmative action.

Today, immigration policies and different social, economic, and political conditions alter the narratives of assimilation and integration into American society, but not entirely; brokering, inclusion, and exclusion continue to resonate in the American consciousness. In the face of such prejudice, Ngai suggested, assimilation is not pre-ordained but possible only through the efforts of those who work to bridge the gap between cultures. The Tapes' experience shows how the services of brokers can enable cultural and economic exchange but also how full inclusion sometimes requires legal action, as in the case they brought against the California school system. Reflecting upon the relative success of this process, it became clear to Ngai that it is not a one-way street. That is, the Chinese did not only become more "white," but America also become more Chinese.

By Lauren Demeter
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies