We have always lived as Americans, and our children have been brought up to consider themselves as such.
—Mary Tape, 1892
Mary Tape (1857-1934) came to San Francisco from around Shanghai, China in 1868. Unaccompanied by any adult, she was taken in by the Ladies’ Protection & Relief Society just a few months later. There she learned English and American ways. She took the name Mary McGladery after the assistant matron who cared for her.
Mary met her husband Joseph (1852-1935) while he was a working as a driver on a milk wagon. Joseph (Jeu Dip) had left Taishan in 1864 when he was just twelve years old. In California, he cut off his queue and found work as a domestic servant with the Sterling family. Eventually, the Sterlings hired Joseph to deliver the milk from their dairy farm. One of the stops on his milk route was Mary’s home at the Ladies’ Protection & Relief Society. As they came from different regions and spoke different Chinese dialects, Joseph courted Mary in English.
They found in each other not just another Chinese person, but something far more rare and new: another Chinese American.
—Mae Ngai, from The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America
After six months, Mary and Joseph were married in a Christian ceremony. They made their first home in Cow Hollow, west of Russian Hill, and forged a middle-class American life. Joseph built a business by picking up baggage and goods from newly docked ships and delivering them to Chinatown. He later expanded his services as a broker for the Chinese community, including work as an interpreter. In their leisure time, the couple toured California on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Mary painted landscapes while Joseph hunted game.
The couple had four children: Mamie, Frank, Emily, and Gertrude. California law entitled all children access to public education. However, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had taken a stand against the inclusion of Chinese children in the city’s public schools, which they declared an “invasion of Mongolian barbarism.” Although Mary Tape was quite aware of the anti-Chinese sentiment at the time—the Chinese Exclusion Act had passed just two years earlier— she reasoned that her family was just as American as their white neighbors. Mary accompanied her eight year-old daughter Mamie—dressed in a checkered pinafore, with ribbons in her hair—to her first day at Spring Valley Primary School. When they arrived, Mamie was denied admission at the schoolhouse door because she was Chinese.
In 1884, the Tapes sued the principal and the San Francisco Board of Education in a case called Tape v. Hurley. The San Francisco Evening Bulletin frequentlyreported on the story, referring to Mamie as “That Chinese Girl.” Did American-born Chinese have the same rights as other US citizens? On January 9, 1885, the Superior Court answered by citing the fact that Chinese paid school taxes and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment — “to deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this State, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.”
However, instead of admitting Mamie Tape, the school board appealed to the California Supreme Court, and rushed state legislation through “to establish separate schools for children of Mongolian or Chinese descent.” The thinking was that if the city had to provide the Chinese with access to public education, then they will do so in segregated schools. Spring Valley continued to refuse Mamie admittance, expecting her to attend the newly created Chinese Primary School in Chinatown. Mary wrote them a public letter:
To the Board of Education—Dear Sirs: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the Public schools. Dear Sirs, Will you please tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my child out of the school because she is [of Chinese Descent? There] is no other worldly reason that you could keep her out ….
You have expended a lot of the Public money foolishly, all because of one poor little Child….
I will let the world see sir What justice there is When it is governed by the Race of prejudice men! … I guess she is more of [an] American [than] a good many of you that is going to prevent her being Educated.
—Mrs. M. Tape, Daily Alta, April 8, 1885.
In the end, Mamie and her brother Frank were the first pupils to appear at the Chinese Primary School when it opened in Chinatown on April 13, 1885. Eventually, the Tape Family moved into a diverse neighborhood on Chinatown’s western edge. By then, they had become semipublic figures, making news from time to time in the local papers as an exceptional Chinese American middle-class family. Mary made a name for herself as an expert telegrapher and an amateur photographer, winning a number of salon awards for her work. In 1892, local journalist Leland Gamble of the San Francisco Call was so intrigued by the notion of a Chinese woman proficient in photography that he paid Mary and her family a visit. He was struck by her accomplishments, which he imagined “no other Chinese woman in the world possesses,” and by her “thoroughly American” family.
We sincerely thank Alisa J. Kim for sharing her family’s story. For more information on the Tape family, see Mae Ngai’s book The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America.
Ngai, Mae. The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Odo, Franklin. “Letter from Mary Tape, April 8, 1885,” in The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, pages 72-73.