Mrs. Tape as Wonderwoman!
By Peter E. Palmquist
The history of photography is filled with unusual and interesting stories such as this one transcribed from the San Francisco Call of November 3, 1892. In brief, a local newspaper reporter learned that a Chinese woman had become proficient in photography. Intrigued, but skeptical, the reporter arranged for an interview and was totally astonished by what he discovered. Not only was Mrs. Mary Tape (born Shanghai, China 1857-died Berkeley, California, 1934) an accomplished amateur photographer but she was capable in innumerable other ways as well.
Nineteenth century California has had a long love/hate relationship with the Chinese: loved because they worked cheaply; hated because they were considered clannish and so different looking. Prejudice against the Chinese/American populationas is so clearly revealed in the reporters commentswas rampant throughout white society. Nonetheless, the reporter has left us with an engaging glimpse into a family from Chinatown who were successfully living the American Dream.
Although the article goes far beyond Tapes accomplishments with a camera, it should be noted that she was a very popular member of the California Camera Club and of the amateur photography scene. Not only was she considered a fine photographic technician but she also won a number of salon awards for the artistic excellence of her photography.
For the record, following is a list of Mrs. Tapes family: Husband, Joseph C. Tape (born China November 1852-died Berkeley, California, 1935); Daughter, Mamie (1876-1972); Son, Frank (1878-1950); Daughter, Emily (1880-1950); and Daughter, Gertrude (1890-1947).
WHAT A CHINESE GIRL DID
An Expert Photographer and Telegrapher
When I was told the other day that somewhere up in the neighborhood of Washington and Stockton streets there lived a young Chinese woman who devoted most of her spare time to photography I was considerably surprised, and felt prone to believe that my informant was telling me a fairy tale. He insisted, however, that such was the fact, and if I did not believe it I could go and see for myself. He further told me that her husband was in business on the corner of Dupont and Stockton streets and that his name was Joseph Tape. I was still incredulous, but went up to see the head of the family and found him in the place designated. On being asked if the story was true that his wife understood photography, he answered with a laugh and said in as good English as I ever heard in my life: Yes, sir, and a good many other things, too.
I asked him if I could meet his wife and see some of her work, and he answered: Well, I dont know, but you wait here for a moment and I will telegraph and ask her.
The thought struck me as he started up the street that, being in a business that necessitated a good many calls, he probably had a telephone in his house and intended to ask his wife over that if she cared to receive a visitor.I found this afterward to be a mistake and that he really did mean to telegraph her, but this is only one of the many surprises I received during the day, it can better be told later on.
Tape returned in a few minutes and said: All right: we can go up.
After the shock of hearing a Chinaman say he would telegraph to his wife, I was prepared to see and hear almost anything on reaching the house, but my surprise was even greater than I expected when I did get there, and the surprises came so thick and fast that I havent recovered from them yet.
The house is situated at 927 Washington street, in the rear and is approached by a long, narrow covered passageway, which leads into a small garden. In the center is the house, an unpretentious two-story cottage, in good repair, the steps and porch being enlivened with plants of various kinds in pots and boxes. When we entered I was ushered into a cozy little parlor furnished in the best of taste, with nice, easy, comfortable chairs to rest in. On the walls hung a number of pretty photographs and one or two oil paintings, while here and there wedged in between the pictures were various knick-knacks and ornaments. After being offered a chair my guide left me, saying he would call his wife.
I then had a chance to look around me, and found that everything in the room bore the unmistakable signs of refinement and had nothing to make any one believe it the home of a Chinese family. Against the wall at the back part of the room stood an upright piano, on the top of which rested a French horn with a zither, while by the side of these a large pile of music and photographs was to be seen. Next to the piano stood a combination library and specimen case in which on the lower shelves was a goodly array of books, while the upper part was devoted to some beautiful specimens of California birds, which I found out afterwards had all been shot by the master of the house, as he is a great lover of field sport. Before I had quite finished my review the soft rustle of skirts reached my ears, and Mr. Tape presented me to his wife and the rest of the family who came in to see what a reporter looked like. Mrs. Tape received me in the most charming way and bade me welcome to her house.
We do not wish to get any newspaper fame, she said, but if you think it will be of interest to your readers to hear about my studies in photography I shall only be too happy to tell you all about it, and also about myself and how I came to take it up.
This was all said in the best of English, and with a refined accent, showing that Mrs. Tape must have devoted the greater part of her life to study, and as we talked on further I found that not only was she extremely well versed in the ordinary lines of the English language, but was also well posted on the current events of the day. After we were seated I took a look at my new-made friends and found that, although they had the features and forms of the Chinese race, everything else about them was thoroughly American.
Mrs. Tape, whom I took to be about 35 years old, was dressed in a gown of soft clinging silk or some Indian stuff which set off her figure to good effect. Her hair was arranged in the latest American fashion and was as black and glossy as ever graced the hear of Andalusian beauty. Her face was comely, one might even say pretty, because it had so much intelligence and was set off by a fine mouth, behind which were a set of pearly teeth that showed whenever she laughed. The children were a fine healthy lot and all of them good-looking, taking after their mother in most respects.There were four of themone boy and three girlsthe eldest, named Mamie, the second Frank, and the third Emily, while the youngest was a baby three years old, whose name I have forgotten, but remember it was a very pretty one.
After they had been presented in order and had answered my salutations in charming language, I turned to Mrs. Tape and asked how it was that her children spoke such good English. No doubt you are surprised, was her reply, but you will not be so when you hear a short history of my life. I was born in the northern part of China, near Shanghai, from which place few Chinese ever come to this county. I arrived her when 11 years of age, and have not much recollection of the first few months of my residence here, except that I lived somewhere in Chinatown. This only lasted five months, and then I was taken up by the Ladies Relief Society, out on Franklin street, and it was there under their care that I first learned to speak the English language and acquire American manners.
I staid with them five years or more and then met my husband, and we were married after a six months courtship. Looking up with a happy smile she continued: We have never had cause to regret our first meeting, either, as our lives have been very happy. Since that time we have always lived as Americans, and our children have been brought up to consider themselves as such. Their education in the common branches has been gained at the Chinese public school on Clay street, and their other accomplishments by private tutors. Each of them has some accomplishment, and my eldest daughter Mamie is quite proficient on the piano.
I expressed a desire to hear the young lady play and imagine my surprise when without any of the backwardness and diffidence of American girls of the same age she took her seat at the piano and began to finger the keys. The first few pieces I did not know by name, but she soon began to play the Mocking-bird and brought out its notes as well as I have ever heard them brought out by an American girl. Her execution was good and her style graceful. I was more surprised when her mother informed me that she had only been studying four years.
Before hearing Miss Tape play I had the idea the Chinese as a rule were about as musical as a basedrum, but then my opinions had been formed through hearing their performances in the Chinese theaters or at some public funeral. She is only sixteen and gives promise of being an excellent physician, as her playing showed that she was in sympathy with her music and did not play merely in a mechanical way. The second daughter, Emily, is also studying music, but had not advanced far enough to give a public performance. She had adopted one American custom, though, which showed her patriotism, and that was dancing.
I wanted to ask her to show how far she had advanced in the art, but she felt somewhat constrained before an utter stranger. Her brother, however, assured me that she was well up in all American dances, and could trip a measure as well as any other girl. Frank, the only boy, plays the French horn, and is a member of one of the boys brigades in the city. He did not have a chance to let me hear him play, but I think he wanted to, for when I left I heard the sweet strains of the horn coming from the back part of the house. The baby has not as yet begun her musical education, but I have no doubt when she reaches an age suitable to such work she will be an accomplished as her brothers and sisters.
Now that I have heard the children show me how accomplished they were in their various pursuits, it struck me that the object I had come for mainly had escaped my memory, and that was to see some of Mrs. Tapes work in photography. Nobody could blame me, however, for forgetting this subject when one takes into consideration the unique surprise that had been sprung upon me.I had only come to see some photographs and talk with the lady that took them, and here I was sitting in a room with a family of full-blooded Chinese listening to a Chinese girl playing an old-time favorite on an American piano and talking to me with as much esprit as any girl of my own race.
This fact struck me at first as exceedingly ludicrous, as I had always been accustomed to view the Chinese in an entirely different light; but when I saw around me the father and mother and their accomplishments children I changed my opinion in regard to the race in general and saw that with proper instruction before they had become imbued with national traits they were as susceptible of civilization as any nation in the world.
The more I saw of the Tapes in their home circle the more of this fact became apparent. I was still far from getting to the subject of photography, for at this point Mr. Tape wished to show me his library and specimen-case which stood at the back of the room. Here was a full complement of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a copy of Shakespeare and various other volumes of useful literature, while on the shelves above were some beautiful specimens of the taxidermists art, in truth, almost every songster that makes his home in California.
Besides all this there were specimens of gold, silver, galena, etc., from every portion of the State and a beautiful collection of sea shells, all gathered by Mr. and Mrs. Tape while traveling about the country. Everything pertaining to the bookcase showed that the owners had good taste and knew what was artistic and what was not.
I had seen so much now that I was ready to believe anything they told me, and was fully prepared to see some exquisite work in photography. My expectations were more than realized, for Mrs. Tape, when we came around to this subject, showed me some of her work, which was fully equal to any amateur in the State, and I might say would bear comparison with many professionals. In a great pile of pictures were scenes from almost every place in Californialandscapes, still life and portraits till you couldnt rest, and all done by a native-born Chinese woman.
I expressed my usual surprise that she had been able to conquer the difficult art of photography, and she only laughed saying: Oh, these are nothing to some of the work I have done. My friends usually beg everything good and leave me the rest. But here, look at these, and she produced a pile of lantern slides, these are some that I take pride in.? And they were fully worth it, as some of the reproductions with this article will prove [they were reproduced in the article as poorly-done woodcuts not as halftones.
I not only take my own pictures but prepare my own plates and make my own prints, said the Chinese woman. You will no doubt wonder, how I come to understand so much about the business, and I can tell you that everything I know has come from reading different authorities on the subjects and then studying the methods to see which was the best.
Every summer my husband and I go somewhere in the country, and I always make a success of the majority of my pictures.Mrs. Tape here went into a full explanation of her own particular way of getting good negatives, and her husband at the same time showed me several diplomas she had received from the Mechanics Institute, which gave her the highest award for amateur photography.
No one seeing her pictures could doubt that they deserved a reward, as they were fully up to any work done by Americans here in San Francisco, and were far beyond the usual work of amateurs in any country. The specimens we give with this article are not some of her best efforts, but were picked out because they were family subjects, the figures being those of her children, taken at various times. Besides being a first-class photographer Mrs. Tape has another accomplishment, which probably no other Chinese woman in the world possesses, and that is the art of telegraphy.
She can send and receive as well as the best operators, and keeps in constant practice by daily use of the instruments, connected with a line running from the house to some point near her husbands place of business. You may think it strange, she said, that I should be able to use the Morse system, and to tell the truth I have never made any practical use of my knowledge. The way my husband and I learned the use of the instrument was through the kindness of a friend, who had a short line to practice on and wished to have somebody on the other end.
We took it more to accommodate him than anything else, and both of us soon became proficient in its use.Since then we have found it so useful to communicate with each other during business hours when my husband is away from home that we have a private line between here and his office that we use whenever necessary.
The telegraph instrument is on a table in the dining room and its least click can be heard in any part of the house. Both of the operators handled it in my presence and were as expert as old-time operators. Mrs. Tape had about reached the end of her accomplishments, but her husband pointed to a landscape painting on the wall over the piano and informed me that his wife was the artist, and then to finish my surprise produced an excellent still-life painting of fruit which made my mouth water; also some plates hand-painted and tinted which were works of art.
I then asked her if she could sing and play and she even admitted that; but said she would leave her children to show off the musical attainments of the family.The second girl, Emily, is studying the violin, she also informed me, and was progressing rapidly in its use. Joseph Tape, the father of this most interesting family, is the interpreter to the Imperial Consulate of China in this city, and also engaged in the express business, having a monopoly of transporting the Chinese who come here in bond, besides handling large contracts for wholesale merchants in Chinatown. He came to this country thirty years ago, and has acquired the English language so as to speak it most fluently. Although he has adopted the United States as his home he cannot become a voter. This fact he regrets very much, but says he has a boy who will make a good citizen, and will be able to vote when he comes of age.
Tape is one of the best wing shots on the coast and can give some of our local nimrods cards and spades. He is a thorough sportsman and gives all of his spare time to hunting pursuits, and is every way possible is thoroughly American. I asked him and his wife if they ever expected to go back to China again, and Mrs. Tape answered for both: We may some day if we feel we can afford the trip, but it will only be as tourists visiting a foreign country. California is our home. All of our best and happiest moments have been passed here, and here we shall live and die.
I bade them good-by, and as I passed out of the door I felt that I had passed one of the most interesting hours of my life. [Leland Gamble, reporter for the San Francisco Call]