The Tapes of Russell Street

Part 3. Frank Tape tells tall tales

Daniella Thompson

Frank Tape & his mother, Mary, on an outing, April 1922
(photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

25 June 2004

Hal Johnson’s So we’re told column was a long-enduring fixture of the Berkeley Daily Gazette. Johnson wrote in a breezy style that no doubt attracted readers. Judging by the example below—a story on Frank Tape that was published on 25 and 26 November 1941—fact checking wasn’t the columnist’s highest priority. Or perhaps Frank Tape was a very convincing storyteller.


We were chatting the other day with Arthur Higgs, who recently retired as a fire department executive. He was talking about the Berkeley Volunteer Firemen’s Association of which he is president, and asked, “Did you know that Berkeley once had two Chinese, father and son, who were volunteer firemen? They were good firemen, too.”

Down at 2121 Russell St. yesterday we introduced ourselves to Frank Tape who is probably the only full-blooded Chinese who served as a fire fighter in an organized American fire department. He is sure that he is, for he knows almost every Chinese family in America through many years of Government work.

Peralta volunteer firemen, 1901 (photo: Berkeley Fire Department)

But Frank Tape, secret service operator, is a story in itself and should just about fill this column tomorrow. If Tape would only put in book form his memoirs, you would look upon modern movie gangster stories as “Alice-in-Wonderland” types in comparison with his actual experiences in running down smugglers and counterfeiters.

He laughed when he told us about his experiences in Europe, where as a peace time spy he posed as a Chinese prince to obtain vital information. At least a dozen women proposed matrimony to him and it wasn’t Leap Year.

“The Tape family in California goes back to the days of ’49 when Frank Tape’s grandfather, Chew Dip, came to California from China. That echo of the exclamation “Gold!” which went around the world hit Canton. Chew Dip, scion of one of the highest caste families in Southern China, started for the United States better financed and equipped than most Americans.

Although unable to speak a word of English, he found his way to Placerville. The Chinese god of good luck was with him. While some of his countrymen were being strung up by their queues and stabbed to death by Joaquin Murietta’s bandit gang, Chew left the “diggings” heavily laden with gold.

Back to China he went, claimed the young girl of his choice and then the two came to San Francisco to make their home. Chew Dip wanted to become as much American as possible. He took the name of Tape as being the closest in English to his Chinese name. The Oriental Argonaut and his Celestial bride raised a family and were leaders in things Chinese in the first narrow confines of old Chinatown.

Then when years turned the pigtail gray, back to Canton went these Chinese pioneers. Wealthy as a Chinese prince, Chew Dip became one of the outstanding figures in South China.

Frank, his wife Ruby, and his father Joseph at Marsh Creek, 1 May 1923 (photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

Back in San Francisco the first offspring of the House of Tape, formerly Chew, had grown to manhood. Joseph Tape was reared in the home of D. O. Mills, banker. The Mills dairy ranch was “way out in the country”—around what is now Van Ness Ave. and Clay St.

Joseph Tape was one of the first and few Chinese cowboys. He could ride any bit of horseflesh that could be found. Before he was 21 he had built up a draying business. Then he became Chinese agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Into Chinatown from Pekin came an aristocratic Chinese family about the time Joseph Tape’s father and mother were living on the fat of the land in China. He fell in love with the daughter. They did their courting in English, for the girl spoke only the Mandarin tongue and Tape knew only Cantonese.

Ever hear of Cow hollow? It was the name given to that part of old San Francisco that is known as the Marina District. How it got the name of Cow Hollow is somewhat of a mystery. The district was largely Irish. It had goats but nary a cow.

Here among tough Irish kids Frank Tape was born in 1878. And you just can believe that a “Chink kid” had to be able to handle his fists to survive in that neighborhood. Frank’s sisters, Mrs. Gertrude Chan with whom he now makes his home, and Mrs. Mamie Lowe, now of Portland, also were born there.

“2123 [Russell St.] in the olden days”
(photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

Joseph Tape and family moved to Berkeley in the early eighties. He built a home just one door east from the present home of his son and daughter. There in 1935 Mr. and Mrs. Tape died within six months of each other. He was 86; she 75.

Frank Tape yesterday gave us a word picture of the neighborhood as he knew it as a boy. Water coursed swiftly down a wide creek along what is now Prince St. eight months of the year. On the site of the Knox Presbyterian Church, Russell and Lorina Sts., was a pond.

Russell Street looking west. Knox Presbyterian
Church is on the left (photo courtesy of Jack Kim).

Frank and his sisters attended the old LeConte School. He and his father joined up with the Peralta company of the Berkeley Volunteer Fire Department stationed on Shattuck Ave., near Russell St. Peralta was one of the first companies to have a horse-drawn rig, and what a horse!

When the fire gong sounded, the animal would attempt to kick its stall to pieces. Firemen had to push the hose wagon into the street. Then the horse would quiet down and submit to being harnessed.

Frank Tape, saved the life of the city’s first fire chief, the late James Kenney. It was about 40 years ago, one windy December night. The home of Mrs. A. H. McDonald on the northwest corner of Ashby and Shattuck Ave. was ablaze.

Fireman Tape fell throught the roof, but managed to crawl back. Suddenly a section gave way. Through the opening head first went Chief Kenney. Tape crawled down and brought out the unconscious chief.

Berkeley Daily Gazette, 25 November 1941


Picture yourself as the captain of a little freighter traveling with no lights in the fog and drizzle off the Florida coast in the middle of the night. Down in the hold of the ship are 250 Chinese coolies anxious to land in America from which they are barred by U.S. immigration laws. You picked them up on a Havana wharf.

If you can land that cargo of human contraband, you will pick up $300 a head. The money has been deposited in escrow in a Florida bank. What a perfect night for smuggling. Your cut of that 75 “grand” will put you on easy street.

Then through a slight lift in the fog comes a searchlight beam. Rain drops look like glistening silver streamers. But you don’t behold their beauty. You are panicky for that light is from a revenue cutter. There is no chance to lose the faster boat even in the cover of darkness, so you signal for your engines to stop.

Now a group of immigration officials have boarded your ship and at a command you open up the hatch, expose a bit of huddled China. One by one the frightened Chinese come up the ladder and stand trembling with fear and cold.

The leader of the immigration group steps up to one of the Chinese and says, “Good work, Frank. How many in this lot?”

“There are 249 of ‘em, chief.”

The captain and crew of the smuggling boat stared dumfounded at the fat “coolie” who speaks English better than they can. Yes, it’s Frank Tape of 2121 Russell St., the same Frank Tape, second generation of San Francisco born Chinese and former member of Peralta Company of the Berkeley Volunteer Fire Department.

It took courage to do the kind of government work that Frank Tape did before he retired in 1915. But it had taken courage for the stocky “chink kid” to fight it out toe to toe with the tough Irish boys of San Francisco’s Cow Hollow and also later when he boxed just for the fun of fighting.

Frank at the Tapes’ Ukiah ranch, 1925 (photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

The year 1904 found smuggling of Chinese across the Mexican border profitable and in a big way. Tape, dressed as a Chinese coolie, and a white immigration officer patrolled 100 miles of the border.

One night from behind a train a smuggler blazed away at him. Down went Tape with a bullet through his hip, but shooting. He fatally wounded his assailant before he lost consciousness.

Two years later the leader of a smuggling gang lay for Tape in St. Louis, leaped on him from behind like a wild beast and tore at him with a knife. He was stabbed in the head and slashed on both arms, but was able to kill his attacker.

There was the time he investigated graft among border inspectors. Posing as a Chinese willing to pay well to get “some fliends” across the border, he succeeded in bribing five inspectors with marked money. The sixth inspector arrested him for attempted bribery. He couldn’t talk in court, because other evidence was being gathered against the five bribe takers.

Through an interpreter he pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. A few days later he was back in the same court, this time as a prosecuting witness in another case. You can imagine the surprise of the judge when the Chinese who earlier could only say, “no savvy”, spoke perfect English.

During his many years as a government “under-cover” agent he was successful in running down counterfeiters. One was a Chinese who worked out an ingenious way of splitting bills. Then he pasted together the upper side of a $10-bill on a split side of a $1 bill and easily passed it for $10.

In Detroit Tape got the evidence on a dentist who was turning out bogus $20 gold pieces. He got a job as a “Japanese” janitor in the building and gathered evidence as, strapped to the sill of a tall office building, he washed windows and watched the counterfeiter at work.

Tape told us of the time he was sent across the border to spy on Pancho Villa. Posing as a coolie who had been turned back at the border, Tape drove boldly into Villa’s camp and traded his good mount for a Mexican “bag of bones.” Pancho Villa thought it quite a joke the way the poor “Chino” had been cheated and let him work around his headquarters. Knowing Spanish as well as Villa himself, Tape was able to pick up considerable valuable information, including Villa’s contacts on this side of the border.

His most enjoyable assignment was a tour through Europe for the Government which wanted information about certain political leaders in high places. He went abroad in the role of a Chinese prince and was royally entertained. He had marriage proposals from titled women who were long on prestige but short on funds.

Tape worked with his father for the Southern Pacific Company, checking aliens. The two also had a lucrative business, putting up bonds for aliens entering the country for brief stays.

Frank and his trophies, 1919
(photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

Now Tape divides his time between his property in Berkeley, deer hunting on his 2000-acre ranch, near Ukiah, and at his San Joaquin River fishing lodge. Certainly no veteran of the local volunteer fire department has lived in more excitement. And what thing stands out most in his whole life?

It was the fire many years ago in a Lorina St. dwelling when a neighbor dropped her canary and bird cage out of the second story window, then rushed out with two pillows, about all that was saved. None the worse for the drop, the canary sang as firemen played a hose on the blaze.

Berkeley Daily Gazette, 26 November 1941

My thanks to Mae M. Ngai and to Jerry Sulliger for alerting me to the existence of the above articles.

Continue to Part Four

The Tapes of Russell Sreet

Essays & Stories

Copyright © 2004–2012 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.