Saturday, July 5, 2014

China Dolls, by Lisa See

Grace, Helen, and Ruby meet on a San Francisco street in fall 1938. Grace's family was the only Chinese American family in a small Midwestern town, where she was ostracized by other young people and abused by her father. A gifted dancer, she has fled to the West Coast in hopes of becoming a star, but she has no idea where to look for work, other than at the World's Fair, where she was turned away. Ruby is a Japanese American girl who has just returned to the mainland from Hawaii; she is presenting herself as Chinese because of the outrage against the Japanese. Helen is a member of a wealthy Chinatown family, expected to live in her family compound and act in a way that will bring no shame to the family.

The three form a friendship and apply for and win jobs at a new nightclub called Forbidden City; the nightclub is to feature all Chinese acts. This starts a ten-year period in which the three friends work together, sometimes live together, fight, make up, and persevere. Helen, who has secrets that only gradually come out, has a child as the result of a one-night stand. Ruby's true heritage is discovered, and she spends 18 months in an internment camp. Grace experiences ups and downs in her love life and career, eventually being forced onto the "Chop Suey Circuit," touring from club to club in small towns with other "Oriental" entertainers, including dancers, singers, magicians, and novelty acts.

In 2012, Lisa See was gracious enough to spend time skyping with Novel Conversations when we read her previous novel, Dreams of Joy.  She was a delight, and we were all impressed with her passion for telling the "hidden" stories of women and girls, especially Chinese and Chinese American women and girls. Unfortunately, China Dolls does a better job of conveying the history than of engaging the reader in the characters' stories. If you read China Dolls, you will learn a lot about the experiences of Asian American entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s and the discrimination they faced, as well as the successes they achieved, the expectations of traditional Chinese families, and more. Whether you will care about what happens to the three rather self-centered protagonists is another matter.

Favorite passage:
There is only one perfect child in the world and every mother has him.

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