The year is 1938. Three young Asian women meet in San Francisco’s Chinatown and quickly become friends. World war will soon change everyone’s lives. Yet their improbable friendship, built as much on differences as similarities, will endure.
In China Dolls Lisa See has illuminated an overlooked corner of the entertainment world: Chinese-American nightclub performers. Marginalized by racism during their era, these singers, dancers, and musicians are now all but forgotten.
Ruby Tom, Helen Fong, and Grace Lee are willing to risk their reputations as “nice” Chinese girls to sing and dance at Charlie Low’s daring new club, Forbidden City. Not only is Forbidden City the first Chinese-staffed nightclub outside Chinatown, it’s also the first to openly appeal to lo fan—“White Ghosts”—or, more politely, Occidental audiences.
While Grace and Ruby have dance and voice training, Helen has neither. Her new friends take her to a local playground, where they practice to the novelty tune “Let Me Play With It”, until Helen can move passably well. In truth, it’s her pretty face and singing voice that get her onstage.
China Dolls is told in alternating narrative form, each woman speaking in turn, though Helen, the darkest, most complex character, has the fewest chapters to herself. Helen has the most secrets, and it’s as if See doesn’t want to give her too much airtime until the final, chilling dénouement.
This leaves plenty of room for bubbly, raunchy Ruby and sweetly innocent Grace. Ruby is a stunner, born in Los Angeles, where she grew up taking dancing lessons. After her parents and brothers move to Hawaii, Ruby joins her aunt and uncle in Alameda, California. A good-time girl who likes boys, glamorous outfits, and the finer things, Ruby enjoys the attentions of the men on the nearby Alameda Naval Airforce Base.
She is also ardently American. This won’t help her as anti-war sentiment turns ugly toward Japanese-Americans. And Ruby Tom, for all her flirtatious beauty, cannot hide her true Japanese identity. In one of China Doll’s most wrenching moments, the FBI arrests Ruby, sending her to Utah’s Topaz internment camp.
Grace Lee, born in Sebastopol, California, grew up in Plain City, Ohio. Hers was the sole “Oriental” family in their tiny town. A violent father makes family life grim. One night, after an especially brutal beating, Grace catches a bus west, to the World’s Fair, where she hopes to find work as a dancer. Grace is a tremulous rube, a naïf lucky enough to meet Helen Fong on the street.
Helen Fong is a daughter of Chinatown, part of a large, powerful family. She lives in a compound filled with innumerable relatives, yet she is unmarried, childless, and isolated. Rather than dismiss this stranger she’s met on the sidewalk, she abandons her safe job at the Chinese telephone exchange, joining Grace for auditions at Forbidden City, where they encounter a most amazing creature with a gardenia pinned behind one ear: Ruby Tom.
While Helen and Grace are hired at Forbidden City, Ruby faces discrimination and a longer job search. She finally finds work at Sally Rand’s Gayway, the “Amusement Zone” of The Golden Gate International Exposition; in other words, dancing with light nudity. Helen and Grace are horrified, but Ruby takes it in stride. The Sally Rand gig, dancing with a decorously placed “bubble” in front of her, launches her career.
China Dolls is See’s ninth book. The daughter of writer Carolyn See, she is of Chinese descent herself. Her work focuses on the complexities of women’s relationships, most often in Asian culture. In China Dolls See draws the difficulties of friendship among three women, complicated by impending world war and a racist society. And though the women promise never to allow a man to come between them, one soon does.
Grace met Joe during her first day in San Francisco. She’d gone to audition at the World’s Fair, only to be sent home: there are no spots for Chinese dancers. Joe, a law student at UC Berkeley, is working pushing foot-weary visitors around the fair. An Illinois native with a passion for flying, he and Grace strike up a friendship. When Ruby goes to work for Sally Rand, Grace spends time with Joe while waiting for Ruby to get off shift.
Grace is soon in love, but the feeling isn’t reciprocated. Grace’s heartbreak splinters the group, sending them to Los Angeles and the “Chop Suey Circuit”, a second rate tour for Chinese variety acts. Life on the road is predictably lonely, with the added edge of racism and ignorance.
See’s writing is graceful, her research impeccable. Spit curls, day dresses, Elizabeth Arden Velva Leg Film, and three-quarter seal coats evoke the glamorous showgirls of the ‘40s. The San Francisco Bay Area is carefully called up and detailed, a city as beautiful and complicated as the characters inhabiting it.
Wartime drew Helen’s family out of the compound to work in the Kaiser shipyards. Her beloved brother Monroe leaves for basic training from the Port of Oakland. A chapter written entirely in letters advances the storyline while reminding readers how effective—and affecting—this particular narrative form can be.
China Dolls has only two flaws, and one is debatable. The first is how little the dancers practice. Only once do we see Grace leading a rehearsal for Charlie Low just before Forbidden City opens. Otherwise, in a profession where daily practice is a must, these women spend surprisingly little time in rehearsal rooms or dance classes. Certainly no novel cannot devote pages to barre work, but these three, especially Helen, are in marvelous physical shape with comparatively little effort.
More serious are the dents to the friendship. When Helen’s secrets come to light, her atrocious behaviors become understandable. That doesn’t necessarily make the things she’s done forgivable. Yet—and this is the debatable part—friends forgive. Life goes on. The times were extreme. People not only survived, they overcame and lived productive lives.
China Dolls is a delightful book. Elegant and lively, with captivating characters and an appealing storyline, it will grab your attention and educate you about a world not so far in the past. Asian readers will likely nod their heads at a world known to them, while many lo fan, will close the book a little wiser than when they opened it.
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