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China Dolls

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and Shanghai Girls has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering...

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China Dolls: A Novel

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and Shanghai Girls has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering the intricate relationships of women and the complex meeting of history and fate. Now comes Lisa See’s highly anticipated new novel, China Dolls.
 
It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.
 
The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Praise for China Dolls
 
“Superb . . . This emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity.”The Washington Post
 
“This is one of those stories I’ve always wanted to tell, but Lisa See beat me to it, and she did it better than I ever could. Bravo! Here’s a roaring standing ovation for this heartwarming journey into the glittering golden age of Chinese nightclubs.”—Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
 
“A fascinating portrait of life as a Chinese-American woman in the 1930s and ’40s.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“A sweeping, turbulent tale of passion, friendship, good fortune, bad fortune, perfidy and the hope of reconciliation.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Lisa See masterfully creates unforgettable characters that linger in your memory long after you close the pages.”—Bookreporter
 
“Stellar . . . The depth of See’s characters and her winning prose makes this book a wonderful journey through love and loss.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
China Dolls plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world.”San Francisco Chronicle
 
China Dolls is [Lisa See’s] most penetrating since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”The Seattle Times

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This latest novel by Lisa See (Shanghai Girls; Dreams of Girls) takes readers back to pre-World War II San Francisco and introduces them to Grace Lee, Ruby Tom, and Helen Fong, three young Chinese-American nightclub performers who, despite pronounced difference in backgrounds and personalities, forge resilient friendships. Told from the distinct perspectives of each woman and spanning a full half century, China Dolls presents a historical epoch with a multilayered richness. A perfect vacation carry-along. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times Book Review - Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
It all adds up to a fascinating portrait of life as a Chinese-American woman in the 1930s and '40s.
Publishers Weekly
★ 03/17/2014
In the beginning of See’s (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) stellar ninth book, three young women, Grace, Helen, and Ruby, meet and form an unlikely but strong bond in San Francisco in 1938, as the Golden Gate International Exhibition is about to open. Grace has run from an abusive father in the Midwest; Helen is trapped by her traditional family in Chinatown after a devastating loss; Ruby is Japanese, desperate to pass as Chinese to stay employed as the U.S. moves closer to war with Japan. They become performers at the Forbidden City Nightclub and face the difficulty of being Asian in an Occidental world, as well as the additional conflict of prejudice within their own community. The novel spans 50 years, following the women’s tumultuous personal lives and roller-coaster career choices. Yet somehow the three always find a way back to each other, and come through for each other in the darkest of times. The story alternates between their viewpoints, with each woman’s voice strong and dynamic, developing a multilayered richness as it progresses. The depth of See’s characters and her winning prose makes this book a wonderful journey through love and loss. (June)
Library Journal
01/01/2014
In 1938, three friends are competing for a single job as showgirl on San Francisco's Chop Suey Circuit, the glittery underworld of all-Asian revues. Chinese American Grace has fled her Midwestern home and beatings by her father, Helen's family has long resided in San Francisco's Chinatown, and, crucially, Ruby is Japanese but passing for Chinese. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans are being interned, among them Ruby. Did one of her friends betray her? With a 12-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-02
See's latest follows three Asian-American showgirls whose dreams are derailed then reset by the onset of World War II. In the late 1930s, Grace, a talented dancer, comes to San Francisco from Ohio to flee the beatings of her father. Helen, who fled China under circumstances not immediately revealed, lives with her parents and extended family in a Chinatown compound. Ruby defies her parents, who plan to return to Japan, by staying in San Francisco to pursue a showbiz career. The three young women meet while auditioning for jobs in a new "Oriental" nightclub, Charlie Low's Forbidden City, which will feature an all-Asian cast of chorines, ballroom dancers, chanteuses and crooners. Grace and Helen are cast, but Ruby is not—because of Japanese aggression in China, Chinatown is hostile toward all Japanese. She finds a job dancing semi-nude in Sally Rand's traveling show. Ruby and Grace fall out over a man, Joe, a lo fan ("white ghost," or Caucasian), and Grace and Helen strive to break into movie musicals. However, racial barriers in Hollywood are insurmountable, and they return to Forbidden City. There, Ruby, now headlining as Chinese Princess Tai, performs a Rand-inspired bubble dance, employing a large beach ball as her gimmick. Grace becomes Ruby's dresser, and Helen dances backward in high heels as the partner of Eddie, billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire, whom she marries. After Pearl Harbor, the U. S. government, fearing an enemy invasion, interns all Japanese residents of the West Coast, whether U. S. citizens or not, in camps. Ruby's Chinese disguise works for a while, until it doesn't, and she's arrested and interned in Utah. For Grace, Ruby and Helen, the war will bring more upheavals—and opportunities. The episodic and creaky plot staggers under the weight of See's considerable research into the careers and lifestyles of the actual stars of the all-Asian revue craze of the 1930s and '40s. Still, a welcome spotlight on an overlooked segment of showbiz history.
From the Publisher
“Superb . . . This emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity.”The Washington Post
 
“This is one of those stories I’ve always wanted to tell, but Lisa See beat me to it, and she did it better than I ever could. Bravo! Here’s a roaring standing ovation for this heartwarming journey into the glittering golden age of Chinese nightclubs.”—Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
 
“A fascinating portrait of life as a Chinese-American woman in the 1930s and ’40s.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“A sweeping, turbulent tale of passion, friendship, good fortune, bad fortune, perfidy and the hope of reconciliation.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Lisa See masterfully creates unforgettable characters that linger in your memory long after you close the pages.”—Bookreporter
 
“Stellar . . . The depth of See’s characters and her winning prose makes this book a wonderful journey through love and loss.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
China Dolls plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world. The women’s story explores burning questions about the possibilities of friendship, the profound effects of betrayal, the horrors of prejudice and the nature of ambition—especially female ambition. . . . These Asian artists were true pioneers, breaking ground, chasing vast dreams, subverting stereotypes simply by appearing onstage against the odds. Here, in China Dolls, they have found another stage of sorts, another place to rightfully shine.”San Francisco Chronicle
 
China Dolls is [Lisa See’s] most penetrating since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”The Seattle Times
 
“A spellbinding portrait of a time burning with opportunity and mystery.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“[An] impeccably researched and distinctive historical saga of desire and ambition, betrayal and revenge . . . See again lavishly explores the thorny intricacies of female friendships.”Booklist
 
“Fresh and lively . . . powerful passages . . . a compelling story.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
 
China Dolls mines a fascinating part of our cultural history through the story of a trio of women who become a complex constant in one another’s lives even as the world serves up painful transformation. Lisa See gets so much just right here. You’ll want to dive right in.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
 
“Colorful and fascinating historical touches tie the story together perfectly and form an exquisite backdrop.”Library Journal
Library Journal
04/15/2014
The Chinese American nightclub era comes to life in See's (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) latest novel, which revolves around three young women coming of age in San Francisco during World War II. Grace, Helen, and Ruby meet and become instant friends while auditioning as showgirls at the Forbidden City, a Chinese nightclub and cabaret. But then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happens, and everything changes. The girls soon discover that they each carry secrets that will shake one another to the core. As the world slips further into war and tensions regarding Asian Americans rise, each woman's livelihood, heart, and strength will be tested. Can the seductive Ruby, dutiful Helen, and "white-washed" Grace find a way to keep their friendship alive? VERDICT While this novel is definitely slower paced than the author's prior works, See's many fans will still enjoy watching each protagonist's true story unfold; they will also be intrigued by the vivacity of the "Chop Suey Circuit." These colorful and fascinating historical touches tie the story together perfectly and form an exquisite backdrop for the adventures of the three friends. [See Prepub Alert, 12/16/13.]—Chelsie Harris, San Diego Cty. Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812992892
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 22,306
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa See

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Dreams of Joy, Shanghai Girls, Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.

Biography

At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. "I knew three things," See said, "I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off—‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer."

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored See accolades from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, and The School Library Journal, while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover.

Good To Know

In our interview, See shared lots of fun facts and anecdotes about herself, including:

"I asked my husband what he thought was an interesting fact about me, and he said that he always thought it was strange that when we first met I had to drink three cups of coffee before I got out of bed, but that after I got pregnant I never ever had another cup of coffee again. That didn't seem terribly exciting, so I asked my sister. She said that I take perverse pleasure in grossing people out, which I do. But this didn't seem very interesting either. I asked my mother and she remembered that I'd been a demon crawler and had once crawled away from the house, down to a busy boulevard, and was rescued by a couple of barbers. So I was a demon crawler and probably took ten years off my mother's life that day, but was it a fun fact? I've even asked some other people and they all have talked about my desire to travel and the scary places I have traveled alone. While I know that I'm a compulsive traveler, a lot of other people love to travel, so it still doesn't seem that unusual to me."

"I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco."

"I think one of the strangest things about me is the way I read books. This dates back to when I started reading chapter books as a kid and continues to this day. I read the first 20 pages, then the last 20 pages. After that, the second 20 pages and the penultimate 20 pages. I read from front to back and from back to front until I meet in the middle. Why? I can't stand not knowing what happens to the characters. Will they be okay? Will they live? Will they get together? It doesn't take away from the suspense or ruin the story for me in any way. Not doing it would ruin the story because I would have to rush and I'd be so anxious that I wouldn't be able to do anything else until I was done."

"I'm a movie fanatic. I see more than 100 movies a year. Sometimes I'll see two or three movies in a day. Between this and reading books the way I do, I have a very good sense of plot. I can watch the first five minutes of any television show and the first ten minutes of just about any movie and tell you everything that will happen. It's very rare that I'm taken by complete surprise. But to me it isn't about the surprise. I'm just curious to see how things have been structured, if the right clues have been doled out, and if the right people will get together."

"I like to eat, but I don't like to cook. I'll eat anything and have—a low point would have to be the stir-fried pig penis in China—but there are only three things I won't eat: lima beans, brains, and kidneys. I hate exercise, but I love to play tennis, walk, and hike. I love stories in any form: film, books, song, and TV. Yes, I'm a real couch potato! I'm a nut for reality shows like ‘Survivor' and ‘American Idol.' My three favorite shows this season are ‘The OC,' ‘Lost,'and ‘Battlestar Gallactica.' And I'm a not-so-closet Trekkie. (Yes, I've even been to Star Trek conventions, but I blame that on my sons.) For so long I would say I hated sci-fi, and then I finally realized that it was one of my favorite genres. Go figure. My favorite way to unwind? That would have to be sleeping, hands down. I love to sleep and I take it very seriously. We recently got a Tempur-Pedic mattress and it's my favorite purchase ever. I long to go to bed and feel enveloped."

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    1. Hometown:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Paris, France
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Part One
 
The Sun
 
October 1938–- July 1940
 
Grace
 
A Measly Girl
 
I traveled west—-alone—-on the cheapest bus routes I could find. Every mile took me farther from Plain City, Ohio, where I’d been a flyspeck on the wallpaper of small—town life. Each new state I passed throughloosened another rope around my heart, my legs, my arms, yet my whole body ached and I couldn’t shake my vertigo. I lived on aspirin, crackers, and soda pop. I cried and cried and cried. On the eighth day, California. Many hours after crossing the boundary,I got off the bus and pulled my sweater a little more tightly around me. I expected sun and warmth, but on that October afternoon, fog hung over San Francisco, damp, and shockingly cold.
 
Picking up my suitcase, I left the bus station and started to walk. The receptionists at the cheap hotels I visited told me they were full. “Go to Chinatown,” they suggested. “You can get a room there.” I had noidea where Chinatown was, so that didn’t help me. And I’ll say this about San Francisco: lots of hills, water on practically every side, and, it seemed to me, not a single street ran purely in any one direction. Finally, a man at a fleabag took my money—-adollar a day, in advance—-and gave me a key to a room.
 
I washed my hair in the basin and put it up in pin curls, then leaned in to the mirror to examine what remained of my injuries. My forehead had healed completely, but the inside of my skull continued to swim frombeing banged against the kitchen floor. The skin over my ribs was mottled green, gray, and purple. My shoulder still felt swollen and stiff from being dislocated and then jammed back into place, but the cut on my lip had nearly disappeared. I turned away andsat on the edge of the bed, hungry but too frightened to go out, and listening to the sound of God knows what coming through the walls.
 
I opened my purse and pulled out the magazine clipping Miss Miller, who’d taught me dance from the age of four, had torn from a magazine and given to me a few months earlier. I smoothed the advertisement with mypalm so I could study the artist’s sketch of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Even its location on Treasure Island seemed to beckon. “See, Grace, they’re looking for six thousand workers,” Miss Miller had said. “Dancers, singers, welders, carpenters.The whole works.” She’d sighed then. “I wanted to go so many places when I was young, but it takes guts—-and talent—-to leave everything and everyone you know. You could do it, though.” Her few words and that slip of paper had given me the courage to believeI actually could. After all, I’d won first prize at the Plain City Fair for my tap dancing and singing when I was seven and had held the title ever since.
 
You always planned to leave home, I told myself. Just because you had to escape sooner than expected doesn’t mean you can’t still fly to the stars.
 
But my pep talk—-in a scary hotel room, in a strange city, in the middle of the night—-did little to ease my fears. Once in bed, I could practically see the walls closing in around me. To calm myself, I began aroutine I’d invented as a small child, running my hands the length of my arms (a broken tibia when I was three; my mom told Doc Haverford I fell down the stairs), slipping along my sides (several broken and fractured ribs over the years), and then lifting eachleg and squeezing all the way to my feet (my legs had been a frequent target until I started dancing). The ritual both strengthened and soothed me. I was now alone in the world, with no home to return to and no one to rely on, but if I could survive my father’sbeatings and the petty prejudices of my hometown, then I could triumph over whatever obstacles the future threw my way. Maybe. Hopefully.
 
The next morning, I combed out my hair, sweeping up the sides and letting the curls billow below, the way Carole Lombard did in My Man Godfrey. I put on the dress my dad bought for me when he took us toCincinnati to buy supplies for the laundry. I’d chosen a dusty—rose—colored cotton frock, with a geometric print composed of interlocking mustard—yellow and steel—gray squares. Mom said the pattern of the fabric and cut of the dress looked too mature forme—-and maybe that was so—-but now I considered myself lucky to be wearing something so sophisticated.
 
Filled with a sense of determination, I went downstairs and onto the street. I asked directions on nearly every corner and managed to find my way to the Ferry Building, where I boarded the boat to Treasure Island,about halfway across the bay and just under the Bay Bridge. I imagined everyone onboard was seeking a job at the Golden Gate International Exposition. As excited as I was, the pulse of the ferry through the choppy water roused my vertigo and my hunger untilI felt, once again, dizzy and sick. Once we reached the dock, everyone walked fast, wanting to be first in line for interviews. Me too. I spotted my first palm trees, which was thrilling because they meant I surely was in California. I’d never seen anythinglike the fair’s entrance. Giant towers composed of stacked cubes crowned by stylized elephants bookended the gate. Beyond, I glimpsed spires still clothed in scaffolding. My ears pounded from the sounds of hammers, the buzz of electric saws, the rumble of tractors,bulldozers, and flatbed trucks, and the shouts of men calling out orders and cursing the way they do on construction sites.
 
“Will they be done on time?” a man’s voice asked very close to my ear.
 
I jumped, spiraling into the terror I experienced around my dad. I swung around to find a young Occidental man about six feet tall, with broad shoulders and sandy—colored hair. He put up his hands in surrender.
 
“I’m sorry I scared you.” His mouth spread into a contrite smile as I met his deep blue eyes. He looked older than I—-maybe around twenty. He extended his hand. “My name’s Joe.”
 
“I’m Grace.” No last names. I liked that.
 
“I’m looking for a job as a rolling—chair boy.” He didn’t bother to explain what that was. “But the real reason I’m here is that I love planes, and I love to fly.”
 
Up ahead, the others from the ferry disappeared through the gate.
 
“I love planes so much that my parents told me if I got straight As in high school they’d let me take flying lessons,” Joe continued, sure of my interest. “I trained in a Piper Cub. I learned how to takeoff, land, what to do in a stall, and how to pull out of a spin. Now I have my pilot’s license.”
 
This told me, among other things, that his family had to be pretty well—off.
 
“What does that have to do with rolling chairs?”
 
He laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Pan Am’s Clipper ships are going to be taking off and landing right here at Treasure Island!”
 
I nodded, pretending interest when I didn’t know what in the heck he was talking about.
 
“I’ve been chewing your ear off,” Joe acknowledged. “Sorry about that. What are you doing here?”
 
“I’m a dancer.”
 
“Neat.” He pointed his chin toward the gate. “We’d better catch up.”
 
When I stumbled a bit in my low—slung heels, he grabbed my arm to steady me, and I instinctively pulled away. His eyes went banjo big. I could tell he was about to apologize again.
 
“Where are you from?” I blurted, hoping to shift his attention.
 
“Winnetka, Illinois. I’m going to Cal.” Seeing my confusion, he explained, “The University of California. It’s over there.” He pointed east. “In Berkeley. I live in a fraternity house. How about you?”
 
“Plain City, Ohio.”
 
“Haven’t heard of it, but we’re both from the Midwest, and our states are practically neighbors. Friends?”
 
I nodded. He sure was a nice guy—-good—looking, and I liked the way the left side of his mouth tweaked up when he smiled.
 
“Whew!” He wiped his forehead in mock relief.
 
He was funny too.
 
When we had all reached the trailer, a man—-wearing gray flannel trousers, a leather jacket zipped halfway up his chest, and a charcoal—colored trilby pulled down to shield his eyes from the sun—-jumped on a crateand spoke above the din around us: “A lot of you have come from far away. That’s great! We need plenty of folks to get this place up and running. If you’re a painter, electrician, or plumber, head over to the Court of the Seven Seas. Harry will lead the way.”
 
Half the folks followed the man pointed out as Harry.
 
“I figure the rest of you are here to apply for either service or performance jobs,” the man in the trilby continued. “If you want to drive one of the elephant trams, work in a concession, become a rolling—chairboy, barker, waitress, fireman, or cop, then go to the Court of Flowers. No flowers there yet, just another trailer like this one.”
 
“That’s my cue,” Joe whispered. Then, “Good luck!”
 
He peeled away with a large group. He turned to look back at me, gave me a thumbs—up and another smile, both of which I returned. He strode with such confidence that dust kicked up around his shoes. Through theracket around me, I could just make out him whistling “All of Me.” I loved that song.
 
The man in the hat sized up those who remained. “All right then,” he said. “If you’re here to be models, dancers, or musicians, you’re with me. I’ll see you one at a time. After a preliminary look—see, I’ll sendyou on to auditions. If you make the cut . . . Aw, hell,” he said with a casual wave of his hand. “You know the drill. Line up here.”
 
One person after another entered the trailer and then exited five or so minutes later with either a grin or a grimace. I tried to prepare myself for the questions I might be asked about my dance experience, andonce again my father came into my mind. He may have beat me at home, but he liked to boast to others about how many ribbons and apple—pie prizes I’d won. He’d pushed me to be an “all—American girl,” which meant that he let me go to the Rialto to watch musicalsto inspire me to practice even harder. I adored Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1936, in which she danced without music. I saw that movie maybe ten times, and then tried to re—create her steps at every opportunity: on the sidewalk outside the theater,at Miss Mil-ler’s studio, and in our family’s laundry. Of course, the kids in school made fun of me when I said I wanted to be a star. “You? An Oriental girl?” They had a point. It wasn’t like there were any famous Chinese movie stars apart from Anna May Wong,and she didn’t sing or dance as far as I knew. Then I saw Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing—-a Chinese dance team—-in the whimsically titled With Best Dishes. I decided if they could make it, why not me? But would any of that help me now? I suddenly feltvery apprehensive and very alone.
 
When my turn came, I entered the trailer and closed the door behind me as I’d seen others do. The man motioned for me to sit.
 
“Your name?”
 
“Grace Lee.”
 
“How old are you?”
 
“Old enough to sing and dance,” I answered pertly. I wanted to be a star, so no matter how desperate I was, I had to act like one. “I’m good.”
 
The man pinched his chin as he considered my response.
 
“You’re Oriental,” he observed, “and you’re quite the knockout. Problem is, I don’t have anything for you.”
 
I opened my purse, pulled out Miss Miller’s clipping, and pushed it across the desk. “It says here you need performers for the Cavalcade of the Golden West—-”
 
“That’s a big show. Hundreds of performers. But I don’t need an Oriental girl.”
 
“What about at the Japanese Pavilion?” I asked, my false confidence instantly eroding. “I came from so far away. I really need a job.”
 
“It’s the Depression, kid. Everyone needs a job.” He glanced again at my application. “And I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t Japanese. Grace Lee, that’s Chinese, right?”
 
“Will anyone know?”
 
“Kid, I doubt anyone can tell the difference. Can you?”
 
I shrugged. I’d never seen a Japanese. I’d never seen a Chinese either other than my mother, my father, and my own reflection in the mirror—-and Anna May Wong, Toy and Wing, and a couple of Orientals playing maidsand butlers on the silver screen, but those weren’t in real life—-so how could I be certain of the difference between a Japanese and a Chinese? I only knew my mother’s thin cheeks and chapped hands and my father’s weathered face and wiry arms. Like that, myeyes began to well. What if I failed? What if I had to go home?
 
“We don’t have Orientals where I’m from,” I admitted, “but I’ve always heard that they all look alike.”
 
“Be that as it may, I’ve been told to be authentic . . .” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. There’s going to be a Chinese Village. Those folks are doing their own hiring. Maybe I can get you set as a dancerfrom China.”
 
“I’m not from China. I was born here.”
 
Unconcerned, he picked up the phone. I listened as he suggested me to the person I assumed was in charge of the Chinese Village. He dropped the receiver back in the cradle. “They aren’t hiring dancers in a permanentway. With all the troubles in China, it wouldn’t be right.”
 
Troubles in China? I’d read about Germany’s aggression in Europe in the Plain City Advocate, but the newspaper came out only once a week. It barely covered events in Europe and never in Asia, so I was ignorantabout all things Chinese except Chinese rice wine, which my mom made and sold out our back door on Friday and Saturday nights to the men in Plain City—-a place as dry as chalk even after Prohibition ended. My mind pondered these things, but they were just adiversion from my panic.
 
“What about on the Gayway?” I remembered that from Miss Miller’s advertisement.
 
“That’s a carnival. I don’t see you there at all.”
 
“I’ve been to a carnival before—-”
 
“Not like this one.”
 
“I can do it,” I insisted, but he’d better not try sending me to a hoochie—coochie tent like they had for men at the Plain City Fair. I’d never do that.
 
He shook his head. “You’re a regular China doll. If I put you in the Gayway, the men would eat you up.”
 
My five minutes were done, but the man didn’t dismiss me. Instead, he stared at me, taking in my dress, my shoes, the way I’d curled and combed my hair. I lowered my eyes and sat quietly. Perhaps it was proof ofhow the most innocent can remain safe—-or that the man really was of good character—-that he didn’t try or even suggest any funny business.
 
“I’ll do anything,” I said, my voice now shaking, “even if it’s boring or menial—-”
 
“That’s not the way to sell yourself, kid.”
 
“I could work in a hamburger stand if I had to. Maybe one of the performers in the Cavalcade of the Golden West will get sick. You should have someone like me around, just in case.”
 
“You can try the concessions,” he responded dubiously. “But you’ve got a big problem. Your gams are good, and your contours and promontories are in the right places. You’ve got a face that could crush a lily. Butyour accent—-”
 
“My accent?”
 
“Yeah. You don’t have one. You’ve got to stop talking all perfect. You need to do the ching—chong thing.”
 
Never! My father spoke in heavily accented English, even though he was born here. He always blamed it on the fact that he’d grown up in a lumber camp in the Sierras, where he lived with his father, who conversedonly in Chinese. My mother’s English was flawless. She was born in China but came to America so early that she’d lost her accent entirely. How she was raised—-somehow living far enough from other Chinese that she didn’t have an accent—-was never discussed.The one time I asked, my father smacked me. In any case, the three of us could understand each other only if we communicated in English. And even if we all had spoken the same dialect, my father would never have allowed us to use it. Speaking English meansyou are American, and we must be American at all times. Reciting sentences like I hear you cut school again and what’s the big deal? showed we were assimilated. But all that didn’t mean Dad wouldn’t exaggerate his accent for his customersif he calculated it would make them happy.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 51 )
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(28)

4 Star

(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 51 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    I am a fan of Lisa See¿s books. Each character narrates her stor

    I am a fan of Lisa See’s books. Each character narrates her story with her own flavor which makes the story even more realistic and colorful. Each character comes from diverse backgrounds. Their compelling stories set in pre-WW 11 era, San Francisco, and cover’s their full stories from young women until many years later when they finish with their long familiar and enduring friendships. I enjoyed the book very much and would definitely recommend it to those who appreciate historical facts and real life deeo valued friendships. All of Lisa See’s books are wonderful.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2014

    Great read

    Strong character development and very educational details on this time in American history.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 9, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    4.5 stars and a big thumbs up for Lisa See's newest effort.  Li

    4.5 stars and a big thumbs up for Lisa See's newest effort. 

    Like many readers, my introduction to author Lisa See's work was with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and like most readers, I instantly fell in love. The book was beautifully written, the story was wonderful. Since reading Snow Flower, I have read most of the rest of Lisa See's work, and own copies of them all. To say that I am a fan of her work just doesn't quite say it all. 




    I recently read her new offering, China Dolls, and I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. China Dolls tells the story of the rise of Asian entertainers on the nightclub circuit during the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, through the lives of Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three separate women who were Asian entertainers during that time. It is in the way that the lives of these three women alternately intersect and diverge that the story of what it was like to be an entertainer on the "Chop Suey Circuit" was like.




    One of the things that I have always loved about Lisa See's books is the way she uses her characters as the main story-telling agent in her books. In China Dolls, each of the three main characters represent an amalgamation of people that lived in that time in history. Grace is a Chinese born American whose parents moved to the Midwest to raise their daughter as far from other Chinese as possible. Helen is also an American born Chinese, but her parents are living the traditional Chinese lifestyle in a secluded compound in San Francisco's Chinatown. Ruby, on the other hand, is the girl who wants to be totally American in every way, using American slang and dressing American whenever she can, but who is hiding more of a secret that just her wish to be American and not Asian. I have to say, I am continually amazed at how Lisa See is able to come up with such vibrant, realistic characters that effectively represent a section of Asian culture and history time and time again. Her characters are so well crafted that they become very real to me, and stay with me long after I have read the book. 




    Another strong point of the book, and Lisa See's writing in general, is her excellent knowledge of the history and culture of the subject that she is writing about. Her research into the subject is always spot on. In the case of China Dolls, the main nightclub in San Francisco, The Forbidden City, really existed, showcasing first Chinese entertainers, and later Asian entertainers of all kinds well into the 1950s. Many of the characters in the book were actual owners or entertainers at the nightclub, although in many cases she has changed their names. Other characters are an amalgamation of several entertainers from that time. In addition, the lives of the women outside the nightclub are spot on and truly represent what it was like to live at that time.




    The only thing that felt a bit off in this book, though, was the intense level of competition between the women. Over time, I have become used to the deep and intense friendships between the characters in Lisa See's books. The kind of friendships that, even during fights or disagreements, never really waver. In this light, I was not really prepared for the amount of discord between the three main characters of this story. At times it seemed that Grace, Helen, and Ruby were always trying to one-up each other, or in some cases, actually turn each other against the others. As characters, they were much more manipulative and shallow than what I am used to in Lisa See's characters, and each one was a diva in her own way. In retrospect, though, I feel that their behavior is justifiable to the story and culture that they represent. After all, the entertainment business has always been a bit dog eat dog, and being in a section of it where the jobs were fewer and competition was higher would only highlight that type of behavior. 




    Although this was not my favorite Lisa See book (that would be Shanghai Girls), that fact that I am giving a 4.5 rating to a book that is not my favorite speaks volumes. Lisa See has yet to disappoint me, and China Dolls is no exception to that rule. In fact, I stayed up one night until 4am to finish it, and then was disappointed because it was over and I read it so fast. I highly recommend this book for fans of Lisa See and fans of Chinese American culture. You will not be sorry.




    Additional Note: I was excited to find that The Forbidden City nightclub, which played a central part in this story, was actually the inspiration of the musical Flower Drum Song, which is my favorite musical of all time. 




    Thanks to Random House publishers and Edelweiss for making a copy of this book available in exchange for my review.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent!!!  This book builds.  The characters blossom and the

    Excellent!!!  This book builds.  The characters blossom and the story becomes richer.  
    I highly recommend this book.  
    Well written, unusual settings and riveting time period.  
    And, again, this book slowly drags you in and it is well worth it!!!!  

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2014

    While not my favorite of Lisa See's novels, "China Dolls&q


    While not my favorite of Lisa See's novels, "China Dolls" is engaging with strong character development and enticing storyline.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2014

    Disappointed

    Does not compare to her earlier style of writing. Did not feel a connection with the characters. The relationship did not ring true between the three main women in the story. Ms See's earlier novels had more depth.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2014

    Good book

    It is a good read, but not as good as previous Lisa See books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2014

    I have read all of Lisa See's books and was waiting for this one

    I have read all of Lisa See's books and was waiting for this one. Not as good as her others. I just didn't believe the characters and their friendship. It felt to me like this one was cranked out for the money. Read On Gold Mountain first if you're new to this author. That book is great and true.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014

    For me the most interesting feature of "China Dolls"

    For me the most interesting feature of "China Dolls" was the historical background and the personalization of the events during the WW 2 years. I really didn't find their relationships to each other believable, and I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters myself. This one was a little disappointing for me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2014

    MJHFJGVYVHFFNFBH

    Olaf is great. I am lovely. My elf wont giv back my headphone and i found her drinking milk in the fridge -_- come on elfie. So yup. Coolness. Thats all I got. Later. ~ME &#12483

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2014

    Awesome read!

    Really liked this story! You will not be disappointed.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2014

    A story of Chinese and Japanese young women

    They work and survive in a time of turmoil. You will follow them as they become friends with all the ups and downs of the 1940's.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    a great listen

    I liked the story line between all 3 women and how the story flowed through the different spans of time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 5, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Get it now!

    This will keep you in your chair for a while. It's a good one to share.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 14, 2014

    A bit different for Lisa See but very good . Great characters.

    A bit different for Lisa See but very good . Great characters.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 12, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I have read almost all of Lisa See's novels and have loved them

    I have read almost all of Lisa See's novels and have loved them all. I have not read Dragon Bones nor The Interior, but plan to do that. China Dolls is just a captivating story about friendship and all the complications that go along with those relationships. It is also a story about the terrible period at the beginning of WWII when the Japanese American citizens faced internment because of their race alone. The story is about strong women, their loves, and their ability to survive against some pretty strong odds. It spans many years in their lives and takes the reader on a wonderful journey with them. Lisa See is a wonderful writer who creates amazing characters, as well as capturing a lot of the history of the Chinese in China and their trek to America, making a life for themselves on the West Coast. Her stories reflect the great amount of research she has put into these stories and all her stories will captivate the reader from beginning to end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 7, 2014

    This book is very much literary fiction in how it reads. There i

    This book is very much literary fiction in how it reads. There is an elegance to it that is hard for me to explain it is like a concentrated
    effort of greatness, if you read a lot of different genres perhaps you get what I mean I really think that all literary fiction holds it. Grace,
    Helen, and Ruby are our three main characters, who meet each other in unusual circumstances. From there they each pursue
    careers as dancers or entertainers. The author really showed how those of different ethnicities were treated during the time before
    World War II and then went into great detail about the treatment of Asians during World War II, especially in regards to Ruby. See's
    novel really transports you to a different time and place and let's you see history from different perspectives than just those in history
    books. The writing is tremendous but some parts were the type that contained, at least in my opinion, those skip over paragraphs,
    were you just roughly and quickly read a few spots here or there but skip through the rest. I did enjoy the book but it a bit disappointed,
    because the story started out so great and by the end it was just an afterthought.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 3, 2014

    This sage of three Oriental women spanned decades, but the story

    This sage of three Oriental women spanned decades, but the story presented a fascinating adventure into the lives of these women. The story begins before the beginning of WWII and ends in 50 years later in 1988. The journey centers in San Francisco, but encompasses Ohio, Florida, and other areas. I listened to an audiobook read by Jodi Long, who presented the book in an interesting manner. I enjoy learning and this book taught me many lessons: friendship, loyalty, and passion. Lisa See balances the ups and downs of these three women, and their deep secrets from one another. I will truly miss hearing of Ruby, Grace, and Helen.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2014

    Loved it

    Lisa See outstanding wonderfully written.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2014

    Disappointing after reading all of her other amazing books. I l

    Disappointing after reading all of her other amazing books. I love Lisa See. Her books got me back into reading because they were so well written. I enjoy the historical components of her novels and the way she weaves the story and characters together. China Dolls left me feeling flat. I kept turning pages expecting it to get more interesting and detailed like her other books, but it never really left the ground Hope she does better next time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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