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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
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:February 18, 1955
Place of Birth:Paris, France
Education:B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
Read an Excerpt
October 1938–- July 1940
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.
“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—-”
“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.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Lisa See,
Jodi Long, and Trudie Kim
I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.
Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?
Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.
LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?
TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.
LS: Your parents let you go?
TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.
LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?
TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.
LS: Do you think that was because of the war?
TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.
Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.
LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.
TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.
LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?
TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”
LS: So this was your first experience dancing?
TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.
JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”
TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!
JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.
TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!
LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?
TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.
LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?
TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.
LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?
TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.
LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?
TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?
JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.
TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.
LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?
JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.
TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.
LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?
TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.
LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?
TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”
JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?
TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.
LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .
TK: No. He was in an act.
JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.
LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.
JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!
TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.
JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.
LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?
TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.
JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.
TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.
LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.
JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.
TK: I’m a good faker!
JL: Yes, you are!
LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?
JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!
TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.
LS: Another boy?
JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.
LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?
TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.
LS: And she had a big voice.
TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.
JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?
TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.
JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.
LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.
TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.
JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.
LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”
JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.
Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:
Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.
1. The novel opens with the below quotation:
Only three things cannot be long hidden:
and the truth.
What does this quotation mean in the context of China Dolls? Lisa’s novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why were they hidden? Did you agree with how and when they were revealed?
2. “In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it?” (p. 11). This is something Grace realized about herself when she just started out as a performer. How did her outlook evolve throughout the novel?
3. Grace’s father brutally abused her when she was a young girl. Although Lisa never excused his behavior, how did she gradually reveal to the reader some of the factors that made him the man he was? Did you ever accept him for who he was? In what ways did the abuse Grace suffer at the hands of her father shape her subsequent relationships with men?
4. How did your perception of Ruby shift throughout the story? Did the hardship and discrimination she experienced affect the rest of her actions, whether commendable or not? How did Ruby’s ambition differ from that of Grace’s?
5. Ruby could have had any man she wanted—and she often did. Is it fair to be critical of the way Ruby tried to hide her early relationship with Joe from Grace? Why did she choose Joe, especially in light of Grace’s crush on him? Was this betrayal ultimately helpful to Grace in some respects?
6. How did you react to the way Ruby hid her Japanese ancestry as World War II began? How did you feel about her relationship with her parents? Did you think Ruby’s parents were Japanese spies? Could you tell one way or another? Did it matter to you whether they were verifiably innocent or guilty?
7. Helen’s narratives were filled with traditional Chinese sayings. Which are the most important in the novel and why? What aspects of Helen’s life made her situation fundamentally different from that of the other girls? When Helen’s past was revealed, were you surprised? How did it affect her approach to friendship?
8. Helen’s and Grace’s fathers share many similarities in how they look at their daughters and women. In what ways do their personal backgrounds make the two men different from each other?
9. What important elements did Eddie bring to the novel? Would you have married Eddie if you had been in Helen’s situation?
10. Ruby says to Grace, “You want an American life. I want an American life. Even Helen wants an American life” and then thinks to herself “And all of us, in our own ways, were doing the best we could to erase who we were” (p. 301). What do you think an “American life” meant for each woman, and why did they have to erase themselves to achieve it? Who were you rooting for most in the novel—Grace, Helen, or Ruby? And why?
11. Did you think Grace’s relationship with Joe was significantly different after the war? If so, how? In what ways had Grace changed? Joe? In reality, could they have changed as much as they did in the novel?
12. How was Helen’s betrayal of Ruby different from her betrayal of Grace? Which betrayal was worse? Why? Would the final confrontation scene have been different if it had been entirely narrated by Grace? Or by Helen?
13. While there are big betrayals in the novel, there were also moments of great resiliency and hope as the girls helped each other. In what ways did Grace, Helen, and Ruby support one another?
14. Perhaps more than in any of her other novels, Lisa has written in great detail about clothes and fashion. Why do you think she did that and what was she trying to say?
15. “China doll” or “China dolls” are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative? At the end of China Dolls, Tommy’s daughter criticized Grace’s career as one that promoted racial stereotypes. Was that criticism fair? Why or why not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
Strong character development and very educational details on this time in American history.
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!!!!
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.
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.
While not my favorite of Lisa See's novels, "China Dolls" is engaging with strong character development and enticing storyline.
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.
Wonderful...once again, Lisa See's writing mesmerized me from the first page. I will read, and so far, have read all of her books. I've learned so much, and enjoyed her strong characters.
I thought the book had interesting and in depth characters. I finished the book in about a day and it kept me engaged. The plot of the story was easy to figure out, but it was still an interesting read. Theme of the book....keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. LOL
This is the first Lisa See book I've read and I thoroughly enjoyed both the San Francisco setting and pre-WWII era. I knew very little about the treatment of either the Chinese or Japanese before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I've got to admit it was a real eye opener. The references to articles in Time and Life magazine on how to tell the difference between a Chinese or Jap was truly horrifying as were the request for licenses to hunt Japs. I loved the period details about the songs, TV programs, movies and actors. Reading about the World's Fair on Treasure Island and visiting the nightclub, Forbidden City, was enlightening. It was fascinating seeing the changes in the lives of women during this period of time. Despite the fact that the story is told from three different POVs, something I hate and normally refuse to read, I read nonstop to the end barely taking the time to stop and eat.
It is a good read, but not as good as previous Lisa See books.
Loved every single page!!!
While the story got better as I continued to read , it just wasn't my " cup of tea " . I cannot imagine that this book would hold any appeal to a male audience as it was very "girlie " . Would not read another novel by this author --- this was my first and last .
It was a wonderful read kept me up and I couldn't put it down. I really loved it!
Long and difficult to get through very boring
This book pulled me in right from the start and was very thought provoking.
Characters were real in their own truth Time when things were different Secrets, friendships, love, healing Author very detailed in writing
Take a ride on the Chinatown Express with Lisa See! Her characters are believable. You will be transported to another time and place. A wonderful read with historical accuracy and depth.
Just wasn't my type of book. I listened to this book so my review may be judgmental according to the reader. I wasn't too thrilled with this book but I think a lot of it came from the reader, who didn't seem to enthusiastic and actually droned on with the story. The story line was very interesting. I am one that doesn't prefer historical fiction but this one peaked my interests as I am not very familiar with the China, Japan, and American history and this story made it relatable.
A very good description of the times, historically, with the added insight of Chinese culture in this country as it denies and accepts changes from traditional to modern life. Additionally, the Chinese- Japanese- American conflict is explored. All of this is incorporated in the lives of three young women in a very engrossing story.