Lisa See brings us a winning new novel about three young Asian women from very different backgrounds who are drawn to San Francisco during the 1938 World’s Fair. In the vein of her previous bestsellers, SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN and SHANGHAI GIRLS, the complex relationships among these ladies are both poignant and bittersweet.
After graduating from high school, Grace Lee escapes an unhappy home life in a small Ohio town to seek a future on the stage. Her mother, eager to assimilate to American ways, had provided her dancing and voice lessons and insisted on perfected English. Except for Grace’s physical features, which caused torment in school in the all-white town, she is as American as apple pie. As the only non-white family in town, she has never seen another Asian or tasted Chinese food until she reaches the west coast.
"Lisa See brings us a winning new novel about three young Asian women from very different backgrounds who are drawn to San Francisco during the 1938 World’s Fair.... See masterfully creates unforgettable characters that linger in your memory long after you close the pages."
Helen Fong lives in her family’s compound in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She works at the Chinese Telephone Exchange and is never allowed to appear on public streets unless escorted by her older brother. She yearns to escape her cloistered life, and when she has a chance encounter with Grace, who is looking for the Forbidden City nightclub (which is holding auditions), she makes an instant decision to skip work and is persuaded to try out for a spot in the chorus.
There, Helen and Grace meet Ruby Tom, who is as vivacious and daring as she is determined to be a star. Ruby is dazzling, worldly, and unafraid of doing what has to be done to become rich and famous.
The three become fast friends as they seek employment in San Francisco’s Oriental entertainment industry. They join the entertainment world family of dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats of the Chop Suey Circuit, the Oriental version of variety shows made famous during Borscht Circuit days. They rise from chorus girls to feature acts and eventual stardom at Forbidden City.
Each, however, harbors secrets about her life that seem not to matter until the bombing of Pearl Harbor shatters each of their worlds. What had been a tightly woven community of Oriental performers crumbles as racial barriers suddenly arise. Fingers are pointed and paranoia puts friendships in danger, even within families. The FBI tracks down the Japanese, and whether they are American or foreign born, friends, lovers and family members disappear overnight into detention camps as suspected spies. As romances between races become even more taboo, or loved ones go off to war, a rift among the girls --- along with a devastating betrayal --- threatens their close ties.
Lisa See masterfully creates unforgettable characters that linger in your memory long after you close the pages. If you are old enough to remember the stir in Hollywood when Asians began winning starring roles, or when marriage between Orientals and whites was illegal in almost every state, or ---- even more scandalous --- when “Eurasian” or mixed-race screen and stage personalities were being featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, you will recall, perhaps with embarrassment, what our world used to be. If, like many, you do not personally recall those times, CHINA DOLLS will come as a revelation, and you will marvel at how our world has changed.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on June 6, 2014