China Dolls: A Novel, Lisa See

china“China Dolls”, begins at the end of the 1930’s, when three young women of Asian descent and highly different backgrounds, meet and become friends. The effects of the Depression are still evident, and WWII is about to begin. The book, however, doesn’t concentrate on the German involvement, but rather on the involvement of the Japanese, and it reaches back into history to expose the cruelty of the Japanese when they bombed China in 1937, at the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War. It exposes the fury that the Chinese people harbor toward the Japanese, and also the racial bias that existed towards those of Japanese heritage after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it also clearly illuminates the generalized prejudice of Americans toward all those of Asian background, particularly the Chinese, whom they insultingly refer to with many racial slurs, i.e, slant eyes, chinks, etc. The Chinese are inhibited from getting gainful employment, even after being trained in a profession. Helen’s brother was a dentist but was only able to work as a chauffeur. Marriage between the races was a crime. Hate and prejudice reigned. The book also exposes homophobia at that time, and the general atmosphere of disapproval that existed for the performers who worked in the nightclubs, even as they flocked to their shows.

Grace Lee was well brought up. She came from a small town in Ohio and was woefully naïve. Her parents operated a laundry. Helen came from a wealthy family in San Francisco’s Chinatown, her family supplied businesses. She was sheltered and controlled by her family. Ruby came from a traditional Japanese family, a family of fishermen. She was a free spirit. Each had a secret.
Grace ran away from home at 17, because of her father’s physical abuse, and while interviewing for a job as a dancer at The San Francisco Exposition, essentially a World’s Fair to begin in 1939, she met a young man named Joe, with whom she was immediately smitten. She, however, does not get the job dancing there; they are not interested in Asian dancers, so she and Joe part ways. As the story develops, their paths cross again.
After being turned down for that job, Grace meets Ruby. Ruby, like Grace, is looking for a job as a dancer in the flourishing nightclub business of Chinatown, and they unexpectedly become friends. They serendipitously meet Helen, who offers to help them find an apartment. They quickly form a triumvirate. A very properly brought up Chinese young lady, with very strict rules to follow, Helen is surprisingly persuaded by them to also apply for a job as a dancer, although she has no experience dancing or working in show business, they offer to teach her. Helen is unsure, her father would be horrified. She knows he would believe that this kind of a job would bring shame upon the family, and as a traditional Chinese, he believes a woman is of less value than even the worst man. Helen decides to defy her father and take the job when she gets it. The money is better than what she earns in her position at the Telephone Exchange, and she convinces her father that she can better help with their finances by adding more money to her brother Monroe’s school fund. The money persuades her father to allow his “worthless” daughter to take the job. Over the next decade, all three women experience ups and downs, romance, success, failure, joy and tragedy. Chinese proverbs pepper the pages. Sometimes, their friendship stretches the bonds of loyalty and sometimes it ignores them. The effect of world events on their lives and individual futures, rolls out over the pages.

The injustice of the Japanese internment camps is exposed and described in detail. The roundups, helplessness of the victims and panic of the accusers is objectively presented. The cruelty of those in power, their bias and mistrust are all evident. Japanese-Americans were treated almost as poorly as the Jews in Germany, when they were rounded up, although their ultimate fate was far better than those who fell under the hammer of Hitler. They were suspect, and therefore interned like criminals, forced to give up their homes and possessions, confronted by armed guards and vicious dogs, not because of anything they did, but because of the behavior of their Emperor, Emperor Hirohito, who declared war on the United States. America’s behavior was shameful and inexplicable, regardless of its fear of the unknown enemy.

The narrative uncovers the strict culture of the Chinese almost 8 decades ago, the misogyny, the need for a woman to know her place in the world and the family structure. She was required to be absolutely obedient to the patriarch and to provide support for all the males in the family, financially, and in terms of housekeeping and cooking. A hopefully propitious marriage was arranged for her, and her future was planned by her parents.

Ultimately, it felt like it took too long for the war and the racism to be introduced into the narrative. Almost half the book passed before the issue of the Japanese Internment Camps came up. It also seemed to take too long for the issues between the Chinese and Japanese to be introduced. America’s Japanese-American families lost many young men who volunteered to fight for America, in spite of the injustice and cruelty of being uprooted, carted off like animals, and placed in camps. They were Americans, after all; they loved America and wanted to support its war effort. Some made the ultimate sacrifice.

This story begins when Grace is 17, and except for a brief foray into a time forty years later when the story is summed up, it ends when she is 27. She reinvents herself as necessary in order to survive the lean years that come and go. All three women have surprising strength and ability to endure. When Ruby‘s cultural background was betrayed by an unknown person, there were dreadful consequences. The guilty person is not exposed until the very end of the book, but the reader may very well guess who the culprit is, before the last page. The ghastly reason for Helen’s secret shame and behavior is also revealed near the end of the book.

In the time period in which this book occurs, all stripes of prejudice are aired and put on trial, and prejudice is found guilty. The background of the story in the nightclubs of Chinatown is based on historic facts. Charlie Low did open up The Forbidden City, there were famous Chinese dancers and performers and famous Hollywood stars frequented the clubs. There was a “Chinese Frank Sinatra”.
I discovered that there is another book from which Lisa See did a lot of research, for when I looked into the history of Chinatown nightclubs, it popped up on the screen. I thought I was reading a review of “China Dolls” and didn’t realize until after that it was a review of a non-fiction book, written by Trina Robbins, Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs. Lisa See lists it in her bibliography.

The reader of this audio was good, but she was not able to develop a clear individual voice for each woman and so I was often confused, was it Grace or Ruby speaking? That said, it did not inhibit my enjoyment of the book.

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