Monday, June 23, 2014

408 (2014 #36). China Dolls

by Lisa See

Three Asian-American women bind - more from necessity than friendship - in 1938 in San Francisco's Chinatown. In a novel that spans the next ten years, with an epilogue 40 years later, 17-year-old Grace Lee, 19-year-old Ruby Tom, and 20-year-old Helen Fong tell their interweaving stories in alternate chapters.  The girls move from performing at the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island to the new Forbidden City nightclub near Chinatown, often competing with each other for spots on the stage, as well as in romance.  Each of the girls has secrets - some known to all (including the reader) from the beginning, others revealed (rather abruptly in some cases) as the story progresses.

As is usual with Lisa See's novels, this one is rich from research.  See incorporated some real people into the story:  Forbidden City owner Charlie Low, choreographer Walton Biggerstaff, vaudevillians Ming and Ling (actually Filipinos), dancer Dorothy Toy (a Japanese passing as Chinese), and Ed Sullivan.  She interviewed many surviving Asian-American performers, and used their stories and those of others to create her characters.  Ruby's fan- and bubble-dance act, for example, was inspired by that of Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand."  Other inspiration came from Mai Tai Sing, Mary Tom,  Dorothy Sun and Mary Mammon.  See shares a lot of her research in a special section of her website.

Moreover, I think See portrays the complexities of female friendship - the betrayals and dishonesty along with the love and support - realistically.  I loved this book, and I look forward to See's next one, which is supposed to be about tea.

ETA April 22, 2015 - I just listened to the audiobook read by actress and screenwriter Jodi Long, and it is fabulous!  Jodi is the daughter of tap-dancing vaudevillian Lawrence Leung (an immigrant from Australia of Chinese-Scottish descent) and Japanese-American showgirl Kimiye (Trudy) Tsunemitsu (who did spend some time in a World War II internment camp).  Many of their experiences are reflected in the book, and Jodi brings a special life to this reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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