Offering an interesting perspective on the lives of Asian Americans in pre-World War II San Francisco, Lisa See hits it out of the park with China Dolls. It seems so rare that American fiction allows depictions of Asians outside of the narrow confines that it has created for them. Often, their stories are set in their native countries of China, Japan, etc. By creating characters that live in Anytown, USA, Lisa See humanizes stories that are often overlooked in mainstream lit.
American-born Chinese Grace is from a small town in Ohio where her family was the only Asian family in town. As a result, Grace has missed out on Chinese culture and, in fact, has never met any other Asians outside of her mother and father. Arriving in San Francisco with hopes of a career as a dancer, she’s initially overwhelmed by Chinatown and sticks out like a sore thumb, until she’s rescued by the haughty princess of Chinatown, Helen.
As a daughter of one of the most respected families in Chinatown, Helen can do absolutely nothing without it being reported back to her father. She dreads her days working at the telephone exchange, but it’s what her family has determined is proper for a woman of her age and station. She can’t sing or dance, but that doesn’t stop her from coming to Helen’s assistance and offering to show her where she can make a living.
Ruby is Japanese, but passing for Chinese. Almost everyone in Chinatown knows this and accepts it until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the U.S. government begins setting up internment camps for Japanese citizens, whether they’re U.S.-born or not.
The three become fast friends working as dancers at one of Chinatown’s finer clubs, but mistrust seems to always be lurking in the background. Petty differences and jealousy are a central theme and each woman has her place in the spotlight as the betrayer of others. For that reason, it was difficult to like one character more than another or sympathize with any of them. At times, they’re downright cruel to each other, yet still dependent on each other for survival, so the friendships seem to be maintained more out of necessity than loyalty.
If I absolutely have to pick a favorite of the three ladies, I would go with Grace; least favorite is harder to determine. Ruby is a snake from the beginning and continues to show her true colors, so it’s hard to blame anyone that doesn’t keep their guard up around her. Helen, on the other hand, seems so honest and forthright, but she’s probably the one to fear the most, since you’ll never know when she might strike. Regardless, I loved the story lines of all the women.
Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.