China Dolls: A Novel

  • By Lisa See
  • Random House
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Christine Rath
  • July 17, 2014

Three young women make their way as dancers in the Chinese entertainment world of mid-20th-century America.

China Dolls: A Novel

From the first page, Lisa See’s China Dolls is an engaging work of historical fiction. Three young women — Grace, Helen, and Ruby — meet in San Francisco in 1938. One is a trained dancer, another a born entertainer, and the third a loyal duty-bound daughter. Though, in the first few pages, these characters may seem recognizable, and one might take their dynamic for a predictable one, neither of these things proves true in China Dolls. See’s heroines surprise in just the right amount and fulfill expectations when that is exactly what a reader needs. They grow from sketches on the page to people whose concerns will invade the reader’s thoughts. Grace, Helen, Ruby, and the characters that orbit around them have a life beyond the page.

The book opens in San Francisco in 1938 from the point of view of Grace, our dancer, who has run away from her abusive father in Ohio to look for work on Treasure Island, the location of San Francisco’s 1939 World’s Fair. Thwarted at Treasure Island, Grace heads to Chinatown, where she meets Helen, a young woman from a traditional Chinese family who occupies a compound in Chinatown. Helen leads Grace to The Forbidden City — a nightclub that is opening up in the “Occidental” part of town — where they both meet Ruby, a charismatic and sexy entertainer with gardenias in her hair.

All three audition at the Forbidden City and as the book progresses we see that theirs is a dance that spans decades as they come together, break apart, come together again and drift away from each other, all the while remaining connected. See’s point-of-view shifts — from Grace to Helen to Ruby — are artful and easy. Each character’s voice is distinct and recognizable throughout. Though on occasion certain plot turns feel sudden, the moves serve to drive the story forward.

The years that China Dolls spans are important not only for Grace, Helen, and Ruby, but also for the world. Through the eyes of the entertainers at the Forbidden City, the reader witnesses the last years of depression, the class struggles within and outside of Chinese culture in America, the emergence of the movie star, the last whimpers of vaudeville, the violent tensions between China and Japan, and finally World War II and its consequences for all our characters — most notably the conditions of Japanese internment camps across the United States. China Dolls highlights the racial struggles from the point of view of three deftly drawn characters. Their lives, though different, are woven together by common experience, overlapping traditions, and an ever-present sense of the boundaries of the Western and Eastern worlds.

Particularly compelling are the years spent traveling the country on the “Chop-suey Circuit” and in New York. While in San Francisco life inside the Forbidden City comes alive, it is on the East Coast that our characters are thrown into situations in which they are admired, reviled and fetishized for their ethnicity. Their differing internal dialogue about such incidents — informed by their varied backgrounds — makes for a balanced view of life as an Asian American in the 1940s. While these three characters can by no stretch cover the vast experiences of the Chinese and Japanese in the U.S. during and after World War II, they will pique the reader’s interest.

See’s characters are largely based on real Chinese personalities of the 1940s stage and screen. It’s clear to readers of China Dolls that See has immersed herself in this history. Her fascination and delight with the era and its stars seeps through every page. She is at her best when describing Eddie Wong as he dances: “His hair was slicked back with pomade, but his athletic steps — rattling now foot over foot across the front of the stage — caused strands to break loose and flop across his forehead.” Or Ruby Tom’s flirtatious reaction when reporters asked her if she was really naked beneath her bubble: “Ruby’s laugh filled the room like tinkling crystal. ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out! You boys need to go to your table now!’”

From the snappy banter like “What’s cooking?” and “little minx” — to the detailed descriptions of the girls’ clothes and costumes, China Dolls enfolds the reader in the era. Throughout the book, the entertainment industry in the 1940s captivates and delights. It feels real, it feels right.

One look at See’s extensive acknowledgements and it is clear that the author herself was enthralled by her historical subjects. Her devotion to the individuals who inspired China Dolls infuses the book with a vitality that makes reading it an absolute joy. The characters encountered in China Dolls beguile and linger in the mind long after the last line has been read. See’s deft portrayal will pique the interest of many a reader and encourage a deeper look into the Chinese-America experience in the early to mid-twentieth century. And that is one of the greatest achievements a work historical fiction can strive to fulfill.

Christine Rath is a writer (and sometime animal painter). Her work can be found in the Brooklyn Review, Magazine Forté, the Trout Family Almanac, and on her blog, where she was recently “Freshly Pressed” for a piece about the annoying things people say to pregnant ladies. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College.

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