Lisa See’s ‘China Dolls’ a portrait of prejudice and triumph

Legions of fans have embraced Lisa See’s courageous Chinese heroines in such novels as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. But her latest novel is a terrific place to start for readers unfamiliar with her work. China Dolls opens in San Francisco in 1938, as America struggles to emerge from its grueling Depression, just a year before the outbreak of World War II.

See creates a fascinating trio of Asian women who meet and immediately become close friends: Helen, whose conservative Chinese family lives in a large compound and frowns on American culture; Grace, who flees Ohio to start a dance career; and Ruby, an experienced, ready-for-anything adventuress. Each character narrates, an effective device that quickly reveals their personalities.

Grace’s Midwestern naïveté and unfamiliarity with Chinese ways perplex Ruby, although she admits, “I saw in her what she probably saw in me — that we’d been hit by hard times, that we’d put cardboard in our shoes when the soles had worn out, and that we were on the thin side from too many dinners of watery soup.”

What brings these three dissimilar characters together is an audition (which they win) at the Forbidden City, a nightclub in Chinatown. The Forbidden City was a real San Francisco club, which See brings to life with juicy description: “We danced close to the patrons, who drank, smoked, and ate by the red-tinged light of their coolie-hat table lamps. They ogled us in our satin peep-toe sandals, skimpy outfits, and amusing headdresses perched at improbable angles.”

In their stage makeup and glittering costumes, Helen, Grace and Ruby may look as exquisite and fragile as porcelain dolls, but they’re actually passionate women with a lot of guts. See gives each one her share of troubles. Helen’s traditional father reacts furiously to his daughter’s new job: “If you dance here, you will be one notch above a prostitute. Is that how you want people to regard me in Chinatown — as the father of a no-no girl?”

Grace still suffers from nightmares about the abuse she endured at home: “[My father] bore down on me, trapping me in the corner of our living room. He unbuckled his belt and drew it through his pants loop in a single fast flourish. I had no way to escape.”

Back in Hawaii Ruby’s parents worried about their daughter’s popularity with visiting sailors, and they shipped her off to relatives on the mainland. Ruby is one of See’s most winning characters. Fired by the Forbidden City, she’s offered a position performing almost naked. Since the job pays more than Grace or Helen earns, practical Ruby quickly says, “Where do I sign?”

But Ruby’s real secret is that she is actually Japanese, which becomes a terrible liability after Pearl Harbor. By including a woman who “passes” as Chinese, and is terrified of being thrown into an internment camp, See creates sympathy for Japanese immigrants who were vilified during the war. After Ruby is finally rounded up and taken to a camp, she recounts her first night: “The curtains around me shivered like ghosts. On the other side of the curtain, I heard breathing. Other people — total strangers — were sleeping just inches from me without any barrier or protection beyond the sheets … I should have been scared out of my wits, but I was madder than mad.”

See keeps the momentum going — during wartime and afterward — with some pretty startling revelations about the women as they dance their way through hard times and good fortune. Grace, Helen and Ruby undergo painful experiences, but what keeps this novel from bogging down in sorrow is their exuberance and spirit. With three heroines who each nurture a fierce ambition to achieve the immigrant’s dream despite wartime society’s prejudice, See has crafted a captivating, profoundly American story.

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.