China Dolls

18404427China Dolls
Lisa See
© 2014
383 pages (hardcover)

In late 1938 in San Francisco, a nightclub called The Forbidden City opened its doors.  Located close to Chinatown, the club featured only Asian performers (most were Chinese, but there were a couple Japanese dancers who “passed” as Chinese), whose acts ranged from magic shows to ballroom-dance routines. The club attracted crowds night after night with taglines like: “The most popular dishes in town are Oriental!” and “They’re slant-sational!”

Lisa See’s new novel, China Dolls, is about three friends, Grace, Ruby, and Helen, who meet in San Francisco in 1938 and soon thereafter become “ponies” at the Forbidden City (“We twirled our parasols and tilted our heads just so. We looked exquisite. We looked delicate and breakable—like dolls, like little China dolls.”).

Grace is a hillbilly second-generation Chinese kid from a small town in the Midwest, who runs away from her abusive father to try to make it big as a dancer in San Francisco. She doesn’t know a single word of Chinese, and, before arriving in the city, has never used chopsticks. Ruby is a Japanese girl who changes her name and pretends to be Chinese to get better jobs. She’s brazen and extroverted and has lived with her family in L.A. and Hawaii. Helen grew up in a good, well-respected family in the heart of Chinatown. She is proper and traditional and fears embarrassing or shaming her family. The book chronicles the girls’ friendships (including the jealousies, back-stabbing, and ganging-up that are prevalent in a triangle of girlfriends), struggles, love lives, and careers, focusing mainly on the decade between 1938 and 1948.

To get a better idea of what the book is about, watch this clip about Dorothy Toy, a real-life Forbidden City dancer (who, in her day, was nicknamed “The Asian Ginger Rogers”):

Toy makes a cameo or two in the book, and See interviewed her while she was researching the novel. The struggles that Toy faced (prejudices, internment during the War) are issues that appear in the book. And so are the joys (friendship, stardom). If you’re into Toy’s story, then you’ll like the book, as well.

Rating: 2.5/5

This book is a combination of historical fiction and chick lit. The best parts of the book showcase See’s ability to capture an accurate (and now completely foreign) historical atmosphere, like the tension and turmoil surrounding World War II. My maternal grandparents were interned during the War, so the fear and prejudice that See describes resonated with me:

The magazines offered diagrams and photos titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese” and “How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs.” Life encouraged its readers to overcome their “distressing ignorance” on this “delicate question.” So . . . Chinese were tall, averaging five feet five, while Japs topped out at five two and a half. Chinese tended to put on weight to show they were prosperous, while Japs were seldom fat (except for sumo wrestlers). Chinese were not hairy, while Japs could grow mustaches. After decades of being labeled inscrutable, suddenly Chinese could be identified by their placid, kindly, and open expressions, while anyone—armed with the information provided in the magazines’ pages—should be able to spot a Jap by his dogmatic assertions, his insistence on pushing his arrogance in your face, and the way he could be counted on to laugh loudly at the wrong time.

“It says here that Chinese have parchment yellow complexions,” Ruby relayed to Joe, “while Japs have earthy yellow complexions. Japs also have flat noses, massive cheek and jawbones, and short faces.” 

But I was not as engrossed by the chick-lit vibe of the book. The setting (the fun, flashy nightlife of the 1940’s) is perfect for a story about three girlfriends. Unfortunately, none of the three female characters is particularly likeable, so it’s hard to root for them, their successes, or their continued friendships.

The book alternates by chapter among the three women’s first-person perspectives. Ruby’s voice is distinct, peppered with fun ‘40s slang, and evocative of her bold persona. But Grace’s and Helen’s voices are indistinguishable (aside from the occasional italicized Chinese maxim in Helen’s chapters), and I occasionally had to flip to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was “talking.”

Although the subject matter and setting are very interesting and the history is well researched and well conveyed, the writing has a tendency to be slow and boring, a flaw that is compounded by the lack of likeable characters.

Who should read it: my mom (i.e., fans of Lisa See’s other books and books like Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet).

Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:

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