YOU CAN’T HELP feeling bad for authors of popular works of women’s fiction. The literary landscape is freckled with graveyards that may as well bear signs that read, “Here lie writers who get no respect.” In one quadrant are the science fiction and fantasy writers. Authors of historical fiction occupy a similarly sized plot. And then there’s women’s fiction, the creators of which are consigned to fringe status even if they don’t further seal their fate by intersecting with another maligned subgroup: ethnic fiction. If you’re an American woman who writes commercially successful works about close-knit families from foreign cultures, good luck getting the esteem you seek.
In a 2011 interview that coincided with the film adaptation of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), the book that transformed her from a mystery writer with a modest sales record to bestselling author, Lisa See explained the themes that dominate her most famous work. It’s “about female friendship,” she said, “about these binds that hold us together as women. It’s about the things that we go through together and how we stand by each other.” (You can watch the entire interview on YouTube.) This self-synopsis applies to all of her novels since then, as well, including her new book, China Dolls. But the description only begins to explain her success; you don’t ascend The New York Times bestseller list just because you write about women. The immediacy of her prose and her gift for building tension are two of the biggest reasons for her popularity, as is her ability to beguile with the unfamiliar.
See is not the first Asian American to chronicle the conflicts within Chinese and Chinese-American society. Amy Tan and Ha Jin, two of her most famous contemporaries, introduced readers to the culture clash between Chinese mothers and daughters (Tan’s The Joy Luck Club) and the struggles of imprisoned soldiers in the People’s Volunteer Army (Jin’s War Trash). See’s work is more atmospheric than Tan’s and less political than Jin’s or Yiyun Li’s, who wrote movingly about Tiananmen Square in her excellent recent book Kinder Than Solitude. Like the works of her closest contemporary, Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Songs of Willow Frost), See’s novels of the past 10 years contain an abundance of period detail and local color: the jook and congee (variants of rice porridge) that female characters prepare, the ceremonies such as the Day of Sorrow and Worry and the hua jiao (the bride’s palanquin “covered in flowers and red silk”) that were parts of weddings in China.
After having written a well-regarded memoir, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), followed by three works of mystery fiction (Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones in 1997, 1999, and 2003), See, whose paternal great-grandfather was Chinese, wrote her breakout book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Snow Flower is the story of an 80-year-old Chinese woman born in 1823 and the laotong — literally “old same” — with whom she exchanges messages in the secret form of women’s writing known as nu shu. Snow Flower introduced some of the qualities that reappear in the four subsequent novels: vivid descriptions of ancient Chinese rituals, particularly those that demean women, and the conflicts that arise when old-fashioned Chinese customs clash with progressive ways of thinking.
Lily, the widow who is the narrator of Snow Flower, refers to herself at age 80 as “one who has not yet died.” She chronicles in painful detail the process by which, at age seven, her feet were tied in the “long blue strips of cloth that would become my bindings” so that, as Diviner Hu says, “her feet could be the most perfect produced in our county,” and thus lead to a desirable marriage. The bones in Lily’s feet crack as her mother, showing “mother love,” whips the backs of Lily’s legs with a reed from a riverbank to force her to keep walking as the blood and pus ooze through the bandages. What reader, male or female, wouldn’t squirm at this? It’s a horrifying scene, and not just because of the precision and economy of the prose. See’s work is a subtle form of feminist manifesto: the presentation, without comment, of indignities suffered by women as a way of highlighting the strides women have made over the years.
This is true for Peony in Love (2007) and Shanghai Girls (2009), as well. Set in the Shanghai of 1937, Shanghai Girls chronicles a different sort of humiliation. Pearl and May Chin are sisters, “beautiful girls,” who come from a wealthy family and earn extra money by modeling in cheongsams (or less) for calendars and advertisements. Their brief modeling career ends when their father loses all of the family’s money to a Los Angeles–based Chinese businessman named Old Man Louie and arranges for Pearl and May to marry Louie’s sons and move to America. Shanghai Girls feels less fresh than Snow Flower, mainly because its era (from 1937 to 1957) and its references (from Pearl Harbor and the rise of Chairman Mao to cultural figures such as Katharine Hepburn and Agnes Moorehead) are more familiar to contemporary readers than are references from 19th-century China. But the novel contains some of See’s most harrowing writing, especially during a boat ride to Hong Kong, in which Japanese soldiers rape Pearl, May, and their mother.
China Dolls, like Shanghai Girls, deals with Chinese women in mid-20th-century America who pursue careers in an entertainment field. The three female protagonists — Grace Lee, Helen Fong, and Ruby Tom — spend much of the novel working in nightclubs, although the cinema eventually figures in the story. One of the sadder and more profound elements of China Dolls (and much of See’s work) is the extent to which entertainment industry jobs that play to racist stereotypes — a nightclub owner who employs the women in China Dolls promises his audience of lo fan (Caucasians) a “new slant on entertainment” — are preferable to the repressive home lives from which the women emerge.
Grace, a young woman not yet 20 years old, travels by rail in October 1938 from her home in Plain City, Ohio, to San Francisco. Her dream is to become as big a success in the cinema as Anna May Wong, but her more immediate goals are to secure a job as a dancer at the forthcoming Golden Gate International Exposition and get away from her abusive father. Grace is so thoroughly American that she doesn’t know what chop suey is, or how to use chopsticks. She had never seen Chinese furniture, silks, and vases until she sees them during a stroll through San Francisco’s Chinatown.
A boss at the Exposition tells her that he doesn’t have a job for “an Oriental girl” unless she is willing to work the concessions, where she would “need to do the ching-chong thing.” She declines and goes to Chinatown, where she meets Helen, a well-to-do young woman “with flawless porcelain skin.” Helen’s father, who fled China the previous year under mysterious circumstances, makes good money selling laundry supplies, but Helen does boring, low-paying work for the Chinese Telephone Exchange and wants to find a better job. She hears Grace ask boys on the street if there’s a nightclub around, and takes her to the Forbidden City, a club that is looking for “ponies and canaries” — dancers and singers.
At the club, they meet Ruby, whom Helen proclaims a cheung hay, a blabbermouth. Ruby uses earthy slang like “get the gig and the dough” and “knocked some of the wind out of my panties.” The three of them are among the many Chinese women who vie for the handful of jobs offered by Charlie Low, the club’s owner. His goal is to put together the best Chinese nightclub outside of Chinatown, a place that “white ghosts” will frequent and love. Grace and Ruby are accomplished dancers, but, as Ruby puts it, Helen “was a real cement mixer” — not graceful. When all three women advance to the final round of auditions, they rehearse in a local park to perfect their routines.
Many of the early scenes with Grace, Helen, and Ruby consist of conversations in which the three women share one another’s backstories. But the narrative gains momentum when Helen’s disapproving father comes to the club and berates his daughter for belittling herself by pursuing a lowly profession. He allows her to work at the club — she is one of the women Charlie hires — but only on the condition that her brother Monroe accompanies her. (All seven of her brothers are named after US presidents.) Before he leaves, Helen’s father points to Ruby. “Watch out for this one,” Baba says. “She’s a Jap.”
Ruby confesses to her friends that her real name is Kimiko Fukutomi. She decided to pass for Chinese because she knew, given Japan’s acts of aggression against China, that she would have an easier time getting work and surviving in society if people thought she was Chinese. For reasons that slowly become clear, Helen is at first upset by Ruby’s revelation but says, “I will keep your secret.”
As this scene occurs in 1938, it’s inevitable that Ruby’s birthright will play a part in the narrative of China Dolls, and indeed it does. The story includes other complications and many changes of venue over its 50-year span. Ruby goes from one job to another until she lands a gig as a semi-nude dancer at Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch. Grace falls for Joe Mitchell, a Caucasian university student whose dream is to fly planes, but, in her innocence, Grace doesn’t see the attention Joe commands from other women in her circle. She and Helen go to Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming famous movie stars, while Ruby gains further renown at Forbidden City as the exotic Princess Tai, a “dancer” who struts naked across the stage while holding a beach ball to provide a hint of modesty. The novel chronicles the successes and failures of the women’s careers, all of which are altered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the forced internment of the Japanese, including Ruby, her parents, and her brother Yori.
Long before the epilogue, set in November 1988, you’ll have figured out which two characters from the opening chapters will become a long-married couple. Characters like Eddie Wu, the “Chinese Fred Astaire,” and other denizens of the film, theater, and nightclub worlds are familiar, but See’s decision to shift among the three women as narrators can cause confusion. The chapters narrated by Ruby stand out because of her colorful, slang-heavy speech, but Grace and Helen have similar voices. Occasionally, I had to go back to the start of a chapter to remind myself who was narrating.
But otherwise China Dolls is fresh and lively. When was the last time you read a novel about the “Chop Suey Circuit” of 20th-century American showbiz, an era less well known than the Borscht Belt and Chitlin’ Circuit? It’s a compelling story of a (thank goodness) bygone era, and See tells it well. She clearly has done her research — most of the major players in entertainment make an appearance or are mentioned in passing: Deanna Durbin toward the end of her career, in a film with music by bandleader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge; Ed Sullivan and Toast of the Town; Dorothy Kilgallen writing in her gossip column about “the enchanting Princess Tai”; Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman strolling across the Paramount lot. And See gives dozens of examples of songs from the era, from “I Cain’t Say No” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” to peppy, offensive responses to Pearl Harbor such as “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.” (“You’re a sap, Mr. Jap / To make the Yankee cranky / You’re a sap, Mr. Jap / Uncle Sam is gonna spankee …”) She could have cut much of the period detail without harming the flow of the story, but what fascinating details.
China Dolls contains powerful passages, as when Yori recounts American planes strafing the sampan where their father and brother were laying out fishing nets, or the moving flashback in which Helen recounts an arranged marriage back in China and the violence her family suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Equally moving is a well-written flashback to the day Grace decides to leave home and part from her beloved mother. Her mother gives her a strong piece of advice: “Don’t depend on a man. […] Never rely on a husband,” a sentiment that appears in all of See’s novels. For every passage in which 19th-century women consent to “bed business” whenever their husbands wants it (Snow Flower), there’s a scene like this, as in Shanghai Girls, when Pearl tells her daughter, Joy, “All I’m saying is you can be a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, or an accountant. You can do anything.”
So okay, maybe See’s self-synopsis from that interview really is the best way to describe her writing. Her books are about women, and perhaps are intended primarily for women. But her work warrants wider respect for the distinctive worlds she recreates and the care she takes in depicting the relationships within them, the ties that bind not the feet of some of her characters but these women to each other and to readers of both genders.