This Weekend, Visit San Francisco's Famed Forbidden City In 'China Dolls' In this installment of Weekend Reads, Jean Kwok recommends Lisa See's novel China Dolls, about the unlikely friendship formed by three young women on vaudeville's all-Asian "Chop Suey Circuit."
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This Weekend, Visit San Francisco's Famed Forbidden City In 'China Dolls'

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This Weekend, Visit San Francisco's Famed Forbidden City In 'China Dolls'

This Weekend, Visit San Francisco's Famed Forbidden City In 'China Dolls'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"China Dolls," a book by Lisa See, explores the lives of three Asian-American girls who dream of being stars. The novel begins in the late 1930s in San Francisco with the Forbidden City nightclub as a backdrop. It was one of the more famous venues in the so-called Chop Sui circuit. That's the name given vaudeville shows starring all-Asian casts.

Lisa See's "China Dolls" is this Sunday's weekend read. It was selected by Jean Kwok, author of "Mambo In Chinatown." And Jean Kwok told me she picked this book in part because it felt familiar.

JEAN KWOK: The funny thing is that "China Dolls" came out a month before my book. And my book is about a Chinese-American woman who becomes a dancer. And people kept saying, you know, there's this other book that's just out by Lisa See about young, Asian-American women who become dancers. And I mean, what are the odds, you know? I have never even heard of another book about this topic. And then suddenly, both of our books appeared within a month of each other.

So it was really fascinating to read Lisa See's "China Dolls" because it's about three very different, young, Asian-American women who meet by chance at this glamorous nightclub called the Forbidden City in 1938. And we kind of follow the lives of Grace, Helen and Ruby as they become dancers. And these, you know, the friendships and relationships wax and wane throughout the novel, but Grace is the glue that holds everything together. She's the most talented one. She's kind of naive. And as the novel opens, Grace is running away from her abusive father in the Midwest in hopes of making it as a dancer in San Francisco.

MARTIN: These are all three young women who are, in some ways, trying to reinvent themselves. We just heard a little bit about Grace's back story. She's trying to escape an abusive situation. Can you tell as more about where Ruby Tom and Helen Fong are coming from? What is animating them?

KWOK: You know, Helen comes from one of the most powerful families in Chinatown. So she comes from a really affluent background. And she's had a very conservative Chinese upbringing. And then Ruby, you know, Ruby's the sparkler of the bunch. I mean, she is rebellious. She's ambitious. She's ruthless. But she's honest, too, you know. She's generous in her honesty. And I love how Ruby describes herself, you know, in her own words. She says, I didn't have a lot of talent, but I had plenty of bazing. And she really does.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The book is set at this very precarious time in American history. World War II is unfolding. There are a internment camps that have been set up around you the United States where Japanese Americans are being held. There is racism in all different pockets of American society. How does this play out in the book?

KWOK: One thing that I thought was really well done was that, you know, you've got these three young women. And what Lisa See does is she makes Ruby actually Japanese. So Ruby is passing as Chinese and pretending to be Chinese, but she's actually Japanese. And so you immediately have conflict because Helen, the conservative affluent one, has reason to hate the Japanese, especially after their invasion of China.

And because Ruby is Japanese and her family, you know, gets embroiled in the politics of that time, you know, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as anti-Japanese sentiments rise in the U.S. and Japanese people were rounded up into internment camps, you know, that gives us a reason to follow the story into that very difficult world as well. So, you know, through the book, we can kind of see the scars of war on both Asians and non-Asians alike.

Something else that I think Lisa See does really well is that she shows racism throughout the book in large and small ways. So there are also so many little details like when Grace first arrives in San Francisco. And she's at an interview, and she's trying to get a job at the world fair. And her interviewer says to her, (reading) you've got a big problem. You're gams are good and your contours and promontories are in the right places. You've got a face that could crush a lily, but your accent. Grace says, my accent? Yeah, he says, you don't have one. You've got to stop talking all perfect. You need to do the ching-chong thing. And I thought that was just so funny and so heartbreaking at the same time.

MARTIN: That was best-selling novelist Jean Kwok talking about Lisa See's novel "China Dolls." You can read an excerpt from "China Dolls" on our website, npr.org. Jean, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your thoughts on this book.

KWOK: Thank you, Rachel.

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