Lisa See, whose mother is novelist Carolyn See, has explained her unusual history on her father’s side in On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family (1996). Through a complex set of circumstances, beginning when her Chinese immigrant great-grandfather married an outcast white woman, See inherited a strong interest in the Chinese side of her ancestry. That interest has led her to write a number of bestselling novels set in China, including Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Her latest is China Dolls, which in telling the intertwined story of three Asian-American performers in the era just before and just after World War II graphically delineates the role of the Chinese woman on the American stage and screen.
The three heroines of See’s novel, who take turns narrating the story, become nightclub performers for very different reasons. Grace, a Chinese-American raised in a small town in the Midwest, has always felt inferior to her Anglo classmates. The movies are her refuge, but at first she sees no opportunities for women with Asian faces, aside from the Dragon Lady roles of Anna May Wong. Then she discovers a subculture of Chinese performers who imitate their All-American peers, billing themselves as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and even (as a spicy attraction at San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition) the Chinese Sally Rand. Eventually Grace and the novel's other main characters—who have their own reasons to overcome their past—find jobs as dancers at a new San Francisco Chinatown nightclub called The Forbidden City.
The allure of this nightclub, which actually did flourish in pre-war San Francisco, lay in its titillation of mostly-white patrons with a floorshow combining the exotic with the familiar. The lavish décor was straight out of a fantasy opium den, and the all-Asian performance troupe delighted the customers with professionalism and sex appeal. One passage from the novel, in which the nightclub’s dancers are filmed on a local beach for a newsreel, gives some indication of the cross-cultural forces at play: “We lined up on the sand, wearing big headdresses that tinkled and glittered with every movement, and embroidered Chinese opera gowns with long water sleeves made of the lightest silk, which draped over our hands a good twelve inches. Our feet dragged in the sand, but our water sleeves floated and blew in the ocean breeze. We sidestepped until we were behind a coromandel screen set up incongruously on the sand to discard our headdresses and gowns, and toss them toward the camera in a manner bound to provoke good-natured chuckles. The music changed to a jitterbug. Now in bathing suits, we swung out from behind the screen. ‘Well, well, well,’ the announcer intoned with proper surprise. ‘What would Confucius say?’”
The WASP enthusiasm for ersatz Oriental culture (evenings at the nightclub conclude with a spirited “Chinaconga” line) comes to a quick end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the war. See’s story line doesn’t overlook the situation of Japanese-American performers who try to evade relocation orders by masquerading as Chinese Americans. One such, historically, was funnyman Goro Suzuki, who changed his name to Jack Soo and went on to a successful Hollywood career on sitcoms like Barney Miller. As for See’s characters, they eventually learn to make ends meet by going out on the “chop suey circuit” of novelty nightclub acts. My favorite part of China Dolls was learning what American showbiz meant to perceived “lotus flowers” with roots in the Far East.