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China Dolls (book)

Creators: Lisa See

Book cover. Courtesy of Random House
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Historical novel by Lisa See centering on performers at Chinese themed nightclubs in San Francisco and New York in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the three main characters is a Japanese American woman passing as Chinese American.


China Dolls is told in the first person voices of three young women over a ten year period starting in 1938. Grace Lee is just seventeen when she runs away from a physically abusive father in Plain City, Ohio, with dreams of working at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Though she has years of dance training, she is naive to big city life and, having been raised completely outside the Chinese community, doesn't even know how to use chopsticks. Soon after her arrival in San Francisco, she meets Helen Fong, the only daughter of a prominent Chinatown family. Feeling trapped by her traditional and overprotective family, she befriends Grace and impulsively goes with her to try out for a new Chinese themed nightclub, Forbidden City. There, they meet Ruby Tom, a brassy and ambitious performer who was born in Los Angeles, but whose family lives in Hawai'i. Though Grace and Helen are chosen as dancers at Forbidden City and Ruby is not, the three become fast friends, with Helen using her connections in Chinatown to set up Grace and Ruby as roommates. Their fortunes—and their relationships with each other—ebb and flow over the next decade and through World War II, as their careers take them from San Francisco to Hollywood to the "chop suey" circuit through the South, to Miami, and to New York. A final chapter takes place in 1988 at benefit event for one of their fellow performers. All but one of the chapters is written from the perspective of one of the main characters in chronological order; the one exception is a chapter consisting of various letters written by and to the women covering the June to October 1944 time period.

Each of the main characters harbor secrets that are revealed through the course of the story. One that is revealed early on is the fact of Ruby's ancestry: she is in fact Japanese American. Though many of the performers come to know this, they keep her secret even as tensions between Japan and China turn to war. On Pearl Harbor day , Ruby learns that her father's fishing boat has been fired on by American planes and that her brother has been killed and her parents interned. Ruby continues to perform at Forbidden City even as Japanese Americans on the West Coast are rounded up in the spring and summer of 1942. But an offer to do a movie in Hollywood in the spring of 1943 proves to be her undoing, as FBI agents are waiting for her there. She is interrogated and sent to Topaz where she is reunited with her remaining brother—who later volunteers to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team —and the aunt and uncle she had lived with in the Bay Area. She eventually resettles in New York, where she reunites with Grace and Helen. Another of the Forbidden City dancers, Ida Wong, also turns out to be Japanese American.

Background and Response

Author Lisa See (1955– ) is a writer of both non-fiction and novels. Her first book under her real name was a memoir, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995). Subsequent books include three "Red Princess" series mystery novels along with four other novels. China Dolls is her 9th book. The daughter of novelist and critic Carolyn See, See is of 1/8th Chinese ancestry.

See was inspired to do a book on the friendship between three women in part by observing women who came to her book events; inevitably, two looked like close friends, while one appeared to be on the outs, which reminded her of some of her own friendships. See based the novel on the real performers at the actual Forbidden City and China Dolls nightclubs in San Francisco and New York and interviewed many of the former performers, including Mary Ong Tom, who was one of the original eight dancers at Forbidden City. Though the main characters are fictional, many of the background characters are real historical figures, from Forbidden City owner Charlie Low to showmen Tom Ball, Donn Arden, and Ed Sullivan, to Nisei singer/actor Jack Soo/Goro Suzuki . [1]

Ruby, the Nisei character, was based in part on dancer Dorothy Toy, who also left the West Coast during the war to tour in the South. Another Nisei performer, Trudy Long, left her concentration camp to go to New York through the sponsorship of journalist and nightclub producer Lee Mortimer just as Ruby did. While there were many other Nisei performers who passed as "Chinese" during the war, several aspects of Ruby's story would be impossible or at least highly improbable in real life. While a number of Japanese Americans did try to resist the round up and incarceration, there are no known cases of someone like Ruby who managed to escape detection for a solid year. This is particularly unlikely in her case, given her high profile. When she is sent to Topaz (p. 215), there are even other newly detected Japanese Americans on the train with her. While some unfortunate Japanese American fisherman in Hawai'i were in fact shot and killed on Pearl Harbor Day and many fishermen subsequently interned, it is very unlikely that Ruby's mother would also have been interned, at least right away. Ruby's parents end up at the Leupp, Arizona detention camp (215) and remain there into 1946 (326); a War Relocation Authority (WRA) "isolation center" that was used to imprison dissidents from the main WRA camps, Ruby's Hawai'i internee parents would not have been taken there. Furthermore, Leupp existed only from the end of April to December 1943 and had an all male population. Ruby describes her Topaz barracks as having stairs, a foyer, and hallway (217), which doesn't conform to the actual barracks design. She writes that her aunt and uncle in Alameda were removed from their homes on April 6, 1942 (195); their area was not emptied until about a month later. In a June 1944 letter from Topaz (263), Ruby writes that Goro Suzuki was still at Topaz; he had left for Cleveland a year prior.

Reviews for the book were mixed with some reviewers praising the research, historical ambiance, and portrayal of female friendships, while others found the plot melodramatic and implausible and the pace slow. China Dolls hit national best-seller lists, peaking at #10 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list (June 22, 2014) and #12 on the Publishers Weekly list (June 9–15, 2014).

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford; The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende; Southland by Nina Revoyr


  1. Connie Martinson Talks Books , June 18, 2014, ; Lisa See at the San Francisco Public Library, June 19, 2014, , both accessed on Apr. 17, 2017.
Media Details
Author Lisa See
Pages 387
Publication Date 2014


Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. New York Times , June 22, 2014. ["The book can get a little soap-operatic, and each woman telling her story in the first person occasionally makes for some confusion, since none of their voices are truly distinct."]

Greenblatt, Leah. Entertainment Weekly , June 20, 2014, 68. ["Alas, over 300-plus pages, the Dolls remain just that—pretty figurines whose inner lives never quite resonate. Though their costumes sparkle, See's prose rarely does, and the powerful things the book wants to say about female friendship, ambition, and the brutal racism of the era get blunted in the banality of the telling."]

Haggas, Carol Booklist , Apr. 15, 2014, 23. ["In her impeccably researched and distinctive historical saga of desire and ambition, betrayal and revenge set amid the glitz and debauchery of burlesque entertainment on the 'chop suey circuit,' See… again lavishly explores the thorny intricacies of female friendships."]

Harris, Chelsie. Library Journal , Apr. 15, 2014, 80. ["While this novel is definitely slower paced than the author's prior works, See's many fans will still enjoy watching each protagonist's true story unfold; they will also be intrigued by the vivacity of the 'Chop Suey Circuit. ]

Heltzel, Ellen Emry. " Lisa See's 'China Dolls': Love and Friendship Tested By War. " Seattle Times , June 8, 2014.

Hubbard, Kim, ed. "People Picks: The Best New Books." People , June 16, 2014, 44. ["Reverberating with jaunty energy, it also delivers sobering insights into the persecution of Asian Americans during World War II."]

Kirkus Reviews , Apr. 15, 2014, 231. ["The episodic and creaky plot staggers under the weight of See's considerable research into the careers and lifestyles of the actual stars of the all-Asian revue craze of the 1930s and '40s. Still, a welcome spotlight on an overlooked segment of showbiz history."]

Miner, Valerie. " Finding Freedom, Fun and Prejudice in Lisa See's 'China Dolls.' " Los Angeles Times , June 6, 2014. ["The book brims with color and suspense, but one wishes for less formulaic melodrama in exchange for more depth and subtlety."]

Publishers Weekly , Mar. 17, 2014, 60. ["The depth of See's characters and her winning prose makes this book a wonderful journey through love and loss."]

De Robertis, Carolina. San Francisco Chronicle , June 11, 2014. ["The plot brims with drama, building tension with every twist and turn until the moving, potent climax."]

Zukerman, Eugenia. "' China Dolls': Lisa See's Novel about Friendship in a Nightclub in the Late 1930s. " Washington Post , June 2, 2014. ["The conclusion of this emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity."]