‘China Dolls’

by Lisa See

Random House, 383 pp., $27

Lisa See’s latest novel, “China Dolls,” is her most penetrating since “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” Set in California during the late 1930s and ’40s, it continues See’s focus on women of Chinese heritage while delving into the most xenophobic chapter in American history, when more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II.

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It also takes a tour of the Chop-suey Circuit, which was the name given the network of Chinese nightclubs that flourished around the country during that era. And, for good measure, it throws in an improbable friendship and a love story.

If this sounds like a lot to chew on, there’s still more, but trust that the disparate pieces are woven together in a readable tale told from the perspective of the three main characters: Grace Lee, a talented dancer who has run away from an abusive home in the Midwest; Helen Fong, the rebel in a distinguished Chinatown clan; and Ruby Tom, the stage name for a street-smart Japanese-American named Kimiko, who finds it convenient to pass herself off as a “China doll.”

The three first meet in 1938 while auditioning for a nightclub act in San Francisco and quickly become fast friends. Grace and Helen, at least, are in the same boat: Traditional Chinese values hold that show business is hopelessly lo fan — foreign. They need each other, and Ruby’s casual brazenness, to hold on to their dream of becoming performers.

The friendship between the three is tested on many fronts, however. For one thing, before Pearl Harbor came the capture of Nanking by Japanese troops and the wholesale slaughter of Chinese innocents. Antipathy toward the Japanese in the Chinese-American community, never mind America at large, explains why Ruby hides her true identity.

Meanwhile, Grace falls for a Caucasian named Joe, who only has eyes for Ruby, who in turn seems most enamored with bright lights and the fast life. But romance of any kind seems impossible: For one thing, intermarriage between whites and Asians was banned in most states in the 1940s. When America enters the war, Joe is dispersed to the Pacific and Ruby to an internment camp. Helen retreats to raise a young son, and Grace hits the road to find fame and fortune on her own.

Ultimately, “China Dolls” is a story built on friendship, meaning the three women will reconnect — on stage, as well as in real life — before it’s over. But never lost in the process is See’s portrayal of an era so different from our own, in which racial discrimination was treated with an easy acceptance that found its zenith with the Japanese internment camps but also seeped into arenas both large and small.

See shows Life magazine telling its readers how to distinguish the Japanese from Chinese according to height and complexion. “After decades of being inscrutable,” she writes, “suddenly Chinese could be identified by their placid, kindly and open expressions.”

Given an environment that tolerated such nonsense, what’s surprising is not how few Americans crossed the line to build relationships with those from a different racial background, but how many. The characters in “China Dolls” form their own rainbow coalition, but unintentionally, which seems like the best kind.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.