“We looked delicate and breakable — like dolls, like little China dolls,” says Helen Hong, one of the three main characters in this superb new historical novel by best-selling author Lisa See. “China Dolls” is set in San Francisco in the late 1930s as the United States heads toward war with Japan.

Despite the impending conflict, a world’s fair is about to open. Among the city’s many other distractions, Chinese nightclubs are drawing big crowds and hiring “dancers and singers — ponies and canaries.” Three young “oriental” women from disparate backgrounds win coveted jobs as dancers at the popular Forbidden City nightclub. Grace, born in Plain City, Iowa, is alienated from her Chinese heritage and has run away from home to escape her violent father. Helen, having survived traumas in her native China, now lives in Chinatown with her large and repressively traditional family. Ruby, born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents, is headstrong, ambitious and passing as Chinese to find employment. Drawn together at the nightclub, these three fast friends may look “delicate and breakable,” but their bond, forged by desperate need and loneliness, becomes seemingly indestructible.

Extensive research clearly informs and enriches this narrative, which spans 50 years. See, the daughter of longtime Washington Post book reviewer Carolyn See, tells the story in the alternating voices of these distinctive women. Despite having been abused, Grace is optimistic and determined. “The three of us are like the Three Musketeers,” she says. “We get strength from each other, and we have adventures together. We’re all for one and one for all.” Helen, whose dark secrets are revealed slowly throughout the book, defies her prominent father by leaving a job she hates at the Chinese Telephone Exchange to dance in a nightclub. “If you dance here,” her dad warns her, “you will be one notch above a prostitute. Is that how you want people to regard me in Chinatown — as the father of a no-no girl?” Ruby has one burning objective: “I wanted the adoration that comes from being famous and not just a pretty girl.”

Given the racist, male-dominated milieu in which they live and work, these three women manage insults and injuries with true grit. Grace, who speaks no Chinese and has never even seen chopsticks, is told by the proprietor of a nightclub, “Your 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 . . . You don’t have one. You’ve got to stop talking all perfect. You need to do the ching-chong thing.” As the trio walk through Chinatown together, Ruby describes how “men sat on their haunches on fire-escape landings — drinking tea from used jelly jars, smoking cigarettes, and watching us with looks that combined disdain and desire.”

Of course, not all men in the story are chauvinists. Eddie Wu, called “the Chinese Fred Astaire,” is the star male dancer at the Forbidden City. Although his penchants for men and drink make his life difficult and dangerous, he is a stalwart ally of the women. And a man studying political science at the University of California at Berkeley entrances two of the three women, causing tension and drama. The author handles the complexities of the female alliance vividly. As Ruby says, “Friendship was uncharted territory for me, maybe for all of us. Would the three of us end up as good companions or as vicious enemies?”

“China Dolls” by Lisa See. (Handout/Random House)

They endure precarious careers, roller-coaster romances and personal conflicts, but the tone of the story truly darkens when Pearl Harbor is bombed and the United States declares war on Japan. Fear and paranoia sweep across the country, especially on the West Coast, where a large number of Japanese, including those born in the United States, are about to be “relocated.” Anti-Japanese furor erupts. “In Nashville, the Department of Conservation put in a requisition for six million licenses to ‘hunt Japs’ at a fee of two dollars each.” Time and Life magazines “offered diagrams and photos titled ‘How to Tell Japs from the Chinese’ and ‘How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs.’ ” Life explained that one could “spot a Jap by his dogmatic assertions, his insistence on pushing his arrogance in your face, and the way he could be counted on to laugh loudly at the wrong time.”

“Every bush and tree looks like the enemy,” Helen says, using one of the many Chinese proverbs she often spouts, and Ruby, who is hiding her true ethnicity, feels she “was not only dancing on the edge of a volcano, she was looking down into its fiery center.”

Someone informs on Ruby and she’s sent to the “Topaz War Relocation Center” in Utah. Who has betrayed her? What happens next? The conclusion of this emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity.

Zukerman is a flutist, writer, arts advocate and Internet video blogger.


By Lisa See

Random House. 383 pp. $27