‘China Dolls’ showcases bygone era of Chinatown nightclubs 

San Francisco takes center stage in Lisa See's new novel, "China Dolls," which follows the lives of three dancers on the "chop suey circuit" before World War II.

The women come from very different backgrounds. They become friends and get jobs as entertainers at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco. Although the story is fiction, the club was real: Chinese-American nightclub acts were popular in the 1930s to the 1960s, especially in the Bay Area, See says.

"They were so completely breaking the mold of what a Chinese woman or a Chinese man could do," she says. "They had a desire to perform."

See makes several Bay Area appearances this week in connection with her novel, which she spent three years researching, writing and editing.

She talked to several former performers.

"I had the sense that if I don't do this now, the people who lived through it won't be here anymore," she says.

During her research, she discovered that not all of the performers came from Chinatown. Many were only children from Midwestern families and grew up as the only Asian-Americans for miles around.

"It just didn't occur to them that they looked different or were different," she says. "It didn't occur to them they wouldn't be allowed [to perform]."

The book opens as the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition is set to begin on Treasure Island. A few years later, things take a turn for the worse for Grace, Helen and Ruby when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

When Ruby's secret -- that she is really Japanese-American -- is revealed, authorities haul her off to an internment camp. With the help of a sponsor, she eventually gets out and returns to the stage.

The story is not far from the truth. Several Asian-American performers were let out of the camps because of their talent, See says.

Dancer Dorothy Toy (the "Chinese Ginger Rogers") was really Japanese. When authorities learned the truth, See says, they gave her a choice: leave California or go to a camp.

See says the dancer chose to go to the South and continue performing.

"She knew she'd be safe," See says.

Clubs like the Forbidden City began to fade after the war, See says. Soldiers came home, got married, moved to the suburbs and started getting their entertainment from television.

See is already at work on her 10th book, which will be about tea. She recently visited China's Yunnan province, where the valuable Pu'er tea is grown. Like wine, the tea improves with age. Recently, See says, a pound of it sold at auction for about $150,000.

"I don't know quite what the story or the plot is, but I always start with the background first," she says.


Lisa See

Where: Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: Free

Contact: (650) 324-4321, www.keplers.com

Note: See also appears at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the S.F. Main Library, 100 Larkin St.., S.F., and at other Bay Area locations this week; visit www.lisasee.com/chinadolls for details.


China Dolls

Written by Lisa See

Published by Random House

Pages: 400

Price: $27

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