ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Chinese-American tales

By Mary Louise Ruehr | Books Editor Published:

In fiction and memoir, these books explore the consequences when the cultures of China and the United States collide. All three hooked me in the first pages and kept me involved till the last.

 

Lisa See’s novel “China Dolls” opens in the year 1938. Grace Lee, 17, has escaped from her father’s beatings in the Midwest and run to San Francisco to find work as a dancer at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. She’s Chinese, but she has never seen another “Oriental” person except her mother and father.

When she heads for Chinatown, for the first time in her life she sees other Asian people: “Everything was as foreign and strange as if I’d just disembarked from a boat in Hong Kong, Canton, or Shanghai — not that I’d been to any of those places — making me both elated and petrified. Chinatown felt frighteningly enchanted in the way certain fairy tales had once left me unable to sleep.”

At Grace’s dance auditions, she meets Helen and Ruby; the three become fast friends, and all get jobs in Chinese nightclubs. Helen is from a traditional family and lives in a Chinese compound with 29 of her “closest relatives.” She has lived a strict, sheltered life, but now she’s trying to break with tradition.

There are layers of racism in California, and not just Caucasian vs. Asian. With China and Japan at war with each other, the “centuries-long animosity between Japanese and Chinese” causes members of those two cultures to be enemies. Grace remembers being bullied as a kid, the only Asian child in school: “It takes training to learn how to be a bigot,” she says.

Then the attack on Pearl Harbor brings changes to everyone’s life, making one a star and another a prisoner, while the third is trying to bring up her baby. The scars that are revealed are not all physical. The women experience birth, death, love, jealousy, betrayal and blacklisting and find out that it is those closest to you who can hurt you the most.

The excellent story is told from the different points of view of the three women, which in the beginning was a bit discombobulating. But I highly recommend it.

Adult situations.

*

Mambo in Chinatown” by Jean Kwok is another novel about show business. The author was a professional ballroom dancer, so the details of the ins and outs of the dancing world all ring true.

Charlie Wong, 22, is the daughter of a ballet dancer and a noodle-maker, who met in Beijing and moved to New York’s Chinatown. Charlie works as a dishwasher in the New York restaurant where her father makes the noodles. Hers is a hot, dirty, exhausting job. She has neither the time nor the inclination to make herself look attractive. “For a Chinese girl, I was homely,” she says, and besides, her hands and arms are chapped and red from dishwashing.

Her main concern is taking care of her little sister, Lisa, 11. Charlie tells us, “I spent as little as possible on my own clothing, knowing how important it was for Lisa to look nice at school and fit in with the other girls. I didn’t want her to be as unpopular as I’d been.”

When she is hired as a receptionist at a dance studio, Charlie enters a new world. Watching the dancers reminds her of her deceased mother, and even though she makes tons of mistakes at her job, the dancers come to appreciate her. “All my life, I’d been trying to fulfill other people’s ideas of who I was supposed to be and failing, and this was my chance to try to become who I was meant to be,” says Charlie.

At the studio, the fact that Charlie is fashion-challenged must be addressed. She says, “It felt as if the rest of the world knew something I didn’t, like they were dancing the tango together while I was doing freestyle, flailing away by myself.” She finds herself in the midst of wonderful new relationships, but the studio has a strict policy that its staff must never fraternize with the dance students. Uh-oh.

Between the dancers and the world of Charlie’s family, there are several memorable characters. Her uncle is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, who comes up with concoctions such as caterpillar soup to cure his patients. He and the local witch woman are called upon when Lisa begins showing symptoms of a possibly serious problem.

The book is so wonderful I didn’t want to stop reading. In fact, I forgot where I was at times, feeling myself standing in the middle of the ballroom with the dancers.

Ah, romance! I loved this book.

*

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong” is Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir of her marriage.

At 24, the author was an American grad student in Hong Kong when she met Cai, a divorced man from mainland China studying ethnomusicology. As she tutored him in English, they fell in love, then married in haste.

The book reads a bit like letters to a friend from a naive young woman. She was so blinded by love she couldn’t discern the truth.

The reader can foresee all manner of problems in Cai’s disturbing behavior and attitude, but she seemed completely oblivious. He was manipulative, controlling, and threatening, and I would have walked out on him early on. But even when she had evidence that he’d been unfaithful to her, she chose not to believe it.

It’s an enjoyable book, not just for the complex relationship between Susan and Cai, but also for the traveling they did around Hong Kong and China. It’s an interesting look at cultures, traditions and superstitions.

Ask your book club: Would you have married this guy? OK, OK, she loved him, but would you have stayed with him?

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Louise Ruehr.

Twitter: @One4TheBooks

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