Lisa See Illuminates Chinese Nightclub Scene Of Pre-WWII San Francisco

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Lisa See is known for illuminating Chinese and Chinese-American history with novels including "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," "Peony in Love" and "Shanghai Girls." Though many of her books are fiction, they're based in her extensive research, including interviews with historically significant individuals, and her own family history.

Her latest work, "China Dolls," (excerpt below) takes the reader to San Francisco in the late 1930s, when Chinese nightclubs became extremely popular. The establishments played host to performers from a host of ethnic backgrounds, who touted themselves as the Chinese versions of popular artists at the time, such as Ginger Rogers. The book interweaves the stories of three young women who performed in those clubs, and how those lives are disrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Lisa See is author of "China Dolls." (Patricia Williams)
Lisa See is author of "China Dolls." (Patricia Williams)

"Once the war broke out, then everything changed again because there were [Japanese] people who were able to skirt through for part of the war because they had really established themselves as the 'Chinese this' or the 'Chinese that,'" See told Here & Now's Robin Young. "But, in many cases, there were people who ratted them out."

See also recounted how she still sees Chinese-Japanese animosity, even in the U.S., especially as she has been travelling to promote "China Dolls."

"These are two countries of course that have had almost 2,000 years of animosity between them, so just because you happen to live here in the United States doesn't mean that you have been able to abandon that animosity," she said. "I'm not saying that [it's] right, just that that is a reality."

But the best part of that travelling, she says, is meeting performers and their descendants whom she did not meet during her research and hearing their reactions to her book.

"I think they're thrilled," she said. "It's wonderful to see how this novel has actually inspired not just the people who already spoke to me, but other people who did perform in those days because maybe they didn't have the real moment of recognition in their time, but they may be able to have some of it now."

Book Excerpt: 'China Dolls'

By Lisa See


A Measly Girl

I traveled west—alone—on the cheapest bus routes I could find. Every mile took me farther from Plain City, Ohio, where I’d been a flyspeck on the wallpaper of small-town life. Each new state I passed through loosened another rope around my heart, my legs, my arms, yet my whole body ached and I couldn’t shake my vertigo. I lived on aspirin, crackers, and soda pop. I cried and cried and cried. On the eighth day, California. Many hours after crossing the boundary, I got off the bus and pulled my sweater a little more tightly around me. I expected sun and warmth, but on that October afternoon, fog hung over San Francisco, damp, and shockingly cold.

Picking up my suitcase, I left the bus station and started to walk. The receptionists at the cheap hotels I visited told me they were full. “Go to Chinatown,” they suggested. “You can get a room there.” I had no idea where Chinatown was, so that didn’t help me. And I’ll say this about San Francisco: lots of hills, water on practically every side, and, it seemed to me, not a single street ran purely in any one direction. Finally, a man at a fleabag took my money—a dollar a day, in advance—and gave me a key to a room.


I washed my hair in the basin and put it up in pin curls, then leaned in to the mirror to examine what remained of my injuries. My forehead had healed completely, but the inside of my skull continued to swim from being banged against the kitchen floor. The skin over my ribs was mottled green, gray, and purple. My shoulder still felt swollen and stiff from being dislocated and then jammed back into place, but the cut on my lip had nearly disappeared. I turned away and sat on the edge of the bed, hungry but too frightened to go out, and listening to the sound of God knows what coming through the walls.

I opened my purse and pulled out the magazine clipping Miss Miller, who’d taught me dance from the age of four, had torn from a magazine and given to me a few months earlier. I smoothed the advertisement with my palm so I could study the artist’s sketch of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Even its location on Treasure Island seemed to beckon. “See, Grace, they’re looking for six thousand workers,” Miss Miller had said. “Dancers, singers, welders, carpenters. The whole works.” She’d sighed then. “I wanted to go so many places when I was young, but it takes guts—and talent—to leave everything and everyone you know. You could do it, though.” Her few words and that slip of paper had given me the courage to believe I actually could. After all, I’d won first prize at the Plain City Fair for my tap dancing and singing when I was seven and had held the title ever since.

You always planned to leave home, I told myself. Just because you had to escape sooner than expected doesn’t mean you can’t still fly to the stars.

But my pep talk—in a scary hotel room, in a strange city, in the middle of the night—did little to ease my fears. Once in bed, I could practically see the walls closing in around me. To calm myself, I began a routine I’d invented as a small child, running my hands the length of my arms (a broken tibia when I was three; my mom told Doc Haverford I fell down the stairs), slipping along my sides (several broken and fractured ribs over the years), and then lifting each leg and squeezing all the way to my feet (my legs had been a frequent target until I started dancing). The ritual both strengthened and soothed me. I was now alone in the world, with no home to return to and no one to rely on, but if I could survive my father’s beatings and the petty prejudices of my hometown, then I could triumph over whatever obstacles the future threw my way. Maybe. Hopefully.

The next morning, I combed out my hair, sweeping up the sides and letting the curls billow below, the way Carole Lombard did in My Man Godfrey. I put on the dress my dad bought for me when he took us to Cincinnati to buy  supplies  for the  laundry. I’d chosen  a dusty-rose-colored cotton frock, with a geometric print composed of interlocking mustard-yellow and steel-gray squares.  Mom said the pattern of the fabric and cut of the dress looked too mature for me— and maybe that was so—but now I considered myself lucky to be wearing something so sophisticated.

Filled with a sense of determination, I went downstairs and onto the street. I asked directions on nearly every corner and managed to find my way to the Ferry Building, where I boarded the boat to Treasure Island, about halfway across the bay and just under the Bay Bridge. I imagined everyone onboard was seeking a job at the Golden Gate International Exposition. As excited as I was, the pulse of the ferry through the choppy water roused my vertigo and my hunger until I felt, once again, dizzy and sick. Once we reached the dock, everyone walked fast, wanting to be first in line for interviews. Me too. I spotted my first palm trees, which was thrilling because they meant I surely was in California. I’d never seen anything like the fair’s entrance. Giant towers composed of stacked cubes crowned by stylized elephants bookended the gate. Beyond, I glimpsed spires still clothed in scaffolding. My ears pounded from the sounds of hammers, the buzz of electric saws, the rumble of tractors, bulldozers, and flatbed trucks, and the shouts of men calling out orders and cursing the way they do on construction sites.

“Will they be done on time?” a man’s voice asked very close to my ear.

I jumped, spiraling into the terror I experienced around my dad.

I swung around to find a young Occidental man about six feet tall, with broad shoulders and sandy-colored hair. He put up his hands in surrender.

“I’m sorry I scared you.” His mouth spread into a contrite smile as I met his deep blue eyes. He looked older than I—maybe around twenty. He extended his hand. “My name’s Joe.”

“I’m Grace.” No last names. I liked that.

“I’m looking for a job as a rolling-chair boy.” He didn’t bother to explain what that was. “But the real reason I’m here is that I love planes, and I love to fly.”

Up ahead, the others from the ferry disappeared through the gate. “I love planes so much that my parents told me if I got straight As in high school they’d let me take flying lessons,” Joe continued, sure of my interest. “I trained in a Piper Cub. I learned how to take off, land, what to do in a stall, and how to pull out of a spin. Now I have my pilot’s license.”

This told me, among other things, that his family had to be pretty well-off.

“What does that have to do with rolling chairs?”

He laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Pan Am’s Clipper ships are going to be taking off and landing right here at Treasure Island!”

I nodded, pretending interest when I didn’t know what in the heck he was talking about.

“I’ve been chewing your ear off,” Joe acknowledged. “Sorry about that. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a dancer.”

“Neat.” He pointed his chin toward the gate. “We’d better catch up.”

When I stumbled a bit in my low-slung heels, he grabbed my arm to steady me, and I instinctively pulled away. His eyes went banjo big. I could tell he was about to apologize again.

“Where are you from?” I blurted, hoping to shift his attention. “Winnetka, Illinois. I’m going to Cal.” Seeing my confusion, he explained, “The University of California. It’s over there.” He pointed east. “In Berkeley. I live in a fraternity house. How about you?”

“Plain City, Ohio.”

“Haven’t heard of it, but we’re both from the Midwest, and our states are practically neighbors. Friends?”

I nodded. He sure was a nice guy—good-looking, and I liked the way the left side of his mouth tweaked up when he smiled.

“Whew!” He wiped his forehead in mock relief. He was funny too.

When we had all reached the trailer, a man—wearing gray flannel trousers, a leather jacket zipped halfway up his chest, and a charcoal- colored trilby pulled down to shield his eyes from the sun—jumped on a crate and spoke above the din around us: “A lot of you have come from far away. That’s great! We need plenty of folks to get this place up and running. If you’re a painter, electrician, or plumber, head over to the Court of the Seven Seas. Harry will lead the way.”

Half the folks followed the man pointed out as Harry.

“I figure the rest of you are here to apply for either service or performance jobs,” the man in the trilby continued. “If you want to drive one of the elephant trams, work in a concession, become a rollingchair boy, barker, waitress, fireman, or cop, then go to the Court of Flowers. No flowers there yet, just another trailer like this one.”

“That’s my cue,” Joe whispered. Then, “Good luck!”

He peeled away with a large group. He turned to look back at me, gave me a thumbs-up and another smile, both of which I returned. He strode with such confidence that dust kicked up around his shoes. Through the racket around me, I could just make out him whistling “All of Me.” I loved that song.

The man in the hat sized up those who remained. “All right then,” he said. “If you’re here to be models, dancers, or musicians, you’re with me. I’ll see you one at a time. After a preliminary look-see, I’ll send you on to auditions. If you make the cut . . . Aw, hell,” he said with a casual wave of his hand. “You know the drill. Line up here.”

One person after another entered the trailer and then exited five or so minutes later with either a grin or a grimace. I tried to prepare myself for the questions I might be asked about my dance experience, and once again my father came into my mind. He may have beat me at home, but he liked to boast to others about how many ribbons and apple-pie prizes I’d won. He’d pushed me to be an “all-American girl,” which meant that he let me go to the Rialto to watch musicals to inspire me to practice  even harder. I adored Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1936, in which she danced without music. I saw that movie maybe ten times, and then tried to re-create her steps at every opportunity: on the sidewalk outside the theater, at Miss Miller’s studio, and in our family’s laundry. Of course, the kids in school made fun of me when I said I wanted to be a star. “You? An Oriental girl?” They had a point. It wasn’t like there were any famous Chinese movie stars apart from Anna May Wong, and she didn’t sing or dance as far as I knew. Then I saw Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing—a Chinese dance team—in the whimsically titled With Best Dishes. I decided if they could make it, why not me? But would any of that help me now? I suddenly felt very apprehensive and very alone.


When my turn came, I entered the trailer and closed the door behind me as I’d seen others do. The man motioned for me to sit.

“Your name?” “Grace Lee.”

“How old are you?”

“Old enough to sing and dance,” I answered pertly. I wanted to be a star, so no matter how desperate I was, I had to act like one. “I’m good.”

The man pinched his chin as he considered my response.

“You’re Oriental,” he observed, “and you’re quite the knockout. Problem is, I don’t have anything for you.”

I opened my purse, pulled out Miss Miller’s clipping, and pushed it across the desk. “It says here you need performers for the Cavalcade of the Golden West—”

“That’s a big show. Hundreds of performers. But I don’t need an Oriental girl.”

“What about at the Japanese Pavilion?” I asked, my false confidence instantly eroding. “I came from so far away. I really need a job.”

“It’s the Depression, kid. Everyone needs a job.” He glanced again at my application. “And I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t Japanese. Grace Lee, that’s Chinese, right?”

“Will anyone know?”

“Kid, I doubt anyone can tell the difference. Can you?”

I shrugged. I’d never seen a Japanese. I’d never seen a Chinese either other than my mother, my father, and my own reflection in the mirror—and Anna May Wong, Toy and Wing, and a couple of Orientals playing maids and butlers on the silver screen, but those weren’t in real life—so how could I be certain of the difference between a Japanese and a Chinese? I only knew my mother’s thin cheeks and chapped hands and my father’s weathered face and wiry arms. Like that, my eyes began to well. What if I failed? What if I had to go home?

“We don’t have Orientals where I’m from,” I admitted, “but I’ve always heard that they all look alike.”

“Be that as it may, I’ve been told to be authentic . . .” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. There’s going to be a Chinese Village. Those folks are doing their own hiring. Maybe I can get you set as a dancer from China.”

“I’m not from China. I was born here.”

Unconcerned, he picked up the phone. I listened as he suggested me to the person I assumed was in charge of the Chinese Village. He dropped the receiver back in the cradle. “They aren’t hiring dancers in a permanent way. With all the troubles in China, it wouldn’t be right.”

Troubles in China? I’d read about Germany’s aggression in Europe in the Plain City Advocate, but the newspaper came out only once a week. It barely covered events in Europe and never in Asia, so I was ignorant about all things Chinese except Chinese rice wine, which my mom made and sold out our back door on Friday and Saturday nights to the men in Plain City—a place as dry as chalk even after Prohibition ended. My mind pondered these things, but they were just a diversion from my panic.

“What about on the Gayway?” I remembered that from Miss

Miller’s advertisement.

“That’s a carnival. I don’t see you there at all.” “I’ve been to a carnival before—”

“Not like this one.”

“I can do it,” I insisted, but he’d better not try sending me to a hoochie-coochie tent like they had for men at the Plain City Fair. I’d never do that.

He shook his head. “You’re a regular China doll. If I put you in the Gayway, the men would eat you up.”

My five minutes were done, but the man didn’t dismiss me. Instead, he stared at me, taking in my dress, my shoes, the way I’d curled and combed my hair. I lowered my eyes and sat quietly. Perhaps it was proof of how the most innocent can remain safe—or that the man really was of good character—that he didn’t try or even suggest any funny business.

“I’ll do anything,” I said, my voice now shaking, “even if it’s boring or menial—”

“That’s not the way to sell yourself, kid.”

“I could work in a hamburger stand if I had to. Maybe one of the performers in the Cavalcade of the Golden West will get sick. You should have someone like me around, just in case.”

“You  can try the concessions,” he responded dubiously. “But you’ve got a big problem. 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—”

“My accent?”

“Yeah. You don’t have one. You’ve got to stop talking all perfect. You need to do the ching-chong thing.”

Never! My father spoke in heavily accented English, even though he was born here. He always blamed it on the fact that he’d grown up in a lumber camp in the Sierras, where he lived with his father, who conversed only in Chinese. My mother’s English was flawless. She was born in China but came to America so early that she’d lost her accent entirely. How she was raised—somehow living far enough from other Chinese that she didn’t have an accent—was never discussed. The one time I asked, my father smacked me. In any case, the three of us could understand each other only if we communicated in English. And even if we all had spoken the same dialect, my father would never have allowed us to use it. Speaking English means you are American, and we must be American at all times. Reciting sentences like I hear you cut school again and what’s the big deal? showed we were assimilated. But all that didn’t mean Dad wouldn’t exaggerate his accent for his customers if he calculated it would make them happy.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t do what you ask.”

With nothing left to add, I got up to leave. In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it? I felt sick with fear and despair.

“Hey, kid, wait a sec.” The man reached into a drawer, pulled out a brown paper bag, and then met me at the door. “A ham sandwich and an apple.”

Heat crept up my face. I already hadn’t gotten the job. Did he have to humiliate me further? Did I appear that down at the heels?

“Take it,” he said, pressing the bag into my hands. “From the wife and me.”

“Thank you.” It would be my first real meal since leaving home. He gave me a last pitying look. “Have you tried the new night-

clubs in Chinatown? I hear they’re looking for ponies and canaries.” Seeing my confused  expression, he explained, “I’m talking  about dancers and singers—ponies and canaries. Aw, don’t worry about it. You’ll learn soon enough. Now head on back to your side of town.

Ask anyone. They’ll tell you where to go to find an audition.” He gave me a gentle push out the door and called, “Next.”

On my way back to the dock, I conjured a nightclub in my mind. Top Hat, Swing Time, and A Star Is Born all had nightclubs, so I knew just what they looked like: white banquettes, hatcheck and cigarette girls, champagne bubbling in thin-stemmed glasses, men wearing top hats, white ties, and tails, and women swanning about in satin slip gowns cut on the bias that draped over their bodies like whispered kisses. My heart had been set on getting a job at the exposition, but working in a nightclub would be even better. A dollop of confidence: I will succeed.

But I still didn’t have an inkling about where Chinatown was or where to look once I got there, and that knowledge brought on a horrible wave of anxiety that all but drowned my momentary optimism. For now, I had nowhere to go except back to my hotel room. I already hated that place, with its cockroaches, women with their too-rouged cheeks, and men in their dirty undershirts who came and went, but I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t give up, because that would mean going home to my father.

The next day, I put on my same rose-colored dress, bought a map, and followed its lines toward Chinatown. The clammy air was depressing. Passing all the soup lines and people—Okies, I guessed— dressed in tattered clothes, gaunt, just standing around, didn’t help either. I could end up like them if I wasn’t careful. And my body ached from the damp. My ribs and shoulder throbbed when I breathed or raised my arms, but I reminded myself that I’d danced through pain more times than I could count. I swallowed three aspirin dry and silently prayed that I wouldn’t have to do a ton of turns if I got an audition, which would be nearly impossible with my lingering vertigo.

At the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue, two peculiar-looking multiple-storied edifices with green-glazed tile roofs sat like guards: Sing Chong Bazaar and Sing Fat Bazaar. What crazy names! Behind the big plate-glass windows were things I’d never seen before:

Chinese furniture, silks, and vases. Then I turned onto Grant and into another world. Coiling dragons painted in bright green, red, and gold decorated the streetlamps. Eaves curled skyward. I passed markets with produce stacked in baskets right on the sidewalk and restaurants advertising chop suey—whatever that was. And the smells! I couldn’t tell if they were good or bad—just odd.

But nothing unnerved me more than encountering so many Chinese eyes, mouths, noses, arms, and legs. Here were hundreds—maybe thousands—of Chinese men. They were tall and short, fat and thin, some light-skinned and some very dark. None of them looked like my father. I spotted a couple of older women, moving furtively along the sidewalk, doing their best to be invisible. Farther along, I saw five high school girls, wearing matching uniforms and carrying books. My knowledge of Chinese hair was limited to three examples: my mother’s tresses, which she kept in a bun; my father’s close-shaved head; and my own manufactured curls. So even the hair was different—long and silky, short bobs, permanent waves, marcels, spiky, wispy, balding, and in so many variations of black. 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. Was that why my parents had insisted on living so far from all this?

I needed help.

“Can you direct me to a nightclub?” I asked a woman wearing what looked like black pajamas and carrying two bags overflowing with onion greens. She refused to acknowledge me. Next I tried to stop a newspaper boy, but he ignored me too. I gazed up the street: so many men here—some dressed as laborers, others as businessmen. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry, moving much faster than folks ever did back home, except for that time the Smith house caught fire and we all rushed to watch the volunteer fire department try to put it out. Now that was a night.

At the corner of Grant and Washington, I found three boys I guessed to be between ten and twelve years old playing in a sandpile dumped in the middle of the intersection. Their pants were rolled up to their knees, their sleeves smashed to their elbows, and their caps askew from roughhousing. Workmen shoveled the perimeter of the pile as cars and trucks honked at the traffic obstacle as though the added noise would cure the problem. I watched it all from the curb for a few minutes. Finally, I stepped into the street. My shoes sank into the sand as I delicately made my way to the little trio, who stopped their  horseplay to watch  me approach. The oldest  boy grabbed two handfuls of sand and let the grains flow through his fingers.

“No one said we couldn’t be out here,” he said by way of greeting. “I didn’t say they did,” I replied.

“Then what do you want, lady?”

My face crinkled. I’d never been called lady before. Measly girl. Hog face. Chink. Chinaman. Little one. Apple-pie winner. Heart dumpling. Kid and China doll just yesterday, but never lady. Act the part!

“I’m hoping you can assist me,” I said.

“What’s in it for us?” the oldest boy asked impudently.

“A nickel each, if you help me.” I pulled out my coin purse, picked through it for three nickels, and held them in my palm. “I’m looking for a nightclub—”

“Oh,” he said, his voice rising and falling knowingly. “Won’t you get in trouble?”

I dropped one of the nickels back into the coin purse.

“So you’re familiar with the clubs,” I said. Every boy was curious about the forbidden, and my comment set off all three boys.

“They’re barely better than bars—”

“No one wants them in the neighborhood—”

“My dad says they’re just a rat’s hair above a speakeasy—” I dropped another nickel into my coin purse.

“You win, lady,” the ringleader conceded. “You want to work in a big-thigh show, that’s your headache.”

“Big-thigh show?”

“Don’t you know anything?” he asked. “You really want to let people see your legs?”

As long as it’s just my legs . . .

“Please tell me where to go,” I said.

I waited while he exchanged looks with his buddies. All I needed was one name to give me a start.

At last, he said, “Wilbert Wong has the Li Po—a cocktail lounge on the next block. He’s changing it into more of a club. Andy Wong— not related—runs the Chinese Penthouse. It opened last December with all-Chinese entertainment.”

He rattled this off like a town booster. This place was turning out to be a lot more like Plain City than it looked on the surface: a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, especially when it came to the taboo.

“I heard Andy Wong is going to change the name to the Sky Room,” the smallest boy ventured, which earned him an elbow to the ribs.

“There’s Charlie Low’s new club. It’s not even open yet,” the oldest boy continued. “Two years ago, he opened a bar here on Grant Avenue. No Chinese girls or women allowed. What am I saying? No Chinese went, period!”

“How would you know?” I asked, challenging him. “I know,” he responded.

Any boy could spout off about the birds and the bees—and other naughty things—but he often got the details wrong. It would now be up to me to figure out how much of what this little boy said was accurate and how much was gobbledygook picked up from listening to the whispers of older kids.

“Charlie Low’s wife is a singer,” he continued, “and he’s giving her a showplace called the Forbidden City. It’s on Sutter Street—”

“Not even in Chinatown,” the smallest boy interrupted again. That appealed to me, because Chinatown was too scary for me. “Can you point the way?” I asked.

“First, you go . . .”

His voice trailed off, and his eyes widened. The other two boys stared gape-mouthed at something over my shoulder. I turned to see what they were ogling and saw a girl about my age gingerly step off the curb and come toward us. She wore a practical outfit: a gray wool pleated skirt, a long-sleeved black sweater, charcoal-gray wool stockings, and oxfords. She was Chinese, with flawless porcelain skin. She looked rich, like out of a movie, except that I’d never seen a Chinese who looked like her in the darkness of the Rialto.

“I know how to get to the Forbidden City,” she said in melodious voice. “I’ll take you.”

Although Joe and the man on Treasure Island had both been perfectly nice to me, I wasn’t accustomed to kindness. Now here was a girl, offering to help, as if magically sent. I glanced down at the boys, trying to get a sense of what I should do.

“She’s Helen Fong,” the ringleader said in awe. “If she wants to help you, let her!”

The other two boys, acting their young ages at last, covered their mouths and giggled. The girl named Helen gave them an unyielding look, and they went quiet but fast.

“Kew, Chuen, Yee, I don’t think your mothers will be too happy to hear you aren’t in school,” she observed coolly. “You’d better hurry along now.”

The boys stood and brushed the sand off themselves. When they held out their palms, I paid them their promised nickels. Once they scampered off, I turned to Helen.

“Where to?”

Excerpted from CHINA DOLLS by Lisa See. Copyright © 2014 by Lisa See. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  • Lisa See, author. Her latest book is "China Dolls."

This segment aired on June 26, 2014.


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