by Julie Earhart-Cracchiolo
The story’s locale is 1938 San Francisco. Three young Chinese-American (or American-Chinese as I prefer since they were born in the USA) young women meet when they try out as dancers (or ponies) for the opening of the city’s glitzy new nightclub, Forbidden City.
Grace Lee is 17 years old. She arrive is the Bay Area with a few precious dollars, a whole lot of talent and a pair of dancing shoes She still bears the bruises from the savage beating her father gave her. She rather starve to death in an unknown town rather than go back home.
Helen Fong lives in Chinatown in her family’s compound. Her entire family, a traditional Chinese family, lives there. She works in her father’s laundry and any money she gets is given to her father for her brother’s education. Her traditional parents
Ruby Tom is a defiant young woman, ready to take on the world, with a secret she isn’t willing to share.
The girls become fast friends. They have two things in common: they want to break the stereotypical roles that their faces force then into and they want to be stars. This is their story; the story of hard work, discrimination, love, and betrayal over the years of 1938 to 1948. They work the nightclub circuit, fall in love, and learn more about themselves, and the country they call home, than they ever dreamed possible.
The novel is broken into three section based on a quote from Buddha: the sun, the moon, and the truth. Inside each section, Grace, Helen, and Ruby take turns telling their story. The problem was sometimes, most of the time the voices were indistinguishable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great read, but since each girl’s story is told in first person, I had to keep looking back to remind myself who was talking. The best part of the novel was the backstory surrounding the nightclub-life.
I give China Dolls four out of five stars.