San Francisco Public Library

Lisa See on Voice of America



San Francisco Examiner

 “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].”


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Arizona Republic

“I’m interested in stories that have been lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up,” she says. “The story of these performers was really on the verge of being lost.” She would hear from readers who encouraged her to pursue the idea.

“I’d been hearing about the whole Chinese nightclub scene for many years,” she says. “People would send me photos and say, ‘My mother was a dancer’ or ‘My aunt was a singer.’


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Wilton Bulletin

“I had heard about these performers and these nightclubs for a long time. People would write to me and tell me about their mothers, grandmothers and aunts who had worked in the clubs,” Ms. See told The Bulletin on Friday.

“It always seemed like a really interesting topic and time period.”

Set in 1938, China Dolls is about three girls who find themselves competing at an audition for showgirl roles at Forbidden City, an exclusive “oriental” nightclub in San Francisco. 


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Reviews for China Dolls

Washington Post

“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.” — Washington Post (6/2)

LA Review of Books

China Dolls is fresh and lively. When was the last time you read a novel about the “Chop Suey Circuit” of 20th-century American showbiz, an era less well known than the Borscht Belt and Chitlin’ Circuit? It’s a compelling story of a (thank goodness) bygone era, and See tells it well. She clearly has done her research — most of the major players in entertainment make an appearance or are mentioned in passing: Deanna Durbin toward the end of her career, in a film with music by bandleader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge; Ed Sullivan and Toast of the Town; Dorothy Kilgallen writing in her gossip column about “the enchanting Princess Tai”; Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman strolling across the Paramount lot. And See gives dozens of examples of songs from the era, from “I Cain’t Say No” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” to peppy, offensive responses to Pearl Harbor such as “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.” (“You’re a sap, Mr. Jap / To make the Yankee cranky / You’re a sap, Mr. Jap / Uncle Sam is gonna spankee …”) She could have cut much of the period detail without harming the flow of the story, but what fascinating details. — LA Review of Books (6/16)


San Francisco Chronicle

“China Dolls” plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world. The women’s story explores burning questions about the possibilities of friendship, the profound effects of betrayal, the horrors of prejudice and the nature of ambition – especially female ambition. Though love affairs abound in this book, the women’s central romance may be with their own artistry: their passion for the stage and hunger for glory in a world that belittles them at every turn. –San Francisco Chronicle (6/11)

Miami Herald

See keeps the momentum going — during wartime and afterward — with some pretty startling revelations about the women as they dance their way through hard times and good fortune. Grace, Helen and Ruby undergo painful experiences, but what keeps this novel from bogging down in sorrow is their exuberance and spirit. With three heroines who each nurture a fierce ambition to achieve the immigrant’s dream despite wartime society’s prejudice, See has crafted a captivating, profoundly American story. — Miami Herald

Seattle Times

Ultimately, “China Dolls” is a story built on friendship, meaning the three women will reconnect — on stage, as well as in real life — before it’s over. But never lost in the process is See’s portrayal of an era so different from our own, in which racial discrimination was treated with an easy acceptance that found its zenith with the Japanese internment camps but also seeped into arenas both large and small.

See shows Life magazine telling its readers how to distinguish the Japanese from Chinese according to height and complexion. “After decades of being inscrutable,” she writes, “suddenly Chinese could be identified by their placid, kindly and open expressions.”

Given an environment that tolerated such nonsense, what’s surprising is not how few Americans crossed the line to build relationships with those from a different racial background, but how many. The characters in “China Dolls” form their own rainbow coalition, but unintentionally, which seems like the best kind. –Seattle Times


Meet Lisa See

In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret FanPeony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in CHINA DOLLS, which is about Asian-American nightclub performers of the 1930s and 1940s, she returns to these timeless themes. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the novel, stating,“China Dolls plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world. The women’s story explores burning questions about the possibilities of friendship, the profound effects of betrayal, the horrors of prejudice and the nature of ambition—especially female ambition. . . . These Asian artists were true pioneers, breaking ground, chasing vast dreams, subverting stereotypes simply by appearing onstage against the odds. Here, in China Dolls, they have found another stage of sorts, another place to rightfully shine.” The Washington Post commented,“This emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity,” while O Magazine called China Dolls “a spellbinding portrait of a time burning with opportunity and mystery.” The novel is Lisa See’s fourth instant New York Times bestseller.  READ MORE.

Coming to a town near you? Check out the events list

July 28 – Edwards, CO
6:30 p.m.
Talk, Q&A and Signing
The Bookworm of Edwards
295 Main St. Edwards, CO 81632
For information, call (970) 926-7323

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 – Steamboat Springs, CO
6:30 p.m.
Talk, Q&A and Signing
Literary Sojourn: Steamboat Springs’ Festival of Authors
1289 Lincoln Ave. Steamboat Springs, CO 80487
For event information, contact: (970) 879-0240 or

Thursday, July 31 – Aspen, CO
Talk, Q & A, and Signing
Explore Booksellers
221 East Main Street Aspen, CO 81611
For information, call (970) 925-5336

Saturday, August 30, 2014 – Washington, D.C.
Talk, Signing
2014 National Book Festival
Walter E. Washington Convention Center
801 Mt Vernon Pl NW Washington, DC 20001
For event information, call (888) 714-4696, or e-mail

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 – Cumming, GA
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Forsyth County Public Library
Lanier Technical College Cumming, GA

Sunday, October 12, 2014 – Pasadena, CA
2:00 p.m.
Talk, Q&A and Signing
USC Pacific Asia Museum
46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101
For event information, call: (626) 449-2742, ext. 1 20 or

Saturday, October 25, 2014 – La Habra, CA
Brea/La Habra Soroptimists
Alta Vista Country Club
777 E. Also Vista Placentia, CA 92870
$50.00 per person Net proceeds from this event help support local charities supported by Soroptimist International of Brea/La Habra For event information, contact:

Sunday, November 2, 2014 – Long Beach, CA
1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Conversations in Place 2014 — “Southern California Yesterday & Tomorrow”
Ranchos Los Alamitos Historic Ranch & Gardens
6400 E. Bixby Hill Road, Long Beach, CA 90815
For event information, contact: The Rancho at 562-431-3541 or visit

Thursday, November 6 – Denver, CO
Denver Kappa Book and Author Dinner 
Denver, CO
Information to come

Read a Sample Chapter of China Dolls

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Book Club Questions

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About China Dolls

It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition. Purchase China Dolls from Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound Or Lisa will autograph or personally inscribe books that are ordered through Pages a Bookstore

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