BUSTLE: In this book, you depict a time in American history when Asian women endured huge obstacles, especially in the entertainment industry. Could you have set this book in the present day?
LISA SEE: Oh, I think so. How many Asian-American women can you name in the entertainment industry today? Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Margaret Cho are the only ones that pop immediately into my mind. If you’re looking for big Asian women stars, they usually are from China, Taiwan, or Hong Hong. So yes, I think there are still many obstacles for Chinese-American women — and men — in the entertainment industry, whether before or behind the camera.
In writing this era, you include some great details about the reality of the business of entertainment. What research did you do to flesh this out?
I did all kinds of research. I was able to access the collections at the Museum of the Chinese in America in New York and the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. They had costumes, photographs, videos, and all kinds of ephemera — from nightclub menus to scrapbooks kept by individual performers. I also was able to use oral histories of performers (all of whom are gone now) done by MoCA and Eddie Wang back in the 1970s and 1980s.
In addition, I interviewed what I would call pioneer performers who started in the 1930s, as well as those who came up in the nightclub scene in the ’50s and ’60s. Many of the characteristics for the fictional characters of Grace, Ruby, and Helen come from actual Chinese-American performers. Dorothy Toy, for example, was considered to be the Chinese Ginger Rogers, yet she was actually Japanese. Her experiences in Hollywood during World War II inspired some of what happens to Ruby in China Dolls. READ THE FULL INTERVIEW