Monday, April 4, 2016

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Lisa writes of her new novel:

"The new novel is about an Akha ethnic-minority girl in Yunnan, China, who gives birth to a daughter and abandons her. The baby is then adopted by an American family in Pasadena. I always have a historical backdrop. This time it's the birthplace of tea and the Akha ethnic minority. The novel is completely immersive in the way that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was immersive in the Yao culture of Hunan."

The web is somewhat vague about the publication date.  2017?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Case of Ida Wong

When I first read China Dolls, I was struck by the gruesome murder of Grace's roommate Ida Wong.  It's not that Ida's death isn't foreshadowed.  Her rocky relationship with Ray Boiler is clearly heading for a bad end, and Ida ignores warnings about Ray's unstable nature. Nevertheless, she toys with his obsessive affection and deliberately manipulates his jealousy by flamboyantly flirting with the service men who frequent the Forbidden City. At first glance her murder seems like something taken out of one of Lisa's early Red Princess mysteries.

As is often the case, it is what Lisa does with her historical research that counts. At the end of China Dolls she writes that Ida's murder was inspired by that of the Japanese actress Midi Takaoka (381). At first glance the actual crime would seem to offer very little to the novel.  According to newspaper sources such as The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, MD), the Alton Evening Telegraph, and the Reading Times, the Takaoka case was a clear case of an unfortunate lovers' triangle.  Ray Johnson, a cook, was so upset that his lover had fallen for another man, that he came into her bedroom and killed her with a butcher knife taken from the restaurant where he worked. At the end of the preliminary hearing, Johnson said that if he were executed for the crime, it would be ok with him.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Problem of Joe's Mother

Near the end of the novel, Grace leaves the China Doll to spend some time with Ruby and Helen as they prepare for their appearance on "Toast of the Town."  Grace makes her way through the usual crowd of stage-door Johnnies and then sees Joe -- thin, leaning on a cane, frail (340).  Joe has screwed up his courage to make one last effort to save his relationship with Grace. This is clearly a critical scene in the novel.

But it doesn't have the impact it could have because of the role Joe's mother Betty plays in it.  She wears "practical walking shoes" and "a decidedly non-New York dress", clearly worried that Joe's attempt at reconciliation with Grace will fail.  Betty tells Grace that she and Joe are in New York especially to see her (341).   Betty holds Grace's hand in hers and then says, "I came with my boy, because I wanted to make sure he didn't turn chicken.  He's got all sorts of medals now -- the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, and a Purple Heart . . . But he's always been a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to girls."

Probably unaware of the embarrassment she has caused, Mrs. Mitchell asks if Joe is "set now". Then, preparing to leave, she squeezes Grace's hand and sends her the clear message, "Don't hurt my boy."  She embraces her son and tells him she'll see him at the hotel.

Most readers would probably say, "Hey, wait a minute. Why shouldn't Mrs. Mitchell be in this scene?  Joe is trying to come back from a traumatic war injury and his self image has been shattered.  In his mind the gap between himself in his frail condition and Grace, a famous and successful dancer, couldn't be greater -- especially since the popular press has highlighted her romances with wealthy men. Why shouldn't Mrs. Mitchell intervene to help her son narrow this gap?"

The reason is that this very gap is what gives the scene much of its power. Despite his war medals, Joe's dreams of being an ace pilot have all turned to dust -- because of what he has seen and what he has experienced first hand. In his painful start on his road to recovery he has come to realize that Grace is the only important thing in his life. Joe has never been "a scaredy-cat when it comes to girls" and he isn't one now. It is his courage in throwing the dice one last time, in meeting Grace face to face after everything that has happened between them that adds so much to the scene's power. Removing Joe's mother from it would make the scene even more touching.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Let Me Play with It"

When I first read the scene in which Grace introduces Ruby and Helen to the song "Let Me Play with It", I thought to myself, "This can't be serious.  Lisa is making this song up."  But, of course, I was wrong.  Lisa provides a real novelty song for Grace and Ruby to use to teach Helen beginning dance steps (40).

Naturally Ruby grins at the double meanings of the lyrics but assumes that Grace and Helen are taking them straight.

What is most important about "Let Me Play with It" is the way Lisa transforms this novelty into something significant and beautiful.  When Grace, Ruby, and Helen get the opportunity to perform on Ed Sullivan's new TV show "Toast of the Town", Grace suggests that they perform to a modified version of "Let Me Play with It" -- replacing country music with all strings, dancing in soft shoe, and "making it squeaky clean for Mr. Sullivan" (340).  The result is that the Swing Sisters become nationally known and are linked in the public mind to this song.

But Lisa is not finished with the tune.  In the emotional climax of the novel, Charlie asks the three friends to perform to it one last time.  In this final scene the comic lyrics are left far behind.  "As I make the slow turn that initiates the break, I glimpse Ruby and Helen making their turns as well. After all this time -- despite the secrets revealed and the hearts broken -- we are still in sync on the dance floor.  Love envelops us, and we dance and dance and dance (376).  Beautiful.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"China Dolls" background materials

China Dolls is so rich in content that many readers may want to know more about the world Lisa describes.  A good place to start is to check out the reference sources that she summarizes at the end of the novel.  These were sources important to her in writing the book and offer many insights to the reader.

A terrific resource that Lisa makes available on her on web site is "Stepping into the World of  'China Dolls'" (  Here you can find videos of actual performers, the music referred to in the story, background on World War II and Japanese internment, and much much more.  A great way to spend enjoyable time -- especially for those of us of a certain vintage.

The 'China Dolls' of "China Dolls"

At the end of Lisa's latest novel Helen's granddaughter Annie strongly upbraids Grace for her role in perpetuating racial stereotypes:  "How could you dance at a place called the China Doll or even tolerate being called a China Doll?" (372).  Throughout the novel the phrase "China doll" is used frequently, but the complexity of its meaning goes beyond Annie's simple understanding of it.

It is true that "China doll" is at times stereotypical, as Annie protests.  Tom Ball's naming his New York nightclub the China Doll with its "Slant-Eyed Scandals" seems to fit Annie's criticism well (322).  Often the phrase reflects male stereotyping of Chinese women with an obvious sexual undercurrent.  Grace runs into this usage when she interviews for a dancer job at the Golden Gate International Exposition.  Her male interviewer tells her: "You're a regular China doll. If I put you in the Gayway, the men would eat you up" (10).  Ed Sullivan's review of Tom's performers reflects a similar usage.  "The wolves brayed wolf whistles at all the China dolls."  (331)

On the other hand, "China doll" is often used by women to describe a female role that is played for good or for ill.  Ruby uses it in a negative sense when she tells Grace that Joe doesn't want "his very own China doll at home with a new vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and dryer" (361).  By far the darkest use of "China doll" in this sense is when Ruby lashes back at Joe's anger at her for lying to him.  "You wanted a China doll. I gave you a China doll" (208).

For Ruby "China doll" suggests lack of self respect and a role of duplicity and manipulation.  It is interesting, however, that Helen and Grace find that at times this role can in fact be self affirming and transcended in a journey of self identity.  For Helen the dancers' performance at Charlie Low's Forbidden City opening brings a sense of beauty and freedom from the confined world of her father's compound:  "We twirled our parasols and tilted our heads just so. We looked exquisite. We looked delicate and breakable -- like dolls, like little China dolls . . . We supported each other and lifted each other other to create a glorious and colorful spectacle" (68).

And Grace discovers that, despite Ruby's cynicism, the role of China doll can mean something entirely different in the context of love.  When Grace affirms Joe's sexual attractiveness despite his traumatic war injury, she "gave him my best China doll smile", prompting Joe's laughter (342-343). On the last page of the novel, Grace affirms that Joe will understand her decision to be part of a performance in support of Eddie "because Joe loves me, I am his China doll, and he knows that Helen and Ruby will be the sisters of my heart for all eternity" (376).  It is love that allows Grace to enjoy being a China doll at last.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nobel Prize for Literature

Mo Yan, Chinese novelist, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It would be interesting to compare his pictures of China with those Lisa creates in her novels.