Differing struggles

This is a lively and engaging tale about three girls of Asian descent trying to make it in show business in mid- 20th century USA. The girls love the spotlight and struggle against the uncertainties of being cabaret dancers. They strive to prove themselves as human beings and as artistes in a land where racial and cultural prejudices continue to exist, and opportunities are not always equal.

Grace, Ruby and Helen, from distant places and diverse backgrounds, meet and bond in San Francisco. Grace has run away from a violent father in Ohio. Helen, the lonely city-bred rich girl hides terrible secrets of her past, while Ruby is a glamorous and daring Japanese passing off as Chinese. In Grace’s words, “as dissimilar as we were, it was as clear to me as chrysanthemum jelly that all three of us were alone in the world — each in our own ways. I saw, felt, an invisible string of connection tying us together.” Each girl is trying to leave behind a traumatised past. “We never talked about deep things — why I’d run away, how scared Helen must have been when the Japanese pilot tried to shoot her, or when Ruby had made up her mind to pretend she was something she wasn’t.” They make the most of the here and now, finding joy in mastering new dance moves, experimenting with makeup or learning to cook. Braving financial uncertainty, they “didn’t spend a cent, but along the way, we fell in love with each other.”

Brought up by their elders in the ways of the old land, the girls try to rise above the constraints of an orthodox upbringing and assimilate themselves into the more open world around them. They consider themselves to be Americans, and chase the American dream. “Ocean waves dashed my parents’ culture against rocky shoals.

Rustling palm fronds whispered freedom and choice. Smooth-skinned local boys couldn’t tell if I was Japanese, Chinese, or Hawaiian, and they didn’t care.” But discrimination lurks under the social surface. Helen’s brother Jackson graduated as a dentist, but the only job he can get is as chauffeur to a rich lady. Her other brother “Monroe is studying to be an engineer, but he’s worried he’s going to end up working as a janitor or a houseboy.” Eddie, a Chinese dancer, cries out, “I want to be recognised for who I am and what I do... I didn’t look right enough to play a waiter, houseboy, or hatchet man. I can’t win... that brings the other stereotype — that Chinese men are oversexed, and we’re going to rape white women and pollute the race. If that weren’t enough, we’ll never make what other entertainers make.”

The discrimination doesn’t end there. When the all-American Joe contemplates marrying Ruby, “he wrote to the State Bar of Nevada, asking if he could marry an Oriental girl there, and received a letter denying the request on the basis that it was a crime for a Caucasian to ‘intermarry with any person of the Ethiopian or black race, Malay or brown race, or Mongolian or yellow race’.” Meanwhile, World War II breaks out, and Japan attacks the US naval fleet in Pearl Harbour. Official instructions are issued, and posters appear all over San Francisco, even in Chinatown, addressed to all people of Japanese ancestry to evacuate inland. Concerned for her friend Ruby, Grace realises a harsh truth. “Whether citizens or not, all Japanese were now considered aliens.”

The author weaves recurring but brief images of discrimination without breaking the flow of a fast-paced narrative. For people like Ruby’s brother, Yori, and for the girls themselves, friendship and patriotism for their birthland is greater than the divisive politics of war. Yori volunteers to serve the US Armed Forces. The girls share apprehensions of losing beloved brothers or lovers to war. When she receives news of Yori’s death, Ruby bravely hides her sorrow. The quaint and unusual are touched upon in this novel, and a little-known world is brought to life in all its vibrancy. While being an enjoyable read, the book stops short of being unforgettable. Each of the girls display endearing individual traits and have their shining moments, but they lack the timeless appeal of a Scarlett O’Hara or Catherine Earnshaw.

Towards the end, Helen’s rapid revelations of horror, anger, revenge and duplicity smack of melodrama. When Ruby asserts herself above the stereotype of feminine mystique, ideology wins over subtlety. “If he can do what he loves, won’t he want you to do what you love too? Do you think he really wants his very own China doll at home with a new vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and dryer?” This novel isn’t a timeless classic. It succeeds as a well-written entertainer, and that is saying a lot.

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