Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

ChinaDollsCover.final Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.

Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.

One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.

Hideo Date Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Hideo Date.
Hideo Date, Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Hideo Date.

 

See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Chisato Okubo.
Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of Chisato Okubo.

The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)

This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.

China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.

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