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Novel Tells Tale of Asian American Entertainers

Novel Tells Tale of Asian-American Entertainers
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Asian American entertainers are at the center of Lisa See's latest novel, "China Dolls." It is set in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the network of nightclubs known as the Chop Suey Circuit. VOA spoke with the author about the real-life performers who inspired the story.

They were well-known names in the Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles - names like Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, and nightclub entertainer Beatrice Fung Oye. Oye appeared in the 1945 film On Stage, Everybody.

Writer Lisa See says in that segregated era, entertainment venues served different ethnic groups in clubs named for ethnic dishes.

“There was the Borscht Belt for Jewish entertainers and there was the Chitlin' Circuit for African American entertainers, and similarly there was what was called the Chop Suey Circuit for Chinese Americans - actually Asian, all Asian Americans. And what they would do, they would travel from club to club,” says See.

See’s novel "China Dolls" is the story of three female friends who become entertainers. Although the book is fiction, they are inspired by real-life characters from the Chop Suey Circuit.

Like Oye, Asian American nightclub entertainer Anna Chang also made the transition to Hollywood. She appeared opposite Cary Grant in the 1932 short film Singapore Sue.

Lisa See says other ethnic stars included the dancers Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing. They were billed the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the most famous dance couple of the day.

“Just incredibly talented, and if they had been white, or if it had been today, things might have been very different for them,” says See.

See says the nightclub era came to an end for Asian Americans and others after World War II.

“They got married, they moved to the suburbs, they got a lawnmower and a washing machine and a television. And it was when television came into people's homes that, right away, nightclubs started to die,” says See.

The rise of global entertainment and opening of Hollywood brought new opportunities, but the early stars of the Chop Suey Circuit paved the way for other Asian American entertainers.