See’s latest follows three Asian-American showgirls whose dreams are derailed then reset by the onset of World War II.
In the late 1930s, Grace, a talented dancer, comes to San Francisco from Ohio to flee the beatings of her father. Helen, who fled China under circumstances not immediately revealed, lives with her parents and extended family in a Chinatown compound. Ruby defies her parents, who plan to return to Japan, by staying in San Francisco to pursue a showbiz career. The three young women meet while auditioning for jobs in a new “Oriental” nightclub, Charlie Low’s Forbidden City, which will feature an all-Asian cast of chorines, ballroom dancers, chanteuses and crooners. Grace and Helen are cast, but Ruby is not—because of Japanese aggression in China, Chinatown is hostile toward all Japanese. She finds a job dancing semi-nude in Sally Rand’s traveling show. Ruby and Grace fall out over a man, Joe, a lo fan (“white ghost,” or Caucasian), and Grace and Helen strive to break into movie musicals. However, racial barriers in Hollywood are insurmountable, and they return to Forbidden City. There, Ruby, now headlining as Chinese Princess Tai, performs a Rand-inspired bubble dance, employing a large beach ball as her gimmick. Grace becomes Ruby’s dresser, and Helen dances backward in high heels as the partner of Eddie, billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire, whom she marries. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, fearing an enemy invasion, interns all Japanese residents of the West Coast, whether U.S. citizens or not, in camps. Ruby’s Chinese disguise works for a while, until it doesn’t, and she's arrested and interned in Utah. For Grace, Ruby and Helen, the war will bring more upheavals—and opportunities. The episodic and creaky plot staggers under the weight of See’s considerable research into the careers and lifestyles of the actual stars of the all-Asian revue craze of the 1930s and '40s.
Still, a welcome spotlight on an overlooked segment of showbiz history.