For 113 pages, while Margaret Gaan is still a Shanghai schoolgirl and war is still rumor, this is one of those vibrant, extravagantly peopled memoirs that lights up the sky. A prodigal Portuguese grandfather (no pirate, alas, but a bona-fide bigamist) and a Chinese-matriarch grandmother--who commanded attendance at the annual lacquering of her coffin--nourish household legend. In the kitchen is Dahsoo, turtle-cook-supreme, stoveside politician, clown; but the clamor of his three wives on payday is too much for Mother. Granting the virtues and faults of each, which to keep? ""Well,"" says youngest, newest retainer Ah-May, ""Number One has much to be bad-tempered about."" (And, as the sole wife, she smiles.) Ah-May's problem is more intractable. She is betrothed to Small Amah's son and, for his benefit, robbed--Margaret would call it--of her personal two dollars a month. ""Break my betrothal?"" Gape, giggle. But ultimately, to Small Amah's unsettling shame and dismay, she will. From Dahsoo comes news of peasant suffering and landlord greed, of Communist militance and Kuomintang perfidy; and a coolie's unspeakable ""Tsor-lor"" to sister Veronica signals the end of complacent privilege. More seriously for the book, the narrator becomes ""a young lady""--expressly, ""a young lady victimized by my siblings."" Archly, self-consciously, she tells of beaux and dates; ideological harangues are repeated as if verbatim; and the long wartime period (1937-50) which Margaret spends as secretary for an export-import firm yields only one vivid incident. How, one wonders, did this mettlesome child become a barely witnessing presence--unless from the difficulty of expressing and projecting herself as an adult.