Don Lee’s story “The Price of Eggs in China” is concerned with art and love. The main character, Dean Kaneshiro, is a furniture builder who creates chairs so beautifully formed to the human body that, though he is only in his thirties, his works are on display in several important museums. He is dating Caroline Yip, who has had one successful book of poetry published, years earlier. At the time of its publication, Caroline came to be known in the press as “Oriental Hair Poet No. 1,” because another young woman with long hair, Marcella Ahn, traveled in the same social circles and published a book of poetry at the same time. When Dean is hired to make a custom chair for Marcella, old rivalries rise up, and his loyalty to his craft and to the woman he loves is challenged.
Dean Kaneshiro takes a decidedly Japanese approach toward woodworking, with care for understanding the flow of each piece of wood he is cutting, attuning his tools to its nature. For Marcella and Caroline, who are, respectively, Korean and Chinese, race is most significant in the way that they are interchangeable in the public imagination, even though they write in strikingly different styles. Still, even though all three main characters in the story are of Asian descent, their setting has more to do with who they are than their ethnicity: they are residents of a sleepy coastal California town, spending time at the small diner and talking with the local police officer.
Don Lee is best known in literary circles as the long-time editor of Ploughshares, one of the most respected literary journals in the United States. This story, which was originally published in the Gettysburg Review in 2000, won the Pushcart Prize for that year. It is included in Lee’s 2001 collection, Yellow.