Leila Leong is the central character of the novel and the person whose story is being told. She has problems in coming to terms with her identity because of her Chinese heritage, yet she lives and succeeds as a third-generation American who can speak little or no Chinese and who has no real or functional identity with her heritage. Ng develops this main character primarily by revealing Leila’s thoughts; indeed, most of her actions are of little consequence. Leila’s story is one of self-discovery, a matter of growing up as a person and growing into an awareness of the American she has been since birth.
Readers learn of Ona Leong only from the recollections of others. Ng relates on the first page of the novel that this middle sister has killed herself. Slowly, through hints, memories, and half-memories of other characters, the reasons for her actions are revealed, if not explained. Ona kills herself because she is the daughter most assimilated into American culture; she is the one who has the fewest problems as an American and, therefore, the most problems as a Chinese American. Her abortion and forbidden affair with Osvaldo, like her drug use, are only symptomatic of what is wrong with her character.
The youngest sister, Nina, tries to escape all the family’s problems by changing her geography. A job and apartment in New York accomplish this, and as a tour guide for a travel agency, she actually leads tours to China. There, she feels as...
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Leila (Lei) Fu Louie
Leila (Lei) Fu Louie, the narrator. A community relations specialist for a public school, Lei also is the specialist in family relations for the Leong family. She is the “First Girl,” the eldest daughter of Dulcie Leong and stepdaughter of Leon Leong, Chinese immigrants who live in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As the eldest daughter, she has been her parents’ translator and their bridge into contemporary American society.
Dulcie (Mah) Leong
Dulcie (Mah) Leong, Lei’s mother. She has worked most of her life as a seamstress and now owns a children’s clothing store. She came to America with her first husband, Lei’s father. After he deserted Dulcie and Lei, leaving to seek better opportunities in Australia, she married Leon.
Leon Leong, Lei’s stepfather, a retired seaman. Leon entered the United States using false papers and a false name, which he adopted. When ashore, he worked a variety of odd jobs, unable to find anything permanent. He lost his investment in a laundry business when his partner cheated him.
Nina Leong, Lei’s half sister. The “End Girl,” the youngest daughter in the Leong family, Nina has rebelled against the traditional demands placed on her by her parents. She has escaped by moving across the continent to New York. Her ties to her Chinese heritage remain intact; she leads tours to Hong Kong and mainland China.
Ona Leong, Lei’s half sister who recently committed suicide. Lei remembers her as the “forward-looking one,” but as the “Middle Girl,” Ona was stuck in the middle of family crises. She had fallen in love with the son of Leon’s cheating business partner and refused to stop seeing him, despite her father’s orders.
Mason Louie, Lei’s husband, a car mechanic. Lei is attracted to Mason not only by his lean good looks but also by his relaxed, confident manner. He, more than any other character, seems comfortable spanning the bridge between Chinese traditions and modern American life. Lei sees him as the one person she does not have to worry about; he can take care of himself.