Last Updated on December 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953
Suyuan Woo is driven by a hope that rarely falters. When she left her twin baby girls on the side of the road outside Kweilin, she determined to find them again someday. This resolve has defined her whole life, yet she has largely kept it to herself, as if to speak it might be to weaken it. Even her husband does not know that Suyuan is still searching for the twins. At the same time, Suyuan is determined to have the best for Jing-mei. She does not always know how to express it, and she comes across sometimes as pushy or demanding, as in the search for Jing-mei’s prodigy talent. Suyuan wants her daughter to embrace every opportunity for success and happiness.
Jing-mei longs to discover her true identity. This is somewhat ironic, for as a girl, she decides that she will be herself rather than her mother’s prodigy. Beneath the surface, though, she is uncertain and hesitant. These elements rise up after the death of her mother, for she realizes how little she actually knows, or thinks she knows, about Suyuan. That sense of disconnect bothers Jing-mei until she travels to China, meets her sisters, and realizes that her mother still lives in her and in them.
An-mei Hsu learns to speak, even to shout, only after she watches her mother die a horrible death by suicide. As a young immigrant, she is confident and self-possessed, working in the cookie factory with Lindo and guiding her friend in the ways of their new country. Later, though, An-mei’s confidence and faith are shaken by the death of her youngest son. She is willing to sacrifice everything to get Bing back. She thinks that perhaps God is hiding him and that her prayers will reveal him. Then she turns to her Chinese traditions, even giving her mother’s sapphire ring to the Coiling Dragon. Nothing works, and An-mei is shaken to the core. Her speaking does not help this time. Yet she still encourages her daughter to speak for herself, which shows that An-mei has not fully given up hope.
Rose Hsu Jordan
An-mei describes her daughter, Rose Hsu Jordan, as being “without wood.” Rose herself says that she is often confused and foggy. There are too many opinions, and she cannot cope with them. She has lost the belief that her mother knows best, but as An-mei encourages her to speak up for herself in her situation with her husband, Rose finally realizes that perhaps, in this case, her mother does know best. Rose does speak, finding her confidence, perhaps for the first time since her brother’s death.
Lindo Jong is a strong, clever woman. She learns young who she is as she is serving her future in-laws to fulfill her parents’ promise. Lindo decides that she will determine her own fate. She blows out one end of the red candle and then invents the dream that frees her from her marriage. Yet Lindo realizes that, in a way, she has failed her children. She has tried to impart both American opportunity and Chinese character, but her children have not accepted the latter. This saddens Lindo as she realizes that, as proud as she is of Waverly, Waverly is not proud of her.
Waverly Jong has a streak of haughtiness in her, but this stands alongside a certain insecurity. Even though Waverly looks down upon her Chinese heritage, often turning it into a good joke (as during the crab dinner), she desperately wants her mother’s approval, and she knows the influence her mother’s ideas have on her. She blames Lindo for her changed perspective toward her first husband, although it is likely that her mother only helped her see what was really there. Now Waverly worries that Lindo will change her mind about Rich. The haughtiness, then, often masks a longing for connection and a fear of that connection.
Ying-ying St. Clair
Ying-ying St. Clair is a woman of contrasts. As a young girl, she is mischievous and curious, constantly active and even naughty. The world is fascinating to her, but she is also careless of consequences and propriety. She is a little tiger, just like her birth sign. When her first marriage ends in disaster, however, Ying-ying changes. She spends ten years in isolation and poverty and returns to city life hardened. While she lets Mr. St. Clair court her, she never tells him the truth. She seems to be protecting herself against emotional involvement. That hard shell eventually shatters. When Ying-ying loses her infant son shortly after his birth, the weight and guilt of years seem to come crashing down upon her, and she enters into a deep depression. She stays in bed for days on end, unable to cope with life. While she eventually surfaces, Ying-ying remains fragile. However, she sees her daughter caught in a situation that makes no sense to her, and she determines that she will regain some of her “tiger” so that she can pass it on to Lena.
Lena St. Clair
Lena St. Clair has a tendency to let things slide. Ever since she was a young girl, Lena has envisioned terrible things, yet she does not know how to stop them, so she becomes desensitized to them and pulls back, doing nothing. Some of this may stem from her inability to pull her mother back from her depression. In her relationship with Harold, Lena tends to “go with the flow.” She allows him to walk all over her and continues splitting expenses, all the while knowing deep down that this is not really equality or “love without obligation.”