Lisa See has long been fascinated by the world of Chinese-American nightclubs. Over the years, her fans sent her photos of their mothers, aunts, fathers and uncles who had performed in the once-vibrant industry of the 1930s and 40s. See, who is part Chinese, heard so many captivating stories about these characters who "broke the mould and pursued their dreams", as she puts it, that she set out to honour them in her latest novel, China Dolls , which is set in San Francisco. See interviewed some of the earliest performers and considers herself fortunate to have shared their "humour, courage, and persistence firsthand". She spoke with Alison Singh Gee about China Dolls . What prompted you to write , especially given the title's similarity to , which preceded your previous work, ? With China Dolls , I started with the idea that I wanted to write about three friends. That triangle is so complicated - for women and men. The space agency Nasa did a study and learned they should always send two, not three, astronauts into space, because otherwise the two-against-one scenario always arises. How did you come up with a story about two women of Chinese ancestry and one Japanese in San Francisco on the eve of the second world war? Why did you feel the need to create a Japanese character? I based the character on several real-life performers, including Dorothy Toy, who was known as the Chinese Ginger Rogers. When I asked Dorothy why she had changed her name, she said Ethel Zimmerman had decided her name was too long for a marquee, so she shortened it to Merman. What choice did Japanese-American performers have? There were white clubs, black clubs, and Chinese clubs. Japanese performers couldn't "pass" for white or black, so they changed their names to sound Chinese so they could get jobs. Why did you focus once again on the prewar era, as you did in ? What do you find particularly fascinating about that period? I wanted to write about these early Asian-American pioneer performers who truly broke the mould so they could do what they loved most, whether it was singing, dancing or doing comedy, magic or acrobatic acts. These were people who showed incredible persistence and courage against difficult odds. Second, I have long been interested in how people move through history. Do they rise to the occasion or do they fail? Are they loyal to their friends and family? And third, issues of identity, home, and loyalty to geographic place are always themes in my work. Besides interviewing the performers, what kind of research did you do? I was helped by dozens of people and institutions, and I spent hours on even the smallest detail. I probably spent 50 hours researching … undergarments, since bras and panties were relatively recent inventions. In your family memoir, , you wrote: "I am Chinese in my heart." Did you mean you're Caucasian in your thinking, and if so, how does that dichotomy affect your fiction? No, I didn't mean I'm Caucasian in my thinking. Far from it! Although I have red hair and freckles, I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I don't look like most of my relatives, yet they were my mirror. They told me who I was … which, in turn, propelled me as a woman, an artist and a mother. Ethnically you're only one-eighth Chinese. Has that been a factor in your success as a bestselling author? What advantages, if any, do you think a novelist of your ethnic background has over, say, a writer who has no Caucasian credentials? Are you suggesting blood purity (or quantity) is what makes us who we are as human beings or somehow has the ability to bestow literary success? I suppose you could argue that point, but it doesn't seem true to real life, real families, real people. I have about 400 relatives here in Los Angeles. There are a dozen who look like me, the majority are full Chinese, and then a spectrum in between. In the early part of my career, publishers balked that I didn't look Chinese enough. I had to work hard to counter prejudices on both sides of the fence. Which of the present-day novelists about China do you most admire? I love the writing of Ha Jin, Dai Sijie, Yiyun Li and Anchee Min. All of them are writing in a second language. I don't know if this is true - it's just my guess - but I think that must make them work very slowly and methodically to get each word and image exactly right. If were to be made into a film, who would you like to play the three major characters? China Dolls is an American story, so the roles would need to be played by Asian-American actors. How many Asian-American actresses (and actors) can you name? Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Margaret Cho are the only ones that pop into my mind. There are many obstacles for Asian-American women and men in the entertainment industry, whether they are before or behind the camera.