Places: The Joy Luck Club

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*San Francisco

*San Joy Luck Club, TheFrancisco. Northern California city that is home to most of the novel’s characters. Three of the four families of the Joy Luck Club settled in Chinatown on their arrival in America, seeking the comforts of a place with an established Chinese community, one filled with the fragrances of familiar foods, such as fried sesame balls; familiar landmarks, such as herb shops and fish markets; and people like them. Indicative of their mothers’ drive to assimilate, Waverly Jong is even named after her parents’ home on Waverly Place.

As these immigrant families became successful, they moved into upper-middle-class neighborhoods, such as Ashbury Heights. However, for Ying-Ying St. Clair, the move from Oakland, across the Bay, to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood remains unsettling. Her attempt to use feng shui to create a harmonious spiritual balance fails when the child she conceives in the new home miscarries.

San Francisco mirrors the emotional conflicts of the characters. It is a place where a Bank of America building and a McDonald’s restaurant rise up next to the shops and apartment buildings of Chinatown, threatening to tower over them, just as the mothers worry about the impact of American culture on their daughters’ Chinese heritage.


*Kweilin (KWAY-lin; Guilin in Pinyin). City in China to which Suyuan Woo was evacuated after the Japanese invasion in 1937. She had no eyes for the beauty of the city; to her its fabled mountains merely looked like fish heads, behind which lurked an advancing enemy. Its caves provided shelter from air raids pounding the beleaguered town. The city teemed with refugees from all corners of China, and misery abounded. To preserve hope, Suyuan formed her first Joy Luck Club there.

*Kweilin-Chungking road

*Kweilin-Chungking road. While fleeing Kweilin for Chungking as the Japanese were invading, Suyuan had to abandon her twin baby daughters along the road, which was choked with refugees. The despair of the refugees was echoed by the overcrowded road, the sides of which were littered with discarded possessions. Most refugees trekked through this bleak apocalyptic landscape on foot, while a fortunate few escaped in trucks.

The road holds the mystery of Suyuan’s babies, which is the novel’s framing device. When her American-born daughter, Jing-mei, first learns what her mother had done, she seems callous to her. However, after Jing-mei reaches China and learns the full story of her half-sisters’ abandonment, she can forgive her mother.


*Wushi (wew-shee; Wuxi). Chinese city one hundred miles northeast of Shanghai at the shores of large and beautiful Tai Lake that was the site of Ying-Ying St. Clair’s privileged youth. While living in San Francisco, she nostalgically remembers the splendor of the Moon Festival on the lake. Yet the lake also represents danger, for she nearly drowned there. Later, she fell in love with her husband on the lake.


*Shanghai. Great Chinese port city to which Ying-Ying went after learning of her husband’s infidelity in Wushi. Taking advantage of the city’s opportunities, Ying-Ying worked in a clothing store, where she met and married Clifford St. Clair. Like the friends she later finds in San Francisco, she leaves behind a China that holds bitter memories.


*Tientsin (TEEN-tseen; Tianjin). Bustling Chinese port city south of Beijing. One of China’s “treaty ports,” where foreigners had their own enclaves exempt from Chinese law. An-mei Hsu was amazed by the city’s colorful life when she arrived there with her mother from their hometown of Ningpo, near Shanghai. Yet the city’s sparkle and the splendors of their palatial, Western-style home quickly wore off when An-mei learned that her mother was forced to be a concubine.


*Taiyuan (TAY-ywan). Capital of China’s Shanxi province that contains major parts of the Great Wall. Surrounded by rough mountains, the Fen River runs through it. Lindo Jong grew up there in a low-lying peasant house, which was inundated by a flood, while the house of her future husband was built on richer, higher ground and remained intact. After getting out of her arranged marriage, Lindo left Taiyuan for Beijing and later America.

Jordan house

Jordan house. San Francisco home of Rose Hsu and her husband, Ted Jordan. After her husband announces that he wants a divorce, Rose refuses to let him have the house; her refusal signifies her newly discovered sense of self-worth.

BibliographyChan, Jeffery Paul, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn H. Wong. “An Introduction to Chinese-American and Japanese-American Literatures.” In Three American Literatures, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1982. Arguing from the viewpoint that white supremacist thinking controls American culture, the authors detail the origins of a distinctly Asian American literature, a category not readily recognized by critics. The stereotype of the Asian American “dual personality” is rejected.Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake.” In The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Meridian, 1991. The article discusses Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang’s use of ancient Chinese myths and legends in their works.Fong, S. L. M. “Assimilation and Changing Social Roles of Chinese Americans.” Journal of Social Issues 29, no. 2 (1973): 115-127. Examines the influence of acculturation and assimilation on traditional Chinese family structure and Chinese social hierarchy. Conflicts over parental authority and changes in sex roles and attitudes toward dating are discussed.Kim, Elaine H. “Asian American Writers: A Bibliographical Review.” American Studies International 22, no. 2 (1984): 41-78. Provides a useful overview of various types of Asian American writing and its special concerns, such as the Vietnam War and gender issues, and discusses problems in the criticism of Asian American literature. A bibliography of primary works is included.Kim, Elaine H. “ ‘Such Opposite Creatures’: Men and Women in Asian-American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 29, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 68-93. The author briefly discusses mother-daughter relations in The Joy Luck Club in her examination of the different ways in which Asian American men and women portray gender and ethnicity in their writing.Kim, Elaine H. With Silk Wings. San Francisco: Asian Women United of California, 1983. Following twelve profiles and forty short autobiographical sketches of Asian American women, this well-illustrated book provides the social and historical background of various groups of Asian women immigrants to the United States.Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon Press, 1990. The book takes a feminist look at Asian American women writers’ contribution to the development of Asian American literature. Includes a section on The Joy Luck Club.Souris, Stephen. “ ‘Only Two Kinds of Daughters’: Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club.” Melus 19, no. 2 (1994): 99-123. Souris uses Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory in discussing how the novel requires the reader’s active involvement to create the meaning.Tan, Amy. Interview by Angels Carabi. Belles Lettres (Summer, 1991): 16-19. Tan discusses her thoughts on being a creative writer and the popular success she achieved with The Joy Luck Club.Tan, Amy. Interview by Barbara Somogyi and David Stanton. Poets & Writers 19, no. 5 (September 1, 1991): 24-32. In an informative interview, Tan talks about the origins of The Joy Luck Club, its autobiographical elements, and its portrayal of mother-daughter issues.Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. The book takes a thematic approach to the study of contemporary Asian American literature. There are several places where the writer discusses Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club’s significance in the history of Asian American literature.
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