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Asian Women's Sorrows in "The Joy Luck Club"

Updated on December 3, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years of success in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Chinatown San Francisco
Chinatown San Francisco

Asian Women's Stories

The stories of the book actually cluster around first Generation Chinese American Jing-mei Woo's journey of discovery to China to meet her half-sisters, the twins Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa.

Suyuan Woo, her mother, could no longer carry the babies along the road to escape from the WWII Japanese Invasion and the rise of Chinese Communism and felt that she had to leave them by the side of the road for some kind stranger to find and raise. Syuan immigrated to America to San Francisco and never learned the fate of the babies left by the side of the road.

She organized the weekly mahjong games among her compatriots in San Francisco's Chinatown and died first among the four. She died before she could fulfill her wish to find her abandoned twins. Jing-mei, born to another father in America, agreed to take Suyuan's place at the mahjong table. There, she was forced to listen to stories of the past.

Joy and Luck
Joy and Luck

These stories were not easy to hear. Syuan had always compared her to other women's children feeling that Jing-Mei refused to meet her potentials. She provided her daughter with IQ tests and piano lessons, but Jing-Mei was never good enough; she always felt like a failure. She dropped out of college to become a freelance writer and her work was rejected by other daughters of the Joy Luck Club. She was embarrassed by the "too-Chinese" club itself until she took Suyuan's place at the gaming table.

It is then that she realizes both the duty and joy of preserving native traditions. Finally, she travels to China to find her half-sisters.

Circa AD 1400s: Women of the Ming Dynasty
Circa AD 1400s: Women of the Ming Dynasty

The Women of Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan describes four Chinese women in this book. These women are brought together by a shared past in China and live near one another in San Francisco. In America, they rely on their First Generation Chinese American daughters to learn the ways of the mother country and Chinese culture and to preserve them and pass them on to future Chinese Americans in San Francisco's tightly knit Chinatown community.

The four women friends meet regularly in order to play the traditional Chinese game of mahjong in a weekly game that began in back in China. In America, it was begun again among the four friends by Suyuan Woo as a touch point for keeping the old ways alive.

While they play, the women recite the stories of the Chinese past, like an ancient oral native tradition that is to be kept alive for history's sake. They do this as long as all four continue to live.

The four families reside in Chinatown purposefully; all have joined the First Chinese Baptist Church in SF in order to improve their lives somehow in becoming part of this one church community and of Chinatown. They feel that they must stay together, united, and preserve Chinatown against being swallowed by western ways. The first Generation American daughters have difficulty in accepting this, wishing to become more "modern", meaning "more Western."

These four families are the Woos, Hsus, Jongs, and St. Clairs and they first met in 1949 during the Cold War and the rise of Communism in China, after feeling China during Japanese Occupation in WWII.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A bound foot was a hallmark of beauty. The actual foot was folded in half and tied down for years. This is the result that cannot be reversed.Shoes for the Bound Feet of Chinese Women
A bound foot was a hallmark of beauty. The actual foot was folded in half and tied down for years. This is the result that cannot be reversed.
A bound foot was a hallmark of beauty. The actual foot was folded in half and tied down for years. This is the result that cannot be reversed.
Shoes for the Bound Feet of Chinese Women
Shoes for the Bound Feet of Chinese Women

An X-Ray of a Bound Foot

Notice how the foot is permanently folded across the arch, heel nearly touching toes.
Notice how the foot is permanently folded across the arch, heel nearly touching toes.

Centuries of Chinese cultural traditions, along with a history of human rights violations and the onslaught of the strictures of Communism in the mother country have affected the lives and the psyches of all four mahjong women in an American Chinatown with sorrow as they recall their joys in China.

The Joy Luck Club is the name of their mahjong club as well as a collection of 16 short stories that depict the tensions and conflicts among these four mothers raised in China and their First Generation daughters raised in San Francisco.

None of their feet were folded and bound, as shown in the pictures above, but their hearts and minds were certainly bound by many things.

Suyuan Woo

Suyuan began the Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan was always attacking China. She and others evacuated to Kweilin to escape bombing. They needed a diversion to raise morale and Suyuan invited women to play weekly mahjong, raising money besides, and enjoying special foods. it lifted their spirits during the war. People spoke ill of the Joy Luck Club, though, saying they were wasteful and frivolous, but the women continued. They said that their hope for luck in life was their joy.

Suyuan had to flee the Japanese again, however, to Chungking. She went on foot with a wheelbarrow and twin infants in heavy slings over her two shoulders. She had to start leaving her worldly goods by the side of the road, because she could no longer push the wheelbarrow. She also left the infants as well, with a note, when she culd no longer continue to carry anything. She arrived in Chungking half dead from dysentery and learned that her husband had just died.

However, she remarried and went to America. She and her new husband met other couples at church and she started a new Joy Luck Club in 1949. She has just died at the beginning of Amy Tan's book.

Sorrow and Survival

One of the mahjong players, An-Mei, teachers her First Generation daughter, Rose, to stand up for herself in America. She leaves behind the submissive behavior of Chinese women in the old country and raises Rose to be independent. Rose's grandparents disinherited her mother for such actions and took over young Rose's upbringing. However, there is reconciliation as An-Mei returns just as her own mother is about to die. An-Mei then continues to teach Rose to defend herself against injustice, helps her avoid an unfair divorce settlement, and helps her to keep a faith in God.

A third mahjong player is Lindo Jong, whose daughter is Waverly. She tries to impart to the younger woman a sense of obedience as well as self-worth. She tells her daughter about "American circumstances and Chinese character" and Waverly cannot understand. A marriage was arranged when Waverly was two years old and when she was twelve, she had to go live in his house. She saw that he would be abusive, but did not disobey her parents in the arrangement. At 16, she married, but Lindo invents a way for her in-laws to release her without losing face. She fakes a dream in which the ancestors - her husband's ancestors - prophesy that their marriage is doomed and she is thereby freed. She immigrates to America and weds, having three children and raising them as Western. However, Waverly shows a respect for Chinese culture that her mother did not expect -- having loudly told her mother off in public, Waverly thereafter was able to become the "inscrutable Chinese" hiding emotion like a poker player.

The fourth for mahjong is Ying-Ying St. Clair, Lena's Chinese mother, always depressed and paranoid. She blames her Severe Mental Disorders on a ceremony she was forced to attend at the age of four. She fell off the boat during the Moon Ceremony and was lost. Suddenly she was confronted by the Moon Lady, who tells her a depressing tale. As a wish to the Moon Lady, she asks that her parents find her and learns that the Lady is a man in costume. Confused, she is found, but never believes her parents really begot her. Later, she marries an abusive man and aborts a child. Remarrying, she is remains depressed. However, when her daughter Lena experiences pain in her own marriage, Ying-Ying is able to come out of her depression and be of support.

Film Version

A film of The Joy Luck Club was released by Hollywood Pictures in 1993 (rated R), including many but not all of the 16 stories. It was written by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass, directed by Wayne Wang and produced by Oliver Stone.

The stars of the film include Frances Nuyen (Star Trek®, Medical Center, The American Standards), Rosalind Chao (Star Trek® Deep Space Nine), Ming-Na Wen, (Mulan)and Lauren Tom (The Facts of Life, Friends, Futurama).

Mother and Daughter, Luck & Joy

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS

Comments, Additions, and Related Books and Stories

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      5 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for your comments and insights, ViktorLassley. The book certainly differs from the film. Casting was not all it should have been in the film.

    • ViktorLassley profile image

      Phu Thien Do 

      5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I was a bigger fan of the book than the movie. Although the movie was well produced with a talented cast, it left out some details that changed too much of the story the book tells. For example, the character that Lauren Tom plays is supposed to be of Eurasian descent. Instead they had France Nuyen who is Eurasian play her mother. Also, Lauren Tom's character was in the book was married to a Caucasian fellow who was an extreme believer in splitting everything half and half in the marriage. In the film, the guy turned out to be Chinese. That is not typical behavior of any husband to his wife, but there are some men who are that away in American society. Among Chinese men, that is virtually non-existent.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I got to know "The Joy Luck Club" in my sophomore when my linguistic teacher introduced it to all of us. But I have only finished part of it.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Sorry you have that experience, Roger Chan, but AA men here are SUPERHEROES in 21st Century --

      In Cols. OH, the Number One Hi-Tech city in US, Asian and Asian American man are highly esteemed for tech knowledge in IT, Health, everything. Korean women are still often seen and treated as the bottom of the barrel, but this is changing. Footbinding in China is a sympton of repression, control, and disrespect, among other bad things, It's repercussions affect the men and women alike, throughout the generations - in 24th Century, maybe things will have changed permanently.

      Asian and Asian American people will survive many generations, unless there are major deadly pandemics attacking this genetic stock. Plus, Asian, AA, and Native Americans are genetically related and Native Americans are increasing, no decreasing - so will Asians.


    • profile image

      Roger Chan 

      10 years ago

      Hi, how much does historical foot binding affect modern AA women? Hardly, if at all. You claim that AA women were seen as subhuman in the past. I think you can say the same thing about AA men in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And frankly, I think that AA men are often seen as subhuman now, or at least unfit to share in peoples' lives.

      I really think that AA women need to realize how much unearned privilege they have in U.S. society.

      I question how much it matters to study AA history, since we will probably not last another few generations.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I am currently reading the male literature at this time and will report. I am much aware of the lack of acceptance, traditionally, of Asian American males in US. And most people in the world care NOTHING about non-acceptance of Native Americans. However, Asian- American males did not come from a tradition of the abuse of broken & bound feet and of being only property of the men, and not even human.

    • Set's All Set profile image

      Set's All Set 

      10 years ago from New England

      is it no wonder that many Asian women love to joy luck club while many Asian men hated it? Does it also occur to you that Asian American males in America have a hard time in social acceptance?

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thank you for visiting and your kind words, solarcaptain! The more I dig into the topic of footbinding, especially, ther more I find that I don't know - it is overwhelming to me. And I think I want to read more of Amy Tan's books, as well as of Maxine Hong Kingston. Thanks again for commenting - setting up a Hub is often a kind of work of art, I think! Hope I'm getting more correct each time...

    • solarcaptain profile image

      mike king 

      10 years ago from california

      This is a beautifully designed website patti. Your hubs are great. I also loved the book "the Joy Luck Club," and she has a few more too I would like to read.

      thank you.


    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Good for you, ripplemaker! That is good progress for which we all should be glad.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      11 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      As an asian woman with chinese descent, I could relate to The Joy Luck Club story. I'm glad though that nowadays, some customs have been modified. I can actually breathe more. :)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thak you; the book contains more stories than they could put on film perhaps.

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 

      11 years ago

      It's absolutely a great book. I've seen the movie once and read the book twice. I like the book much better than the movie, though. Great hub, Patty!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I don't consider them chick flicks because they are historical or historical fiction. That's what I like; glad you do too. LOL

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 

      11 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      The Joy Luck Club remains one of my two favorite flicks - the other is A League of Their Own.

      What's this? A straight guy who loves "Chick Flicks"? I guess I just love a great story, and these two have what it takes.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Hi Patty,

      interesting story... I'm also first generation - raised near Chicago - but to German parents. I just visited SF a few weeks ago, and China town there is amazing. I'm glad they work so hard to preserve their culture. It looks like a great movie.

    • Marlene_OnTheWall profile image


      11 years ago from Singapore

      I read the book, and saw the movie a long time ago. Both were excellent!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      The actresses are very good in this film, which gives a sense of the book. Comparing children can be heartbreaking. Diminishing and criticizing a child constantly can kill the spirit.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Hi patty wow what people went through just to survive back in wwll I couldn't imagine it today but the movie that was made in 1993 I must watch it. the clip reminded me of my life some, with my successful brother and sister and how it is so easy for them too gain are parents approval the clip is very emotional I like the clip and will seek to watch the movie then thanks patty have a nice day ~cool~ cya


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