Set in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s when Chinese immigrants were much discriminated against, Jamie Ford’s latest book "Songs of Willow Frost" (Ballantine 2013; $26), tells the bittersweet tale of Liu Song, an aspiring young actress who must leave her son William to be cared for by nuns at the Sacred Heart Orphanage while she tries to make her way in the world.
“My grandfather said that when he was a kid, if you were Asian you had three job choices, restaurant, laundry or gambling,” said Ford, author of the best selling "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," which was on the New York Times Best Seller List for two years. “He broke that mold — he was a gambler, he went to Alaska. Chinese women couldn’t be admitted to area hospitals.”
Ford’s grandfather wasn’t any of the above. He was a croupier and blackjack dealer at the infamous Wah Mee club where he met the woman who became Ford’s grandmother. She worked there as a coat-check girl.
“I didn’t find that out for quite awhile when I was young,” said Ford.
This family history, a long time fascination with ethnic actors such as Sessue Hayakawa, Lincoln Perry (better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit) and the sultry Anna May Wong, inspired intensive research into the Seattle during the Depression era and how back then orphans were sometimes just handed out to strangers with nothing more than a promise to provide a good home were also part of the weave of Ford’s book.
Taken to the movies by one of the nuns, William becomes convinced the beautiful screen actress is his long vanished mother.
“She was Chinese like Anna May Wong, the only Oriental star he’d ever seen,” writes Ford about William’s thoughts upon seeing his mother on the movie screen. “Her distinctive looks and honeyed voice drew wolf whistles from the older boys, which drew reprimands from Sister Briganti, who cursed in Latin and Italian. But as William stared at the flickering screen, he was stunned silent, mouth agape, popcorn spilling. The singer was introduced as Willow Frost—a stage name, William almost said out loud, it had to be.”