Winnie's Original Family (Shanghai)
Jiang Weili (Winnie Louie, Weiwei, Ha-bu) Jiang Weili was born in 1918 into a wealthy home in Shanghai, China. As the novel begins in 1990, Weili uses the nickname "Winnie" given to her by her late American husband, Jimmy Louie. Her narration of her "secret" life story to her daughter Pearl forms the core of the novel. Through the challenges of her life in wartime China, she replaces insecurity, dependence, and self-deprecation with peace of mind, self-assurance, and independence. Her granddaughters lovingly call her "Ha-bu."
Jiang Sao-yen Weili's father, a dignified, successful Shanghai businessman, owns the Five Phoenixes Textile Factories and grows wealthy enough through his exports to marry several wives and to give his younger, less able brother a factory and the largest house on Tsungming Island.
Weili's Mother Never named in the novel, she is the beautiful and vain second-ranking wife of Jiang Sao-yen. Being the second "second wife" (the other, a suicide), she is dubbed his "double second." A modern, educated woman with unbound feet and a taste for foreign luxuries, she disappears when Weili is six, leaving Weili to the care of her father and his other wives, who soon send her to her uncle's family.
San Ma Jiang's third wife, she plays a significant background role at several crisis points in the novel: she probably helps Jiang decide to send Weili to Tsungming Island to live; she helps Weili select her trousseau; she takes care of Jiang after his disability; she tells Weili what happened during the war; she supports Weili's departure; and, with Wu Ma, she tells Weili about her father's death. Weili recognizes her qualities when she says to San Ma, "What a good person you are."
Winnie's Foster Family (Tsungming Island)
Uncle Jiang Sao-yen's younger brother, he lives in the largest house on Tsungming Island and manages a factory given to him by Jiang. He and his wives give Weili a home from 1925 to 1937 while she attends a Catholic boarding school in Shanghai.
Old Aunt Jiang's brother's first wife, she is rigid about rules for proper behavior. In later years, it is clear Old Aunt loves Weili, has a natural sense of humor, and feels shame about their circumstances after the war.
New Aunt The second wife of Jiang's younger brother and mother of Peanut, Little Gong, and Little Gao — all cousins of Weili. New Aunt and Weili's mother had been classmates at the missionary school in Shanghai.
Jiang Huazheng ("Peanut") Huazheng, Weili's cousin, daughter of Uncle and New Aunt, is called Peanut (Huasheng in Chinese) "because she was small and plump like the two rounds of a peanut shell." Because she tries to be worldly, modern, and even shocking, she serves as a foil to the naive young Weili. Ironically, unable to marry Wen Fu, she marries into a relationship that is even more untenable than had she married Wen Fu; her marriage is so unbearable, in fact, that it leads to her divorce and isolation from her mother and father.
Little Gong and Little Gao Weili's boy cousins, sons of Uncle and New Aunt; Peanut's younger brothers.
Winnie's First Marriage and Family (China)
Wen Fu Weili's abusive first husband and her primary source of suffering throughout much of her young life, he is a scheming opportunist and incorrigible womanizer; he tries to control everyone around him and runs roughshod over anyone who gets in his way.
Mochou A girl, the stillborn first child of Weili and Wen Fu; her name means "sorrowfree."
Yiku The second daughter of Weili and Wen Fu; her name means "sorrow over bitterness." She dies of a severe illness before reaching her first birthday.
Danru Weili and Wen Fu's third child and first son, his name means "nonchalance." When he is about seven, Weili flees with him from Wen Fu to Jimmy Louie. They eventually must send him away from Shanghai, and he dies in an epidemic far from his mother.
Winnie's Second Marriage and Family (California)
James Y. Louie (Jimmy) This gentle, winsome Chinese-American is a translator for the U.S. Information Service. He meets and flirts with Weili at a Christmas dance sponsored by the Americans in Kunming in 1941, and he gives her an American nickname, Winnie. Five years later, they meet accidentally in Shanghai and become friends and lovers. Three years later, Weili flees to America to marry Jimmy, who has become a Christian minister.
Pearl Louie Brandt Winnie's daughter. Born after Winnie's arrival in the U.S. and marriage to Jimmy Louie, she is the wife of Phil Brandt and the mother of young Tessa and Cleo and works as a speech therapist for children with disabilities. Pearl has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Samuel Louie Winnie's son, born in 1952, he lives in New Jersey in 1990.
Phil Brandt Pearl's Caucasian husband and San Jose pathologist, he tries to protect Pearl from a full-fledged attack of multiple sclerosis and seems frustrated that he can't do more.
Tessa and Cleo Pearl and Phil's daughters (ages eight and three, respectively, in 1990).
Helen Kwong's Families (China and California)
Hulan (Helen Kwong) A poorly educated woman from outside Loyang, she is first married to Long Jiaguo, a pilot and a superior officer of Wen Fu. Weili meets Hulan shortly after marrying Wen Fu, when he reports to Hangchow for pilot training. Hulan becomes Weili's lifelong friend in an outspoken relationship that seems to flourish on their differences. She also becomes Winnie's partner in a flower shop in San Francisco. Initially, Pearl thinks that Helen is her aunt.
Long Jiaguo A vice-captain in China's new air force, he is head of the second trained air squadron that includes Wen Fu, Gan, and other new pilots. A temperate, reasonable man and effective officer, eventually promoted to captain, he is Hulan's husband when she meets Weili.
Auntie Du Ching Hulan's aggressive, superstitious, opinionated, and kindly aunt, she is the widow of Helen's paternal uncle, and mother of a daughter who joins the Communists. A courageous refugee from Peking, Auntie Du saves her money and flees the Japanese to join Hulan in Kunming. After her immigration to the U.S., Winnie watches out for Auntie Du's welfare until her death at age ninety-seven in 1990.
Henry Kwong (Kuang An) Helen's second husband; his Chinese name is Kuang An.
Roger Kwong Helen and Henry Kwong's son, he is nicknamed Bao-bao. Twice married and divorced and recently rid of an engagement, he is again becoming engaged, this time to Mimi Wong, the celebration of which is one reason for the family gathering at the novel's opening.
Mary Kwong Cheu The daughter of Helen and Henry Kwong, she is the mother of Michael and Jennifer. Mary lives in Los Angeles and is married to Doug Cheu. Mary and Doug introduced Pearl to Phil Brandt and know about Pearl's multiple sclerosis.
Frank Kwong The second son of Helen and Henry Kwong.
Lin Weili's first suitor, whom she rejects at age sixteen, and whom she meets again when he is a successful doctor in Fresno.
Gan A mild-mannered, gentlemanly pilot in Jiaguo's squadron, he admires Weili's cooking, confides in her, spends time with her.
Wan Betty A chance acquaintance who works as a telegraph operator in Nanking and later in Shanghai, she writes a letter to Helen about Wen Fu's death.
Min She is a stage-struck, illiterate concubine whom Wen Fu installs in his home while Weili gives birth to Danru; Weili befriends and helps her.
Little Yu's Mother She is a widow whose daughter has hanged herself rather than endure an impossible marriage. With Peanut's help, she assists in the management of the Shanghai waystation for runaway wives.
Old Mr. Ma He is the skilled and crusty old driver of the truck with nine passengers, including Weili, fleeing from Nanking over fourteen hundred miles to Kunming.
Auntie Miao An elderly matchmaker on Tsungming Island, she introduces Wen Fu's parents to New Aunt and Peanut, and indirectly to Weili.
Mimi Wong Roger Kwong's young third wife.