A Cleo Brandt
Cleo is Pearl and Phil’s three-year-old daughter. She calls her Chinese grandma “Ha-bu.”
B Pearl Brandt
Pearl is Winnie’s forty-year-old daughter. She lives fifty miles away from Winnie with her husband, Phil, and their two daughters. She does not feel the same desire to be with her family for gatherings as her mother does, but she feels a sense of duty to be present.
Pearl works as a linguist and speech therapist for mentally challenged children. She has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but has not told her mother. She has, however, told Helen, who claims to be dying and thus insists that Pearl tell her secret to her mother.
Although Pearl has always believed that Jimmy was her father, she learns from her mother’s story that her father is probably Wen Fu.
C Phil Brandt
Phil is Pearl’s husband. Phil is a forty-three-year-old Caucasian man who has difficulty understanding the Chinese customs and expectations of his mother-in-law. Still, he has come to have affection for the quirky woman, even though she often exasperates him. He is a pathologist and feels powerless to do anything to help his wife with her multiple sclerosis.
D Tessa Brandt
Tessa is Pearl and Phil’s eight-year-old daughter. Pearl was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year after Tessa’s birth. She, too, calls her Chinese grandma “Ha-bu.”
E Mary Kwong
Cheu Hulan and Henry’s daughter, Mary is responsible for introducing Pearl and Phil. Although she thinks of herself as one of Pearl’s best friends, Pearl now only tolerates her. They have known each other for a very long time, and Mary’s husband went to medical school with Phil. For this reason, Mary and her husband know about Pearl’s illness.
F Auntie Du
Ching Hulan’s aunt, Auntie Du, is outspoken but very gentle. In a bold act, she saves her money and escapes the Japanese in order to meet up with Hulan in Kunming. It is she who arranges for Winnie’s release from prison, although she allows Hulan’s new husband to believe he managed it. When Auntie Du comes to America, Winnie takes care of her until her death. When she dies, she leaves Pearl her Kitchen God altar.
Danru is Winnie’s third child and only son. His name means “nonchalance.” Winnie swears that she will not allow him to become like his father. As Winnie plans her escape, she sends Danru to stay with Helen so that Wen Fu cannot get to him. While away, the child dies in an epidemic.
H Wen Fu
Wen Fu is Winnie’s abusive and domineering first husband. While planning to marry Peanut, he discovers that Winnie’s family is wealthier and turns his attention to her. As a husband, he is verbally and physically abusive and enjoys frightening and humiliating Winnie. He is a coward, a womanizer, and a schemer.
When the war effort is underway, Wen Fu enlists in the air force and joins the group led by American pilot Claire Chennault. Winnie later discovers that Wen Fu was only accepted because he used his deceased brother’s name and credentials. He becomes extremely violent after an auto accident claims one of his eyes, and each time Winnie tries to get a divorce he flies into a rage. Only when Winnie hears the news that he is dead does she feel completely free.
One of the pilots in Wen Fu’s squadron, Gan is kind to Winnie and compliments her often. He is a gentleman who gives Winnie her first experience of feeling valued by a man.
J Jiang Huazheng
Known affectionately as “Peanut,” is Winnie’s cousin and becomes a sister figure as the girls grow into adolescence. She thinks of herself as worldly and rebellious, wearing makeup and kissing Wen Fu when he visits her. Hoping for a wealthy husband who lives far away, she pays a fortune-teller to drive away any local suitors. Ironically, her marriage turns out so badly that she joins the communists, runs away from her husband, and later provides a place for other runaway wives to stay.
K Long Jiaguo
Long Jiaguo is Hulan’s first husband. He is a pilot in the same group as Wen Fu, although Long Jiaguo is Wen Fu’s superior. He is even-tempered, reasonable, and dominated by his wife.
L Henry Kwong
Henry is Hulan’s second husband.
M Hulan Kwong
Hulan (who is called Helen in America) is Winnie’s oldest and dearest friend. In fact, they call each other sisters. Until Pearl hears Winnie’s story, she believes that Hulan is her aunt.
Hulan co-owns the flower shop in Chinatown with Winnie. She is brash and uneducated, and her first marriage is unconventional in that she is usually the one in control. Her friendship with Winnie is unbreakable, although they often argue.
N Roger Kwong
Roger is Hulan and Henry’s son. He is called “Bao-bao.” Already divorced twice and having recently broken an engagement, he is newly engaged at the beginning of the novel. It is his engagement banquet that brings Pearl to San Francisco.
O Jimmy Louie
Winnie’s great love, Jimmy is a Chinese-American man who acts as a translator for the military. He and Winnie meet at a military dance, and when they meet again by chance, they begin to make plans together. He is a kind man who becomes a Baptist minister in the United States. When Winnie is released from prison, he asks her to join him in America and be his wife.
Jimmy dies of stomach cancer when Pearl is fourteen years old. His death leaves an emotional scar on both Winnie and Pearl. Winnie theorizes that his death was the result of being a minister and swallowing everyone else’s problems for so many years. It is not until Auntie Du’s funeral that Pearl is able to tap her unexpressed grief and finally cry for the loss of the wonderful man she knew as her father.
P Samuel Louie
Winnie’s son is a few years younger than Pearl. He lives in New Jersey.
Q Winnie Louie
Winnie, known as Jiang Weili in China, is Pearl’s mother. The majority of the novel comprises the incredible story of her arduous childhood and young womanhood in China, before she escaped her abusive husband and came to America. She was born into a wealthy family to her father’s second wife, who doted on Winnie until her mysterious disappearance when Winnie was only six. Winnie marries a man she hardly knows and endures many trials and much suffering, including the loss of three children.
When Winnie flees to the United States, she marries Jimmy Louie, a kind Chinese-American man she met in China. She is a superstitious woman who adheres to many of the traditional Chinese beliefs. As a parent, she is demanding, warning her daughter of the dangers of blue eye shadow and certain boys. Her experiences in China have taken her from naivete and dependence to wisdom and self-confidence. When she finally shares her story with her daughter, they are able to relate to each other in a meaningful way. Her character represents the triumph of the human spirit, the commitment to survival, and the ability to endure tremendous hardship and create a new life for oneself. Having always identified with the Kitchen God’s wife, Winnie “corrects” the myth at the end of the novel by replacing the Kitchen God (who had been an abusive and cruel mortal) with a female deity, whom she names “Sorrowfree.”
R San Ma
San Ma is Winnie’s father’s third wife. She takes Winnie shopping for her dowry and takes care of her husband when his health fails.
Min is a concubine whom Wen Fu brings home for his pleasure while Winnie gives birth to Danru. She is illiterate and a performer. Winnie befriends her.
Mochou is Winnie’s first child, a stillborn girl. Her name means “Sorrowfree,” the name Winnie later gives her new deity.
See Jiang Huazheng
V Jiang Sao-yen
Jiang Sao-yen is Winnie’s father, a successful businessman who made his fortune in textiles. He has several wives and many children. He approves Winnie’s marriage to Wen Fu, even though he apparently knows the family is not honorable. Late in life, he suffers a stroke and is unable to speak. His weakened health is the only thing that saves him from being executed by the Communists. When his daughter returns with Wen Fu, he understands that she is trying to escape and nods to show her where he has gold hidden. Winnie learns that he has died while she is in prison.
This is Winnie’s uncle, the younger brother of Jiang Sao-yen. Because of his lack of success, his older brother gives him a textile factory to manage. When Winnie’s mother disappears, Winnie is sent to live with Uncle and his family.
X Winnie’s Mother
Her name is never given in the novel, but she is the second wife of Jiang Sao-yen. When she marries him, she occupies the second-wife position to replace the previous second wife, who committed suicide. She is a vain woman who takes her little daughter on a fun-filled day in town the day before she mysteriously disappears.
Winnie’s second daughter, Yiku’s name means “sorrow over bitterness,” and she dies in infancy when Wen Fu refuses to release the doctor from a game of mah jong to check on her.