Cindy Cheung (PASSING PEASANT, MOTHER HOW, MINER, IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL, JASMINE, MRS. LAI, DIANA); Steven Eng (STOREKEEPER, LEONARD); MaryAnn Hu (MA’S WIFE); Leon Ko (MA); Fay Ann Lee (LEE FUNG); Ming Lee (STORYTELLER, FORTUNE TELLER); Robert Lee (ENSEMBLE); Orville Mendoza (VEGETABLE SELLER, SALESMAN, BANK MANAGER, NATIVE SON, CHARLIE, KIM, CARLOS); Pearl Sun (MICHIKO); Ching Valdes-Aran (MOTHER); BD Wong (SIU YEE)
Canton, China, 1848. As the impoverished peasants slave in the fields and an aged storyteller spins a tale about the beginning of the world, 17-year old Siu Yee Tong blusters through a marketplace, dreaming of bigger things.
Siu Yee bids his mother goodbye and sets sail for California as she remembers a fortune teller’s warning from the distant past. Meanwhile, a young woman—Lee Fung—escapes the clutches of her imperious mother-in-law and sets her sights on the New World herself.
1849. Siu Yee arrives in San Francisco at the tail end of the Gold Rush and finds prospecting not all it's cracked up to be. Armed with his mother's good luck charms and a keen eye for the stratagems of the local traveling medicine show, he sets out to discover what else this Land of Opportunity has in store for him.
1869. When Lee Fung arrives in the New World to find her husband ensconced in a shiny new urn, frustrated bachelor Siu Yee persuades her that a life with him in San Francisco is preferable to the duty-bound widow's existence that awaits her back home; but as time passes, she comes to question the wisdom of her decision…
1890. Siu Yee sets off for a meeting at a bank in the affluent “white part of town” to secure a loan that will allow him to move his thriving Chinatown shop there. Eager to help and skeptical of the virtues of this new neighborhood, the pregnant Lee Fung sneaks out after him, only to find herself lost in a strange, hostile environment.
Lee Fung, lost in the “white part of town,” finds a kindred spirit in the progressive and independent-minded Michiko, recently arrived from Japan determined to learn the ways of the Westerners. As she guides Lee Fung back to Chinatown, Michiko helps her to see she may not be as old-fashioned as she believes. Meanwhile, Siu Yee gets some unwelcome news about his loan application.
1906. The destruction of the city’s birth records during the Great San Francisco Earthquake spurs the Chinese population to dreams of citizenship as one by one they come forward to claim their dubious American heritage, circumventing the period’s exclusionary immigration laws in the process to bring their wives and children—real or otherwise—to the Promised Land. Ma is at last reunited with his long-suffering wife as Siu Yee finds his latest “get-rich-quick” scheme thwarted in an unexpected way.
1924–1930. A Korean anti-Japanese rally turns violent on the steps of Siu Yee’s shop just as the pregnant Lee Fung goes into labor, giving birth to a son, Leonard. Disgusted by those he feels have endangered the lives of his wife and child, Siu Yee vows to turn his back on immigrant ways and raise his son a “real-live American Yankee Boy.” As the years pass, Siu Yee’s adoption of American customs and values—including the American holiday “Thanksgiving”—begins to alienate his wife. For her part, Lee Fung finds solace in letters she writes to her mother-in-law in China (whom she has never told of her first husband’s death) detailing a rich, traditional and completely fabricated life.
A nightclub in Chinatown, 1942. Siu Yee, Lee Fung, Ma and Ma’s Wife are in attendance as Leonard accompanies small-time chanteuse Jasmine Ho on the piano in a piece of anti-Japanese propaganda. After the performance, tensions run high as Leonard mentions the conspiciously absent Michiko, and reveals to his family and friends that Jasmine may not be all she seems.
Siu Yee and Lee Fung learn of Executive Order 9066—calling for the internment of all Japanese Americans—as they return home after Leonard’s nightclub performance. Although they are from China (now a U.S. ally), the order has a profound effect on the couple as their conflicting allegiances and plans for Leonard’s future come to a head.
1966. Two decades after he left to pursue the life of a professional musician, Leonard returns to his father’s old shop in San Francisco Chinatown. As he sings of the disappointments and longings that led him back home, Leonard helps his father come to terms with his own unrealized dreams and aspirations, despite the citizenship he sacrificed everything to attain.
1982. As he struggles over his son’s decision to adopt a “dirty” Vietnamese refugee, Siu Yee is visited by the spirits of his past (including his now deceased wife Lee Fung) who help him see he is not so unlike the child—or them.