Jing-mei Woo is having a hard time dealing with her mother's sudden death. Like the other daughters in The Joy Luck Club, she feels more American than Chinese, which creates a gulf between her and her immigrant mother. Suyuan and Jing-mei never quite understood one another, and at 36 Jing-mei feels as if she didn't know her mother at all. Suyuan's death has brought up more questions than answers for Jing-mei. How did she make that dry pork dish? What were her relatives' names? When she was mad at Jing-mei, did she wish her American daughter was actually the two daughters she had to leave behind in China? Jing-mei worries her half-sisters, now adults in their 40s, will think she contributed to Suyuan's death because she did not honor her mother enough. All of that guilt melts away when she meets her half-sisters in Shanghai. Jing-mei finally understands what her mother had been trying to teach her all those years—her family is what makes her Chinese.
Lindo Jong was born in 1918. At the age of two she is betrothed to a boy named Huang Tyan-yu. At 12 she goes to live with her future in-laws when her family loses their home to a flood. Lindo marries Tyan-yu at 16. It is a loveless, sexless marriage, but she cleverly manages to find a way out of it without shaming her family or herself. Lindo moves to the United States in the 1940s and works in a fortune cookie factory, where she meets An-mei Hsu. An-mei introduces Lindo to her future husband, Tin Jong, with whom she will have three children: Winston, Vincent, and Waverly.
Ying-ying St. Clair
Ying-ying St. Clair was born in 1914, the Year of the Tiger. The name "Ying-ying" means "Clear Reflection." She grows up beautiful and privileged, taking her family's wealth and her own good looks for granted. At 16 she marries a crude older man. By the time she is 18 he abandons her and their unborn child for another woman. Ying-ying has an abortion and lives with poor relatives outside of Shanghai. Ten years later she decides to move on with her life and meets Clifford St. Clair, an American, at the department store where she works. They move to the United States and have one daughter, Lena. When Lena is 10, Ying-ying miscarries her second child with Clifford, a boy. She blames herself and the negative chi, or energy, caused by the family's unbalanced home. Ying-ying disappears into a fog of depression for the rest of Lena's childhood. When Lena faces her own problems as an adult, Ying-ying decides it is time for her to reclaim the tiger spirit she lost when she was just a teenager so she can pass it on to her daughter.
An-mei Hsu was born in 1914. Her father dies when she is very young, and her mother abandons An-mei and her younger brother to become a concubine, or mistress living inside a married man's household, in a wealthy home in the North. The rest of the family thinks An-mei's mother is a traitor, but nine-year-old An-mei is delighted when she is invited to join her mother in Tientsin. Life in Wu Tsing's house is far more luxurious than back home in Ningpo, but it comes at a price: her mother's happiness. An-mei's mother kills herself in an effort to secure a better life for her children. An-mei is then raised by Wu Tsing as his honored daughter. After moving to the United States, she and her husband, George, have seven children, including Rose Hsu Jordan and the late Bing Hsu, who dies when he is only four.
Waverly Jong was born in 1951 to Tin and Lindo Jong. She is a national chess champion by the age of nine; she retires at 14. She elopes at 18 with 19-year-old Marvin Chen, and they divorce in Waverly's early 30s. The only good thing to come out of their marriage is their daughter, Shoshana. Waverly now works at a large accounting firm, where she meets her fiancé, Rich Schields. She is afraid to tell her mother about their engagement for fear Lindo will poison the image of the man who Waverly feels loves her unreservedly. Far from passive, Waverly has no problem being two-faced or passive-aggressive as long as it gets her what she wants. Waverly also has an ongoing rivalry with Jing-mei Woo and feels the need to one-up her at every opportunity.
Rose Hsu Jordan
Rose Hsu Jordan is the daughter of An-mei and George Hsu. The middle of seven children, Rose feels responsible for the death of her four-year-old brother, Bing, who drowned when Rose was supposed to be watching him. Her parents, however, do not consider her responsible for Bing's death. In the present, Rose has recently been served divorce papers by her estranged husband, Ted. Initially surprised by this, Rose now understands Ted misinterpreted her inability to make a decision as disinterest in their relationship. Rose still wavers about what she wants. Her indecision is a character trait that makes Rose worry about choosing the wrong path.
Lena St. Clair
The St. Clair household is not a happy one during Lena's childhood. Unlike her father, Lena can understand everything her mother says in Chinese, and Ying-ying's own fears and worries infect Lena, whose tiger spirit is just as dormant as her mother's. As an adult Lena works for a restaurant design firm, where she meets her future husband, Harold Livotny. She encourages Harold to start his own design firm and fleshes out his interior design concepts, contributing to the firm's success. At the beginning of their relationship Lena and Harold split the cost of dates 50/50, a practice they continue even more extensively during their marriage. Every expense in their relationship is shared equally, and Lena has begun to resent the nickel-and-diming she worries has become the basis of their relationship. When she confronts Harold about her concerns, she realizes she doesn't really know what she wants from their marriage. Later, with her mother's encouragement, she is able to assert herself while dealing with Harold during their divorce.
Suyuan Woo, née Li, is the founding member of the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, China, and its second version in San Francisco, California. During the Second Japanese-Sino War Suyuan lives in Kweilin with her twin infant daughters while her husband serves as an officer of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party. Thanks to a tip-off, she flees Kweilin just before Japanese troops invade in 1944. Suyuan carries her daughters and a few of their belongings until she becomes exhausted and sick. As her health deteriorates, she decides it would be best to leave the babies behind in hope some benevolent stranger could give them a better life. Suyuan survives the war, but her husband does not. She is unable to locate her daughters before she and her second husband, Canning Woo, move to the United States in 1949. Together they have one daughter, Jing-mei, who grows up hearing about her long-lost half-sisters. Suyuan never gives up hope of finding her twin daughters and routinely writes letters to old friends in China, asking for any hints to their whereabouts. A positive response locating the girls finally arrives just a few weeks after her death.