A young Chinese woman flees with an orphaned girl to Hong Kong in the hopes of achieving a better life away from Japanese occupation. Pei, a 27-year-old Chinese young woman, works in a silk factory near Canton. When the Japanese Army invades the region, she escapes along with 14-year-old Ji Shen to Hong Kong and seeks asylum with other ex-silk workers known as the Sisterhood. Quan, a young rickshaw driver, takes them to a boardinghouse run by Ma-ling. Song Lee, an ex-Sisterhood member, is summoned to assist them in finding work. Most girls end up as domestic workers in wealthy Chinese houses. Pei struggles with her uprooting and the isolation she feels. Sadness revolves around her, and she doesn't know how to feel at peace. Pei has many flashbacks to her years at the Yung Kee silk house with her friends. She agonizes over the untimely death of her friend, Lin.
In short order Pei finds work at house on Po Shan Road with the Chen family. Her role will be washing and ironing clothes. Ah Woo is the housekeeper, and she tries to help Pei adjust to domestic struggles. Leen works in the kitchen, and Fong looks after the Chen's youngest daughter. As months pass, the Chen family is happy with Pei's hard work. This earns her perks such as the offer to accompany Mrs. Chen on errands. Pei is grateful, but she knows she will always be seen as lower class. Fong is jealous that her efforts to be helpful have been in vain.
Meanwhile, Ji Shen struggles with life at the boardinghouse and Pei's insistence on her education. She is happy to escape with Quan out on the town. She is lonely and does not know what to do with her life.
After a couple years at Chen house, Pei accused of stealing a pearl necklace. Fong “discovered” it in a candy tin and told Ah Woo. In reality, she planted the necklace there to get Pei fired. As expected, Pei is ordered to leave because of this scandal. Word spreads, and other Chinese households refused to hire her. Several weeks later Pei is offered a job in an English woman's house. Mrs. Caroline Finch, who lives on Conduit Road, does not believe these rumors. Pei and Ji Shen move into Mrs. Finch's house. Ji Shen continues her education at a different school, and she is now happy. Pei is also happy, and she is rapidly learning English. Ji Shen discovers several music records and feels at peace.
One year later the Japanese invade Hong Kong with claims of freeing the Chinese from British occupation. There is a tremendous amount of destruction and fires across the city. Many lives are lost, and British citizens are forcibly taken to internment camps. Pei and Ji Shen once again find themselves alone when Mrs. Finch is taken to Stanley Camp. Mrs. Finch suffers in camp from loneliness, sickness and depression. Many other prisoners are depressed, and the atmosphere is gloomy. When the guards are not on duty, many people come to the fence to give them house comforts. Pei and Ji Shen visit Mrs. Finch whenever they can, but they are shocked to see her thin frame. They become more lonely and scared now that they are on their own. Ji Shen starts working for Lock in the black market with the Triads group. She does this in secret as a way to make money.
Mrs. Finch dies in camp, and Pei and Ji Shen only discover this one month afterward. They are devastated. Pei and Ji Shen are pulling apart because of Ji Shen's secrecy. Soon Ji Shen finds out she is pregnant with Lock's child, and she has grand delusions that he will start to love and care for her.
Lin's brother, Ho Yung, comes into Hong Kong and meets up with Pei. Pei asks him to help her start a seamstress shop. She wants to call it "The Invisible Thread." Ji Shen goes into labor, but it is very difficult and she dies. The boy is healthy and is named Gong. Pei raises him and opens her seamstress business. She becomes well known and business is booming. Song Lee finds her a helper named Mai.
A letter arrives with news of Pei's long lost sister, Li. Li had been married off to an old man and was regularly abused. Ho Yung helps her escape to Hong Kong where Pei and Li discover true happiness again and find peace for the remainder of their lives.
Best part of story, including ending:
I thought the descriptions of life in Hong Kong during the war were vivid and realistic. It is a tender story that readily pulls at your emotions.
Best scene in story:
A favorite scene is when Pei is accused of stealing the pearl necklace. The tension builds on the page, and this makes it clear that bad things will happen in short order. Pei is returning from washing clothes when Ah Woo approaches her with accusations. When the necklace is pulled from the butterscotch tin, this creates a powerful visual of injustice.
Opinion about the main character:
Pei is a strong young woman, and she finds unique ways to persevere when other people are determined to knock her down.