Hapa Girl

A Memoir

May-lee Chai
Named one of the Notable Books in the Kiriyama Prize, 2008
Honorable Mention at the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards, 2007
Book Cover

PB: $26.95
EAN: 978-1-59213-616-2
Publication: Oct 08

HC: $66.50
EAN: 978-1-59213-615-5
Publication: Mar 07

Ebook: $26.95
EAN: 978-1-59213-617-9
Publication: Mar 07

232 pages
5.5 x 8.25
12 halftones

A vivid depiction of the racism suffered by a mixed-race family in rural South Dakota

Read Chapter 1 (pdf).


In the mid-1960s, Winberg Chai, a young academic and the son of Chinese immigrants, married an Irish-American artist. In Hapa Girl ("hapa" is Hawaiian for "mixed") their daughter tells the story of this loving family as they moved from Southern California to New York to a South Dakota farm by the 1980s. In their new Midwestern home, the family finds itself the object of unwelcome attention, which swiftly escalates to violence. The Chais are suddenly socially isolated and barely able to cope with the tension that arises from daily incidents of racial animosity, including random acts of cruelty.

May-lee Chai's memoir ends in China, where she arrives just in time to witness a riot and demonstrations. Here she realizes that the rural Americans' "fears of change, of economic uncertainty, of racial anxiety, of the unknowable future compared to the known past were the same as China's. And I realized finally that it had not been my fault."


"A tour-de-force sojourn into a never-before-told zone of small town American bigotry. Hapa Girl is consistently stylish, permanently courageous, bitingly tragic, but always rationally detached with a Marx Brothers' wit. This is May-lee Chai's best comment yet about America."
Anthony B. Chan, author of Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong

"I was captivated by May-lee Chai's Hapa Girl from the first sentence. It continued to be so powerful that I read it in one sitting. It's at once brutal and sad, humorous and plucky. Chai has beautifully captured the deep racism and bigotry that lurks in our country with how one misguided decision can change a family's fortunes forever. Hapa Girl made me think about the bonds of family and the vicissitudes of place long after I finished the last page."
Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and The Secret Fan

"Easily labeled a coming-of-age story or a narrative about racial tensions in 1960s America, this memoir-whose title employs the Hawaiian word for mixed-is truly an homage to a loving marriage. Only the strongest kind of love could survive the crucible of a community hoping for a family's failure. Highly recommended for all libraries with large memoir and Asian collections."
Library Journal

"May-Lee Chai’s memoir Hapa Girl examines living on the mainland, conservative South Dakota in particular, and the racial tensions that accompany it…Chai is best when painting hurtful moments from her life relating to the issue at hand.…(It) could (be) a valuable resource for those seeking self-discovery on being of mixed race."
Honolulu Weekly

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Wearing of the Green
Chapter 2: The Sexy Artist Meets the Boy From New York City
Chapter 3: How to Charm a Mother-in-Law
Chapter 4: California Dreamin'
Chapter 5: The Banana
Chapter 6: The Banana's Revenge
Chapter 7: Autumn in the Country
Chapter 8: Hunting Season
Chapter 9: The Little Things
Chapter 10: The Closet
Chapter 11: My Last Confession
Chapter 12: Bugs
Chapter 13: The Fall of the Prince
Chapter 14: The Jade Tree
Chapter 15: The Nights of Many Prayers
Chapter 16: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
Chapter 17: Stephen King High
Chapter 18: Barbarians
Chapter 19: Glamour Puss
Chapter 20: The Cannibals
Chapter 21: The Fine Art of Denial

About the Author(s)

May-lee Chai is the author of five books, including My Lucky Face, The Girl from Purple Mountain (co-authored with Winberg Chai) and Glamorous Asians: Short Stories & Essays. She is the recipient of an NEA Grant in Literature.