THE setting is San Francisco's Chinatown; the characters are Chinese; the basic theme is the struggle between Eastern and Western traditions, between the old and the new.
Wang Te, elder son of Wang Chi Yang, has fallen in love with Linda Low, owner of a night spot, Thunderbird. But Sammy Fong, who is both completely Westernized and Americanized, has come to Wang Chi Yang to propose a match between Ta and Mei Li, a girl from the East, a "picture bride". Indeed, he has brought her with him. She is a sweet, diffident young girl of whom Wang approves wholeheartedly. He is further impressed by her when she sings for him an ancient Chinese song ("A Hundred Million Miracles"). Sammy thrusts a marriage contract into Wang's hands, hoping to consummate the deal quickly. But Dr. Li, the girl's father, objects, since the original contract had specified that the girl was to marry Sammy.
Ta is having a date with Linda. She is indeed very much of a female, as she elaborates in a song ("I Enjoy Being a Girl"). She is aggressive and forward, just as Ta is shy and withdrawn. When Ta offers to marry Linda she shows some interest, knowing how rich his father is; but she also insists that she must first get permission from her brother, Frankie, a sailor.
Preparations are now being made in the Wang household for the forthcoming marriage of Ta and the "picture bride", even though the two have not yet met. When they do, Mei falls instantly in love with him. But Ta is very little impressed by this plainly dressed, retiring little girl. But when she dresses up in a glamorous gown presented her by her future father-in-law and stands resplendent before Ta he begins to take notice of her.
That night a party is taking place in the garden of Wang's house. Among the guests are Linda Low and her brother Frankie. With a prod from his sister, Frankie informs Wang that he has been seriously considering Ta's request for Linda's hand and has given his consent. Linda embraces Wang warmly and calls him "father". All this caught Wang completely unawares. He sternly informs his son that such a marriage cannot be accepted. With Ta still determined to marry Linda, Sammy Fong is placed in the terrible predicament of having to marry Mei Li himself, a must undesirable prospect, since he has known Linda a long time and has more than a passing interest in her. He does his best to discourage Mei from having any interest in him ("Don't Marry Me"). Wily Sammy must now devise some way of changing this sorry situation. He invites Wang and his family to the Thunderbird night-club to witness Linda's act, the climax of which is a tantalizing strip-tease. Wang, shocked, leaves in a huff. He is more determined than ever that his son will never marry a girl like this. Sammy is highly pleased with himself at this development. Linda is upset to the point of throwing a champagne bucket at Sammy's head. And Ta finds refuge at the home of Helen Chai, a seamstress, where he spends the night on a couch. Mei Li comes there the following morning to get Wang's jacket mended. Noticing Ta's dinner jacket, she jumps to conclusions and leaves the apartment in horror. But there is nothing between Ta and Helen, whose only feeling for Ta is that of tenderness. When Ta leaves, she expresses her sense of loneliness in a poignant ballad ("Love, Look Away").
By now, Ta is convinced that Linda is not for him. He comes back home to admit to his father that the old man was right, that Mei Li was the girl he should marry. But it is now Mei Li who refuses to consider marriage, or to have any further associations with Ta. Such a complicated turn of affairs can be discussed and straightened only at a meeting of the Three Family Association. Sammy Fong comes there with the news that he and Linda have decided to get married and settle down to domesticity. This does not please the Association at all. Having examined the contract previously drawn up between Sammy and Mei Li, the Association decrees that nobody but Mei shall become Sammy's wife. In vain does Sammy try to convince Linda that nothing has been changed between them, that even if he is "framed" into marrying Mei he will continue to love Linda.
Wedding plans are now being crystallized. Ta comes to Mei Li to bring her a wedding gift of an old family clock. When he gives her a fraternal kiss of congratulations he cannot hide the fact that he is deeply in love with her. But it is apparently too late. The wedding procession takes place on one of San Francisco's streets. The bride, heavily veiled, is carried on a sedan chair to her future husband, Sammy. As dictated by custom, Sammy drinks from the wedding goblet, then offers the goblet to his new wife. But when the bride removes her veil she turns out to be not Mei but Linda. It is then that Mei Li announces that since she has entered the United States illegally, all marriage contracts and decisions by the Family Association are null and void. This development leaves Mei Li free to marry Ta.
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