The book starts out in 1952 as we are introduced to Claire Pendleton, a British young woman newlywed, recently relocated to Hong Kong with her husband. She takes a position as a piano teacher for the young daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, the Chen family. When the Chen family invites Claire and her husband Martin to a party, she meets and begins an affair with Will Truesdale, the Chen chauffer and a long-time British expatriate.
Then the reader is taken back to 1941 for a love affair between Will and Trudy. Trudy is a spoliled Eurasian who has a numerous connections with the Hong Kong community. When WWII strikes Hong Kong, Will ends up in a POW camp, and Trudy forms alliances with the Japanese Army in order to keep him alive and as safe as possible.
Between the stories Janice Y.K. Lee shows us how the Japanese mostly interrupt the lives of those living in Hong Kong during WWII.