Pearl Louie Brandt, the Chinese-American daughter of Winnie Louie, begins the narration of the novel by telling the reader of a conversation she had with her mother on the phone. Her mother has invited her to come from San Jose to Pearl's cousin's (Bao-Bao) engagement party in San Francisco. Pearl and her American husband, Phil, do not want to go but decide to make the trip, especially after Winnie tells her daughter, in another phone conversation, that her Auntie Du has died and that the funeral is planned for the day after the engagement party.
There is quite a bit of background information in this first chapter. The reader is told, for example, that Pearl is a forty-year-old married woman with two young daughters, that her parents are Chinese, and that she lost her father at the age of fourteen. Her father had been a good man, the assistant pastor of a Chinese Baptist church, dying of stomach cancer. We also hear about Pearl's condition, in which she is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, a condition she is hiding from her mother.
After making the drive into San Francisco, Phil, Pearl, and their two children (Tessa and Cleo) stay the night at Winnie's house, upon Winnie's request. The next day, Pearl promises to help at the flower shop that both her mother and Auntie Helen (Bao-Bao's mother) own. Winnie is there putting together the flower arrangements for the party. Once in Chinatown, Pearl is stopped by the owner of the Sam Fook Trading Company, who sells statuettes of gods and goddesses, altars, and good luck charms. The owner gives Pearl a package for Auntie Du's funeral containing some of the necessities for a Buddhist funeral.
Once at the wedding, Pearl is talking to Mary, Auntie Helen's daughter, whose "sympathetic" behavior concerning Pearl's multiple sclerosis angers and irritates Pearl. It is also at the wedding that Auntie Helen calls Pearl aside. While cutting the cake, Helen tells Pearl that she must tell her mother about her condition, and, that if she does not, then Helen will be forced to do so herself. Helen reveals to Pearl that she has a brain tumor that she believes to be malignant, even though everyone is trying to keep it from her and is telling her that the mass in the X-rays taken has turned out to be benign. She says that she cannot go to the grave knowing Pearl's secret and that Winnie has a right to know. Pearl is upset by this.
This chapter opens on the morning after the engagement party, as Pearl, Phil, and their children are preparing to go to the Auntie Du's funeral.
Winnie had told her daughter that the casket would be closed, which is why she had decided to bring the girls. Yet, when they arrive they see that the body is, in fact, visible. So, when Tessa tells Cleo that the body is dead, Cleo shouts, and the girls make a scene. Phil says he will take them out for ice cream and return for Pearl in an hour. Pearl continues to feel out of place but participates in the rituals, until she begins to sob aloud during a specific ritual where the guests are circling the body. Both she and her mother realize that she is not mourning for Auntie Du but for her father. It is at this time that there is a flashback of her father's funeral. Pearl had not cried at her father's funeral, and her mother had seen this as wrong. Winnie began to slap Pearl, telling Pearl that maybe that would make her cry.