Pearl is an American-born Chinese woman who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has an ambivalent relationship with her mother, Winnie, an immigrant from China, and keeps her condition from her mother.
Encouraged by her best friend Helen, Winnie sits down with Pearl one day and confides her life story. Winnie's story is one of terrible hardship during the war in China. Her first husband, Wen Long, whom she married before the war, becomes a pilot during the war with Japan. He is a cruel man, treating Winnie as a sex slave and humiliating her not only in the privacy of their bedroom but in front of all their friends. Eventually he tires of Winnie and brings other women to their home for sex without a thought for his wife.
During the war Winnie meets a nice American-born Chinese man Louie, who falls in love with her. After the war Wen Long returns as a war hero and settles himself in Winnie's father's house. Her father is old and frail and is at the mercy of Wen Long. With the help of some communist friends, Winnie escapes from her marriage with Wen Long and lives with her lover Louie.
Wen Long finds her and charges her in court for abandoning her husband and family and having an affair with Louie. Winnie is thrown into prison and Louie returns to America. When Winnie is finally released from prison, she goes to America to Louie, but not before trying to get a divorce from Wen Long. Wen Long gives her the divorce, but not before raping her. Winnie marries Louie in America and Pearl is born. Pearl may be Wen Long's daughter.
After hearing her mother's story, Pearl tells her mother about her illness. Mother and daughter are brought closer together by their confidences. Together with Helen, they search for the lucky totem, the Kitchen God's Wife, to ward off the ill-luck bringing the sickness to Pearl.