In a Prologue, Mei-Li begins a flower drum song learned from her father (“A Hundred Million Miracles”), which becomes the theme as she begins her own journey to the West. Protesting against the rigid doctrines of marching Chinese Communists, all of whom regard Mao as their “Fater,” Mei-Li’s father stands bravely against the Maoists, who drag him away under arrest, but not before he urges his daughter to flee the country. She will later learn that he died in prison. Storytelling techniques of Chinese opera depict Mei-Li’s perilous trek across the ocean, her precious flower drum in hand, huddled in a ship’s hold with other refugees. Eventually they arrive, breathing the fresh new air of freedom, in California, U.S.A.
Mei-Li arrives at the Golden Pearl Theater in San Francisco, run by her father’s oldest friend, Wang Chi-Yang, who had come to America years earlier. His wife died on the crossing. Wang clings to his mission to perform traditional Chinese opera here, despite ever-shrinking audiences. With few performers available, his son, Ta, is forced to play the traditional women’s roles (“At the Golden Pearl”), but the young man’s heart is in Nightclub Night – the one night his father lets him use the theatre for high-stepping, low-brow revues starring the object of his affection, Linda Low. Ta sees Mei-Li’s arrival as an opportunity to hand over the women’s roles to an actual woman. She, in turn, is fascinated by Ta’s Western ways, although confused about how Chinese he is and how American he has become. She is also smitten by Ta himself (“I Am Going to Like it Here”).
Ta’s chorus is rehearsing for Nightclub Night when Linda arrives, late as usual. Ta has come up with a new idea, inspired by Mei-Li. Why not combine the Chinese culture with Western striptease? Linda is only mildly amused and has scant knowledge of traditional Chinese ways; she rebuffs Ta’s advances because she only dates Caucasian men. When Mei-Li visits her backstage to learn about American dating customs, Linda realises this new girl has fallen for Ta, and offers to help Mei-Li land Ta, starting off by explaining how much better life is for women in America than in China: “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” The song becomes the hit of Nightclub Night.
Father Wang is appalled, but his wise old sidekick, Chin, is amused. Mei-Li tells Ta that he shouldn’t ignore traditional ways; her father had told her how wonderful Ta’s parents had been when they performed “The Flower Boat Maiden.” She explains that the story isn’t as he thinks – “corny” – but a beautiful tale in which the maiden makes the humble scholar realise he is a god (“You Are Beautiful”). When the song is over, Mei Li and Ta find themselves staring in each other’s eyes, unexpectedly. Ta plants a quick kiss on Mei-Li’s cheek, then apologises. “You Americans – you apologise too much,” she says.
Madame Rita Liang, “theatrical agent for Oriental talent,” has seen Nightclub Night and has just signed Linda Low, for whom she has big plans. Those plans include transforming the Golden Pearl Theatre – “That name… it’s not even logical!” – into the hottest nightspot in Chinatown. She quickly rallies everyone – except Master Wang – to her vision of a place palatable to Western tourists curious to see some exotic Chinese culture (“Grant Avenue”). Reluctantly, Master Wang lets Nightclub Night take over – for a while, at least.
One of Mei-Li’s fellow boat travelers, Chao, has a job at a fortune cookie factory. When he makes the daily delivery to the club, he is surprised to see Mei-Li. He asks her out to dinner. It’s opening night, so she can’t go. Ta observes the conversation and senses Chao’s interest in Mei-Li. When she shares her inability to grasp American dating habits, he playfully assures her that she’s the kind of girl whose appeal is much simpler, that some day a special guy will want to spend an idyllic “Sunday” with her. Mei-Li goes backstage for advice from Linda about how to deal with her increasing interest in Ta, who has asked for a “long talk” after the performance. Linda loans Mei-Li one of her dresses, and suddenly Mei-Li is transformed from a plain girl into a beautiful young woman (“I Enjoy Being a Girl” Reprise).
It is the grand opening night of the new Club Chop Suey. Linda’s new number, inspired by Mei-Li’s idea of using fans, kicks things off in a smoky, sexy fashion (“Fan Tan Fannie”). Due to audience demand, the club presents three shows, and the Mayor is expected at the third. Something is bothering Wang; despite his stubborn views, he’s beginning to like what’s going on in his theatre. But there’s a sailor number that’s not going over so well. Harvard, a young man who has agreed to make all the costumes in exchange for a features spot, just isn’t cutting it. So, with his performer’s instincts taking over, Wang assumes the role himself and leads the company in “Gliding Through My Memoree.”
The show is a big success, and Wang is so happy with his transformation that he decides he needs a new name – Sammy Fong. Linda’s plot to fix Ta up with Mei-Li, however, backfires. Ta feels he’s been set up, and refers to Mei-Li as a consolation prize. He regrets what he’s said – but it’s too late. Mei-Li has heard him and runs off, only to appear back in her Chinese clothes, alone. She finds herself a refugee once again, among a group of fellow disillusioned immigrants (“Finale – Act One”).
Several months later, Sammy Fong’s new nightclub number features dancing chopsticks, chorus girls in take-out cartons, and Sammy front and center. It goes too far on almost every level, but does indicate that he has joined with Madame Liang on her notion of spreading their Chinatown clubs across the country (“Chop Suey”).
Ta is now disgusted with his father, feeling he has not only sold out, but taken Nightclub Night away from him. Ta can think of little other than Mei-Li. Old man Chin decides to take the upper hand, first explaining about love (“My Best Love”) and then informing Ta of Mei-Li’s whereabouts: she is working at the fortune cookie factory with Chao (“I Am Going to Like It Here” Reprise).
Mei-Li, unhappy to see Ta, tells him she is going to Hong Kong with Chao. Ta wishes them well, and leaves. Chao is thrilled and suggests they sell her flower drum to help pay for their trip. She agrees.
Sammy Fong and Rita Liang share a moment at a Chinese restaurant. They are quite obviously growing close, but warn each other not to get too close (“Don’t Marry Me”).
Linda is leaving for Los Angeles. Ta comes to say goodbye, although he really thinks he wants to go with her. “You’re my first love…and my last chance,” he tells her. His life feels empty – even Mei-Li is leaving. Linda mentions that she has seen Mei-Li’s flower drum in a pawnshop. The next morning she’ll be off on the 7:00 am Greyhound; if Ta wants to join her, it’s up to him.
Their dreams of a better life shattered, a group of Chinese gather at the docks to return home. Mei-Li is among them, not sure she’s made the right decision (“Love, Look Away”). Ta enters with her drum. He knows how important it is to her, so he has missed the bus to Los Angeles in order to retrieve it from the pawnshop. He wishes her luck.
Back at the theatre, Ta has developed an appreciation of the old Chinese tradition, and he now leads the performers in the same opera that we saw the troupe rehearse at the beginning ("The Most Filial Son"). Father and son have reconciled, and Wang tells Ta that his mother made him feel more than a man. “The love of a beautiful maiden turns a humble scholar into a god,” Ta says.
“You’ve still got it wrong,” says a voice from the dark. It is Mei-Li. She has decided not to go back. She wants to stay. “The love of the flower boat maiden does not turn the scholar into a god. He has always been a god,” she says. Ta asks whether he is indeed the man for her (“Like a God”). In prayer, they seek the blessing of their ancestors as they choose a life together.
Ta and Mei-Li’s wedding is a big event for everyone ("Processional"), including Linda, who comes up from LA. It is a traditional Chinese wedding, but clearly one that takes place in America, a country where Chinese people seek a new future, regardless of where they were born. “A hundred million miracles are happening every day” (“Finale”).