The Jade Peony is divided into three sections, with a different child of the Chen family narrating his or her experience growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown in the early 1930-40s. Throughout the novel, the children's grandmother and family matriarch, Poh-Poh (the "Old One"), influences them with her own life experience and passes to them their cultural heritage of the "old ways" of China that they must maintain and balance with assimilating into the new world culture. The three children are Jook Liang or "Liang-Liang", followed by Jung Sum, and finally Sek-Lung or "Sekky".
Jook-Liang, Only Sister
The first section is narrated by Jook-Liang, the only sister in the family and the first child born to Father and Stepmother in Canada. She wishes to be a performer like Shirley Temple and forms an unlikely friendship with Wong Suk, an elderly man who is a family friend to the Chens. As the only daughter in the family, Liang struggles against her dreams of fame and escaping the old ways of her family, as well as the old Chinese convention of placing boys before girls. Her story concludes with Wong Suk returning to China to repatriate the remains of Chinese men who died in Canada but had wished to return home to China.
Jung-Sum, Second Brother
Jung-Sum, the second son, narrates the second section of the novel. Adopted into the Chen family after his birth parents die, he is hesitant to accept his new family after enduring neglect and abuse at the hands of his biological parents. However, he finds a sense of belonging with his new family as they welcome him with kind yet subtle gestures. Jung-Sum constantly seeks approval by attempting to prove himself to his family as well as his peers. Furthermore, he struggles with his sexuality and feelings for Frank, an older boy who has lost his parents, in a way that is somewhat similar to Jung-Sum's situation. He and Jung-Sum bond as Frank mentors him through boxing.
Sek-Lung, Third Brother
Sek-Lung, the third son, is the youngest child of the Chen family and the second child born to Father and Stepmother. Because he tended to be sickly, he becomes close to Poh-Poh, who spends most of her time taking care of him. When she passes away, he becomes obsessed with the war games that have emerged with the impending Second World War and finds his world increasingly confusing when his babysitter, Meiying, begins an illicit relationship with a Japanese boy.