SHANGHAI GIRLS by Lisa See
“What’s the first impression you have of a new place? Is it the first meal you eat? The first time you have an ice cream cone? The first person you meet? The first night you spend in your new bed in your new home? The first broken promise? The first time you realize that no one cares about you as anything other than the potential bearer of sons? The knowledge that your neighbors are so poor that they put only a dollar in your “lai see,” as if that were enough to give a woman a secret treasure to last a lifetime? The recognition that your father-in-law, a man born in this country, has been so isolated in Chinatowns throughout his life that he speaks the most pathetic English ever? The moment that you understand that everything you’d come to believe about your in-laws’ class standing, prosperity, and fortune is as wrong as everything you thought about your natal family’s status and wealth?”
Shanghai China in 1937 is known as the “Paris of the East.” It is a thoroughly modern, international city, with a large foreign community. There is also a heavily populated Little Tokyo section, where Japanese residents promote “Friendship, Cooperation and Co-prosperity between China and Japan.”
Pearl and May, (generational name Long – which means Dragon), are the novel’s protagonists. Pearl, the older sister is the narrator. She is quite lovely, very tall and willowy with rosy cheeks. These attributes, however, prevent her from being considered a classic Chinese beauty. Petite May, with her porcelain complexion and fine features, is thought to be perfection itself. Pearl is not jealous of her sister at all. She says, “How can I be jealous of my sister when I adore her.” And the two are truly best friends who go everywhere together.
Both young women are very sophisticated and model for “beautiful-girl artists.” Their pictures usually grace calendars, but they are also used to advertise a series of products from cigarettes to pills for improving the complexion. The two consider themselves to be “‘kaoteng Huajen,” superior Chinese, who follow the religion of “ch’ung yang,” the worship of all things foreign. В Both sisters have been educated by American and British teachers, and Pearl, who is an excellent student, is fluent in four languages. May is more flighty, charmingly spoiled, and has little interest in studies. They have defied their father, “Baba,” who believes in the Confucian religion which says, “An educated woman is a worthless woman.” And they both plan to marry for love.
Unfortunately, “Baba” Long, who is an affluent businessman, has a gambling habit and owes a fortune to the criminal Green Gang headed by Pockmarked Huang. The crime boss is so powerful that his reach extends throughout China and beyond. So Baba makes an arrangement with Huang to remunerate him. His daughters are to be sold into an arranged marriage and the money used to pay off the gambling debt. The Long family has lost everything and is threatened with death if the agreement is not honored.
The grooms are “Golden Mountain men,” who have traveled with their father, Old Man Louie, to find brides in China. Pearl and May are married within twenty-four hours after learning of their father’s “troubles.” Old Man Louie lives in Los Angeles, where he owns various factories. His older son, Sam Louie, is about Pearl’s age and although not educated, he has a pleasant demeanor. However, Vern is only fourteen and May is horrified to be forced into a relationship with a boy. Non-quota immigration visas are obtained for the sisters at the American Consulate. Pearl and May are to take a boat to Hong Kong to meet their new husbands and father-in-law, who have traveled ahead of them. From there they will all take a ship to Los Angeles.
A few weeks later, in July 1937, the Sino-Japanese War breaks out. During the first months of the war, the city of Shanghai is brought under the control of the Japanese army. The Japanese wage a fierce three-month battle and Chinese and Japanese troops fight in downtown Shanghai and in the outlying towns. The sisters, caught up in the horrific bombings, flee the city with their mother, looking for a way to Hong Kong. Along the way, Japanese soldiers repeatedly rape both Pearl and her mother, while May remains in hiding. The mother dies and the sisters barely escape with their lives.
They manage, after much hardship, to obtain steerage passage to Los Angeles. They suffer for months as internees at the Angel Island Immigration Station, the Ellis Island of the West, where they are harshly interrogated. Eventually they are reunited with their husbands and their new family, and learn, with great difficultly, to adjust to life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
Lisa See explores the strong relationship between the sisters, and the importance of family in the Chinese American culture. The Chinese encounter tremendous prejudice from the moment they enter the United States, through WWII and during the Korean War, when the North Koreans are assisted by the Communist Chinese government. The McCarthy era proves to be even worse, as patriotic Chinese-Americans are persecuted for being spies for Mao and The Peoples Republic of China. The Louie family persist, however, and try to obtain as much of the American dream for themselves and their children as possible.
This is a wonderfully rich historical novel. The in-depth character development is extraordinary. Ms. See’s writing style is tight, fluid, and very descriptive. The author is a Chinese-American, (1/8 Chinese), and grew up in Los Angeles, spending much of her time in Chinatown. She has also traveled throughout China, to the modern cities and the most remote regions of the country. Lisa See has become one of my favorite authors and I have read everything she has written.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 345 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Random House (May 26, 2009)|
|REVIEWER:||Jana L. Perskie
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Lisa See|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Our review of PEONY IN LOVE|
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005)
- Peony in Love (June 2007)
- Shanghai Girls (May 2009)
- Dreams of Joy (May 2011)
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