Lisa See’s previous work has highlighted the lives of women in China from the 17th century to the present. Shanghai Girls opens in 1937 Shanghai, then shifts to the U.S., where See focuses her unique lens on the poverty and prejudice experienced by Chinese Americans until the late 1950s.
Pearl and May Chin, 21 and 18 years old, are working as models in Shanghai when their lives are dramatically uprooted: their father’s gambling debts have forced him to sell them into marriage to Chinese-American husbands. As they plan to elude this unacceptable fate, Japanese bombs begin falling on Shanghai; in their attempt to escape, Pearl is brutally raped by soldiers and hospitalized.
Their misfortunes continue after landing at Angel Island (“the Ellis Island of the West”), where the sisters are interrogated for months. Pearl realizes they are hopelessly stranded: “China is lost to the Japanese, May’s pregnant, and we have no money and no family.” The only officially married woman of the two, Pearl takes May’s place as mother of Joy, the baby born shortly before they leave for Los Angeles to meet their husbands. See astutely blends the struggle of this extended family with actual historical events: their attempts at distinguishing themselves as non-Japanese during the war, their reactions from afar as the Red Army pushes across China and the ensuing McCarthy-era bids at labeling them Communists.
Throughout her compelling family saga, See underlines the importance of ancient traditions for her characters, especially Pearl, whose mother-in-law instills “Chinese” into her “as surely as the flavor of ginger seeps into soup.” When Joy returns from her first college year in 1956 calling her family “wrong and backward,” it is Pearl who reacts most strongly, while May is the one who has adapted L.A.’s Hollywood mores quite easily. But as the novel ends, May tells Pearl, “Whenever our hair is white, we’ll still have our sister love.”
Satisfying on so many levels, See’s latest is above all a confirmation of unbreakable family bonds, as two Shanghai girls survive seemingly insurmountable setbacks, both at home and abroad.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.