A Review of Shanghai Girls

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Shanghai Girls, written by Lisa See (author of Snowflower and Secret Fan) is another historical fiction about two young women. This time the women are sisters. In the settings, Lisa See once again cleverly focuses on historical issues as the oasis culture of Shanghai surrounded by Communist China, the invasion by the Japanese, and the agonizing discrimination in their new life in the New World of the United States.


In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. The main characters are "beautiful girls" in cosmopolitan Shanghai, models for anything from soap to cigarettes. There's is a care-free life for two working women aged 18 and 21, where work comes easy and free time is spent socializing with artists and friends. Their beautiful world capsizes with shell-shocked news that their father has gambled away their life savings and has sold his daughters into marriage to his debtor. Feigning reluctant acceptance, the girls elude their fate only to literally be shelled with bombs. The Japanese invaded China and didn't stop at the international boundary of Shanghai. Even after escaping near death, they embark on a ship en voyage to San Francisco, where they are to meet their arranged husbands.

The new world only brings new agony. Arriving at Angel Island (the equivalent to the processing center of Ellis Island), the girls are interrogated to verify their legitimacy of their marriages. The girls however, purposely lie to officials to stay on the island. Why would they prolong this imprisonment? Well, you'll have to read the book!

In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

From the point of view of the eldest daughter Pearl, we learn that this 21 year-old is rather naive compared to today's young woman in Westernized culture. The consistent use of the term "husband and wife thing" in referencing sexual intercourse, and "woman with three holes" in referencing a whore, immediately tells us Pearl is quite innocent and also allows us extraordinary insight into her indepth pain when she faces the Japanese soldiers in a hut after fleeing Shanghai.

Lisa See astutely blends 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.

While the characters are fictional, their bond and typical petty jealousies as sisters and their outlook on life is real life content. Both girls considered themselves modern and "Westernized" while they lived in Shanghai and poked fun or ignored their mother's ancient traditions. Yet the eldest sister increasingly, as an immigrant in a foreign land and the profound longing of her native land, finds solace in those "silly ancient Chinese" traditions. Her mother-in-law instills “Chinese” into her “as surely as the flavor of ginger seeps into soup.”

I really enjoyed this book. While I may sway preference toward Snowflower & the Secret Fan, it is in deference to an enlightening introduction to the culture and customs of ancient China.

Unable to recall the last book I read about sisterly love, Shanghai Girls was a solemn reminder not to take my family for granted and not to harbor unresolved differences or issues with my younger sister. The book also reminded me of the discrimination faced by immigants during McCarthyism and how the first generation of immigrants toiled for most of their life, in preparing a smoother road for their children.

I did enjoy this book and highly recommend it. ORDER YOUR COPY NOW!

You Might Also Like