Friday, August 20, 2010

172 (2010 #37). Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

Historical fiction set in Shanghai, China, and California from 1937 to 1957; Lisa See has brought this story of Chinese-American immigrants to life. The narrator, Pearl, age 21, and her younger sister May are "beautiful girls" in Shanghai, "the Paris of Asia," in the 1930s, living a relatively modern life dressing in gorgeous clothes and posing for photographs and paintings used in calendars and other advertisements. The girls live the good life, each thinking that their parents favor the other, as their father has become wealthy in the rickshaw business. Unfortunately, he gambles it all away and sells the girls as brides to Chinese emigrants now in America.

The girls spend one night with their new husbands and are supposed to travel to Hong Kong to meet them later. They deliberately miss their boat and become trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai. They undergo hardships getting out of China, at Angel Island dealing with the repercussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and living in Los Angeles' Chinatown over the next 20 years, into the Second Red Scare.

See has woven these and numerous other historical events and situations (such as paper sons), real places (like China City) and people into the novel, and the research is the novel's strength. So too is the portrayal of sisterhood and the loyalties and jealousies it generates. May gives birth to a daughter (not by her husband) while interred at Angel Island, and Pearl (who did consummate her marriage) agrees to pretend Joy is hers. The book's weakness is its ending - it obviously signals a sequel to come.

I think this book would be a great one for a discussion. I'd expect different opinions on which sister is "better" (my vote is for Pearl, perhaps because I'm also the older sister). The American history and experiences of Chinese immigrants described in the book would also generate a lot of interest.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[I purchased this hardbound copy for $5 at the Hood County, Texas, Friends of the Library book sale, and will be donating it to my university's collection.]

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