Shanghai, 1937. Another world, almost another century. The sights, the smells, the incredibly varied and intriguing cuisines and the lives of two beautiful Chinese girls intertwine and flow along in this beautifully written novel like an exorable river. Lisa See can write and you’re there in a Shanghai which will never come again, when women still tottered about on bound feet, when the wealthy had many servants and the poor had nothing. Shanghai was a little country unto itself, self-sufficient, snobby towards the rest of China which was considered backwards and primitive.
The Shanghai girls are two beautiful sisters who lived remarkably uninhibited and un-chaperoned lives, posing for advertising posters, staying out most of the night with their friends. May is the younger sister, eighteen and the favorite of the girls’ father. She
was born under the sign of the Sheep. Pearl, the narrator of the novel, at twenty-one is also lovely but tall with cheekbones, born a Dragon, and not quite as much loved by her parents as her sister, because she is not quite as beautiful. The sign one is born under is very important to the Chinese, and indeed, May is as comfortable and obliging as a sheep and Pearl is a scrapper, brave and feisty, like a dragon. In 1937 the girls are carefree, cosmopolitan, secure in their father’s wealth, and they are rather heedless like the American flappers of the twenties.
Although the sisters seem yin and yang, their love for each other is forged in steel and this bond is very important although at times their opposite natures clash. The Sheep versus the Dragon. Waiving off tradition, the two girls revel in their youth and beauty until their father tells them he has lost their inheritance gambling and in order to pay his debts he must farm the girls out as husbands to two brothers who have traveled from Los Angeles in search of suitable Chinese brides. The girls meet their husbands briefly, Pearl’s husband is Sam and he is her age, but May’s husband, Vernon, is only fourteen years old and cannot consummate the marriage. May sleeps with a total stranger, her husband, but hates the experience and incredibly the sheets of her marriage bed are examined by the man who arranged the marriages, as proof of the consummation and Pearl’s virginity.
In the meantime Japan attacks China and Pearl and May and their mother, (their father has disappeared) try to escape the bombs by sneaking into the country, sleeping in huts or on the ground, scrounging for food. They are brutalized by Japanese soldiers and Mama dies after the soldiers strip off the coverings of her bound feet and stamp on the tortured toes. The girls manage to across the Pacific in a decrepit ship and are held at the immigration office in San Francisco for weeks, where they suffer one indignity after another in this virtual prison. May secretly gives birth to a baby girl in the shower room. Since Vernon is too young to be the father, May and Pearl change places, Pearl stuffs her clothing with pillows and May hides her growing belly behind loose clothing. Pearl acts as midwife in the shower room, and the authorities are none the wiser. But from that day on baby Joy is the daughter of Pearl and her husband, Sam, will fully accept her as his child. May keeps the paternity of the real father hidden even from Pearl, but the identity of the father will be revealed at the end of the book and his identity will have a profound effect twenty years later when Pearl discovers who actually sired the beautiful girl who has always been accepted as her daughter.
When the sisters are finally freed from the immigration bureau at Angel Island and travel south to meet their husbands, they become part of a cultural roller coaster ride. In China Town, LA, they are obliged to be crammed into a small flat where the two husbands and their tyrannical parents all live together. They are also trapped in another prison of sorts, a Chinese ghetto, living with husbands they hardly know, buffeted between American culture and traditional Chinese values. They try to balance the China of memories with the present, the now reality with golden memories of the past. Can one be an American but still be Chinese? “We raised our children to be Americans but what we wanted were proper Chinese sons and daughters.” But in China the respect of parents and of ancestors has been replaced by worship of Chairman Mao. An FBI witch hunt for communist sympathizers infiltrates the Chinese community, and Chinese who simply want to send money to their families are branded with the mark of Cain: communists.
Author See very deftly paints a vivid picture of the Chinese experience in America, her brush is filled with background color and the strokes of that brush are expertly applied. But the ending of the novel is rather a shocker and it absolutely guarantees a sequel. I am not sure the ending works, but her sensitive approach and beautiful writing style earn her four stars for this novel. Lisa See is a highly perspective writer and she will help you see inside the Chinese psyche and catch a glimpse of the Chinese heart.
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May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl’s parents arrange for their daughters to marry “Gold Mountain men” who have come from Los Angeles to find brides.
But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel’s Island (the Ellis Island of the West)--where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months--they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she’s pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know.
A novel about two sisters, two cultures, and the struggle to find a new life in America while bound to the old, Shanghai Girls is a fresh, fascinating adventure from beloved and bestselling author Lisa See.Amazon Exclusive: Lisa See on Shanghai Girls