I learned about Lisa See at one of the first LA Times Festival of Books author panels I ever attended. She had just published On Gold Mountain about her Chinese ancestor’s journey to America and her family’s life through the generations in California and Los Angeles. I read On Gold Mountain and have read every novel she’s written since then. She is one of my favorite authors for so many reasons that I can’t even begin to list them here.
Shanghai Girls spans the period from 1937 to 1957. It’s the story of two sisters who live in a semi-traditional home in Shanghai in 1937, when Shanghai is known as the Paris of Asia. Pearl and May are beautiful, sophisticated and educated girls who love the fast-moving life that Shanghai offers. Pearl is 21 years old and was born in the year of the Dragon. May is 18 years old and was born in the year of the Sheep. Their home is in the Hongkew District, just across Soochow Creek from the International Settlement. Their family has a fortune by Chinese standards, even though the international community wouldn’t see it that way.
Pearl and May model for one of the city’s best known young advertising artists, Z.G. Li, and their images are plastered all over China on calendars, posters and ads, as examples of modern Chinese beauty. Pearl has a crush on Z.G. but he only has eyes for May. They pose for him every night and then they all go to the best clubs and parties. Their father owns a prosperous rickshaw business and invests the girls’ income for them.
Pearl Chin is bookish and tall, neither of which is considered a good thing in a Chinese woman. Her father (baba) says she may think she’s smart but she isn’t clever. His criticisms hurt her terribly. May Chin is the clever one and the favored one, or at least Pearl believes that. Pearl’s and May’s parents are lucky in their arranged marriage because they care deeply for each other.
“[Pearl]I consider myself to be a modern Shanghai girl. I don’t want to believe in all that obey, obey, obey stuff girls were taught in the past. But the truth is, May – as much as they adore her – and I are just girls. No one will carry on the family name, and no one will worship our parents as ancestors when the time comes. My sister and I are the end of the Chin line.”
One night when the girls return from partying, their father tells them that he has arranged marriages for both of them, which will take place in two days. When the girls rebel and ask for their invested money, they learn their father has lost all of their money and all of his, as well as the house and his business, because of his gambling addiction.
They’re told their new husbands-to-be are Gold Mountain men from America, sons of Old Man Louie, who’ve traveled to China to find brides. Their father assures them that they won’t have to travel back to Los Angeles to live with their husbands. The husbands, Vern and Sam, want wives who will care for their families and ancestors in China. If Pearl and/or May wish to go to the U.S., they will have big houses, lots of servants and will live in Haolaiwu (Hollywood). he explains that the whole thing is just a business deal to save the Chin family from ruin.
Despite all the temper tantrums and arguments the girls can muster, there really is no alternative for a number of reasons and the marriages take place. Pearl marries Sam and May marries the very quiet Vern. Only afterward do the girls learn their father lied to them and that Old Man Louie expects them to move to California with their husbands in a matter of weeks. To ensure Pearl and May will be on the boat for California, Louie takes most of their clothing.
No one realizes the Japanese invasion of China is imminent. Pearl and May’s father disappears and is believed drowned in recrimination for failing his family. Pearl and May set out on a journey through China and America that will test them individually and as sisters in ways neither could have imagined when they were living their carefree life as modern Shanghai girls.
Below is a video Lisa See did when Shanghai Girls was published. I urge you to watch it because she not only describes the novel but she goes into a bit of why this novel is so dear to her heart and shows photos of locations in the novel.
Tomorrow, we’re going to review Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls. Having read them both, I really feel like you should read Shanghai Girls first; however, it’s up to you.
If you’ve read Shanghai Girls or any of Lisa See’s books, we’d love to get your comments on them or on her as a novelist. We’d also love to hear your comments about this review.
If you like our review, please +1 it and/or share it with your friends!