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Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating
User Rating 5 Star Rating (2 Reviews)

By

Shanghai Girls

© Random House

Random House, 2009

Lisa See's Shanghai Girls is dedicated to her cousin, "my cohort in memory keeping." "Memory keeping" is a pervasive theme of her work. On Gold Mountain, a biography of her grandfather, set a course See has returned to fictionally. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love very clearly set forth the traditional Chinese reverence for one's ancestors and the integral value of honoring them while alive and after they have passed into the spirit world.

Shanghai Girls opens in 1937 in Shanghai, ending some 20 years later in Los Angeles. Shanghai is still a cosmopolitan city filled with people from all over the world. The girls, Pearl and May, are pulled between the traditional way of life and a more modern approach. Given the riches of their father, they have the wherewithal to live a life of relative privilege. Their lives seem idyllic. Their father is rich; they model and make spending money for their Western clothes and party-going. Then, one fateful evening, their father wants to talk to them. They have missed some small changes in family circumstances, and their father's message changes their lives in an instant. Will they be proper Chinese daughters or will they continue along their independent, Western-leaning lives?
Shanghai, too, is on the cusp of change. The Japanese government removes its families from the city, and brings naval warships into the harbor. The city seems grayer and darker. The sisters are "like lobsters slowly boiling to death in a pot of water." The metaphor is apt. As the father's business collapses, he arranges marriages, which includes passage to America, for the two sisters. Their tortured journey through the countryside to Hong Kong reflects the horrors many Chinese faced during the Japanese invasion and occupation.

While that presented one set of horrors, there were indignities and difficulties to be faced in gaining acceptance into the United States. The passages detailing Pearl and May's experience with immigration authorities are very real, much taken verbatim from immigration interviews of arriving Chinese. See has a remarkable facility for incorporating dry immigration law seamlessly into the narrative flow of the novel and infusing it with life. In 1848 Chinese laborers began coming to America to search for Gam Saan, Gold Mountain. In 1882 Federal legislation limited Asian immigration, a law that affected the Chinese more than others. This law was not repealed until 1943, but even so allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year.
For Pearl, going to America "was never my dream…it's just a necessity." The sisters struggle to find their place in this new country with husbands they barely know, a tyrannical father-in-law, and a life circumscribed within the Chinese ghetto. Ultimately, Pearl and May have only one another and their wiles as they seek to escape the very real cultural prison they are in. They are pulled between the people and things they have lost and what is now. While many of the Chinese in California are trying to return to China, the sisters are seeking to create a real life in their new country.

"When you lose your home country, what do you preserve and what do you abandon?" A new life is forming and growing in America, but, over the 20 years of this novel, events are also occurring in China. It is not the China that Pearl and May knew as children. Filial piety has been replaced by Mao worship. Respect for family is proscribed. Events in China have a wide-ranging effect on the Chinese in Los Angeles who are frequently branded as communist sympathizers by our government just because they want to send money to their families still in China. See artfully paints a picture of growing prosperity in the US, but with a backdrop of potential problems emanating from familial ties to China.
See uses the novel format to educate the reader about the cultural/historical ties that bound the Chinese in America to China. She raises the question of where home is but does not fully answer. Is allegiance to the country or to the people who live there the defining element? Shanghai Girls is never didactic, yet in its engrossing and entertaining story we learn and empathize with the sisters as the plot churns to an inevitable but ambiguous conclusion.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
User Reviews

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 5 out of 5
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, Member jacpate

Lisa See has a gift of catching the spirit of the characters of her novels.... and her Biography ""On Gold Mountain"" is an excellent account of her family and the eras .. her writing takes the reader into the stories as if they are one with the characters

3 out of 6 people found this helpful.

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