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?
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 This law was not repealed until 1943, but even so allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year.
"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 Filial piety has been replaced by Mao worship.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.