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[215] Shanghai Girls – Lisa See

ShanghaiGirls

You’re not the only ones here on a lie . . . Look at the people in this restaurant. Look at the people who work in China City. Look at the people on our block and in our building. Everyone has a lie of some sort. Mine is I wasn’t born here. When the earthquake and fire in San Francisco destroyed all birth records, . . . I went to the authority and told them I was born in San Francisco.” [186]

Pearl and May Chin are Shanghai xiao jie, young ladies from wealthy family in 1937. They belong to the typical bourgeois class who worships all things foreign in the Chinese center of beauty of modernity, where appearance is everything. What Chinese traditions and etiquette believe is disgrace they deem a fashion. But the sisters can never escape the Chinese filial obligation to marry for the sake of family prospect. When their father gambles away his fortune and savings, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese wives.

Don’t tell me you thought you were going to marry for love . . . No one marries for love. I didn’t. [21]

You, our daughters, are our only capital. [24]

Wrecked by war and the beastliness of the Japs soldiers, the sisters set out on the journey to America as Shanghai falls. At Angel Island Immigration Center, where refugees are detained and interrogated, they are treated more poorly than the cargo that travels with them. Not only do they lose all privileges as if they’re imprisoned, they are deprived of dignity and the basic human rights. The experience confirms the invincible American xenophobia and the government’s having an ulterior, an insidious agenda to thwart entry of Chinese immigrants. It is in the derelict barrack where May gives birth to a baby girl, whom she names Joy, and whom Pearl claims to be her own daughter. The bastard child from a wanton liaison in China will risk her being departed from America since May has not engaged in conjugal ritual with Vern, her underage husband.

They sometimes give us course red-grain rice barely fit to eat. Everything looks and tastes like it’s been chewed and swallowed once. [107]

Between the women detainees and the interrogators, we learn that America doesn’t want us. [109]

The arrival in Louie’s quarter is so shocking and disheartening that the sisters feel they have taken a giant step back in time. The promise of wealth and Hollywood is no more than vain. Old Father Louie, the father-in-law, who bragged through money and made the Chins feel insignificant by treating them with disdain is just better off than most in Chinatown but poor nevertheless. His being wealthy is a deception made feasible by an American dollar that went far in China before the war. Like many of his contemporaries, Louie has lived as a paper son with false citizenship, a false name, and a false family history. It was a rife practice that young men bought a paper and pretended to be the son of someone else in order to come to America. That is why he’s lived an isolated life in Chinatown for over half a century.

We can wiggle and continue to breathe, but there’s no escape that I can see. Not yet anyway. [133]

It has been said that marriages are arranged by Heaven, that destiny will bring even the most distantly separated people together, that all is settled before birth, and no matter how much we wander from our paths, no matter how our fortunes change—for good or bad—all we can do is accomplish the decree of fate. [290]

Despite the many superstitious ways to improve fates, Pearl copes with the most virtuous and practical: perseverance and foresight. Together with her husband Sam, whose life has also been a tortured and checkered, she strives in silence for happiness. That the novel is told in a woman’s perspective accentuates the poignancy of the immigrant experience. The women in Shanghai Girls endure, accept defeat, mourn, and bear physical and mental agony far better than men. It’s through their stories and relationships, however petty they might be, that one sees glimpse of hope in the face of tragedy and obstacles, in a foreign land so far from home. Shanghai Girls is a tribute to the mothers who strive to imbue in their daughters the remnants of their cultural legacy and heritage while struggling to assimilate into the American society. The ending of the novel, which sees Joy’s search for her root, begs a sequel that explores China under the red flags. Shanghai Girls has secured a safe spot in this year’s list of best reads.

309 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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23 Responses

  1. I’ve had this on my TBR for a while. I loved See’s two other China books, so I’m not sure why I haven’t read this one yet. Thanks to your review, I’m moving it up in the stack.

  2. Another great review, Matt! I loved Snow Flower and The Secret Fan and am sure I’ll eventually read this, too. I’m may get it on audio or wait for the paperback though.

  3. Really excellent review with a different perspective than others.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful story. Thank you for a great review, Matt. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while but you know how it goes.

  5. This sounds like an absolutely amazing story. I’ll have to add it to my list 🙂

  6. Wow! This one is on my shelf, and now I can’t wait to read it.

    –Anna

  7. I’m glad you liked this one, especially since I wondered if it was a bit of a chick lit book!

  8. I’m looking forward to reading this book, even more so after your review. I’ve enjoyed her other books very much as well.

  9. Beth F:
    It’s a bittersweet journey for me. Parts of it are encouraging and others very sad. My eyes were filled at a few occasions.

  10. JoAnn:
    Lisa See totally surprises me with this contemporary touch of an immigrant story. I’m so used to her epic and mythical take like Peony in Love. I’ll look for Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. 🙂

  11. rhapsodyinbooks:
    I *really* love this book, one of my best reads this year.

  12. iliana:
    I should have a giveaway. My copy is an ARC. 🙂

  13. lena:
    I highly recommend the book. If you have read Lisa See, this one would be a change of climate, but for good. Her research on the history of Chinese immigrants and the practices of traditions are respectable.

  14. diaryofaneccentric:
    You’re in for a treat. 🙂

  15. diaryofaneccentric:
    The first half is more “chick lit” since the story revolves around the sisters’ westernized and burgeois lifestyle in Shanghai. The second half is immigrant turmoil.

  16. Jeanne:
    The first half is more “chick lit” since the story revolves around the sisters’ westernized and burgeois lifestyle in Shanghai. The second half is immigrant turmoil.

  17. Becca:
    I’m digging more of her previous works! 🙂

  18. I want to read this one, too. I love the quotes you included. It sounds even better now!

  19. Rebecca:
    This is one of my best reads this year. So memorable and intriguing!

  20. […] Shanghai Girls Lisa See The women in Shanghai Girls endure, accept defeat, mourn, and bear physical and mental agony far better than men. It’s through their stories and relationships, however petty they might be, that one sees glimpse of hope in the face of tragedy and obstacles, in a foreign land so far from home. […]

  21. […] Moonstone (1868). The oldest book was The Dialogue of the Dogs by Cervantes (1613). The newest were Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji, and The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, […]

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