‘Shanghai Girls’ is a cultural awakening

By Judy Budz
July 23, 2009

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Lisa See begins her new novel, “Shanghai Girls,’’ in China, but that is perhaps the biggest similarity to her previous bestseller, “Peony in Love.’’ In “Shanghai Girls,’’ See replaces romance and ghosts with a brutally realistic Chinese--American history lesson wrapped in a family saga. Still, fans of “Peony in Love’’ will appreciate the bond shared by sisters Pearl and May Chin; and readers unfamiliar with the details of Chinese assimilation on Gold Mountain will learn about the racism that marked life in Los Angeles in the early to middle portion of the last century.

We first meet Pearl, the novel’s 21-year-old narrator, and 19-year-old May in Shanghai, where they are living a westernized, cosmopolitan life, and modeling for “beautiful-girl’’ advertising posters. They advocate free or at least romantic love while they party their nights away with Russian and American friends.

Their parents, in contrast, straddle a line between traditional Chinese values and Western ways. Their adoring mother, who has bound feet, believes in birth signs and fate, warning that her daughters cannot “change who they are even if [they] tried.’’ Their self-made father has earned a “fortune by Chinese standards’’ and provides a comfortable life in this “Paris of Asia.’’

This enchanted world collapses for the Chin girls and for their city. Japanese invaders bomb Shanghai just as the sisters discover that their father has lost his fortune. They are his only remaining capital, so to save his house, he arranges marriages for each of them to the sons of a former neighbor now living in California. Pearl and May submit to the marriages but deliberately miss the boat to their new land. Their father disappears, and their gallant mother, although virtually crippled, leads them on a nightmarish escape from the marauding Japanese.

From this point, the Chin family’s experience becomes an exemplar for the Chinese-American experience. Before they join the husbands they have met only once, the sisters endure demeaning interrogation at the Ellis Island of the West, San Francisco’s Angel Island. Pearl’s baby, Joy, is born in the detention center. When Sam, Pearl’s husband, learns of the baby, he is thrilled. But May’s husband, Vernon, remains childlike and intellectually challenged.

The extended family lives in Los Angeles’s China City, a fabricated tourist attraction largely built from movie sets. May, and eventually Joy, work as extras. Because her skin is less pale, college-educated Pearl, who speaks British English, waitresses and cleans family shops.

It is no surprise that Pearl hits a very low glass ceiling since she lacks legal residence status, unlike Vernon, May, and Joy. The novel provides a primer of the complex, often corrupt, system of gaining citizenship in an unwelcoming land where, by Mao’s time, every Chinese is presumed to be a communist. Families turn inward; neighbors report neighbors; and Joy, a naively strident Mao admirer, comes home from the University of Chicago as a cliché of the generational divide. She is embarrassed by her family, who appear “fresh off the boat’’ even after 20 years in California.

Earlier stories of the immigrant experience in America involve vivid retellings of exile, isolation, and an optimistic rebirth in the New World. See’s close look at the forces confronting Chinese assimilation is powerfully disturbing and resonant today. And she does not offer a neatly wrapped ending. Perhaps we have to learn Pearl’s and May’s fate in a sequel to this very compelling novel.

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.


Random House, 314 pp., $25

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