Friday, July 09, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Published in 2009. 314 pages.

The historical fiction novel Shanghai Girls tells the story of sisters Pearl and May. They flee Shanghai in 1937 as it is being invaded by the Japanese and settle in Los Angeles into marriages arranged to settle their father's gambling debts.

This is the third of Lisa See's novels that I have read. The first, which I read many years ago, was Flower Net. (Apparently, it was the first in a series - but I didn't know that until today.) The second was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read with my book club last year. I still haven't read See's family history On Gold Mountain, although it's been highly recommended to me.

As I did with Snow Flower, I learned some things about history in reading Shanghai Girls, most notably the existence of Angel Island, about which I'd like to learn more.

Angel Island has been designed like Alcatraz, the island we passed on our way here. That too is an escape-proof prison. Those foolish or daring enough to swim for freedom are usually found days later washed up on a shore far from here. The difference between us and the inmates on the neighboring island is that we've done nothing wrong. Except that we have in the eyes of the lo fan. [page 109]

I can't help but think of the current political rhetoric on immigration when I read these words:
Naturally, there are the predictable comments about Joy being a girl, but most people are delighted to see a baby - any baby. That's when I realize that the majority of the guests are men, with very few wives and almost no children. What we experienced on Angel Island begins to make sense. The American government does everything possible to keep out Chinese men. It makes it even harder for Chinese women to enter the country. And in a lot of states it's against the law for Chinese to marry Caucasians. All this ends in the desired result for the United States: with few Chinese women on American soil, sons and daughters can't be born, saving the country from having accept undesirable citizens of Chinese descent. [page 131]
I'd like to think that Americans are better at human rights than we were in 1937 - and than we were in 1942 - but I'm afraid that we are not.

On a more positive note, I love this exchange between Pearl and her husband Sam:
"I've been smeared with mud that I'll never be able to wipe clean," I tentatively begin, hoping that what Mama said about the Ox is true: that he won't abandon you in times of trouble, that he'll stick by you faithfully, and that he is charitable and good. Don't I have to believe her now? Still, the emotions that play across his face - anger, disgust, and pity - don't make it easy for me as I tell my story.

When I'm done, he says, "You went through all that and still Joy came out perfectly. She must have a precious future." He puts a finger to my lips to keep me from saying anything more. "I would rather be married to broken jade than flawless clay. And my father used to say that anyone can add an extra flower to brocade, but how many women will fetch the coal in winter? He was talking about my mother, who was a good and loyal woman, just as you are."

We hear the others enter the apartment, but neither of us moves. Sam leans close and whispers in my ear. "On the bench in Yu Yuan Garden, I said I liked you and I asked if you liked me. You only nodded. In an arranged marriage this is more than we can hope for. I never expected happiness, but shouldn't we try to look for it?" [page 171]

While Sam is an Ox, Pearl is a Dragon, strong and stubborn, and May is a Sheep, adorable and placid. Like Pearl, I am a Dragon, and I found myself identifying with Pearl throughout the novel.

Pearl's daughter is a Tiger. Because she is born at Angel Island, Pearl and May get the task of naming her. "Naming is important, but it doesn't belong to women. Now that we have the opportunity to name a child - a girl at that - we find it's a lot harder than it seems" [page 121]. Jade - "because it conveys strength and beauty" - is suggested by a fellow detainee. Another likes the flower names - Orchid, Lily, Iris. A third insists on Mei Gwok, which means Beautiful Country and is the official Cantonese name for the United States. Finally May says, "Only one name is right for this baby. She should be called Joy. We're in America now. Let's not burden her with the past" [page 122].

In the end, Shanghai Girls is the story of two women - and women's stories, like the process of naming, are important. (I posted some thoughts on that topic on the Book Buddies blog.) I really enjoyed the story of Pearl and May, and I'd love to read more about Joy's story, if Lisa See would provide me with that opportunity.



  1. I have this one on my wish list. I really like Lisa See, Snowflower is a favorite. Its great to read a story and learn as well. Great review!
    I'm a Dragon married to a Rat and we make a great couple :)

  2. Naida: I am a Dragon married to a Rat as well!

  3. I really enjoy Lisa See's historical fiction. I wasn't so keen on The Flower Net.

  4. We read this for book club last month, and it was a consensus that none of us liked the ending. I think it really betrayed the whole of the book.