Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience

by A Latter-day Bluestocking

The novel Shanghai Girls is ultimately about two women who must survive their new reality in America while remaining grounded in their Chinese origins. The story is divided into three themes important in Chinese society – Fate, Fortune, and Destiny – each representing a phase of struggle and renewal in their lives.

The Theme of FATE

It is Shanghai 1937 and two sisters, Pearl and May, have their world turned upside down. Two “beautiful girls” who pose for artists who depict them exuding the energy, excitement and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Their lives are changed overnight when their father loses all his wealth and he, in an effort to save the family, sells the girls into arranged marriages to Gold Mountain Men — American-Chinese husbands. The truth is far darker when they discover that it is not ordinary debts which have thrown these two women back into a feudal age but poor judgement and dealings with the dreaded crime syndicate the “Green Gang”. All this as Japanese bombs begin to fall decimating the city the girl’s know and love. They escape the city, traversing the Chinese countryside witnessing first-hand the cruelty and atrocities of the conquering armies.

The Theme of FORTUNE

These women manage to make it to Hong Kong and passage to Los Angeles where they arrive at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the west”. Here Pearl and May learn that prosperity is not so easy to gain and the streets of America are most definitely not paved in gold. For the next 20 years these resourceful and strong women maintain their dignity as they endure blatant racism and government-sanctioned discrimination. The years find them ever loyal and supportive to one another as they carve a niche for themselves and their families while constantly straddling the two divergent cultures of China and America. Pearl and May cope through WWII carrying special registration certificates proclaiming they are “members of the Chinese race”, and selling war bonds to prove they are loyal Americans.

The Theme of DESTINY

It is the 50s and the women see Congress finally repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act but at the same time the Communist threat once again enmesh them in a world that does not trust them and does not want them. Their future is to be forever part of the American experience, never to return to China. Pearl and May strive to raise the American-born generation to be American but find themselves dismayed when that generation doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities of traditional Chinese culture.

The novel which depicts emotionally difficult subjects common in the Chinese-American experience is not an effortless book to read but Lisa See develops each character with a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche that obliges one to read on. Ms. See portrays these extraordinary women in an unsentimental way and yet one is compelled to like them and even care for them. She does not embellish them with grand heroic acts or self-martyrdom; instead these women are portrayed as real in all their selfishness, suffering, forthrightness, petty jealousies, rivalries, and mostly love for one another.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2009)

Advertisements