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Lisa See – Shanghai Girls

Book Cover

Unfortunately for some it was more of a fool’s gold mountain.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4088-0112-3
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 24th January 2013
Rating: 5/5

When Pearl and May’s father loses the family’s wealth and is threatened by a gang, the girls must marry the sons of another client and leave Shanghai for Los Angeles. The Japanese have started bombing China, but the sisters hope to trick the gang and somehow stay put, keeping their lives as models intact. But that cannot happen and instead they find themselves in dire circumstances before beginning the journey to a country that does not welcome Chinese people, seeking the protection of their new husbands and the family that claims to be making lots of money on the gold mountain.

Shanghai Girls is an excellent novel that looks at how the Japanese invasion of China, and then Communist China, affected those people who had left for America. With a well-developed cast of characters and a detailed backdrop, the story has an atmosphere that few readers, if any, could pass up.

Suffice to say that the story by itself is fantastic – See is a master at writing characters, story, and prose to hook the reader – but the brilliance of the book is the detailing and handling of the conflicts. Set over a couples of decades, beginning in the 1930s and ending in the late 1950s, See places the sisters in situations that allow her to fully explain the events of the times.

This does mean that the story is often gruesome. As in previous books See never shies away from in-depth examination of bound feet, for example, but whereas Snow Flower And The Secret Fan and Peony In Love were set in an earlier period and focused on different types of women, the modernity and setting in Shanghai Girls means that there is a look at how violence towards women escalates during war, and how intrusive and immoral people could be to those they saw as below them. However as much as the violence is explicit, See manages to balance her writing, staying on the line between unnecessary content and lessons.

One of the major aspects of the story is the way the Chinese who immigrated to America reacted to events at home, and how they balanced their old lives with the new ones. One part of this, for example, is the way in which many people wanted to keep traditions, but were not in favour of Mao; this is focused on when See brings in the interrogation of the Chinese by the American government who wanted to rid their land of Communists (and, indeed, simply rid the country of Chinese, full stop). Not only had the Chinese been held, sometimes for months, on their arrival during the Japanese occupation (when America was seeking to deport any illegal immigrants) but the beginning of Communism in China stopped the slow progress of tolerance and began a new wave of discrimination and hate, all in the name of keeping America’s liberty and freedom. Of the initial interrogations, See devotes whole chapters, letting the reader live with May and Pearl throughout the months they tried to gain freedom to travel to Los Angeles, rather than giving readers the easy task of simply knowing it happened. See’s wish to inform her readers of the history may be obvious and hard to read at times, but it is never overbearing or preachy.

See’s characters, for the most part, were all born in China, and whilst May and Pearl begin as modern Shanghai women – intent on being western – Pearl especially starts to see her parents’ traditions as something to adopt herself. This means that for a long time See is restricted to viewing the historical events through their eyes and in the context of immigrants. So when American-born Chinese characters are introduced, See not only shows the arguments that can arise from a culture clash, but also the way young minds can be susceptible to outside influences. And whilst her focus is on communism, See’s handling of the subject enables her message to be timeless.

As to the characters themselves they are developed to the extent that the reader may feel that longing for a continuation after the final pages. (In this regard it’s wonderful that there is a sequel, even if Shanghai Girls‘s cliff-hanger ending is difficult to accept.) And of course there is a vast scope – young and modern, modern but somewhat set in tradition, and strict tradition. Not only are the characters interesting in themselves but also the grouping of them as one family allows for the exploration of family and religious values.

There is a lot of information on the film industry at the time. The sisters, immigrants, can see the way in which Hollywood looks for the exotic rather than the realistic – portraying China as something it never was – as well as the discrimination and stupidity of relegating Chinese people to the roles of extras whilst employing caucasians to play the prominent Chinese characters in the script. The differences between the sisters gives See the opportunity to look at these issues from the view of the person who didn’t care, and the person who saw the hate for Asians. It also gives her the chance to comment on the way in which Asians often look the same to Westerners, where one character with talent is interchangeable with another who lacks it and the director does not realise why he needs so many takes. This issue is looked at further when the American Chinese have to take to wearing clothes with text that says they are not Japanese.

A particularly interesting aspect of the story is the way the sisters feel about each other. The reader may think time and again that this time they will have a bond-breaking argument, but See shows how arguments are different in families as well as showing how allowances are made.

Shanghai Girls spans many years but never feels rushed. The periods See chooses to skip are understandable and lets you see how life trundles along despite hardship. Because of the events See wanted to include in her story, the gaps make sense – this had the potential to be incredibly long when it is just the right length as it is.

Shanghai Girls is a look at war, culture, and everything that is included. It looks at the affects of war on family and country and gives a timeless message of what can happen if people do not work together during those wars. Above all it is the story of a family thrown together by circumstance where the one true bond is between two sisters, and includes the added effect that lies and suspicion have on lives. The book is a triumph in every way and whilst it ends on a huge cliff-hanger it is the sort of book that makes you desperate to move straight on to the sequel.

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Laurie C

February 15, 2013, 11:05 am

I read Shanghai Girls with a book group, but I somehow missed the fact that there is a sequel!


February 15, 2013, 12:54 pm

I’m such a fan of Lisa See. I love reading about other cultures and she always takes me to places and times I want to learn more about :)

Audra (Unabridged Chick)

February 16, 2013, 9:13 pm

Ooh, I need to read this — it sounds marvelous!

Rebecca @ Love at First Book

February 17, 2013, 1:57 am

I love Lisa See! Have you read Dreams of Joy?


February 17, 2013, 2:50 am

I read this back when it was released and loved it! See is such a great writer and really knows how to develop fascinating characters. Weirdly, though, I have no desire to read Dreams of Joy!


February 17, 2013, 10:58 am

Laurie: I think it came out a while later, maybe you read it in the interim? That said I myself completely forgot about the sequel until the cliffhanger ending here.

Jennifer: She does, and she writes them brilliantly, too.

Audra: You should, I think you’d like it :)

Rebecca: I will be now ;)

Anbolyn: I think from the set-up at the end of Shanghai Girls, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dreams of Joy is a completely different book. So in that way I can understand you there – and whilst I plan to read it, I’m not compelled to do so right away.


February 17, 2013, 11:47 am

I must read it!!
I have the sequel (I won it in a giveaway), and I have no excuses not to read it, I know I will love it.


February 17, 2013, 7:31 pm

I read this a couple of years ago and loved it. I thought there was a good balance between the history and the personal stories of the two sisters. Dreams of Joy is a great book too, even better than this one in my opinion!



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