Book Review: “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls is one of those historical novels that incorporate the historical realities of a certain time in history and turned them into a novel. In this novel, the author, Lisa See, might have captured all the stories from the Chinese people living from the early 1930’s to 1970’s. It was a time of many turbulences for people around the world, especially China, which was invaded by Japan and was subsequently involved in the World War II. The author grew up in the old Chinatown, which may be why she had the first hand knowledge of the stories of the people and how they were discriminated in this country at that time. The dynamics of the Chinese people’s attitude toward Taiwan, and the Red China were quite interesting, driven by fears of being labeled a communist. This was really new to me. Many of the people paved the road to the civil rights of the Chinese people in this country.

A summary of Shanghai Girls is as follows:

Two girls, May and Pearl, in their 20’s living in the relatively high Shanghai society in the late 1930’s were suddenly launched into poverty because their dad’s gambling habit. To pay back the debtors, the dad forced their daughters into arranged marriages with Mr. Louie’s two sons, Sam and Vernon. As narrated by Pearl, she and her younger sister May and Pearl tried to renege on the agreement and skipped the ship that would have led them to Los Angeles. It wasn’t long when Japan’s army reached Shanghai and forced the family to escape south to Hongkong. At this time, their dad had abandoned the family. With the guidance of their foot-bound Mom, they were slowly moving away from the hotspots. Then on a fateful day, a bunch of Japanese army seize the refugee party, raped and killed their mom. Despite Mom’s pleading, Pearl got out of their hiding place and was too gang-raped. When she woke up, she was in a hospital rescued by May. They eventually migrated to Hongkong and took a ship ride to San Francisco, where they were stranded in Angel’s Island and were not released to their husband until May’s baby was born. At this time, May’s daughter would become Pearl’s daughter since Pearl and Sam had done the husband-and-wife thing but not Vernon and May. There were lots of not-so-benign facts about the laws against Chinese people and how they’re being treated in Angel Island. Now I appreciate why most immigrants didn’t have good things to say about Angel Island, now a very beautiful National Park.

The girls finally arrived at Old Man Louie’s place in Los Angeles China Town, where they were plunged into poverty and isolation of Chinese immigrants. Later, more of the facts about Pearl’s husband, Sam, surfaced that he’s not a legitimate US citizen but a “paper son” (a law loophole to import cheap Chinese slaves to the US). Also, Vernon, May’s husband, was either autistic or had a down syndrome such that he would make model planes and boats all day long. At least Vernon was Mr. Louie’s legitimate son.

The family went through many tribulations of that era including the discrimination from the white, the unfair law, and the more discrimination due to China’s turning into a Communist country and its involvement in the Korean War. I can imagine how tough it must have been for the people at that time. Pearl herself almost had a baby boy of her own but the baby died during childbirth. But the family continued to bond, survive and thrive to the best their ability despite many setbacks. Yen-yen, the mother-in-law once a child prostitutes after being kidnapped out of her own home, died all of the sudden. Then Mr. Louie died of old age and cancer. The young Joy started to blossom and eventually moved away to Chicago for her college, where she met this idealistic socialistic boy named Joe Kwok. He exert lots of influence over Joy and painted a very different pictures of what China was like.

Because of Joy’s participation on a suspected communist society, her family was investigated for their fake citizenship. The harassment was further exacerbated by May’s volunteering Sam’s fake-citizenship information to the FBI and INS. Sam committed suicide to free the family from further harassment by the government.

One day, Joy overheard the conversation between her mom and her birth mom that she was the love child of May and Z.G. and her dad wasn’t a legitimate son. She ran away to China to find her father, Z.G. and herself. This was where the story ended.