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“Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See is a historic epic novel spanning two turbulent decades of Chinese history from 1937, when the Japanese invaded China, through the late 1950s. Before WWII Shanghai was prosperous and cosmopolitan, a city teaming with wealthy European merchants and high-society Chinese. Rickshaws still filled the streets.
Pearl and May are two wealthy sisters enjoying life to the fullest. They are “beautiful girls” who pose for calendars in colorful Chinese silk dresses. Both are fluent in English. May even tutors a Japanese officer. Somehow they manage to avoid or ignore the unpleasant news erupting around them as none of it affects their family, until everything changes.
Their father gambles away their wealth, and to repay his debts, he must sell his daughters to suitors who have traveled from the U.S. to find Chinese brides. Suddenly Pearl and May are poor in an occupied country fleeing for their lives.
The story of how they get to the U.S. is a real page-turner. Once in Los Angeles the sisters try to adapt to American ways in a household that prefers to be Chinese. The U.S. is interning Japanese-Americans, and often Chinese citizens are confused with with Japanese, and treated as enemies too. Those living in Chinatown face many of the same obstacles as any immigrants to the United States. They look different and their customs are different.
During the McCarthy era, all Chinese seemed to some to be subversives. The author has researched carefully the racism and prejudice of that time.
It is Los Angeles, so the young women are a part of the Hollywood film industry too. Thousands of extras are needed for movies like “The Good Earth” but all the Asian speaking parts are played by non- Orientals.
The fascinating history of these two decades is told from Pearl’s point of view. The people are remarkable and tough. Lisa See does a wonderful job bringing to life the American Chinese in the 1950s.
Lisa See must be working on a sequel. The book ends with many questions left unanswered. However, the novel still stands alone as a complete story. Readers who loved “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” will be just as enthralled
with “Shanghai Girls.”