If you’re looking for one of those wonderful “take me someplace exotic and unfamiliar” books for summer, you won’t do better than “Shanghai Girls,” the latest from novelist Lisa See, who has carved a rich career chronicling the lives of Chinese women.
In “Shanghai Girls,” she takes readers on a lively journey, both tragic and hopeful, from the Shanghai of the 1930s to Los Angeles’ Chinatown in the mid-20th century. She renders both settings with loving, precise strokes that create a world her narrator, Pearl Chin, and her sister May fully inhabit along with the reader.
As the novel begins in 1937, the teenage sisters are living a privileged, happy life in Shanghai. They play at working as “beautiful girls,” modeling for advertisements and magazine covers. Pearl is the more studious and quiet; May’s the party girl who’s prettier and more vivacious.
They know nothing of how their family acquired its wealth. “Everyone agrees — even in families — that it’s better not to inquire about the past, because everyone in Shanghai has come here to get away from something or has something to hide,” See writes.
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And there are casual, if horrific, hints that the Shanghai they adore has a much darker aspect, a side Pearl and May deliberately overlook or notice merely in passing. As they exit a rickshaw, See writes, “We pay him, cross the street, step around a dead baby on the sidewalk, find another rickshaw puller.” Just another journey through Shanghai.
The girls’ willful oblivion comes to an abrupt end through two events: their father’s decision to settle his gambling debts by selling them into marriage to two Chinese-American brothers and the subsequent invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese.
The two husbands have returned to America to await their brides. Before they can go, though, Mr. Chin disappears, leaving the sisters and their mother to flee Shanghai alone. Once in Los Angeles, the girls endure months at the U.S. Immigration center at Angel Island (the West Coast’s version of Ellis Island) before they’re cleared to enter America. Once in, they build lives around their new in-laws’ many businesses in Chinatown.
See masterfully weaves the intimate story of these sisters and their extended family with the larger tales of Chinese immigrants struggling to get along in an unfamiliar, often hostile new land. The subtle rivalry between Pearl and May grows when May gets involved with the burgeoning movie business, taking along Joy, Pearl’s daughter.
It all comes to a head in a climax that seems to come a bit late but will give readers plenty of hope for a sequel. It feels as though See had 10 more chapters or so in her head and just couldn’t fit them in. Readers will be clamoring for the conclusion to the Chin sisters’ tale, so let’s hope See is already writing it.