Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Pearl and May Chin are sisters, growing up in Shanghai, 1937. The two young ladies are also Beautiful Girls, a phrase that carries a specific denotation in the modern, cosmopolitan culture of Westernized Shanghai. Pearl and May are models whose portraits sell everything from cigarettes to soap. The girls are living a fast, sophisticated, and carefree life, when suddenly everything changes. The girls’ father owes money to the mob, and in order to pay them he arranges a complicated deal that involves arranged marriages for his daughters to two Chinese boys from San Francisco that they’ve never met. And at the same time the Japanese army is sweeping over northern China, headed for Shanghai. Chiang Kai Shek and his Chinese nationalists are opposing the Japanese, and the two forces meet on the streets of Shanghai.

This first part of the book was illustrative of fact that at the same time that huge historical events are taking place, individuals are playing out their own dramas. May and Pearl hardly notice the advance of the Japanese army at first; they are too caught up in their own battle with their father. Then, they realize that their American husbands may be their only ticket to escape the horrors of war and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and surrounding areas.

Most of the rest of the story deals with May and Pearl and their relationship as sisters and their adjustment to living in a new place and a new culture. The Chinese are not particularly welcome in pre-WW2 San Francisco. There is much bigotry to endure or overcome, and many decisions must be made about how to handle encounters with the U.S. government and with non-Chinese neighbors and citizens. But the center of the story always comes back to the relationship between May and Pearl. Are they rivals or best friends? Or both? How can the two sisters see each other’s faults and shortcomings so clearly and still remain the central source of love and support for one another?

The book made me think not so much of my own sister, although we are good friends, as it did of my children and their relationships. Sometimes they exhibit the same jealousies and misunderstandings that May and Pearl have, but at the same time I see them being fiercely protective and defensive of one another. I do believe that some of my children are each other’s best friends, and that makes me happy, even when it involves a closeness that can see and exploit the other’s weaknesses. The sister/sister relationship in particular is fraught with peril, but also can be rewarding and full of joy. On whom can you depend if not your sister?

Shanghai Girls was a moving look at a pair of Chinese sisters and their perilous journey to America and also to true sisterhood. I enjoyed the trip.

What some other bloggers thought about Shanghai Girls:

Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books: “The fictional Pearl and May, like many actual Chinese in America during this period, endured. Shanghai Girls is a work of historical fiction that both entertains and teaches.”

A Book a Week: “The sisters in Shanghai Girls have a relationship that is clichéd and predictable. The dialogue is almost painfully banal. Yet the settings (1930’s Shanghai, 1940’s and ‘50’s Los Angeles) are great, very evocative and filled with detail.”

Darlene at Peeking Between the Pages: “I have to say that Shanghai Girls really ends in the middle of nowhere. I was shocked when I got to the last page as I still expected more story but that leads me to believe there will be a sequel and that I’m looking forward to.”

Kailana/Kelly at The Written Wordhas a joint review with Marg of The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Good discussion there, and their review confirms that there is supposed to be a sequel.

10 thoughts on “Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

  1. Someone passed this book on to me and I knew nothing about it…thanks for the review!

  2. I think I will be the minority when I say I did not love this book. Maybe it was me not being in the right reading mood. I love Snowflower and the Secret Fan. Maybe I will try the audiobook.

  3. Mmmmm. I’ve had this book on my shelf since it came out but haven’t got round to it yet. Story of my life!

  4. Sherry Edwards

    I agree with Senora. I didn’t love the book, but I did finish it. I liked ” Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden much better.

  5. I really loved this book. I also enjoyed Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” I didn’t enjoy Peony in Love as much. Great post!

  6. I too really loved this book. Not quite as much as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but still enjoyed it.

    Hope you can hop by for a visit at LibraryCats Books.

  7. Like Darlene, I was very surprised the book ended the way it did; I have read (where?!?) that there will be a sequel. Let’s hope that’s true, not just a rumor we’re perpetuating!

    Sherry, I like your observations about siblings and friendship. When our 4 squabble, we remind them that they should always be able to depend on each other.

    Thanks for linking to my review!

  8. I read this book recently and I didn’t love it either. I did like learning about a piece of history that was completely new to me (both the war and the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the US), but I agree that the sisters’ relationship was cliché. And I found the story very depressing. Pearl’s life was one bad thing after another, and her annoying attitude, holding grudges, etc. just made it worse to read about.

  9. Kathleen

    I adored this book. Having spent some time in China, twice, made it very interesting for me. I was sad when I finished reading it and am waiting for the next book…I hope!

    All of Lisa See’s books are fascinating for me.

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