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 clichÃ©d and predictable. The dialogue is almost painfully banal. Yet the settings (1930â€™s Shanghai, 1940â€™s and â€˜50â€™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.”