three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Lisa See
user_rating: 
0

LS-ShanghaiGirlsThe Story: In 1937, Shanghai is the "Paris of Asia." Twenty-one year old Pearl Chin, the narrator, and her 18-year-old sister May live privileged lives as "beautiful girls"-artists' models for advertisements and calendars. Though from a traditional family, they possess modern, Western outlooks. But when their father gambles away his wealth, he sells his daughters in arranged marriages to Chinese brothers in Los Angeles. When the Japanese bomb Shanghai, Pearl and May flee China for the United States, and the sisters encounter racism, violence, poverty, and betrayal. Worse, Los Angeles's Chinatown does not turn out to be the "Gold Mountain" they imagined, but a city of discrimination, Communist witch hunts, betrayals, devastating secrets, and ultimate compromises between China's old traditions and the new ways of America.
Random House. 314 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781400067114

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"See re-creates the 1950s right down to the molded Jell-O salads and the government assumption that all Chinese immigrants must be Communist spies. ... As with Snow Flower, See demonstrates the almost life-giving strength women can gain from sisterhood-and the ways in which they can tear each other apart without even trying." Yvonne Zipp

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Few readers will have encountered the kind of culture shocks the sisters experience as they move from the relative freedom of spoiled rich girls in Shanghai through the war-torn Chinese countryside and on to the United States. ... Shanghai Girls is a rich work, one that portrays an immigrant experience as well as plumbing the relationship of sisterhood, with its friction as well as its support." Robin Vidimos

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"See goes into much detail about the lives of the Chinese in Los Angeles in the '40s and '50s, and the sisters' story becomes inundated with historical context. ... See, whose writing is as graceful as these 'beautiful girls,' pulls off another exceptional novel." Amy Canfield

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"In this moving historical novel, Lisa See explores her Chinese-American roots and those of the Chinese who headed to California in the early 20th century in hopes of a better life, only to find hardship and discrimination. ... See is a gifted writer, and in Shanghai Girls she again explores the bonds of sisterhood while powerfully evoking the often nightmarish American immigrant experience." Susan Kelly

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The detail is thoughtful and intricate in ways that hardly qualify this book as the stuff of chick lit. Still, its heroines are two clotheshorse sisters who work as models. And they speak the universal language of the genre during the early part of this envelopingly dramatic, two-decade-long story." Janet Maslin

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"See's research is excellent, but one hopes she eventually will stretch beyond the boundaries of the multicultural family saga. ... Shanghai Girls rarely challenges May and Pearl's relationship enough for us to appreciate why that bond is stronger than others." Sara Cypher

San Francisco Chronicle HHJ
"The detail is certainly not only evocative but it can also be wearying; plot and character seem to give way to something that at times reads more like a particularly detailed encyclopedia entry. ... But the razor-sharp skills See summons to describe a silk dress or a crowded street in Los Angeles' China City are not applied to the characters' self-deceptions and their emotional consequences." Chloë Schama

Critical Summary

Like Lisa See's previous works, Shanghai Girls is a rich, historical novel that portrays the immigrant experience and the bonds of sisterhood. In deft, graceful prose, See depicts the challenges and hardships-many unimaginable-that the Chin sisters face. However, despite the realistic detail and excellent research, particularly in the portrayals of Angel Island and the poverty-ridden China City, some critics thought that the descriptions about the women's divergent lives in Los Angeles slowed the story. And while most reviewers praised the sympathetic, flesh-and-blood characters, a few thought they succumbed to cultural platitudes and lacked introspection into their relationships and self-deceptions. Yet despite these flaws, Shanghai Girls is a compelling, educational portrait of Chinese assimilation, sure to be enjoyed by readers of See's previous work.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Pearl's narration is unique because of its level, calm tone throughout – even when the events she describes are horrific. One is reminded of Wordsworth's reference to "emotion recollected in tranquility." It is almost as if Pearl is writing in a diary. What was Lisa trying to accomplish in setting up this counterpoint between her tone and her narrative?
2. Pearl is a Dragon and May is a Sheep. Do you think the two sisters are true to their birth signs in their actions in Shanghai Girls?
3. Which sister is smarter? Which is more beautiful?
4. Each sister believes that her parents loved the other sister more. Who is right about this? Why?
5. Pearl says that parents die, husbands and children can leave, but sisters are for life. Does that end up being true for Pearl? If you have a sister, to what extent does the relationship between Pearl and May speak to your own experience? What's the difference between a relationship that's "just like sisters" and real sisters? Is there anything your sister could do that would cause an irreparable breach?
6. Z.G. talks about ai kuo, the love for your country, and ai jen, the emotion you feel for the person you love. How do these ideas play out in the novel?
7. Shanghai Girls makes a powerful statement about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants to the United States. Were you surprised about any of the details related to this theme in the novel?
8. How would you describe the relationship between Pearl and May? How does the fact that both are, in a sense, Joy's mother affect their relationship toward each other? Who loves Joy more and how does she show it?
9. Pearl doesn't come to mother love easily or naturally. At what point does she begin to claim Joy as her own? How, where, and why does she continue to struggle with the challenges of being a mother? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of motherhood?
10. There are times when it seems like outside forces conspire against Pearl—leaving China, working in the restaurant, not looking for a job after the war, and taking care of Vern. How much of what happens to Pearl is a product of her own decisions and choices?
11. Pearl's attitude toward men and the world in general is influenced by what happened to her in the shack outside Shanghai. To what extent does she find her way to healing by the end of the novel? Did your attitude toward Old Man Louie change? How do you feel about Sam and his relationship with Pearl and Joy? Did your impression of him change as the novel progressed?
12. The novel begins with Pearl saying, "I am not a person of importance." After Yen-yen dies, Pearl comments: "Her funeral is small. After all, she was not a person of importance, rather just a wife and mother." How do you react to comments like these?
13. Speaking of Yen-yen, Pearl notes: "When we're packing, Yen-yen says she's tired. She sits down on the couch in the main room and dies." Why does Pearl describe Yen-yen's death in such an abrupt way?
14. After Joy points out the differences in the way Z.G. painted her mother and aunt in the Communist propaganda posters, May says, "Everything always returns to the beginning." Pearl has her idea of what May meant, but what do you think May really meant? And what is Pearl's understanding of this saying at the end of the novel?
15. Near the end of Shanghai Girls, May argues that Pearl and Sam have withdrawn into a world of fear and isolation, not taking advantage of the opportunities open to them. Do you agree with May that much of Pearl's sadness and isolation is self-imposed? Why or why not?
16. How do clothes define Pearl and May in different parts of the story? How do the sisters use clothes to manipulate others?
17. How does food serve as a gateway to memory in the novel? How does it illustrate culture and tradition both in the novel and in your own families?
18. What influence—if any—do Mama's beliefs have on Pearl? How do they evolve over time?
19. Pearl encounters a lot of racism, but she also holds many racist views herself. Is she a product of her time? Do her attitudes change during the course of the story?
20. What role does place—Shanghai, Angel Island, China City, and Chinatown—serve in the novel? What do you think Lisa was trying to say about "home"?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.