In two separate interviews, Lisa See talks about Peony in Love (2007) and Shanghai Girls (2009).|
Lisa See discusses Shanghai Girls
What inspired you to write Shanghai Girls?
Four things, really. First, I've been collecting Shanghai advertising images
from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties for many years. The so-called Beautiful
Girls, women who posed for commercial artists, were right in the heart of the
excitement in Shanghai. The charming and captivating life illustrated in
advertisements is one thing, but I was interested in seeing what real life was
like for those women. I also wanted to write about what it was like for Chinese
women who came to America in arranged marriages. (We had a lot of arranged
marriages in my family. I know how hard life was for the women. They'd had
servants in China, but they lived like servants in America.) Third, I wanted to
write about China City, a short-lived tourist attraction in Los Angeles. And
finally, I wanted to write about sisters.
What is it about Shanghai that so captures the imagination?
In part it's the juxtaposition of extreme oppositesdire poverty amidst
flamboyant wealth, upstanding English gentlemen going to the same nightclubs as
the most corrupt gangsters, the lowest prostitutes plying Blood Alley competing,
in a sense, with the Beautiful Girls who graced magazine coversthat is somehow
delicious and sinful, like having a big juicy hamburger with glass of champagne.
In the 1930s, Shanghaithe Paris of Asiawas one of the world's most modern
cities. It was glamorous. It was fun. It was a place where everything seemed
possible, and, in fact, was possible. And, of course, that entrancing moment was
about to end, which also adds to its appeal.
The Japanese invasion in 1937 was the beginning of Shanghai's fall. The
Sino-Japanese War melded into World War II, which was followed almost
immediately by civil war. When Mao took over the country in 1949, Shanghai's
nightclubs were closed, beautiful clothes were put away, and street vendors and
all their tasty treats almost entirely eliminated. Writers and intellectuals
were sent to the countryside, labor camps, or executed. Artists were forced to
follow new precepts that said art must be subservient to politics and
communicate political and social messages about Communist ideology. Years ago,
during my first trip to Shanghai, I saw art-deco buildings, marble lobbies, and
ornate villas wrapped in a world gone grey. Communism had mummified the once
enchanting city. But as May and Pearl might say, everything returns to the
beginning. Now, in the 21st century, Shanghai has reclaimed its status as the
Paris of Asia and is once again considered not just one of the great cities in
the world but a true economic powerhouse.
Everyone knows about Ellis Island, but many people have never heard of Angel
Island. What is it? And what was it like for the immigrants who passed through
Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, is often referred to as the Ellis Island
of the West. The Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910 to1940.
Over one million immigrants from eighty countries passed through the station, of
which 175,000 were Chinese. We think of Ellis Island as a welcoming place, the
gateway to a new life in America, with the Statue of Liberty in view. But Angel
Island was far from welcoming. It was designed to be a barrier to Chinese
immigration, which is why it was often referred to the Guardian of the Western
Gate. At Ellis Island, immigrants were asked twenty-nine standard questions; at
Angel Island, Chinese detainees were subjected to between two hundred and over
one thousand questions. Some Chinese immigrants stayed as little as a few days;
some stayed for two years. Many were deported and many committed suicide.
Did any of your relatives go through Angel Island?
At the National Archives, I found over 500 pages of interrogations, photographs,
boarding passes, and health certificates related to my family members who passed
through Angel Island. I've also heard many stories from people in my family, as
well as from family friends, about their experiences at Angel Island. Pearl's
interrogations in Shanghai Girls are pulled directly from the hearing
transcripts for Mrs. Fong Lai (Jung-shee), the wife of one of my
great-grandfather's paper partners, and for my great-grandfather and his
What's Angel Island like today? Have you ever visited?
In addition to the Immigration Station, the island also has a garrison dating
from the Civil War, a fort that was active during the Spanish-American War, a
quarantine station, a World War II staging facility, and a Nike missile site.
Today people love to take the ferry to the island to picnic, hike, and bike.
The Immigration Station itself was closed to the public for several years for an
extensive renovation and conservation project. (It opened to the public again in
February 2009.) In 2008, I was invited on a private tour of the station. I have
never questioned for a moment how brave people wereand still areto leave their
home countries to come to the United States, but I cannot express how deeply I
was affected by wandering through the dormitory and strolling the grounds, where
my own relatives were held and interrogated. The conservators have done a
wonderful job with the barracks in particular. It's amazing to see the lines of
poetrykind of like graffitithat Chinese and other immigrants left on the
walls. They speak of homesickness, hope, yearning, loneliness, and bitterness at
being treated so badly. For example:
What can one person say to another?
Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate.
Gain or lose, how is one to know what is predestined?
Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of heaven?
Why should one complain if he is detained and imprisoned here?
From ancient times heroes often were the first to face adversity.
What were paper sons?
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred the immigration of all Chinese, except
for diplomats, ministers, students, merchants, and those who were the sons and
daughters of Chinese-American citizens. (If you're an American citizen and you
have a child in another country, then that child is also an American citizen.)
But Chinese weren't allowed to become naturalized citizens until 1943, so how
could they possibly enter the country as American citizens before that? During
the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, all birth records for California were
destroyed. Suddenly those Chinese, who were already here, could state that
they'd been born herebecause there was no documentation to prove them wrong (or
right)and thus claim citizenship by having been born on American soil. So when
a Chinese manwhether an actual U.S. citizen or one claiming false
citizenshipwent back to China, he could report that his wife had given birth to
a son in the village. He would receive a certificate stating that he had an
American-citizen son, which he could then sell to a total strangerbut often a
nephew or friend of the familyand then bring him to America as a citizen.
Obviously, a lot of secrecy surrounded paper sons. One mistake could cause not
just one person to be deported but a whole family, friends, and business
associates to be deported too. The fear of being caught has never gone away.
When I was working on On Gold Mountain, in the early 1990s, several people in my
family told me they didn't want to be interviewed because they were still afraid
they might be deported back to China. Even now families don't tell the second,
third, or even fourth generations about the origins of their citizenship status.
Two years ago, a young man wrote to me asking why his grandparents didn't treat
his father and him the same way they treated their other children and
grandchildren. I hinted that his father might be a paper son. It turned out I
was right. When I met the young man a few nights later, he was devastated. The
people he thought were his family were not related to him at all. Everything he
thought he knew about his grandparents, his parents, his uncles and aunts, and
his cousins was a lie.
Shanghai Girls is one of the few novels to tackle the
Confession Program. Even today great secrecy surrounds the Confession Program.
What was it, how did you get people to talk about it, and what did you learn?
The Confession Program ran from 1956 to 1965. The government asked Chinese to
"confess" their paper-son status. They were also encouraged to reveal the people
they knew in their own familiesfathers, sons, brothers, wivesthat they knew
had come in using false status. But it didn't stop there. People were also asked
to name neighbors, business associates, and anyone else they suspected might be
a Communist. By the time the program ended, 13,895 people had confessed,
exposing 22,083 others. Considering that the Chinese-American population in the
United States (without Hawaii) in 1950 was only 117,629, the effects on people
and families were far-reaching. The program caused, among other things, a
retraction from assimilation and American politics.
If people are still nervous about revealing paper-son status in their family
trees, then they're far more anxious and secretive when it comes to the
Confession Program. The Confession Program is still considered a terrible secret
and disgrace, not only by those who confessed or were ratted out but by our own
government too. During one of the interviews for this book, I was told, "There
were a lot of suicides, a lot of suicides. It's hard to remember these things
because of the pain." Another person said, "I don't know that we've ever
mentioned any of this to our kids." He then added, "We aren't dead yet, so we
aren't safe yet."
What was China City exactly?
China City was a tourist attraction developed by Christine Sterling, who also
developed Olvera Street, a Mexican marketplace here in Los Angeles. Mrs.
Sterling started both of these projects during the Depression as a way to give
poor immigrants a chance to start small businesses. Chinese City was intended to
look and feel like an "authentic" Chinese city. It was one square block
surrounded by a miniature Great Wall. Inside it was built from the leftover sets
from the filming of The Good Earth. The people who worked there were required to
wear Chinese costumes. Those who came to visit rode in rickshaws and nibbled on
Chinaburgers. China City was also home to the Asiastic Costume Company, where
movie studios rented props and costumes, and also hired Chinese extras to work
in films. I think it's safe to say that China City wasn't terribly authentic,
but it did have a lot of charm. And it's really lived on in the memories of the
people who worked there. My great-great-uncle had a shop there. His childrenmy
cousinshave wonderful memories of playing and working in China City.
You focus on close friendships between women in all your books. You wrote about
the lao tong relationship in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; you wrote about
so-called sister-wives in Peony in Love. This time you've written about sisters.
What's the difference between a relationship that's "just like sisters" and real
It is said that the sibling relationship is the longest we will have in our
lifetimes. A sister is the person who should stand by you, support you, and love
you no matter what. And yet your sister also knows exactly where to drive the
knife to hurt you the most. I think the biggest difference between sisters and
best friends who are like sisters is that actual sisters are for life. You share
the same experiences growing up. You share the same family secrets. You protect
and defend each other. Much later, you watch your parents grow old and die. This
links us in ways that we just don't have with a friend. That doesn't mean the
sister relationship is always easy or fun. Far from it! But blood is thicker
than water, and the closer we are, the more we experience together, the more
fraught and difficult the emotional relationship, the more grudges and hard
feelings we harbor, the more we actually come to rely on and trust each other.
As I said earlier, sisters are for life, and that leads to some interesting
dynamics that can play out over many decades.
It sounds like some of Shanghai Girls comes from your own
experiences. Is this where the emotional heart of the novel comes from?
Absolutely. I'm a sister myself, so there's that. (There are some arguments and
silly feuds between Pearl and May in the novel that really made my sisters laugh
when they read them. We lived some of those things!) But with Shanghai Girls I
also wanted to capture the people (and places) who are gone now, who meant so
much to me, who in so many ways made me the person I am today. When I was a
girl, I lived with my mother, but I spent a lot of time with my paternal
grandparents and my great-aunts and great-uncles in our family's antiques store
in Los Angeles Chinatown. The F. Suie One Company was located in a building that
had once been part of China City. Two stone lions guarded the store's moon gate.
Every morning my grandfather used to roll a rickshaw upholstered in purple
velvet to the curb to entice customers to enter. Inside the store, there were
upturned eaves, hidden nooks, and a room that held the remnants of China City's
wishing well. In 1981, the family store moved to Pasadena, where it is still in
operation. Several years later, the old China City building was torn down. Since
then, many of the other stores and cafés along Spring Street have also been
closed and the people have moved or died. The same thing is happening now in New
Chinatownthe old curio shops are being replaced by trendy art galleries, the
pioneer Chinese-American families are being replaced by hipsters. Writing about
the past allows me to be with the people and places I loved so much as a girl a
little while longer.
This Q&A is reproduced from Lisa See's website in 2009
with the permission of her publisher.
Random House Reader's Circle chats with with Lisa See about Peony in Love
Random House Reader's Circle: In her commentary to the opera The Peony
Pavilion, Peony writes: "Everything begins with love." In what ways did you
intend for Peony in Love to be a commentary on the way women perceive and
become aware of love?
Lisa See: I don't think of my writing as a commentary on anything. I
wanted to explore different aspects of love: gratitude love, pity love,
respectful love, romantic love, sexual love, sacrificing love, duty love, and
finally mother love. Even though Peony dies at age sixteen, by the end of the
novel she's experienced and explored what most women hope to have in their
RHRC: Doctor Zhao seems to be the voice of persistent doubt, always
voicing his opposition to The Peony Pavilion, and to women's scholarship
on the whole. Was Doctor Zhao based on a real person? How did you intend for him
to function within the narrative?
LS: He's not based on anyone in particular, although the words that come out
of his mouth come from things actual men said. Doctor Zhao functions on many
levels. First and foremost, Peony needed a doctor and her family could afford
one at a time when so many couldn't. I've always been interested in Chinese
medicine. I love looking up old potions, cures, and remedies, knowing that many
of them are still used today some of them even on me! But Doctor Zhao also has
to point out what others can't or refuse to see. Even today, parents of girls
with eating disorders have a hard time acknowledging what's wrong with their
daughters, finding treatment, let alone a cure. Finally, I needed someone a
man to voice the belief that reading The Peony Pavilion was dangerous
and that reading and writing could be fatal to women. Peony's father and Ren
[her true love] believed women should be exposed to books, but I had to have
someone who could say what half the men were thinking at the time a view that
eventually prevailed that an educated woman was a worthless woman.
RHRC: Did you always know that Peony would die? How did you conceive of
telling the story of Three Wives' Commentary from her perspective?
LS: I thought about the three wives for five years before I began writing
the book. At first I thought I would tell each wife's story, one right after the
other, but I longed for one voice, who would have the strength to carry the
whole story. One morning I woke up and knew that the first wife had to come back
as a ghost. Not only would I have a single voice to carry me through, but
Peony's experiences could parallel Liniang's in "The Peony Pavilion."
RHRC: The concept of the soul splitting into three parts upon death reads
like a perfect way to give Peony life, functionality, and a concrete existence,
even though her body was no longer active on earth. Why did you choose to
express Peony's troubled existence through this transition?
LS: Spirits in the Chinese afterworld whether beloved ancestors or ghosts
have the same wants, needs, and desires as living people. They need clothes,
food, a place to live. They have emotions. Most important, in the Chinese
tradition, spirits, ancestors, and even demons are very much a part of everyday
life. This is why ancestor worship is so important. So for me the challenge was
to create a believable situation (to Western readers, especially) for Peony. She
can float, change form, and do many things that the living can't do, but she is
also limited as all Chinese ghosts are by things like corners, mirrors,
scissors, and fern fronds. In other words, she inhabits a very real parallel
world to the living world; both have their own rules of what can and can't be
RHRC: Why was it important to place restrictions on Peony's knowledge and
capabilities in the afterlife namely not being able to turn corners, or still
having to learn life lessons before obtaining greater understanding?
LS: I didn't place those restrictions. They're there by Chinese tradition.
Let's take not being able to turn corners as an example. This belief permeates
many facets of Chinese culture, including city planning, architecture, and
landscape design. The first time I went to my family's home village, I was told
I wouldn't be able to find it because I had to know the right set of tire tracks
through the rice fields to get there. I thought my uncles were kidding, but they
were right. I could see the village in the distance, but there were no straight
roads to it or to any other village in China. Why? Because even today no one
wants to give ghosts a straight line to a village. In wealthy homes and palaces,
you see zigzag bridges, which are aesthetically beautiful but also have a
practical purpose. How many zigzags you had depended on your rank. Only the
emperor could have nine zigzags. Even in wealthy, elite, educated homes, people
didn't want ghosts crossing their bridges. But obviously Chinese ghosts have
found ways to get around these obstacles, otherwise there wouldn't be Chinese
ghost stories. I took those things that are traditionally harmful to ghosts and
then had to figure out how Peony would overcome or work around them.
RHRC: When did the Chinese stop believing in all this?
LS: They haven't. In mainland China, some of these traditions and beliefs
disappeared during the Mao era, but a lot of them are returning now. In Taiwan,
ghost marriages are still practiced, because even in death everyone needs to
have a spouse. Around the world, even here in the U.S., Chinese still celebrate
New Year by sending the Kitchen God to Heaven to report to the ancestors on the
family's behavior during the past year.
My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief
systems. One isn't right and the other wrong, although certainly wars and even
personal arguments are fought all the time over whose religion is right. But I
hope readers who find these beliefs disturbing, unsettling, or unbelievable will
consider for a moment what people on the other side of the world might think
about the Christian belief in the father, the son, and the holy ghost. In China,
I've been asked many times, "People in the West don't really believe in that
stuff, do they?"
RHRC: You weave many secrets into this novel secrets meant to protect
but in the end only do harm, and harmful secrets that bring joy once revealed.
What did you wish your readers to take away from this?
LS: People keep secrets from each other all the time. Wives keep secrets
from their husbands; husbands keep secrets from their wives. We'll tell one
friend something but not another. Secrets begin almost from birth. There are
many things we choose not to tell our children. Of course, many
wonderful things are passed from grandmother to mother to daughter down through
the generations, and those things make us into the people we are. But there are
other stories secrets that also have a ripple effect. We may not know what
happened in the past that's why they're secrets but these things also help
to turn us into the people we become as adults. I've found that many of these
secrets have to do with how men and women treat each other, with the result that
generations later you find women who are extremely fearful of men, or have a
belief that men will somehow "save" them, or that they have a repeating pattern
of choosing an alcoholic or abusive husband, and they don't know why.
RHRC: What was Wu Ren experiencing in the years between his weddings? Why
did you choose not to express his experience during that time?
LS: At last, an easy question! Very little is known about Wu Ren and what's
known I used. But your question reminds me of another one that I'm often asked:
What parts of the story are true and what parts are fictional? I tried to stay
as true as possible to the story of the three wives. This caused lots of
problems, because truth is always stranger than fiction. One fire destroying a
manuscript in a story is believable, but two fires? Yikes! And what about the
dream that Ren and Yi share at the end? This dream is part of the historical
record, but I had to try and make it believable. Finding the balance between
fact and fiction was quite a challenge.
RHRC: What were your favorite scenes to write?
LS: My favorite scenes were the ones between Peony and her grandmother,
Peony and her mother (once she arrived in the afterworld), and the three of them
together. I got weepy when I wrote those scenes, particularly the one when
Peony's mother and grandmother came back to earth for Peony's wedding. This goes
back to the secrets you asked me about earlier. What we tell each other and what
we know to be true are often completely different. Peony's grandmother is so
sure she's right, but she isn't. Peony thinks she knows what's going on, but she
doesn't. And Peony's mother is just incredible. She embodies all that's good and
bad in mother love. She tries so hard to protect her daughter, but ends up
failing in such a tragic way. But how can we protect our children, really? We
can't. We can only do the best we can in the moment. Then, when Peony's mother
turned out to have been the woman to write the poem on the wall . . . well, it
nearly killed me. To me, these three women change in profound ways, but that's
what women do. We change, we evolve, we make mistakes, we love, and we try to do
the best we can.
RHRC: How did you prepare to write Peony in Love? Was extensive
research needed, and if so, what were your sources?
LS: I'm a research fiend. I love it. I read everything I could on the three
wives and I spoke with the top scholars in the field of Chinese women's history.
I also found first-person accounts of what happened during the Manchu invasion
of Yangzhou. These were true stories of terrible suffering, but I used them to
tell what happened to Peony's mother and her family, because the truthful
details were so much more wrenching and terrifying than anything I could have
made up. A whole separate part of my research had to do with ghosts and the need
for sons, which are closely related. And of course, I went to China. I went to
every location that I wrote about. Even today, Hangzhou is considered China's
most romantic city. So while that trip wasn't as hard or as dramatic as some
I've done for other books, I know I couldn't have written the novel if I hadn't
spent time in Hangzhou and its environs.
RHRC: Do you think Peony in Love has a broader message for its
LS: Both Peony in Love and my previous novel, Snow Flower and the
Secret Fan, tell part of a larger story about women and our lost history.
Women today are very lucky, but we've only been able to get to where we are
because of all the suffering, failures, tragedies, and triumphs of the women who
came before us. We should rejoice in what they did. At the same time, I don't
think our lives are so removed from theirs. We and I'm speaking here of men
and women still long need to be heard. Peony is about what
one person will endure to be heard.
RHRC: In the margins of The Three Wives' Commentary, Qian Yi
asked: "Why is it that so many women's thoughts have been like flowers in the
wind, drifting off with the current and vanishing without a trace?" How would
you answer this question?
LS: We hear that in the past there were no women writers, no women
artists, no women chefs I could go on and on but of course women did these
things! It's just that so often what they did was lost, forgotten, or
deliberately covered up. But even today, as far as women have come and as much
as we've accomplished, women's words still can vanish without a trace, and it
often happens at the most intimate, day-to-day level. Let's take a high-powered
woman executive, as an example. During the day, she's accustomed to people
listening to her, right? But when she comes home, she can say to her kids,
"Clean your room, clean your room, CLEAN YOUR ROOM!" And they don't listen. They
don't hear her, because she's just the mom. (This happens to stay-at-home
moms too.) And you can tell your husband twenty times that the two of you will
be meeting friends for dinner or that the cereal is on the second shelf, and
he'll still ask, "Why didn't you tell me we were going out?" or "Where's the
cereal?" because he hasn't been listening because you're just the wife. I'm not
cranky about it or anything close to that. I'm just saying this is my experience
and I know a lot of women share in this experience too. We laugh it off and call
what our husband and kids do endearing, because we love them. But since this
happens at the domestic level even now, it doesn't surprise me that in the past
women's accomplishments in particular their writings, their words
were lost and ignored. China was very lucky to have men who collected and
preserved what women wrote, but where are women's writings from Europe and other
parts of the world? Lost, and drifting on the wind. . . .
RHRC: You do a lot of different things: you're a Los Angeles city
commissioner, you curate museum exhibitions, you go out and speak, you're on
several boards, you write books for which you sometimes go on quite adventurous
(some might say scary) research expeditions, and you have a family too. How do
you find time to do it all? And what's your day like?
LS: A lot of writers are shy by nature. That's part of the reason we become
writers. We like to be alone in our rooms day after day. I know I do. But I've
worked for years to force myself to go out and do things. When I was in my early
twenties, I even challenged myself to do one "outrageous" thing a week. I have
to admit I didn't do anything all that outrageous, but I did push the borders of
what I could do and how brave I could be. Beyond that, how can you write if you
have no experience of the world, of people, of emotions? E. M. Forster wrote,
"Only connect." How can you write about the human experience if you don't
connect? So I go out and I do stuff lots of stuff and I try to connect.
Still, the writing comes first. I wake up early, get a cup of tea, and check my
e-mail, because my husband exercises in the room off my office, so the music's
blasting and he's thumping away on some machine or other. Once the room has
quieted down, I write a thousand words. That's just four pages. Sometimes I
write more but never less. Then I get dressed and start to think about the rest
of the day.
RHRC: All your novels so far are set wholly or partly in China. Did
the family background you discovered while writing On Gold Mountain inspire
you to focus on this aspect of your genetic inheritance in your fiction?
LS: I've always been intrigued by lost stories and lost history. This was
true with my own Chinese-American background, so yes, I'd say that my desire to
find lost stories very much comes from writing On Gold Mountain. I mean,
how crazy is it to look into your family history and find a great-grandfather
who got his start in this country by selling crotchless underwear to brothels?
So much of what my family did was either borderline illegal or full-on out-there
illegal. At the same time, history was happening all around them. History was
happening to them. I've stayed with this idea of history happening to
individual people with all my novels, including Peony in Love.
But something else happened as a result of writing On Gold Mountain. I
hadn't really thought too much about my identity. Who does, after all? All of a
sudden people asked me and still do "What are you, Chinese or American?" I
know that, because of how I look, I will always be seen as a bit of an outsider
in Chinatown, but to me it's home. It's what I know. The same can be said for
when I go to China. To me, it's just a bigger Chinatown very familiar and
comfortable, but again, because of how I look I'll always be considered an
outsider. Then when I'm out in the larger white community in the United States,
I look like I belong but sometimes I don't feel like I do. That world can seem
strange and foreign to me. So in writing these books I'm also trying to figure
out who I am. Where do I fit in? Here, there, anywhere, nowhere?
RHRC: Finally, what are you working on now?
LS: The new novel's tentatively called Shanghai Girls, and I've
been having a lot of fun with it. It starts in 1937 with two sisters in
Shanghai. They come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. We often read about
arranged marriages in other countries, but a lot of people don't know that we
had and still have them here in the U.S. Back in the 1930s, my great-uncle took
his sons back to China. A lot of dads would have said, "Here's some money, go
find a souvenir," but he said, "As long as we're here, let's get you boys
wives." And that's exactly what they did. The oldest was about twenty-five and
the youngest was about fourteen. The women (and girls), who in China had had
servants, came to Los Angeles and became the servants. They had very hard and
often sad lives. Shanghai Girls is going to reveal a time and place that
people know very little about, even though it happened right here in our
country. Lastly, this is a story of two sisters. Every relationship between
sisters, no matter how loving and close, is plagued by sibling rivalry: who's
prettier, richer, more talented, happier, the better mother? Your sister is the
one person who should stick by you and love you no matter what, but she's also
the one who knows exactly where to stab the knife to hurt you the most. Every
woman who has a sister will see the shared hopes, dreams, petty rivalries, and
deep connections for good and bad that only sisters (and often best friends,
who are like sisters) can have.