In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their fathers prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldnt be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.
As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatowns old ways and rules.
"Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. "Can't you do something about them?"
Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough - some might even say lovely - but not as luminescent as the pearl I'm named for. I tend to blush easily. Beyond that, my cheeks capture the sun. When I turned five, my mother began rubbing my face and arms with pearl creams, and mixing ground pearls into my morning jook - rice porridge - hoping the white essence would permeate my skin. It hasn't worked. Now my cheeks burn red - exactly what my father hates. I shrink down into my chair. I always slump when I'm near him, but I slump even more on those occasions when Baba takes his eyes off my sister to look at me. I'm taller than my father, which he loathes. We live in Shanghai, where the tallest car, the tallest wall, or the tallest building sends a clear and unwavering ...
The only criticism that can be leveled against the book – and it's certainly minor - is that loose-ends are not wrapped up by the novel's conclusion, leading one to believe (and hope) there's another book in the works that will feature Pearl and the women around her. Regardless, Shanghai Girls is perhaps Lisa See's best novel to date. Its multi-layered themes will keep readers fascinated, while its fast-moving plot will keep them entertained. The novel is sure to please existing fans while attracting a whole new set of admirers. Highly recommended.
(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).
Full Review (1158 words).
The Angel Island Immigration Station
In Shanghai Girls, Pearl and May are incarcerated at the Angel Island Immigration Station after fleeing war-torn China. Angel Island was the first stop for most Chinese entering the United States during this period; 175,000 were processed there during its thirty years of operation.
Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-1800s as a result of the California Gold Rush. Although initially welcomed, or at least tolerated, an economic downturn in the 1870s created resentment as the immigrants willingness to work for low wages was viewed as depriving others of gainful employment. This led to a series of immigration laws targeting Asians, beginning with the Chinese ...
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