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Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

abstract:Shanghai Girls Shanghai Girls I have just finished Lisa See’s latest novel, and I am devastated. I turn to the next page in hope that it’s a misprint and that there must be more written – this just can’t be the end. I have been following two Chinese sisters, May and Pearl, as they embark on a journey from their home country to America. It is a story of displacement and identity. Underpinning it all is the tale of sisterly love, as well as sibling rivalry. Lisa See weaves an enthralling tale at a time in history where there were so many stories to be told.

Lisa See is the author of critically acclaimed and international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005). She has also written a three part mystery series, as well as non-fiction and short story works. Lisa See released her first book in 1995, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family . This is the story of her grandfather’s journey to Los Angeles, and how he became the godfather for Chinatown. Her latest novel is the third in her Chinese set, and from what I hear will not be the last.

Random House
April 12, 2011
Lisa See The story starts in Shanghai 1937, which was considered the Paris of Asia; it is glamorous and diverse. Beggars live alongside millionaires, tradition battles Western influences – we come to Shanghai at a point of great change.

"I love Shanghai. It isn't like the other places in China. Instead of swallowtail roofs and glazed tiles, we have mo t'ien talou - magical big buildings - that reach into the sky. Instead of moon gates, spirit screens, intricate latticework windows, and red lacquer pillars, we have neoclassical edifices in granite decorated with art deco ironwork, geometric designs, and etched glass."

The sisters work as beautiful girls, posing as models they sell anything from cigarettes to complexion pills. They are the "it girls" of their time. They are also a symbol for a changing Shanghai, a modern Chinese woman, educated and independent. Pearl and May are benefactors of a more lenient society, and unlike the generation before them they expect to marry for love instead of coping with an arranged marriage.

When the first Japanese bombs start to fall on Shanghai their Father also drops one of his own. He has squandered all their wealth gambling, and he now owes a huge debt that could strip them of their home and lifestyle. As the sisters listen open mouthed he explains that they are part of the bargain to appease their debts – they will be married to offset the payment. Never intending to follow through on the deal the girls ignore the fact that their world is being turned upside down.

“It’s said that the worse part of a bombing experience is the seconds of total paralysis and silence that immediately follow the initial concussion. It’s as though – and I think this is an expression used in every culture – time stands still. That’s how it is for me. I’m frozen in place.”

When they return home, shell shocked, the Green Gang are waiting for them, sent to enforce the payment of the debt. Still the girls believe they will never have to fullfill their side of the bargain, but the situation in Shanghai is getting worse and they finally realise they need to escape. The sisters endure a harrowing journey across the Chinese countryside littered by Japanese soldiers. They make it onto a boat and head to Los Angeles. Their only means of escape is ironically to find their new husbands.

The girls must now come to terms with being strangers in a new country and a new home. Not the standard of living they are used to, the sisters are soon put to work in the family businesses.

"I am ashamed that May and I have ended up here. I blame myself that we work so hard and never receive even one of the lo fan dimes. Once when I held my hand out to Old Man Louie and asked for pay, he spit on her palm."

Motherhood and family responsibility hit both girls hard, they must adjust to survive. However, through it all they have each other. Lisa See intricately weaves the sibling rivalry and petty jealousies that hinder any sisterly relationship all the way throughout the novel. In an interview she explains that a sibling relationship will be the longest relationship most people will have in a lifetime. These people have known you from birth, supported you and been there through everything, they are also the people know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most.

"I'm her jie jie - her elder sister. In the hierarchy of the Chinese family, I will always and forever be above her, even if my family doesn't love me as much as they love her."

Shanghai Girls Just as the girls are getting settled in their new roles, the unrest back in China threatens to change things once again. Even though they look back and reminisce, the Shanghai they left no longer exists; a new China is forming. Pear is horrified to find her daughter, Joy, falling in with the wrong crowd at school. The words of her parents come back to haunt her as she begins to repeat them to her own daughter. Her relationship even strains with her sister May, and finally the build up of sibling resentment spills over.

This story is close to Lisa See’s heart. She has Chinese ancestry and her grandparents owned a Chinese antique store in Los Angeles, Chinatown. This novel was a historical and cultural lesson on pre-war China. The characters of May and Pearl, although far detached from my own life and experiences, were easy to relate to. These were essentially two girls who had their whole world swept from under their feet. Juxtaposing girlish hope and dreams, with the dramatic events of that era. See leaves the reader hanging in the end pages, and thankfully she’s working on a sequel so that we can follow Pearl and May a little further into their new lives.



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