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Review: Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See
Random House, 2009. 336 pp. $17

Pearl and her sister, May, live the good life in Shanghai, in 1935. They earn money posing for an artist friend, who puts their faces on commercial calendars, so they are known as “beautiful girls.” They get good tables at clubs and restaurants and party at all hours, hardly noticing the vast ocean of poor surrounding them. Pearl, elder by three years, feels herself the less favored sister, though she’s gone to college, and May won’t ever. Their parents, traditional and strict, dote on the younger, prettier, daughter, to the point that Pearl doubts they even notice her, except to criticize, which her father does constantly. May’s not above using her favored position to twist him around her finger.

However, all that’s about to become irrelevant. To the sisters’ shock, their father says he’s had severe financial reversals. Not only does that mean the party’s over, he’s arranged marriages for them, to sons of his most important creditor, who lives in Los Angeles. After the wedding, a ceremony that pleases nobody, May and Pearl are to sail to Hong Kong, after which they’ll rejoin their new husbands in the United States. That’s it; no argument.

Needless to say, the sisters hate every part of this, and they tell each other they’ll do what no Chinese daughter ever does, disobey their father. They have no intention of leaving Shanghai. Their husbands are ridiculous matches for them, especially May’s groom, who’s only fourteen and seems not all there. But their father hasn’t told them the hardest truth, which is that he’s flat broke and in debt to loan sharks, who’ll throw the family onto the street in a couple days. As if that weren’t enough, May and Pearl don’t even have time to plead, because the Japanese attack. Leaving Shanghai now becomes a necessity as well as a chore.

The bombing of Shanghai, August 1937. This image captures the scene outside the Palace Hotel (courtesy Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon, France, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

You may wonder, as I did, how traditional Chinese parents—the mother binds her feet—have raised two daughters most people of that time and place would have called libertine (and only if they were being polite). But never mind. See writes with the force of gravity, and when the worlds she creates collide, the shock waves are enormous. Not only that, duty and tradition versus modernity and independence poses a crucial conflict, embodied in the sisters, so if their relative freedom seems a trifle convenient, See keeps returning to that struggle. Pearl feels that May is impetuous, selfish, self-centered, and brazen; May believes that Pearl is staid, masochistic, and too accepting by half. They’re jealous as hell of each other, and they’re both right.

But there’s a cultural context to every action or feeling, whether having to do with being female in a society that worships sons and despises daughters; having to obey a male authority, no matter who or how weak; and what money means. See spares no detail, sanitizing nothing, excusing nothing, and the cruelties of life are ever-present:

The Whangpoo River slinks past us to our left like an indolent snake, its grimy skin writhing, pulsing, slithering. . . .Sampans—hung with ropes, laundry, and nets—cluster together like insects on a carcass. Nightsoil boats jostle for right-of-way through ocean liner tenders and bamboo rafts. Sweating coolies stripped to the waist clutter the wharves, unloading opium and tobacco from merchant ships, rice and grain from junks that have come upriver, and soy sauce, baskets of chickens, and great rolls of rattan matting from flat-bottomed riverboats.

Many horrors happen to the sister, involving violence, heartache, bigotry, and degradation, whether as women, as Chinese, or as the newly unfortunate. Throughout, See dwells on the sister bond in which love, jealousy, protectiveness, and resentment reside as uneasy partners. As such, the author explores, again with unflinching focus, what it means to be Chinese, and how Pearl and May struggle to reconcile what they want for themselves with what their culture demands, which in turn must be regulated because of public pressure and the threat of censure or disclosure. What a bold, searing depiction.

I have doubts about Pearl, particularly some of her doormat moments, which I’d think her experience might have led her to rise above, at least on occasion. That question arises most particularly because she’s astute enough to recognize how Chinese women know how to endure without falling apart, whereas men seem more fragile, having to spend so much energy shoring up their stoic facades. Why, then, doesn’t Pearl try to move beyond the role she’s accepted, at least outwardly?

But if that’s a weakness in Shanghai Girls, a necessity to maintain the sibling conflict throughout this narrative and the next—there’s a sequel—it’s a small price to pay. Shanghai Girls is a terrific novel, one that will stay with you.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book at the public library.