Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

shanghaiShanghai Girls by Lisa See

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 father’s 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 couldn’t 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 Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

Covering approx 20 years, this charts the story of the bourgeois sisters Pearl and May, growing up as “Beautiful Girls” in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They enjoy a certain level of freedom, going out late into the early hours of the morning, having their images used on calendars and promotional material, and getting paid enough to buy the little, but important things – cigarettes, make up, clothes etc.

You then follow how their lives are changed with the Japanese invading as a pre-cursor to WWII, and the difficulties the women faced when living in the US with husbands they didn’t know, in a country who didn’t want the Chinese during WWII, the Korean War or the threat of Communism taking over the US with Mao taking over China. Pearl and May are different, one sacrificing everything to make a go of it in her new adopted land, and feeling aggrieved that life is never as good as it was – the other sacrificing little or nothing, but finding her life is little better than her sister’s.

Excellent story all round, showing the need for family strength and unity especially through the difficult times, even when the family aren’t all they appear

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