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Shanghai Girls (See)

Shanghai Girls 
Lisa See, 2009
Random House
314 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812980530

Summary 
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.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way they face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are–Shanghai girls. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 18, 1955
Where—Paris, France
Education—B.A., Loyola Marymount University
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California


Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Shanghai Girls; Peony in Love; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee); The Interior; and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. (From the publisher.)

More
At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots.

I knew three things. I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off —‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer.

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored accolades while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera.

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover. (From the author's website.)

Extras
• I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco.

When asked about what book influenced her as a writer, here is her response:

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I read this novel just before I started writing On Gold Mountain. I loved the way Stegner combined family story with history. I know that this book has come under severe criticism in recent years for possible plagiarism. Nevertheless, it inspired and continues to inspire me. (Bio and interview from a 2005 Barnes and Noble interview.)



Book Reviews
Lisa See's Shanghai Girls is much loftier than its cover art's stunning portrait....The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has written a broadly sweeping tale that opens in Shangai in 1937. he detail is thoughtful and intricate in ways that hardly qualify ththis book as the stuff of chick lit.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Examining the chains of friendship within the confines of family, See’s kaleidoscopic saga transits from the barbaric horrors of Japanese occupation to the sobering indignities suffered by foreigners in 1930s Hollywood while offering a buoyant and lustrous paean to the bonds of sisterhood.
Booklist


See (Snow Flower; Peony in Love) explores tradition, the ravages of war and the importance of family in her excellent latest. Pearl and her younger sister, May, enjoy an upper-crust life in 1930s Shanghai, until their father reveals that his gambling habit has decimated the family's finances and to make good on his debts, he has sold both girls to a wealthy Chinese-American as wives for his sons. Pearl and May have no intention of leaving home, but after Japanese bombs and soldiers ravage their city and both their parents disappear, the sisters head for California, where their husbands-to-be live and where it soon becomes apparent that one of them is hiding a secret that will alter each of their fates. As they adjust to marriage with strangers and the challenges of living in a foreign land, Pearl and May learn that long-established customs can provide comfort in unbearable times. See's skillful plotting and richly drawn characters immediately draw in the reader, covering 20 years of love, loss, heartbreak and joy while delivering a sobering history lesson. While the ending is ambiguous, this is an accomplished and absorbing novel.
Publishers Weekly


In prewar 1930s Shanghai, carefree sisters Pearl Chin and younger, prettier May are the "beautiful girls" whose images on posters beckon viewers to buy products. They openly scoff at their parents' superstitious, old-world ways, but they soon learn that the good life is but an illusion. The Japanese army's brutal invasion of the city makes their lives as beautiful girls impossible. Their businessman father loses everything to the ruthless mob, and to pay off his debts he forces his daughters into arranged marriages to Chinese men living in the United States. See is masterly in her powerful depictions of the prejudice and harsh treatment the sisters encounter as they try to assimilate into the strange new world of Los Angeles. Possibly the best book yet from the author of Peony in Love; highly recommended.
Library Journal


Two sisters escape war-ravaged Shanghai, only to face discrimination and the threat of deportation in the United States. See's latest fictional exploration of the lives of Chinese women begins in 1937 Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city under imminent threat of Japanese invasion. As oblivious to rumors of their beloved city's collapse as they are to their family's circumstances, Pearl Chin and her younger sister May continue to shop, frequent nightclubs and pose for illustrator Z.G.'s advertising calendars featuring "Beautiful Girls." However, Papa Chin, having lost his fortune to gambling debts, has sold his daughters into marriage to Sam and Vern, sons of Chinese-American entrepreneur Old Man Louie. After hasty weddings (only Pearl's union, with Sam, is consummated), the brides refuse to accompany their husbands to California. When Shanghai is bombed and Papa abruptly disappears, the women and their mother join the stream of refugees fleeing the Japanese on foot. Along the way, Pearl and her mother are brutally raped by Japanese soldiers, while May hides. Their mother does not survive, but the Chins reach Hong Kong and embark for the United States, having decided, in desperation, to join their husbands. At San Francisco's notorious Angel Island immigrant-internment center, May, pregnant by a boyfriend, prolongs the sisters' already extended quarantine until she is able to give birth in secrecy. Pearl claims May's daughter Joy as her own and Sam's. Once reunited with their spouses in L.A.'s Chinese district, the former Shanghai princesses must acclimatize themselves to a life of drudgery, toiling in the Louie family's curio shops and restaurants. Despite engrossing complications involving immigration issues and the impact of the '50s Red Scare on Chinese-Americans, the Chinatown section, spanning 20 years, seems overlong. The final chapters, however, wherein Z.G.'s Beautiful Girl artwork resurfaces as Maoist propaganda and the FBI stalks the family, are worth the wait. The close suggests See's next setting may be the People's Republic, a development sure to please her readership.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Pearl’s narration is unique because of its level, calm tone throughout— even when the events she describes are horrific. One is reminded of Wordsworth’s reference to “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It is almost as if Pearl is writing in a diary. What was Lisa See trying to accomplish in setting up this counterpoint between her tone and her narrative?

 2. Pearl is a Dragon and May is a Sheep. Do you think the two sisters, in their actions in the novel, are true to their birth signs?

3. Which sister is smarter? Which is more beautiful?

4. Each sister believes that her parents loved the other sister more. Who is right about this? Why?

5. Pearl says that parents die, husbands and children can leave, but sisters are for life. Does that end up being true for Pearl? If you have a sister, to what extent does the relationship between Pearl and May speak to your own experience? What’s the difference between a relationship that’s “just like sisters” and a relationship between real sisters? Is there anything your sister could do that would cause an irreparable breach?

6. Z.G. talks about ai kuo, the love for your country, and ai jen, the emotion you feel for the person you love. How do these ideas play out in the novel?

7. Shanghai Girls makes a powerful statement about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Were you surprised about any of the details in the novel related to this theme?

8. How would you describe the relationship between Pearl and May? How does the fact that both are, in a sense, Joy’s mother affect their relationship? Who loves Joy more and how does she show it?

9. Pearl doesn’t come to mother-love easily or naturally. At what point does she begin to claim Joy as her own? How, where, and why does she continue to struggle with the challenges of being a mother? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of motherhood?

10. There are times when it seems like outside forces conspire against Pearl—leaving China, working in the restaurant, not finding a job after the war, and taking care of Vern. How much of what happens to Pearl is a product of her own choices?

11. Pearl’s attitude toward men and the world in general is influenced by what happened to her in the shack outside Shanghai. To what extent does she find her way to healing by the end of the novel? Did your attitude toward Old Man Louie change? How do you feel about Sam and his relationship with Pearl and Joy? Did your impression of him change as the novel progressed?

12. The novel begins with Pearl saying, “I am not a person of importance” (p. 3). After Yen-yen dies, Pearl comments: “Her funeral is small. After all, she was not a person of importance, rather just a wife and mother” (p. 246). How do you react to comments like these?

13. Speaking of Yen-yen, Pearl notes: “When we’re packing, Yen-yen says she’s tired. She sits down on the couch in the main room and dies” (p. 246). Why does Pearl describe Yen-yen’s death in such an abrupt way?

14. After Joy points out the differences in the way Z.G. painted her mother and aunt in the Communist propaganda posters, May says, “Everything always returns to the beginning” (p. 267). Pearl has her idea of what May meant, but what do you think May really meant? And what is Pearl’s understanding of this saying at the end of the novel?

15. Near the end of Shanghai Girls, May argues that Pearl and Sam have withdrawn into a world of fear and isolation, not taking advantage of the opportunities open to them. Do you agree with May that much of Pearl’s sadness and isolation is self-imposed? Why or why not?

16. How do clothes define Pearl and May in different parts of the story? How do the sisters use clothes to manipulate others?

17. How does food serve as a gateway to memory in the novel? How does it illustrate culture and tradition both in the novel and in your own family?

18. What influence—if any—do Mama’s beliefs have on Pearl? How do they evolve over time?

19. Pearl encounters a lot of racism, but she also holds many racist views herself. Is she a product of her time? Do her attitudes change during the course of the story?

20. What role does place—Shanghai, Angel Island, China City, and Chinatown—serve in the novel? What do you think Lisa See was trying to say about “home”?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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