One of the best things about reading a good book is that it can transport you to a time and place that you could not visit any other way. Lisa See's new novel, Shanghai Girls immerses the reader in 1930's Shanghai and Los Angeles.
I am more familiar with the immigrant stories from Europe, having read two interesting Irish immigrant novels recently, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and Mary Beth Keane's The Walking People, which also dealt with two sisters who had a secret. I was not so familiar with immigrants from China, which made for an enlightening experience.
We meet two sisters, Pearl and May, who are the only children born to a well-to-do businessman and his wife. The young women live a good life, buying beautiful clothes, going out every evening, working as models for a man who paints calendars. They can almost ignore the poverty surrounding them in Shanghai.
When their father loses all his money gambling, he sells his daughters into arranged marriages with two Chinese brothers who live in Los Angeles. The sisters are horrified and plot to escape from their father.
When Japan invades China, the girls and their mother must flee inland to avoid the war raging around them. The characterization of the mother, who at first appears to be the stereotypical subservient Asian wife, right down to her bound feet, is a revelation. It is their mother who shows inner and outer strength, willing to sacrifice herself to save her daughters.
The sisters end up at Angel Island, an immigration station in San Francisco akin to Ellis Island in New Jersey. Their time there mirrors the experiences I have read about at Ellis Island. I had never heard about Angel Island before this.
Their journey takes them from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and it is riveting. See has set her novel in a momentous time in Chinese/American history. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had repercussions for all Asian immigrants, as many Americans were unable to differentiate Chinese, who also disliked the Japanese after they invaded China, from Japanese. When China became Communist, Americans were undergoing the Red Scare, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. People feared Communists, and that fear and hatred was transferred to Chinese immigrants.
As the immigrants worked to build a life in this country, they faced racial discrimination. Since these immigrants looked different than European immigrants, it was easier for people to identify them as immigrants. Their customs were different from European immigrants, whose ancestors settled America hundreds of years ago, and this separated them from many Americans.
Along with the history lesson, See has written a beautiful story about sisters, love, loyalty, sacrifice and family. Pearl and May are fascinating characters, and their sisterly relationship is one that many can identify with. The family that they both marry into is also interesting, and the relationship that develops between Pearl and her husband is tender.
Shanghai Girls is a beautifully crafted story that will keep the reader turning the pages. The fact that the reader learns much about the history of Chinese immigrants at this time period is a bonus.