Shanghai Sisters Flee War, Set New Roots in L.A.

Angelica Fraire

Most girls grow up with the idea of having the wedding of their dreams. However, for Pearl and May, two Chinese sisters, the dream wedding turns into an arranged marriage.

Lisa See’s novel “Shanghai Girls” is divided into three parts in which the main characters Pearl and May embark on a journey of a lifetime.

Pearl, 21, is the older of the two sisters. Both girls enjoy a nice well-to-do lifestyle in Shanghai until their father, Baba, gambles the family’s money away. He ends up going into debt.

Soon, though, he makes a decision. “I’ve arranged marriages for the two of you; the ceremony will take place the day after tomorrow,” he says.

Both sisters meet their future husbands, Sam and Vernon once, and marry on July 24, 1937. The two couples go to the American Consulate to fill out forms for non quota immigration visas.

Pearl and May are so caught up in their Shanghai lives that they forget all about what is going around them until the sight of refugees reminds them that war between the Japanese and Chinese is reaching closer to home.

Pearl describes her war experience: “My eyes go white, my eardrums go silent, and my lungs stop working, as if the explosion has punched out my body’s knowledge of how to operate. A second later, another bomb goes through the roof of the Palace Hotel and explodes. Debris, glass, paper, bits of flesh, and body parts, hurdle down on me.”

One tragedy after another occurs, and Pearl lacks the ability to realize what reality is. But See portrays Pearl with a limited consciousness because she is a representation of how Chinese women might have thought during that time.

Pearl, May, and their mother are forced to leave Shanghai without Baba, to travel south to the Grand Canal. Along the way both Pearl and her mother are raped several times by Japanese troops. Pearl watches her mother being tortured in front of her face while she is being raped herself, something See paints in vivid detail.

Pearl is there to see her mother die. Her mother’s death is foremost in her thoughts when she wakes up in the hospital after having surgery and is told that she might never have children.

After Pearl’s recovery, the sisters make their way to America. Their experience at the Angel Immigration Station in San Francisco is portrayed as if it were the typical discriminatory experience of every Chinese immigrant. But there is an unexpected twist: May reveals she is pregnant, and tells Pearl to raise the child as hers.

May’s revelation plays well with the rest of the family’s misfortunes, allowing the reader to realize the true level of May’s consciousness. Most people would understand that May needs to become an adult; however her childlike character is allowed to continue.

Pearl’s big mistake is allowing May to go through with her plan. As the older sister, she lacks the courage to say no to May’s misdeeds, making Pearl the weaker character.

However, the reader also understands that Los Angeles is portrayed as this rich and famous city, although it is new and strange to May and Pearl. Pearl remembers her native Shanghai as the jewel of China, the Paris of the Orient.

In the end, Sam commits suicide, and Joy feels responsible. Her need to know her real father drives her to go to China for answers. However, leaving her family behind in Los Angeles might just be a sign of frustration. Who can blame a child whose whole life just turned upside down? It is understandable.

Joy should not feel guilty of anything. Sam’s death was expected because there is very little in the book that proves he is a strong man.

Overall, See’s book is an easy read with strong portrayals of what the Chinese went through.

Without a doubt, “Shanghai Girls” is a novel that brings to light the many difficulties that faced Chinese women during the middle of the 20th Century.