Too-Familiar Themes, History Threaten to Shanghai 'Girls'

By Janice P. Nimura
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 11, 2009


By Lisa See

Random House.

314 pp. $25

Lisa See might be the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Caucasian women, but the Chinese great-grandfather who arrived in California in 1871 has proved the most influential of her ancestors. "I am Chinese in my heart," See wrote in her family memoir, "On Gold Mountain." She is also Chinese in her fiction, having mined her heritage for the vivid period details of foot binding, dowries and death rituals that boosted "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" and "Peony in Love" to bestsellerdom. As the third installment in See's women's-Chinese-historical sub-genre, "Shanghai Girls" moves away from the more remote and picturesque past and into the 20th century.

In 1937, Pearl and her younger sister, May, are beauties just coming into flower, calendar girls who primp by day and pose at night, in thrall to "all things foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese." Their beloved Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, "kneels before the gods of trade, wealth, industry, and sin"; the girls think nothing of stepping delicately around a dead baby on the sidewalk on their way to the French Concession. Rickshaws jostle alongside Daimlers. But the gilded girls and their gilded city are doomed. Within a few pages, their father marries off his daughters to pay his gambling debts, and Japanese bombs begin to fall.

Pearl's reaction to her fate sets the stilted narrative tone that makes "Shanghai Girls" less absorbing than its predecessors. "I thought I was modern. I thought I had choice. I thought I was nothing like my mother," she anguishes. "I'm to be sold -- traded like so many girls before me -- to help my family. I feel so trapped and helpless that I can hardly breathe." The grooms are emigrant brothers, "Gold Mountain men" who expect their new wives to join them in Los Angeles. But the arrival of the Japanese in Shanghai interferes with their departure, and by the time Pearl and May make it to California, their pampered pinup-girl personae are in shreds. As they wait interminably on Angel Island for clearance to join their husbands, Pearl struggles to recover from a brutal rape by the Japanese, and May gives birth to a daughter, Joy, paternity a question mark.

The girls' arrival in Los Angeles returns See to the setting of her own family history, and her expertise in the Chinese immigrant experience has a tendency to slow things down. Some of the color, as in the previous novels, is delightful: "If your nipples are small like the seeds of a lotus," says a fellow detainee on Angel Island, "then your son will rise in society." But much of it, though fascinating, is more undigested: the practice of becoming a "paper son" to sidestep the ban on Chinese immigration; the ersatz staginess of China City, a playground for Hollywood types where Pearl and May toil in their father-in-law's businesses; the urgency of proving one's Chinese ancestry during the war against the Japanese, and the peril of that same ancestry once Mao's communist regime is in place.

See's emotional themes are powerful but familiar -- the bonds of sisterhood, the psychological journey of becoming an American -- and when she pauses for character development, clich├ęs creep in. To console themselves, Pearl and May revisit childhood memories: "They remind us of the strength we find in each other, of the ways we help each other, of the times that it was just us against everyone else, of the fun we've had together." Pearl, responsible and demanding, was born in the year of the Dragon, while May is an affectionate, self-absorbed Sheep; as children, they rejected such backwardness, but after a lifetime of transplanted travails, they take unexpected comfort in tradition. This is poignant, and See should let it speak for itself; instead, she makes sure there is no room for misinterpretation: "We raised our children to be Americans, but what we wanted were proper Chinese sons and daughters."

The temporal distance of "Snow Flower" and "Peony" allowed See to take liberties as a storyteller, re-creating lost worlds that were at once dreamily evocative and anchored in the habits and objects of daily life. "Shanghai Girls" reads like a family album, with See trying to cram in as many snapshots as possible: Pearl's Chinese American coffee shop, May's business providing props and extras for "oriental" Hollywood films, Joy in kindergarten wearing her favorite cowgirl outfit, Anna May Wong, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese men enlisting in the U.S. Army to win their citizenship. It's more history lesson than fairy tale. But China's 20th-century upheavals afford at least as much color as its days of old; "Shanghai Girls" will not lose See any fans, and it bravely moves her oeuvre into the challenging terrain of more recent history.

Nimura reviews for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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