This is my third novel by Lisa See and it did not disappoint. She didn’t mince words when she described every excruciating detail about foot binding in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and she doesn’t spare us the horrific realities of war in Shanghai Girls. In Shanghai of the 1930’s models were called Beautiful Girls. Shanghai models Pearl and May are the Hilton Sisters of Shanghai (without the trust fund) and enjoy all the privileges, parties and fun that come with being Beautiful Girls. Unknown to them, their father had been gambling away the family fortune including the money they made modeling, and the lifestyle they had become accustomed to came to an abrupt halt. No more silk cheongsams in every color, private rickshaw rides, servants; and the best of everything that Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, could offer. Their father’s admission isn’t the only disaster. He has sold his daughters in arranged marriages in order to settle the gambling debt. Just when Pearl and May don’t think things could get any worse, Shanghai is bombed by the Japanese. Through the whole novel, it never lets up. It’s one tragedy after another. We keep reading because somehow these two sisters, long beyond their Beautiful Girls days, find the inner strength to survive. What becomes interesting is how differently they do that.
For a Chinese immigrant in this country during the 1950’s, citizenship status determined one’s fate. Lisa See does a fine job of explaining how some immigrants were “paper sons.” Some used the earthquake of 1906 when all the birth records were lost as a means of establishing citizenship while some gained citizenship by turning in others whom they suspected of being Communists. The suicide rate soared. Even though the sisters married brothers, a complex family history leaves May a fully documented American citizen but Pearl is not. Like all sisters, they are different people by nature. May becomes an entrepreneur in Hollywood capitalizing on the rush of Chinese culture–based films being made. She becomes American in her attitudes, behavior and sense of entitlement. Easy for her as a citizen. Meanwhile Pearl’s life takes a very different turn. In one of the final scenes May explains to her jie jie, older sister that many of their problems stem from Pearl’s unwillingness to give up her old Chinese ways. I’m not so sure about that. Pearl’s attempts at assimilation were heartbreakingly discouraged at every turn such as selecting her own neighborhood in which to buy a house, enrolling her child in good school, and even getting into a dance hall worthy of her pretty dress on New Year’s Eve. Who wouldn’t cling to the ways that bring comfort, familiarity and safety? But hope and the possibility of change are in store for Pearl. We know that as she heads for LAX. I hope Lisa See is busy writing the sequel.