lsells, March 01, 2009
Lisaâ€™s Seeâ€™s new novel, Shanghai Girls, provides a rich experience for its readers â€“ taking them from the splendor, highlife, glamour and poverty of 1937 Shanghai to the struggles of Chinese immigrants to survive a virtual internment on Angel Island, off the coast of San Francisco, to the almost impossible challenges of trying to build a life in Los Angeles Chinatown in the context of an America that does not want them and treats them cruelly.
But despite its rich background, Shanghai Girls is ultimately the story of two sisters â€“ Pearl and May â€“ who desperately strive to help each other survive and at the same time replay in their minds and actions old rivalries, jealousies, and hurts. The summary of the book on Seeâ€™s web site puts it well: â€œThey love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most.â€ This is most dramatically shown in the novelâ€™s climax.
Pearl, speaking in first person, is the narrator, taking us from 1937 to 1957. This time period matches Parts IV and V of Seeâ€™s On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. The perspectives are different, however. In the memoir See is scrupulously objective in treatment family members, herself, and issues very close to her. Pearl lets us experience some of the same American experiences but from a different perspective and from the inside.
Late in the novel, Pearl reflects: â€œWeâ€™re told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men.â€ This is certainly true of Pearl herself.
Growing up in Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, Pearl and her sister May live lives of privilege. Being a Dragon, Pearl is seen by her parents as a fiery, strong daughter who can take care of her self-absorbed Sheep sister. By the time she is 21, Pearl and May enjoy the status of being Beautiful Girls, Pearl rather insensitive to those who serve her and her wealthy family.
But then Pearlâ€™s journey into suffering begins. Her father loses his money in gambling debts and the sisters are forced into arranged marriages. The Japanese attack China and Shanghai is attacked by air and the country invaded. In the process Pearl and her mother are brutalized by Japanese soldiers and her mother is killed.
Having lost everything, Pearl and May are forced to flee to America to find their husbands. Surviving a grueling stay at Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West), Pearl can only hope that her husband Sam and his family will accept her since she is bringing with her a new born daughter named Joy.
Much of Shanghai Girls centers on Pearlâ€™s attempt to adjust to life as a member of the Louie family. While May seeks happiness outside the home in her new country, especially in terms of her many associations with the glitzy world of Hollywood, Pearl sees her life as unending drudgery as she is locked into a routine of cleaning and cooking, working in her father-in-lawâ€™s various business enterprises, and caring for Joy. In addition, she is largely responsible for caring for Vern, Mayâ€™s young and critically ill husband.
Although her father-in-law gradually comes to include Pearl, May, and Joy as true members of his family, Pearl grows closer to her mother-in-law, and discovers that her lower class husband is indeed an Ox in the truest sense, deeply loving and caring for his family, her new Christian and much older Chinese values are tested by the terrors of the McCarthy era of anti-communism accompanied by serious mistreatment of most Chinese people.
At the end of the novel the two sisters directly confront each other at last, venting all the anger and hurt each has repressed previously. Despite being very angry at May for what Pearl feels are very good reasons, Mayâ€™s attacks and self-defense make her realize that she may have been mistaken in many of her core beliefs over the years.
But finally it is Joy who saves Pearl. When she reaches the point where she will give up everything for Joy, Pearl truly becomes her motherâ€™s daughter -- and in the process becomes the Dragon she was meant to be.