Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls

By Lisa See

I have two main labels for what type of book this is: 1. Depressing 2. Fascinating.

This is the story of Pearl and May, two sisters forced to leave China in the 1940s (an incredibly turbulent time when Japan invaded the country) where they had been wealthy “beautiful girls” who posed for paintings and lived an easy life of luxury. Besides the Japanese invasion, their father gambled away their fortune and traded them as brides to erase his debt. The book follows their terrifying escape from the country, their imprisonment in Angel Island, and then their life in America.

Nothing goes right for these women, EVER. I’ve read plenty of books about falls from grace but holy crap- nothing to this extent. If something can go wrong for these sisters (and we are not talking little things like falling down or losing items- we are dealing with death, violence, severe pain, slavery… BAD stuff) it goes wrong, over and over again. Life is anything but easy. They go from a country overrun with violence and murder to a prison for Chinese immigrants where they are interrogated like criminals, to living in a country with husbands and families they never wanted, to having to deal with racism, and then finally fearing that they will be deported back to China (now communist) during the Red Scare… it’s never-ending.

I hardly ever hope for a happy ending, as they are usually so unrealistic, but in this case- I kept my fingers crossed. Not to spoil it for you but, just get ready to be depressed.

Having said that, this book is completely fascinating! Sadly, my knowledge of Chinese culture has hardly extended beyond food- which I am sure is about as accurate and revealing as Taco Bell would for Mexico. In Shanghai Girls, I was exposed to a culture, history, and ideals that I was completely unaware of. I had no concept of any of these historical incidents (other than Angel Island- and even with that my knowledge was limited to about a half an hour of discussion in a literature of California course in college).

The amount of research done for this book must have been immense and Lee demonstrates a true respect for the Chinese culture. I feel as though a whole new avenue for academic exploration as been revealed, for which I am truly grateful. I wish I could go on and on about what I learned and all I hadn’t known before but that would make for one of the most tedious reviews ever- and make me sound incredibly ignorant- so I think I’ll pass on that.

Read this book. You will leave it feeling depressed, yes, but you will also feel as though you have just experienced a very genuine story of love, loss, culture, history, change, and family.

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