This book was difficult for me to read, not because it was boring or slow moving, but rather because so many sad and awful things happen that my heart was constantly in my throat. That’s not to say that Shanghai Girls is simply a depressing, slit your wrists at the end kind of story; it’s a truly moving tale of two sisters who stay together in times of greatest adversity.
Pearl and May couldn’t be more different: Pearl is smart and capable, while May is stunningly beautiful and full of vitality. Pearl grows up feeling overshadowed by May, who is clearly their parents’ favorite, but despite all of that, she and her sister always make up their differences and are the best of friends.
It is 1937, and Shanghai is a bustling city. Pearl and May spend their days resting up for their evenings out on the town posing for artists, swilling champagne and dancing the night away, and gossipping at cafés while others debate politics. Their lives suddenly and horribly change when their father reveals that he’s gambled away all of their money and that he’s sold them in marriage to pay off the debt. The girls agree to marry and save the family honor, but when the patriarch of their new family announces that they’re all going to America, Pearl brazenly throws away their boat tickets and refuses to leave Shanghai.
Shortly thereafter, more tragedy strikes with the onset of the second Sino-Japanese War. Glittering Shanghai turns into a dangerous place where bombs fall almost every day, some dropped by the incompetent Chinese airforce. Pearl and May’s mother reveals that she retrieved their boat tickets from the trash and that they all must escape to Hong Kong. An awful incident on the journey changes everything, and May and Pearl make the journey to America after all.
As detainees on Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West, May reveals that she’s pregnant. She and Pearl live in harsh conditions until the baby is born, and May gives the child to Pearl to raise. Once freed from the island and reunited with their husbands, Pearl and May now have to face the prejudices that come with being Chinese in the America of the 1940s as they attempt to build new lives for themselves in San Fransisco’s Chinatown.
Ms. See crafted a truly beautiful story that exposed both the horrible difficulties of immigration and the love and pride that these immigrants felt for their home country. The dream of most of these people is to make enough money for them to return to China and live a rich life there; they are truly sojourners, here temporarily and always with their minds on home. This makes it all the more tragic when their dreams are shattered by the descent of the Bamboo Curtain with China’s Communist government.
The relationship between Pearl and May is both heartwarming and frustrating all at once, particularly when all the big revelations come at the end. Both characters are flawed and not completely winning, but they go through so much and support each other completely, and it’s clear that in the end, despite all that Chinese tradition says about the roles of older and younger siblings, there are no rules for which sister is supposed to look out for the other.
The book ends a little abruptly in anticipation of its sequel, Dreams of Joy, so I was vaguely dissatisfied by how things were left. All in all, though, this was a very engrossing and educational read, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.