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spring 2009

Unbound

By Julie Phillips

Shanghai Girls By Lisa See
Random House

NOVELIST LISA SEE HAS FOUND rich material in Chinese women’s lives. Her bestseller Snow Flower and the Secret Fanwas set in 19th-century Hunan and dealt with foot-binding, the secret “women’s script” nu shu and the rivalrous bond between two women. The plot of Peony in Love turned on a 16th-century Chinese play. And in her latest, Shanghai Girls, she brings her characters from China to America.

The Chin sisters, practical Pearl and beautiful May, grow up rich, educated and modern in 1930s Shanghai. For fun, they work as “beautiful girls”: models for advertising artwork, like the painting on the book’s cover. But these carefree times are cut short when their father pays off his gambling debts by selling them into marriage to two Chinese American brothers. Pearl and May have no intention of following their husbands to Los Angeles—until the Japanese invasion changes everyone’s plans.

Upon arrival in California, May and Pearl submit to months of interrogation at Angel Island, the immigration processing station in San Francisco Bay. (They deliberately delay the process in order to work a trick that will get them out of a jam and determine the course of their future.) Released at last to the custody of their husbands, they do not regain their freedom. In Los Angeles, they discover, Chinese Americans cannot live outside Chinatown, watch a movie except from the theater balcony or get hired for “white” jobs. May observes that in Shanghai, people of different backgrounds “walked on the streets together… Here everyone is separated from everyone else— Japanese, Mexicans, Italians, blacks and Chinese. White people are everywhere, but the rest of us are at the bottom.”

Worse, their husbands turn out to be “paper sons” who have entered the U.S. with false papers and live in constant fear of being deported. In this isolated, apprehensive community, even Pearl finds herself latching on to “outdated traditions…as a means of soul survival, as a way to hang on to ghost memories.” The 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which bars Chinese Americans from full citizenship, brings only partial solace.

See’s tale of the two sisters’ love and rivalry, their romantic adventures and long struggles to regain their balance in a new land is entertaining, if melodramatic. (A wartime rape, an unplanned pregnancy and a child born dead are some of its more soap-operatic elements.) But the plot mainly serves to keep the book moving past a series of fascinating backdrops. We see cosmopolitan prewar Shanghai, with its mix of Asians and whites, wealth and poverty; Angel Island, where women sleep three deep on wiremesh bunks and suicide by sharpened chopstick is the alternative to deportation; Los Angeles’ China City, a faux Chinese neighborhood designed by whites and built from leftover film sets; the real film sets where May finds work providing costumes, arranging for extras and occasionally getting a tiny speaking (or screaming) part. Well-researched and highly readable, Shanghai Girls is a moving and revealing story of the Chinese American experience.

JULIE PHILLIPS is a book critic for the Dutch daily Trouw and the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon(St. Martin’s Press, 2006), which won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

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