Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is an emotionally charged novel. Pearl, 20, and May, 17, are the daughters of a wealthy Chinese father and mother. They live in a grand house with servants and cooks, never having to worry about anything expect what to wear for the day. However, unbeknownst to the daughters and the mother, the father has gotten himself into deep debt to the Green gang, who run Shanghai’s streets. The quickest way to get out of debt, without being killed, is to sell the daughters to the leader, Old Man Louie, of the Green gang. Pearl and May are set to be married to Old Man Louie’s two sons, one who is a disabled 14 year old boy. Not only did the girls’ father sell them, but they are to be sent to live with their new “husbands” in America.
A brief wedding is planned and Old Man Louie brings his sons to finally meet their soon to be “brides”. After the ceremony the new couples are sent to separate bedrooms, with Old Man Louie making sure that fresh sheets were put on the bed. Pearl is scared because she does not even know this man, Sam and yet is expected to do the “husband-wife thing” (as she states it). She gets it over with and they retreat back to the dining room. Old Man Louie sends for their bed sheets after they arrive and to Pearl’s embarrassment he examines the cloth, looking for stains. Once he finds a bloody streak he gives a satisfied grunt and sets it to the side. When May and the disabled son, Vern come downstairs, Old Man Louie again sends for the bed sheets, however after examining them, he does not find any stains and is angry. However Old Man Louie decides to excuse this due to his son’s circumstance. Sam and Vern return to America and the girls are to reside with them in one month.
The girls are dreading their departure to America, when war erupts between China and Japan, leaving the girls stranded in the middle of Shanghai’s marketplace. They rush home to find their parents, but their father is nowhere to be found. The girls’ mother believes their father abandoned them in interest to save his own self. The mother, Pearl and May make a plan to escape to the mother’s birth city, not far from Shanghai. They hire a rickshaw boy to pull them there, knowing it will take several days to arrive and the girls’ mother has bound feet. On the second night, they sleep in an abandoned home, constantly worried that the Japanese will stumble upon them.
While sleeping in the bedroom, they awaken to the terrified cries of the rickshaw puller, who had been sleeping outside. The Japanese have arrived. The mother tells Pearl and May to hide between the wall and a board and goes into the living room shutting the door behind her. The mother understands her fate, knowing the Japanese will rape and kill her. As the girls wait in the bedroom, they hear their mother’s distraught cries as the Japanese force themselves upon her. Pearl cannot stand it anymore and enters the room, only to have the Japanese men attack and rape her as well. Pearl’s mother is hysterical at this point because she did not want her daughter’s to suffer through this. After taking their turns raping the two women, the Japanese unwrap the mother’s feet and appallingly attempt to pull the bound feet into a “normal” shape. After the men leave, the mother pulls Pearl onto her lap and tells her that she loves her and to take care of her sister, May. Then she dies, and Pearl is unconscious for several weeks. When she awakens she finds herself on a boat, May has taken care of her all of this time and they are on their way to America.
When they reach America, they are sent to Angel Island (immigration). The doctors examine both of them and tell Pearl she will most likely never to be able to have children because of the rapes. Pearl is grief stricken because she always wanted children of her own. They are questioned intensely by immigration authorities and the girls make plans to answer the same in order to leave the island quicker. However this doesn’t seem to happen because May keeps giving the wrong answer to the authorities, Pearl comes to find out that May is pregnant. May confesses that she had sex with a guy in Shanghai and asks Pearl to take the baby when it’s born, since she obviously didn’t have sex with Vern, her husband, while Pearl did have sex with her husband. Pearl agrees to take the baby and they stall time on Angel Island until May has her baby girl, Joy. When Joy is born, Pearl and May go to live with their husbands and Old Man Louie and his wife, who they call Yen Yen. They live in a small rundown apartment, cramped into three bedrooms.
Everyone in the home is expected to work. Old Man Louie opens some shops in China town, a curio shop and a restaurant. Pearl and May go back and forth to work between the shops. The new life they are experiencing is completely opposite of that in Shanghai, where they were waited on hand and foot. Pearl accepts her fate, while May is unsatisfied and leaves to walk the city whenever possible. In the end, Pearl remains the strong, accepting woman while May is forever searching for fulfillment and excitement.
I really enjoyed this book because it allows you to see into a whole other world. The book is set in 1938 and Lisa See does a great job at portraying life in that time period. I tried to summarize what I thought were the most interesting parts of the story. Women in this time period obviously did not have any rights or say in what happened. When Yen Yen died of old age, a small funeral was held and many people took the death as matter of fact because she was a woman, whereas when Old Man Louie died, a large funeral was held and he was honored because he was a man. This novel shows the inequality between men and women in that time period and somewhat in today’s times as well.
First of all Pearl and May were sold by their father to another man. For the most part, only girls have been sold, as wives, servants or prostitutes, whereas boys have not endured the same fate. Boys are revered by their family, while girls are despised. I find this particularly true in some Asian cultures, especially in earlier history. However, even nowadays, with strict population orders, wives hope to birth boys to their husbands instead of girls. When girls are born, the mother may kill them for two reasons. One for the sole reason that she is not a boy and the family may only be allowed to have one child. The second reason is because the mother does not want her daughter to suffer the same fates that she had to endure. Wives in Chinese culture have had to suffer servitude to their husbands, abuse, neglect and concubines that the husband acquires. This novel by Lisa See illustrates all of these patterns. Although the book is not a true story, in that the characters are not real people, the book is based on true facts.
A main focus of the book is on Pearl and May and the fact that they are sisters. This is a bond between them for life, when their mother died, she asked Pearl to always take care of her younger sister May. In the end these sisters lived together for the rest of their lives, married to two brothers. Through all their turmoil and experiences, they were always by each other’s side. They also had to make it through coming to a new land, learning a new language and experiencing a different culture. The girls longed for familiarity, their homeland and the people they missed in Shanghai, but they were able to miss this together. The one sore between them though is the secret about Joy. May is jealous that Pearl gets to act as Joy’s mother, while Pearl is jealous that May gets to gallivant around and do as she pleases, without responsibility. However, once Joy grows up, the girls tell Joy the truth, and end up both acting as Joy’s mother. Other problems that the girls face throughout their life are personal. Pearl clings to the past because it offers comfort, while May tries to immerse herself in the new world. In the end Pearl realizes that she has to develop new skills instead of repeating the same routines out of fear of change. May on the other hand realizes she has been moving forward to forget the past and everything it held.
Through this book I learned that it important to have balance in your life. You must be accepting of change and reflective of your life experiences. Without reflection, there is not forward movement. Another major topic that I found interesting in the book was the discrimination and inequality the girls faced upon arrival to the United States. In this time period, Asians were not highly welcomed in America and the girls dealt with constant criticism from whites. The immigration process the girls experienced seemed horrible and racist, as the interrogator assumed things because of Pearl and May’s nationality. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it expanded my knowledge of the Chinese/American lifestyle, including native China, immigration, child selling, rape, discrimination and sisterly bonds.