Friday, August 6, 2010

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Book Description:
In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, they couldn’t be more different. Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of south China, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life, even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are – Shanghai girls.

About the Author:
Lisa See, author of the critically-acclaimed international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. Ms. See’s new novel, Shanghai Girls, once again delves into forgotten history. This time she’s stayed much closer to home: Los Angeles Chinatown. Shanghai Girls is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who leave Shanghai in 1937 and go to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. It is a story of immigration, identity, war, and love, but at its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters. Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Publishers Weekly calls Shanghai Girls “excellent…an accomplished and absorbing novel,” while Booklist has written that it’s a “buoyant and lustrous paean to the bonds of sisterhood.”

Ms See is probably best known for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, for which she traveled to a remote area of China—where she was told she was only the second foreigner ever to visit—to research the secret writing invented, used, and kept a secret by women for over a thousand years. Amy Tan called the novel “achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination.” Others agreed, and foreign-language rights for Snow Flower were sold to 38 countries. The novel also became a New York Times bestseller, a Booksense Number One Pick, and won numerous awards domestically and internationally. MGM Studios acquired the film rights.
Peony in Love (2007), which was an instant New York Times best seller, takes place in 17th-century China in the Yangzi River delta. It’s based on the true story of three “lovesick maidens,” who were married to the same man and who together wrote the first book of its kind to have been written and published anywhere in the world by women. Ultimately, Peony in Love is about the bonds of female friendship, the power of words, the desire that all women have to be heard, and finally those emotions that are so strong that they transcend time, place, and perhaps even death. Foreign rights were sold to 27 countries, Twentieth-century Fox and Scott Free Productions acquired the film rights, and the SCBA gave the book its award for Best Novel of 2007.
Ms. See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family.
While collecting the details for On Gold Mountain, she developed the idea for her first novel, Flower Net (1997), which was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and on the Los Angeles Times Best Books List for 1997. Flower Net was also nominated for an Edgar award for best first novel. This was followed by two more mystery-thrillers, The Interior (2000) and Dragon Bones (2003), which once again featured the characters of Liu Hulan and David Stark. This series inspired critics to compare Ms. See to Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In addition to writing books, Ms. See wrote the libretto for Los Angeles Opera based on On Gold Mountain, which premiered in June 2000 at the Japan American Theatre followed by the Irvine Barclay Theatre. She also served as guest curator for an exhibit on the Chinese-American experience for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Ms. See then helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry Museum, an interactive space for children and their families that focuses on Lisa’s bi-racial, bi-cultural family as seen through the eyes of her father as a seven-year-old boy living in 1930s Los Angeles.

In addition, she designed a walking tour of Los Angeles Chinatown and wrote the companion guidebook for Angels Walk L.A. to celebrate the opening of the MTA’s Chinatown metro station. She also curated the inaugural exhibition—a retrospective of artist Tyrus Wong—for the grand opening of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.

Ms. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority. She was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in Fall 2003.

Ms. See lives in Los Angeles. To learn more, please visit her web site at

Here's What I Think:

I was a little reluctant to read this book. It is pretty far outside my normal reading likes. It was the select for my moms book club so I decided to give it a go. Man, what a story. The incredible mix of factual events and the fictional family, was breathtaking. The two sister, Pearl and May, are taken from the highs and lows of life and tragedy repeated. I do want to warn you that there are some derogatory, yet historically accurate, racial slurs throughout the novel. And there is a rather intense scene in which the older sister and the mother are used and abused by a group of rogue soldiers. But the story just grabs on to the heartstrings and tugs for dear life. I laughed, I cried and I was outraged by the actions of our contemporaries. It was a moving story of courage and strength.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book on my own, and was in no way compensated to publish this post.


  1. Hmmmmm.....I might just have to pick this one up!

  2. I love Lisa See's books--they're never simple, and always realistic of the times she writes in. Shanghai Girls is an incredibly well-written book. Glad you liked it.

  3. I loved this book too. I have also read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and loved that as well. I think See is a great historical writer.


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