Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

It is the mid 1930’s in Shanghai and May and Pearl are beautiful, sophisticated, and well educated.  When their father gambles away all the family owns, they are on the verge of losing everything.  In order to save their home, May and Pearl’s father arranges for his daughters to be married to two brothers who live in Los Angeles and within a few days of making this decision the girls are shocked, horrified… and married.
When the girls went on the boat to be delivered to their new home in the states, they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months along with many other women trying to get to the US.  It is as thought the lives they once knew had crumbled right before their eyes.  When May discovers she is pregnant the girls make a pact that no one can ever EVER know.

Once in the states they find that life is not as they had been told, their father in law is not the rich man that he portrayed himself to be in Shanghai.  Instead he is close to poverty, relying on what his sons, and now his daughter in laws can provide him by working and giving him the money.  Together May and Pearl learn to survive in a new world, in new ways.

My first experience with Lisa See was Snowflower and The Secret Fan.  I devoured that book and knew I wanted to read more of her work.  That time has come with Shanghai Girls which has turned out not only to be an incredible fiction experience. 

What at first I thought was going to be mainly about their new lives and how they adjusted to this new life (much like A Buddha In The Attic), I was surprised to find that Lisa See winds a much deeper story within the story and when I caught on to what she was doing, I was really thrilled.  As this book is about two sisters from Shanghai and their lives, it is really about the sisters Pearl and May.  While Pearl narrates what she sees and how things are, you get a very strong feeling of who they are.  Here in lies the beauty of Lisa See’s writing.

I also learned a few things I did not know before.

Like what?

Certificate of identity issued to Yee Wee Thing certifying that he is the son of a US citizen, issued Nov. 21, 1916. This was necessary for his immigration from China to the United States.

Have you ever heard of paper sons?  It really is a fascinating (and sad) topic of how during the Chinese Exclusion Act (read more about that here on Wikepedia) immigration to the US was restricted.  That being told, false papers were being drawn up where US citizens would claim children and even adults  as their own and these papers could create access to the states for these people.  The people would then live with the American families under their US family name to ensure they were not found out, forever giving up their true ancestors and name.  Thus the term paper sons came to be as they were truly only sons on paper. 

The experience the girls, May and Pearl have on the boat the states is heart wrenching.  Not only as I listened to this on audio, but also as I suspect this is actually what happened when women traveled alone to get to the states on these boats.  They were raped repeatedly.  They were beaten and starved. 

One moment that sticks out for me is later in the book May refers to some women she sees as FOB’s.  I kept wondering if she was swearing at them, only soon to figure out that FOB meant “fresh off the boat”.  LOL…. I am going to use that some day in a sentence…. 😀

Shanghai Girls is a look into two girls lives from their youth as beautiful girls to their experiences lives, marriages, and more in the United States.  Lisa See does a wonderful job of making this book feel more fact than fiction.

Check out a few other reviews from awesome bloggers:

Devourer Of Books

She Is Too Fond Of Books

Books On The Brain

Always With A Book

Amazon Rating

Goodreads Review

Borrowed from my local library

33 thoughts on “Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

  1. I read this book and I really enjoyed it. However, the sequel Dreams of Joy is the best
    of her books. It is a fantastic story, make sure to read it you will not be disappointed.
    The best book I have read in many years.

  2. I really liked this novel. As usual I learned a lot from Lisa See! I look forward to reading the sequel which is on my shelf. Just need to find the time to read it. I’m glad you also enjoyed it, Sheila.

  3. I loved this book. If you have not already, read Dreams of Joy. It is the continued story of Pearl & Joy, and it is better, if that is possible.

  4. This title is a;ready on my wishlist as like you I enjoyed her previous work. thanks for a lovely review.

  5. Great review, Sheila and thanks for including the link to my review – I was stunned to see it there! I really have come to enjoy reading Lisa See and like you, my first experience with her was with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan which I also loved. The next book I read of hers was Peony in Love – have you read that one? I liked it, but not as much as Snow Flower, but still a good book. I then read Shanghai Girls which I really liked. I have the sequel on my bookshelf – I actually have a signed copy of it because Lisa See came to the local independent bookstore by me and I heard her speak. I still need to read it and am hoping to do so soon.

    Thanks again for including the link to my review and I’m glad you enjoyed this one!

  6. I cannot say enough how much I LOVED this book and its sequel, Dreams of Joy. I loved the writing, the plot, the characters, and more

  7. Marriage proposals even today specially with immigrants spread all over the world follow similar patterns. The girls are educated so they are independent thank god, but some of them find themselves in situations not of their making even today.

  8. OOOH! Thanks for this review, I have to read it! I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan too. Lisa See is a wonderful writer! 🙂

  9. I really need to read a Lisa See novel soon – I keep hearing such good things about them! I have Peony in Love on my TBR shelf right now – really need to get to it!

    This book and its prequel both sound great – thanks for the review!


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