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Shanghai Girls

A pair of Chinese sisters battle their way through the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and on to America.

By Yvonne Zipp / June 5, 2009

If you were to make a list by occupation of those most likely to survive a battlefield, models probably wouldn’t crack the Top 20. But Pearl and May Chin, middle-class teenagers who pose for “beautiful girl” calendars in Shanghai, show reserves of toughness that would put a French legionnaire to shame when Japan invades China in 1937 in Lisa See’s new historical epic, Shanghai Girls.

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The seventh book by See, whose 2005 novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” became an international bestseller, marks a return to form after 2007’s ghost opera “Peony in Love.” (It may just have been me, but I had trouble relating to a teenage girl who willed her own death. But then “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t my favorite Shakespearean play either.)

May and Pearl, on the other hand, grab hold of life and refuse to let go – despite bombs, gangs, arranged marriages, rape, indentured servitude, and a host of other challenges that would have this reviewer whimpering under her bed. (Book critics also are not generally known for hardiness or intestinal fortitude. We do usually have more body fat than your average supermodel, though – so at least we’d last longer in a famine.)

Pearl’s and May’s carefree existence of cafes, Western fashion, and nightclubs is upended even before the bombs start falling on Shanghai (which gets described one too many times as the “Paris of Asia”). Their father lost everything gambling, including all the money the girls earned as models for the painter Z.G. In hock to a gang, their dad sells the only thing he has left: his daughters.

The girls are expected to marry the two sons of a California businessman. Pearl does her duty, but May, whose groom is 14 and has special needs, is revolted and unable to consummate her marriage. Both girls rebel at the thought of leaving their beloved home for the United States and deliberately miss their boat. Then Japanese soldiers and the gang descend almost simultaneously on the Chin family.

After a harrowing escape from Shanghai in which Pearl and their mother are gang-raped by soldiers and their mother is killed, 17-year-old May gets Pearl to Hong Kong and then to America. Despite the fact that in Shanghai they followed “the religion of ch’ung yang: worshiping all things foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese,” the girls weren’t exactly viewing the United States as a promised land. But their treatment at the Angel Island immigration center (seemingly designed by the folks who brought us Alcatraz) is breathtakingly callous.

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