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.
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.
Take the locked dormitory in which they spend their days. “Rows of bunks two across and three high are connected to one another by iron poles attached to the ceiling and floor. There are no ‘beds’ to sleep on, just wire mesh....” The immigration process is like a criminal interrogation stretched over months. Once they get to Los Angeles, there are more unpleasant surprises. Instead of being the prominent businessman he had posed as in Shanghai, their father-in-law is barely scraping by, and the girls are expected to be unpaid labor.
For the next 20 years, May and Pearl create a life for themselves in Los Angeles, despite prejudice and the threat of deportation. See re-creates the 1950s right down to the molded Jell-O salads and the government assumption that all Chinese immigrants must be Communist spies. As she adjusts to life in America, Pearl eventually forms a loving partnership with her husband, Sam, who has his own secrets.
This section might meander for too long, strictly speaking, but after all the misery the girls endured, I welcomed the chapters of normal life. They even get to eat watermelon, finally. In Shanghai, the fruit was so poisonous, Snow White’s stepmother could have traded in her apple for one. “As tempting as the watermelon sellers are, we ignore them,” Pearl recounts. “Too many of them try to make their melons sound heavier by injecting them with water from the river or one of the creeks. Even a single bite could result in dysentery, typhoid, or cholera.”
In “the Land of the Flowery Flag,” Pearl finds herself becoming Americanized, despite longing for Shanghai. “When you lose your home country, what do you preserve and what do you abandon?” That balance shifts for her over the years, while May, meanwhile, adopts Western living in her dress, cars, and dating habits. Then pictures of their past and the family’s secrets combine to stalk the family in a way as devastating as it is unexpected.
“Shanghai Girls” is told exclusively from Pearl’s point of view – a narrative necessity that gives the ending its punch. But it also means that readers have to content themselves with only Pearl’s resentful glimpses of the unusual life that beautiful May carves out for herself, first as a Hollywood extra and then as the successful owner of a costume shop. Pearl, who was always thought to be the smarter and more forceful of the sisters, contents herself with the traditional roles as wife and mother. As with “Snow Flower,” See demonstrates the almost life-giving strength women can gain from sisterhood – and the ways in which they can tear each other apart without even trying.
The ending of “Shanghai Girls” makes it appear as if Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution is going to be the next stop on See’s guided tour through Chinese history. If you’re not a fan of cliffhangers, you might want to hold off reading until a publication date for her next novel is announced. Given the era, it’s hard to imagine that the Chins’ saga is going to end happily, but, when united, May and Pearl are such a determined force, it’s not at all difficult imagining them standing up to Chairman Mao himself.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.