Shanghai Girls By Lisa See

Reluctantly, I began this novel, believing I wouldn’t particularly be interested in these women’s lives or the historical time in which it was set. I was immediately sucked into the story line and the lives of these two        “beautiful” girls living in what they thought was an upper-class life style. The place was Shanghai, China and the time was 1937. Knowing that the world was about to change and that the characters would probably be impacted and swept up by these impending changes, riveted my attention to these people, their life style and culture. Just as we begin to know them and feel comfortable with the characters there is a crescendo of events, which we come to appreciative through the eyes of these girls. Arranged marriages, invasion by the Japanese, dissolution of family, fleeing home and country, rape, murder and the desire to survive captivates the reader as a great movie might also do (and this is sure to be made into one).

As engrossing and enlightening that the first half of the book may have been, it is the second half, which I found the most stimulating and thought provoking. The Shanghai girls come to the United States through Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West) and struggle with their new family to survive in the ghettoized Chinatown in Los Angeles. The discrimination, which they and their family experience, and the treatment as second-class citizens is eye opening. The history books, which I studied, somehow never quite conveyed this story. I knew the U.S. interred Japanese after Pearl Harbor but I never appreciated how harshly we treated the Chinese who hated the Japanese as much as Americans did. Similarly, whatever you have understood about how badly McCarthyism  may have unfairly treated suspected “Communist sympathizers”, it was nothing compared to how Chinese in America were treated during the time that the Communists had just taken over China and were perceived as our enemy.

As I got into this book it was clear to me that the story could have been “ripped from today’s headlines”. You easily could substitute “ Latino” for “Chinese” and be describing the plight of “undocumented” Latinos who are being discriminated in our country today  and even persecuted under the new Arizona legislation. The family members in the book who were trying to eek out a living could be my gardener, the car washer and so many Latinos that we encounter everyday in Los Angeles.

In between periods of reading the book, I found myself thinking about what I knew about the refugees from Poland, Germany and Russia who were my family. I know best the story of my wife’s mother and grandparents who after being bourgeoisie in Russia were confronted and severely maltreated by the Cossacks and then by the Communists causing them to flee their homeland. By hook or by crook they made it to the United States. Initially they lived together in less than ideal accommodations and faced discrimination and hardships. It is easy to forget how so many of us are living the dreams of our ancestor immigrants. We may never fully know the hardships which they faced but are reminded of what they may have been when we read a book such as this one.

Lisa See, the author of Shanghai Girls has indicated in some notes at the conclusion of the book that she has researched the history and based much of the characters and plots on interviews and oral histories, which clearly gives this book an authentic ring. I thank her for work and also our book club for choosing his book for me to experience.

Category: FH - Fiction Historical | Tags: , , , , , , Comment »

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