Shanghai Girls covers so many themes, all in depth. It is an immensely readable book, thought-provoking historical fiction.
Above all it is the poignant story of two sisters from China who later move to the United States in the 1930s. Parents will die, daughters will move away but sisters will always be there for each other……… but it isn’t as simple as that. Pearl and May love each other deeply as sisters often do, sacrifice for each other, support each other, share secrets, but along with the love there are petty jealousies, deep resentments, rivalry, hurt and disappointments. On the one hand no one loves you like your sister does but on the other hand, no relationship is more complicated than that between siblings. The theme of sisterly love is beautifully explored in the novel.
The novel spans a couple of decades and the plot is unveiled against the backdrop of several historical events – the Japanese invasion of China and its brutality, Pearl Harbour, World War II and the war effort, the Communist Revolution in China, the intense and often unreasonable fear of Communism in the United States when Chinese Americans could find themselves in prison for no fault greater than buying a particular newspaper or magazine.
The plot covers in detail the immigration of the Chinese to the U.S. in the 1930s. The community faced racism and discriminatory policies by the American Government. Chinese were not allowed to own property, the men were not allowed to bring their families so they left wives at home in China whom they did not see for years, the Chinese had to carry identity papers. “It is as though every person in Chinatown is a refugee; none here is a Gold Mountain man”. The novel covers discriminatory policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the inhumane treatment of the Chinese in the Pacific detention centre at Angel Island, the building of ethnic enclaves called Chinatown. Today China towns are tourist attractions, in the 1930s they were immigrant ghettoes. The men in the novel were “paper sons” not legitimate sons of a Chinese American but sons who had purchased papers from the Chinese American citizen that enabled them to come to the Gold Mountain in search of a better life. The “better life” was usually one of hardship, poverty, isolation, humiliation, insecurity and fear. “In my life” writes Pearl, “no three miles have been flat and no three days have had sun”.
The immigrant experience is a major theme of the novel. An individual who immigrates, starts off feeling like an outsider, faces some discrimination, perhaps is marginalized, but gradually over the years, the individual immigrant assimilates into the mainstream. An immigrant community undergoes the same process. Over the years the population of the community grows, members of the community marry outside the community, the children speak more English than the native tongues of their parents, the children rebel against some of the cultural rules their parents impose, they find a sense of family and community, accumulate money, become engaged in the politics and economics of the country. The locals also are more open to the immigrant community. This is a pattern everyone has gone through – the Irish, the Italians, Europeans, Chinese, Indians/Pakistanis. This experience and process is very realistically portrayed in the novel.
I found some parts of the novel a little dramatic and unrealistic but overall the plot flows smoothly, the characters are well drawn, the history is well researched. The end of the book leaves the plot unresolved which I found disappointing. Perhaps the author has left the door open for a sequel??
If you are looking for a book that gives you themes to think and talk about, if you like historical fiction, then Shanghai Girls is the book for you.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.