Shanghai Girls
A Novel
Lisa See
(Random House)
Pearl and May Chin grow up in Shanghai. Their father prospers in the rickshaw business, and their mother is a stay-at-home with seven servants. When they go out at night to party, they go to the International Settlement, avoid the beggars, "step around a dead baby," end up drinking champagne with their Chinese and American friends. It is 1937.

But daddy Baba gambles away the family assets, the girls are forced into arranged marriages, and the bandit Pockmarked Huang arrives to give Baba three days to pay his debts. Fortunately for all, the Sino-Japanese war breaks out, the city is bombed and the two sisters and Mama flee.

The third night on the road they are discovered by the "monkey people" --- read the Japanese --- who rape them and, oh me, stomp on poor Mama's bound feet. The sisters ultimately make their way to Hong Kong and thence to California. They are locked up for four months by U. S. Immigration, but by guile and by golly, are finally admitted to Los Angeles with a babe in arms.

During the next twenty years, Pearl has a miscarriage --- it's a boy --- May finds out she has been wed to an idiot with tuberculosis, part of China City (where they live) burns down, mother-in-law Yen-yen dies, father-in-law, Father Louie, goes senile, the FBI tries to deport Pearl's husband for being a communist, so he hangs himself. Ultimately, May and Pearl have a big spat, which convinces daughter Joy --- the real Communist in the family --- to run away to China.

§     §     §

I don't know, maybe I am getting senile like Father Louie, but much of Shanghai Girls reminds me of Chinese noodle soup, all tangled up with strange, unidentifiable bits of this and that (along with a few tasty treats). The traditions, the street life, the grueling day-to-day all ring true; the chapter on the later anti-Communist activities of the FBI --- it was called "the Confession Program" --- is an eye-opener.

But much of Shanghai Girls falls into a semi-parody of things Oriental: "My father used to say that anyone can add an extra flower to brocade, but how many women will fetch the coal in winter?" Or, this, on the Japanese bombings of Shanghai: "Those monkey people are worse than the turtles' egg abortions!"

After Pearl's much put-upon husband hangs himself in the closet, she muses,

    Regrets scorch my skin and burrow into my heart. I didn't do enough of the husband-wife thing with Sam. I looked at him too often as a mere rickshaw puller. I let my longing for the past make him feel that he was never enough, that our life together was never enough, that Los Angeles was never enough.

Lisa's mother Carolyn See was a dynamite reporter and reviewer at the old Los Angeles Times. Lisa might want to consult with Mum on her next novel. Whatever else is suggested, don't, please, change the hsiao ch'ih, the treats, "The porridges made from the seeds of Job's tears, apricot kernels, and lotus seeds ... steamed rice cakes made with rugosa rose and white sugar, and their eggs stewed in tea leaves and five spice."

--- Sandra Talbot-Winters, PhD
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