Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
So who’s a sucker for 1930’s Shanghai? I am not going to lie, I do find this period of history very fascinating, (although actually I find most of 20th century China fascinating) I think I find Shanghai fascinating in particular because it was this city that was just a world apart from the rest of China, a city that existed in its own little cosmopolitan bubble until of course, the inevitable happens and everything collapses in a drastic way.
But this book isn’t merely about Shanghai in the 30’s – it actually covers a good fifty years with the last couple of decades spent in the States. Shanghai Girls tells the story of two sisters who lead privileged lives in Shanghai modelling as “beautiful girls” for calendars and adverts when their father forces them into arranged marriages in order to pay off his gambling debts. This happens at about the same time that the Japanese have started invading Shanghai, and their lives are changed forever. The novel follows the girls through their attempts to escape China via Hong Kong and how they end up at Angel Island, the prison/immigration centre set-up to deal with the sudden influx of immigrants that arrived thanks to the outbreak of the war; as well as how they attempt to make a life for themselves in the US amidst all the racism and political tension brought on by Mao’s Communist victory in China.
I did enjoy this book, but I do also have quite a few mixed feelings about it. I feel like sometimes there is sometimes quite a sudden jolt in narrative – for instance the very beginning of the book starts with the narrator explaining about how bookish and ‘ugly’ she is and how her parents love her sister best, and yet within the same chapter she’ll describe at length how beautiful her and her sister are as they prepare to go model for the artist Z.G.
So I guess my biggest problem with the novel is that I don’t always feel like the narration is very well-done or particularly strong. It is still a page-turner though, and the characters do get a lot of development so don’t let any of these things put you off (I get quite pedantic about narrative voice, so probably no one else will notice). As one might expect from a novel that deals with war, class and racism it does get quite depressing in parts – but none of this bothered me until the very end. I think how the sisters’ relationship pans out in the very last scenes is really harsh, and this did leave me feeling pretty down – so I guess if you’re likely to get upset by betrayal amongst close siblings and best-friends then just be aware of that.
All of this said, the amount of historical detail in this book is very impressive and definitely one of its strengths – especially the descriptions of life in Chinatown during the mid-20th century for Chinese people in L.A.; and especially how this played out both in the media with stereotypical portrayals of Chinese villains in Hollywood movies and how it played out in real life, with Chinese people being refused work or rent outside of Chinatown. One thing in particular that really caught my attention was when a wealthy American lady attempts to develop Chinatown by making it more tourist-friendly. She doesn’t this by contractually obliging those who worked in Chinatown to wear “traditional” Chinese clothing and speak broken English – in other words, as long as they conformed to what a Westerner would expect Chinese people to look and act like, they could continue living and working there. If anyone needed to know why Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls give me lots of uncomfortable mixed feelings, this would be why. Because contractually obliging people to act as stereotypes of their race isn’t cute – it’s a practice that is as old as time and very, very ugly.
So if you’re at all interesting in Chinese culture or history do pick up this book – the history seems very well-researched and very realistically conveyed.