Author Lisa See deftly combines fiction and history in this book about two young Chinese sisters in a time of turbulence in their home country, and in American history: between 1937 and 1957. We meet Pearl and May Chin in happier times, in Shanghai, where the two young girls enjoy acting as models for calendars and having fun in their grand city. Pearl, the older sister, is the narrator. She is reserved while May is carefree. “We are twenty-one and eighteen. We are young, we are beautiful, and we live in the Paris of Asia.”
Quickly the book turns to serious themes. Pearl and May’s father arranged marriages for them and they are to leave for America the following day. “Old Man Louie” is a wealthy business-owner who arrives to purchase the girls for his two American sons. Through their horror, Pearl concedes: “We may look and act modern in many ways, but we can’t escape what we are: obedient Chinese daughters.”
Pearl and May fill out paperwork to immigrate to the U.S., based on their marriage to natural-born U.S. citizens. “Married, July 24, 1937. At four we go to the American Consulate and fill out forms for nonquota immigration visas. May and I check boxes verifying that we’ve never been in prison, an almshouse, or a hospital for the insane, that we’re not alcoholics, anarchists, professional beggars, prostitutes, idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded, epileptic, tubercular, illiterate, or suffering from psychopathic inferiority (whatever that is).”
Interestingly, quite a few of these immigration requirements remain intact today. American immigration law has “inadmissibility” grounds that continue to prohibit the immigration of persons based on similar grounds (public charge, prostitution, certain medical grounds).
On August 14, 1937, before leaving for the U.S., Pearl and May find themselves in the beginning of the bloody Battle of Shanghai, where Japanese forces attempt to invade Shanghai. May’s boyfriend’s head is blown off by an explosion while they walk side-by-side. The next day the sisters and their mother hire a rickshaw puller to help them evacuate Shanghai. Pearl and May make it to Hong Kong and onto a ship for a twenty-two day voyage to San Francisco. They land at Angel Island. “We have nothing to be afraid of. We’re out of China, away from the war, and in the land of the free and all that.” Angel Island Immigration Station is where officials detained, inspected, interrogated, and examined approximately one million immigrants from 1910 to 1940. Today it is a National Historical Landmark.
Pearl and May’s introduction to America is not pleasant. “Whites without satisfactory paperwork first!…White Russians…What happens next is even more shocking. The Japanese and Koreans are grouped together and politely led to a different door in the building…We are treated more poorly than the cargo that traveled with us.” They are interviewed by immigration officials who ask questions such as “How many trees are in front of your alleged husband’s home in the village?”
Pearl and May wear the same clothes for five days after arriving. Three weeks later they’re allowed to retrieve things from their luggage. Their surroundings are ominous. The sisters have multiple interrogations, fraught with problems in translation, and lack of cultural context. “The questioning continues for eight straight hours—with no break for lunch or to use the toilet.” In this morass, May confesses that she is pregnant. They decide to claim the baby is Pearl’s since Pearl and her American husband had been intimate. May gives birth to a baby girl, Joy, on the cold bathroom floor in the detention center.
After four months in detention, Pearl and May are finally admitted to the U.S. as wives of American citizens.
They live in Los Angeles Chinatown, “where everyone is poor.” “The law says that Chinese can’t own property and most landlords won’t rent to Chinese either…[T]he American-born Chinese look down on people like us, calling us fresh off the boat and backward. We look down on them, because we know that American culture isn’t as good as Chinese culture.”
Pearl’s husband, Sam, is quiet and hardworking. May’s husband, Vern, is a child, in ninth grade. He is feeble and suffers from tuberculosis of the bone. Pearl and Sam raise Joy as their own. They work in “China City,” a tourist-type destination for whites. Rickshaw pullers, called “lo-fan,” are hired Mexicans. Through embarrassment, Sam confesses to Pearl that he was a rickshaw puller in China. He confesses that Old Man Louie is not his father and he was not born in America. He is a “paper son.” Only Vern is a blood son, born in America. Pearl confesses to Sam that she was raped in China and that Joy is not her daughter. “He puts a finger to my lips to keep me from saying anything more. ‘I would rather be married to broken jade than flawless clay.’”
Pearl and Sam enjoy a warm friendship. “For me, it’s about being close to Sam, the loneliness we feel for our home country, the way we miss our parents, and the hardship of our daily lives here in America, where we are wang k’uo nu—lost country slaves, forever living under foreign rule.”
The book frequently touches on the themes of discrimination and disdain that the Chinese suffered during this time in history.
“I want a more stylish haircut than I can get in Chinatown, but every time I go to a beauty parlor in the Occidental part of town, they say, ‘We don’t cut Chinese hair.’ I finally get someone to cut my hair after hours, when white customers won’t be offended by my presence.”
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Pearl and May suffer additional white intolerance. Whites struggled to distinguish the Chinese from the Japanese. Tee-shirts are printed with the words: “Me no Jap.” Pearl tapes a handmade sign at work that reads: ANY RESEMBLANCE TO LOOKING JAPANESE IS PURELY OCCIDENTAL. Chinese friends complain that while they’re young, healthy, and willing to die, they’re not allowed to serve in the American military.
In December 1943 President Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was one of the most restrictive immigration laws in U.S. history.
Nevertheless, Pearl and Sam are hesitant to naturalize. “[W]e’re afraid, as are so many paper sons and the wives who squeaked in with them…How can we trust the government when our Jap neighbors are sent to internment camps?”
At the beginning of October 1949, Mao Tse-tung established the People’s Republic of China, and the “Bamboo Curtain falls.” Chinese Americans now faced a renewed onslaught of animosity and criticism. Some businesses in Chinatown close completely and many Chinese Americans lose their jobs or can’t get hired. The U.S. government restrained Chinese students studying in America from returning home, and also banned all remittances to China and Hong Kong, then a British colony.
The government also started something called the “Confession Program.” “They’re asking, no, trying to scare us into confessing who came here as paper sons. They give people citizenship if they report on their friends, their neighbors, their business associates, and even their family members who came here as paper sons…But what they want most are Communists. If you report that someone is a Communist, then you’ll get your citizenship for sure.”
The reader will find that the conclusion of this book follows closely its themes of painful assimilation, distrust of American government and society, and the deep intricacies of filial bonds. The American government’s treatment of Chinese immigrants, from the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 until the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943, which repealed 61 years of official racial discrimination against the Chinese, is disgraceful. This history stands as an important reminder to ward against discrimination and xenophobia and to be vigilant to protect against governmental action that resembles the same. “Shanghai Girls” is a poignant and moving historical novel. It aptly captures a terrifying American immigrant experience.