I just finished Lisa See’s new book, Shanghai Girls. I really enjoyed the book. It is a departure from Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in that it takes place in the 20th century and 75% of the novel takes place in Los Angeles. It is a story of two sisters who, like most sisters, have a loving but at times, tumultuous relationship. The older sister is Pearl. She is well educated but feels unloved while, she believes, her parents dote on her younger sister, May, who is playful and beautiful. They are the elite of Shanghai in the late 1930’s. They are “the beautiful girls”. They pose for an artist that paints them to sell their pictures on calendars and advertisements. But their father is a heavy gambler and loses all. He then sells his girls to Golden Mountain men (Chinese men who have immigrated to the US, made money, and now want to marry Chinese women). Then the Japanese invade and the rape of China takes place. Through horrid conditions and true terror, the sisters make their way to LA to begin their arranged marriages. Read more…
One of the key points that Ms. See wants to convey is how, during the late 19th century as well as into the 20th century, the immigrant Chinese were terrorized and discriminated against by “Occidentals” (whites). I’ve read about this before. Any history of California and of the building of the transcontinental railroad depicts the atrocities inflicted on these immigrants. We’ve all seen the “coolies” in the movies. Dirty, starving, kowtowing to his white master. White actors played the lead rolls in such big hits as The Good Earth. The directors had the white actors eyes taped back and painted the actors yellow. The immigrants fled China to get away from the Japanese and then Mao. When WWII started they were terrorized by ignorant whites believing them to be Japs because they had slanty eyes. Then they were terrorized again by the US government after Mao took over as being possible Communists and were threatened for deportation. This type of discrimination, no matter what ethnic group, has been going on since the birth of the country. This is not an excuse. It is a fact. When New York City was being settled, the Indians were slaughtered. When the Irish arrived, they hated and terrorized Italians. Then, the Irish became the butt end and during the civil war were sent off to fight against the war of aggression because they didn’t have the dollars it took to buy their way out. Italians became known as WOPs because when they came through Ellis Island, if all their papers weren’t in order a customs agent would tape a sign on them, WOP, without papers. Each of these immigrant groups assimilated differently. I once asked my mother, who is Czech, why her parents had not taught her the Czech language. She said that they wanted her to be as American as she could be. My husband’s Italian father and mother felt the same way and didn’t want him being teased for being WOPS by speaking their native language. Whereas, many of the immigrant Chinese hoped one day to return to China and therefore, wanted their children to remain as Chinese as possible.
When I think of the Chinese today, whether immigrants or those still living in their native land, this is what I think of: the largest army in the world; their huge population which led to their one child rule, which makes me think of all of the “whites” in the US that have adopted Chinese babies (predominately girls); cheap goods and cheap labor; a hard working, industrious, intelligent people who all want the very best for their children.
If Pearl and May were real and still alive, they would be astonished by the number of white couples walking down the grocery isles with their adopted Chinese babies in tow. They would be astonished at the number of Chinese students who climb the corporate ladders and become huge successes.
Ms. See brings poignancy to the lives of the Chinese immigrant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a read I believe you will enjoy.