book commentary :: SHANGHAI GIRLS by Lisa Seebook commentary :: DREAMS OF JOY by Lisa SeeWe hug, but there are no tears. For every awful thing that’s been said and done, she is my sister. Parents die, daughters grow up and marry out, but sisters are for life. She is the only person left in the world who shares my memories of our childhood, our parents, our Shanghai, our struggles, our sorrows, and, yes, even our moments of happiness and triumph.” — from Shanghai Girls

I discovered Lisa See last year when I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and I was immediately entranced by her storytelling. She writes simple, descriptive prose in a way that draws you in and settles around you. Her stories of Chinese culture are unique and lovely, and her characters are thoroughly drawn so that you feel as if you have been on a journey with each of them by the time you complete their stories. In Shanghai Girls and its sequel, Dreams of Joy, See again explores Chinese history, taking the reader on a journey from Republic of China’s Shanghai to 1940s America and then back into Communist China during the Fifties. Along the way, two sisters and their daughter come to understand the depth of their love for each other and just how far they will go to prove it.

In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and May are known as “beautiful girls” – models for artists who use their images on posters and advertisements throughout the city. They enjoy the best that Shanghai has to offer during the time it was known as the “Paris of Asia,” and the girls spend all of their time living the high life. The younger May is the most outgoing, the one who wants the most attention, and in her older sister’s eyes, she is also the one most deserving of that attention. Pearl believes she is far less beautiful than May, and thus sees herself through a darkened perspective. Such belief is what eventually saves the sisters when Shanghai is attacked by Japan and they flee the city with their mother. A series of horrific events create in Pearl a hardened, protective spirit toward May that changes both of their lives and leads Pearl to sacrifice her own happiness for the people around her.

With the fall of Shanghai and the dissolution of their family, Pearl and May are left with no choice but to sail to America and into arranged marriages. The bulk of Shanghai Girls follows Pearl as she struggles to love herself and her family during a time when Chinese immigrants (as well as Chinese-Americans) were always seen as foreigners because of the U.S. war with Japan, fighting in Korea, and the rise of Red China. It is this atmosphere that plays a larger part in the sequel, Dreams of Joy, when Pearl’s American-born daughter chooses to leave her home for the country of her ancestors and buys into the socialist propaganda of Chairman Mao. Pearl is forced to return to a Shanghai that is no longer recognizable in order to convince her only child of the truth behind Mao’s rhetoric and the need to return to America.

What makes both books so captivating is the depth of history woven throughout the women’s stories. Throughout my reading I kept a notepad of phrases and historical events to research since so much of it happened before my generation and was not taught in history classes when I was in school. Yet this is what makes See’s books so readable; there is more information than you can possibly remember but she makes it all come alive by placing her characters in the midst of each historical event. And she does it seamlessly. Of the two novels, Shanghai Girls is the better story simply because Pearl is the most well-drawn character, but Dreams of Joy speaks the most toward Red China and the devastation experienced by villagers during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Both books are fine history lessons, but more than that, they are incredibly compelling stories.



At first I’m not even sure who spoke. None of us are. We all look around until we come to my mother, who has not said a word since the men entered our home. I see hardness in her that I’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re all like that with our mothers. They seem ordinary until one day they’re extraordinary. — White Plum Blossoms


We too are forever foreign, which makes us suspect. The family associations in Chinatown print up signs that read CHINA: YOUR ALLY for us to hang in the windows of our businesses, homes, and automobiles to announce that we aren’t Japanese. They make armbands and badges, which we wear to make sure we aren’t attacked in the street or rounded up, stuck on a train, and sent to one of the internment camps. The government, aware that most Occidentals think all Orientals look alike, issues special registration certificates that verify that we’re “members of the Chinese Race.” None of us can let down our guard. — Snapshots


So often we’re told that women’s stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby’s illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are considered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We’re told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men. The men in my life—my father, Z.G., my husband, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my son—faced, to one degree or another, those great male battles, but their hearts—so fragile—wilted, buckled, crippled, corrupted, broke, or shattered when confronted with the losses women face every day. As men, they have to put a brave face on tragedy and obstacles, but they are as easily bruised as flower petals. — The Air of This World


The following Sunday, I go to church with Joy as I usually do. Listening to the reverend, I remember the first time God came into my life. I was a little girl, and a lo fan man dressed in black came up to me on the street outside our house in Shanghai. He wanted to sell me a Bible for two coppers. I went home and asked Mama for the money. She pushed me away, saying, “Tell that one-Goder to worship his ancestors instead. He’ll be better off in the afterworld.”

And now we have all of our recent trials and losses, the worst of which was the death of my son. All the Chinese herbs I took, all the offerings I made, all the questioning about the meaning of my dreams, did not, could not, save him, because I was looking for help in the wrong direction. As I sit on the hard bench in the church, I smile to myself as I remember the missionary I met on the street all those years ago. He always said that true conversion was inevitable. Now it has come at last. I begin to pray—not for Father Louie, whose lifetime of hard work is coming to an end; not for my husband, who bears the family’s burdens on his iron fan; not for my baby in the afterworld; not for Vern, whose bones are collapsing before my eyes; but to bring peace of mind, to make sense of all the bad things in my life, and to believe that maybe all this suffering will be rewarded in Heaven. — Fear



Since all tools have been given to the collective, we check out hoes and other implements we’ll need from the work team leader.

All around me I hear people working: the shush shush as they glide between the cornstalks, the hacking of hoes as they aerate the furrows, and the melodies of a recently authorized harvest song rising into the air from the hayfield adjacent to us. This is everything I imagined the New China would be: rosy-cheeked peasants helping one another and sharing the benefits, the sun warming my back, the sound of cicadas and birds accompanying our songs. — JOY: Observing and Learning from Real Life


I miss everything—the purring foreign cars, the elegant gentlemen in their tailor-made suits and jaunty hats, the laughter, the champagne, the money, the foreigners, the aromatic French and Russian bakeries, and the sheer fun of being in one of the great cities on the planet. I wish I’d brought my camera so I could send photographs to May. Nothing I write could be as vivid or believable as seeing it with her own eyes.

What haven’t disappeared are rats. They’re everywhere. So here’s what I don’t understand: Old Shanghai, my Shanghai, had plenty of sin on the surface but was shored up by the respectability of banking and mercantile wealth underneath. Now I see the so-called respectability of communism on the surface and decay underneath. They can sweep, strip, and cart away all they want, but there’s no changing the fact that my home city is decomposing, rotting away, and turning into a skeleton. Eventually, the only things left will be dust and memories. — PEARL: Dust and Memories


Sometimes it’s just so damn hard to be a mother. We have to wait and wait and wait for our children to open their hearts to us. And if that doesn’t work, we have to bide our time and look for the moment of weakness when we can sneak back into their lives and they will see us and remember us for the people who love them unconditionally. — PEARL: The Sorrow of Life


Then it’s on to the Methodist mission I attended as a girl. I come here every day. I, like many others, am afraid to enter. I sit on the curb across the street. I’m not alone for long. A few other women approach, and it’s as if they are dragging great shadows of memories behind them. They sit on the curb next to me.

Chairman Mao is against all religions, whether Chinese or Western, but “that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. One-Goders like me have been told to “walk the road of socialism,” “expose rightist elements hiding behind the veil of Christianity,” and “resolutely struggle against anti-Communist, anti-socialist activities conducted by reactionaries, vagabonds, and wicked elements using the fronts of church or free preaching.” They can tell me what to do, but they can’t keep me from praying. — PEARL: Dust and Memories


I wake on a Sunday morning in March to unnatural silence. The roosters and chickens in Green Dragon have all been eaten. The oxen, water buffalo, and village dogs have also been eaten. I don’t hear the scratching of mice or rats in the rafters and walls, because they’ve been eaten too. There are no birds in the trees, children playing between houses, or people going about their daily chores.

Tao’s brothers and sisters still sleep around us. They need the rest. Last night, they ran out to steal pubescent wheat heads, rub them between their fingers to separate the grain from the husks, and then eat the still-green kernels. It’s completely against the rules, and if you’re caught by the night patrols, punishment is swift and harsh.

In school, we often debated why Germans didn’t revolt against their leadership and why Jews didn’t fight harder for their lives. Now I understand how that happened, because there have been no riots, protests, or uprisings here either. We’re too weak, tired, and scared to do those things. We’ve been brainwashed through hunger, and people still believe in Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. — JOY: A Good Mother


Mao won’t admit when he’s wrong. He purges anyone who disagrees with him. Since the recent class struggle, everyone with a brain or a backbone has been sent to labor camp or been killed. Those who remain, like Chou En-lai, are afraid to go against Mao, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s stopped listening to others anyway. Who will protect China from bad ideas? — PEARL: Scars On Her Breast


The majority of city dwellers don’t fully understand what’s happening in the countryside. They’ve heard rumors, but they can’t reconcile them with being told crops grow to the sky on communes, hearing government officials report on the so-called years of bad weather that have destroyed fields of plenty, and what they see on the streets of Shanghai, where there’s no avoiding or covering up how people look as they wait in long lines to buy food with their coupons. They’re just moving past the first sign of starvation—losing weight—to the second stage—edema. They’ve begun to swell around their necks and in their faces. When people greet, they press thumbs into each other’s foreheads to see how deep the impression and how long it will last until the flesh resumes its normal shape. Everyone seems to walk in a listless haze. Still, no one complains, no one revolts. Only when people are truly hungry can you make them submit to you. — JOY: The Heartbeat of an Artist


Today my mother will go to her work unit and tell her supervisor that she wants to marry a professor. She will promise her supervisor a dozen fresh eggs if he will accompany her to the government office at one o’clock, where they’ll meet Dun, who’ll be coming from his morning classes. Her supervisor needs to approve the marriage: verify that she doesn’t suffer from disease, that she’s a helpful member of the proletariat, and that she and Dun are not blood relatives up to the third degree of relationship. The officer will have my mother and Dun sign some papers, and then they’ll be given a marriage certificate. My mother will hang on to the eggs, however, unless her supervisor also agrees to let her have the afternoon off for her honeymoon. We’re sure he’ll accept this bribe, since none of us have seen eggs in months and their protein is a good safeguard against the swelling disease. — JOY: The Heartbeat of an Artist

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About Jules Q

sharing stories of life, faith, and love for pop culture

Posted on 17 October 2013, in What I Read and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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