Literature / Shanghai Girls

A 2010 book by Lisa See.

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. 21-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father's prosperous rickshaw business. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life… until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides.

Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of south China and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life, even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown's old ways and rules. A sequel, Dreams of Joy, was published in 2011 about Joy's travel to China.

Tropes in this story include:

  • Arranged Marriage: Pearl and May with Old Man Louie's sons, Sam and Vern.
  • Break the Cutie: Pearl gets brutally gang-raped by Japanese soldiers.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Vern's toy boats.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Z.G. He turns out to be Joy's biological father.
  • Citizenship Marriage: In a way. Pearl, May and their mother had planned to get to Hong Kong and live with their father's family, but after being attacked by Japanese soldiers they decide to go to America and live with their husbands.
  • Culture Clash:
    • Joy with Pearl and Sam as she gets older.
    • When Pearl and May first come to America.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sam.
  • Fake Pregnancy: Pearl does this in order to cover up for her pregnant sister May, who while married, has never slept with her husband (who is only 14 and mentally challenged) from an Arranged Marriage. She manages to keep this secret even while living in a dormitory with several other women.
  • Family Relationship Switcheroo: A variant from the usual; May's illegitimate child Joy is raised as her sister Pearl's child, since even though May was married when she got pregnant, she never had sex with her husband.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: With Pearl as the smart one and May as the beautiful one. This is exacerbated by the fact that Pearl is raising May's child as her own, and they disagree over how to raise her.
  • Happily Married: Pearl and Sam actually achieve some semblance of this after several years. Enough for her to be genuinely devastated by his suicide.
  • The Illegal: Sam and most of the other sons are not really Old Man Louie's sons. He is a "paper son", or a person brought over to America on a false birth certificate. By extension, Pearl is illegal as well.
  • An Immigrant's Tale
  • My Secret Pregnancy: May gets pregnant. Pearl finds out while they are at Angel Island waiting to be let in to America.
  • Rags to Riches: Eventually, after years of hard work, things improve for the clan in America.
  • Rape as Drama: Pearl and her mother are raped by Japanese soldiers.
  • Red Scare: The Louie family is investigated in The '50s for being Communist sympathizers because of their ties to China and because of Joy's political activity in college.
  • Riches to Rags: The girls, both in China and when they come to America.
  • Second Sino-Japanese War: The story starts during that time period.
  • Sequel Hook: The ending sets up the sequel: Pearl and May have just found Joy's note detailing her plans to travel to China, and Pearl resolves to follow her and bring her home.
  • Sexless Marriage: Both girls marriages, initially, but Pearl and Sam finally begin a regular sex life after she tells him about her rape.
  • Sibling Triangle: Both Pearl and May want Z.G. May turns out to have been involved with Z.G. while they were in Shanghai, and he fathers her daughter, Joy. In the sequel, Pearl and Z.G. hook up one night, but Pearl decides against going any further with him, knowing that May still loves him. The ending has May and Z.G. reunited and implies that they will get back together.
  • Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism: Joy is raised as Pearl's baby.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Joy, when she finds out the truth about herself.
  • Truth in Television: The "paper sons" phenomenon. Families would either have a baby that died or they would say that a baby died and ask for a birth certificate, move to America, and wait 20 years and sell it to someone who wanted to get to America but for some reason couldn't come legally.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: In college, Joy joins a group that gets investigated by the FBI as a possible front for communism, which gets her family questioned and threatened by the FBI, which causes Sam to kill himself.

Tropes in Dreams of Joy:

  • Buried Alive: Almost all of Tao's family when they are caught participating in Swap Child, Make Food. The ones that aren't are sent away for reeducation through labor.
  • Eats Babies: Joy catches Tao and his family waiting for baby Samantha to die so they can eat her.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Joy knows Tao for only a few months before marrying him. Justified Trope in Chinese society, as Tao points out. It's also deconstructed; as Joy finds out, not getting to know someone well before you marry them also means not learning about their more negative qualities until it's too late to escape.
  • Happily Adopted: Pearl rescues Ta-ming from Green Dragon along with Joy and Tao, and ends up adopting him.
  • Infant Immortality: Oh dear God, averted.
  • No Name Given: Joy's mother-in-law is referred to by Pearl as "Joy's Mother-in-Law", because she literally had no name outside of her husband's surname. She went by Fu-shee when she got married. This was Truth in Television for poor Chinese women, who often weren't given names or were given names like "hope for a son".
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: The peasants resort to this on the commune when times get tough, going so far to eat babies that have died. Tao's family tries to do this with Samantha and Sung-ling's baby, and they are harshly punished for it.
  • Red China
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Joy has some trouble adjusting to life in rural China, and it takes her a long time to realize the truths about communism that she's missing.
  • Second Love: Pearl remarries to Dun, a professor that boarded with her family when she was young.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Joy marries Tao and commits to life in the commune against her parents' advice. It isn't until she spends her first night with her new husband that she realizes the mistake she's made.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Auntie Hu gets an exit permit and leaves home, but we never learn if she made it out of China.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Like everyone else in the commune, Joy believes in communism. The famine that kills off most of the commune changes her mind.

Alternative Title(s): Dreams Of Joy