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Literature / Shanghai Girls

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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.
  • Break the Haughty: Pearl and May, big time. They start out as two frivolous models who think because they're beautiful and well-off, nothing can ever touch them. Then their father reveals he gambled their fortune away. Then the Japanese attack Shanghai...
  • 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.
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  • Driven to Suicide: Sam.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Near the end of the novel May calls Pearl out on never really acknowledging or appreciating how much strength it took for her to bury their mother, nor risk her own safety to save Pearl's life after she senselessly revealed herself to the Japanese soldiers, nor how much money she earned for the family by getting acting roles in movies, which Pearl always turned up her nose at. (Nor her role in helping to raise Joy.)
  • 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.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: May and Pearl, nacht. Somewhat muddled at the end, when May reveals her side of the story.
  • The Gambling Addict: May and Pearl's father, who kicks off the book's plot by revealing that he's gambled the family's entire fortune away, and has to sell his two daughters into an Arranged Marriage to pay off his debts.
  • 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 Adopted: After Sam confronts Old Man Louie about not really being a citizen and keeping all his "paper sons" on a tight leash, Louie reveals that he really does consider Sam to be his true heir, and his intention to leave the family business to him. After that, Sam and Louie's relationship improves vastly.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: May, much to Pearl's irritation.
    • May turns this around on Pearl near the end, pointing out that every "sacrifice" Pearl has ever made for the family has been a Senseless Sacrifice she used as an excuse to wallow in self-pity and drag everyone else, including May, down with her. It's a bitter pill for Pearl to swallow.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Joy, who likes to lecture her family on what China is really like, despite never having been there herself. She learned all about it in university!
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Old Man Louie, who repulses the sisters with his domineering, controlling, misogynistic behavior. Less so for his wife, Jen-jen, since she immediately embraces the two girls as daughters.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • Pearl and May's father tells them he gambled their fortune away and needs them to enter an Arranged Marriage to pay off his debts. What he doesn't tell them is that he's indebted to the Green Gang, the girls are expected to go to Los Angeles to live with their new husbands as part of the arrangement, and if they don't go to live with their new husbands (which they don't) the Green Gang will come to collect in blood. The girls call him out on this.
    • May directs Red Scare agents to investigate Pearl and Sam, thinking they'll "confess" to being Communists, receive amnesty and legal citizenship, and the whole family can stop living in fear of being caught or deported. Since May doesn't tell them this plan, they hold fast to their lie of being citizens, and Sam is Driven to Suicide by the pressure of the investigation.
  • 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.
  • Selective Obliviousness: May and Joy, whom Pearl secretly thinks as having a kind of "deliberate childish stupidity."
  • Senseless Sacrifice: As noble as it was for Pearl to reveal herself to the Japanese soldiers, May points out near the end of the book that there was no reason for her to reveal herself, since their mother had already told the soldiers she was alone and none of them suspected, or even came looking for, other hiders.
  • 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.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Pearl is plain but smart and dutiful, while May is beautiful but flighty and a bit air-headed. This is somewhat muddled by the end, when May reveals from her side of the story that she's much stronger and smarter than Pearl had given her credit for.
  • 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.
  • Un Equal Pairing: May and Vernon, since he's... developmentally challenged.
  • The Unfavorite:
    • Pearl, who is often criticized by her parents for not being pretty enough, while they coo and gush over May. Inverted when May reveals near the end that they criticized Pearl as a way of showing love but ignored May, often spoke to Pearl in the dialect of their native village that only May couldn't speak, and they loved Pearl enough to send her off to college while they never even offered it to May.
    • Sam is this to Old Man Louie and Jen-jen, despite being their eldest son. He's a paper-son, while their "youngest" son, Vern, is really their only biological child.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pearl and May never find out what happened to their father. He appears towards the end of the sequel, having made it to his home village.

Tropes in Dreams of Joy:

  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Kumei was thirteen when she became pregnant with Ta-ming.
  • Adult Fear: Where to even begin...
    • Waking up and learning that your child has run away into a situation where their life could be in danger.
    • Watching your child marry someone you know will be a terrible partner to them.
    • Watching your children starve to death and not being able to do anything about it because you're starving to death along with them.
    • Watching your family being Buried Alive.
  • 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.
  • Commonality Connection: Pearl and Yong are both educated women originally from wealthy families in Shanghai, and they immediately bond over it. Pearl also bonds with some of the older women in the commune while she's working there, and they even weep with her when she tells them about losing her son.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Joy narrates the entire commune, including herself and her infant child, slowly starving to death with a very detached tone. She even draws a comparison between their situation and that of the Jews during World War II, stating that she's now realized why people didn't rebel back then and aren't rebelling now: because they're all simply too weak and scared to do so.
  • Death of a Child: Dear God, Joy holds nothing back in describing how children starve to death and are then eaten. Ta-ming and Samantha narrowly avoid this fate thanks to the timely arrival of Pearl and Z.G.
    • After Tao's family gets caught participating in Swap Child, Make Food, the youngest children are buried alive along with their mother as punishment, while the older ones are sent for reeducation through labor, which spells certain death for them as well.
  • Driven to Suicide: A wife kills herself in the fields to escape an abusive marriage. It's the first hint that Red China may not be as perfect as Joy thinks it is.
  • Eats Babies: Swap Child, Make Food is a practice wherein families swap infants and wait for them to die so they can be eaten. Joy catches Tao and his family trying to do this with Samantha and another couple's baby.
    • There's also a couple on the road out of Green Dragon; the man is trying to sell "rabbit meat" and the woman just looks vacant. Within a few days, they've both starved to death.
  • Everyone Has Standards: In the past, the villagers brutally murdered the landlord after Liberation, but they didn't attempt to hurt Kumei or Ta-ming, because they saw for themselves how badly the landlord treated Kumei and knew deep down that she was one of them.
  • 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, pledging lifelong commitment to someone you don't know all that well isn't really a good idea.
  • Foreshadowing: During the play that Green Dragon puts on about the new society, Tao plays the role of a young man asking a woman to marry him. Nearly all of his lines are poorly delivered, but the one line he does well with is one about how women belong solely in the home. The young woman in the play marries him anyway. Joy eventually marries Tao against her parents' advice and ends up trapped in the commune and in an abusive marriage.
  • Happily Adopted: Pearl rescues Ta-ming from Green Dragon along with Joy and Tao, and ends up adopting him.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: The government strongly encourages women to have as many children as possible, since one more child means one more hand to work in the fields. This ends up being a contributing factor to the famine, straining what little food supply the commune has.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Tao is the oldest of nine children in his household, and it's implied that his parents had other children that have since passed away.
  • Never Given a Name: 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 in the hopes of getting out of China, but we never learn if she was successful.
  • 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


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