The gorgeous cover of Shanghai Girls, Lisa See’s instant bestseller, may be misleading. The soft-toned image of two young smiling Chinese women may lull readers into thinking they’ve picked up the conventional chick lit or summer beach read. Although See comes up with a traditional plot about the turbulent life of two beautiful Chinese siblings, her latest book is an intriguing, evocative, and sometimes lyrical historical novel.
“I remember my editor was sort of disturbed by people just walking past these dead babies. But that was something they would have seen their whole life—it wasn’t anything extraordinary.”
Meticulously researched, Shanghai Girls depicts the allure of pre-World War II Shanghai, the Paris of the Far East; the brutality of the Japanese occupation; the plight of two sisters as they accept arranged marriages; their escape to California, only to encounter discrimination in Los Angeles in the 1940s; and the witch hunts of the McCarthy Era, which traumatized the Chinese community in the U.S.
See, who is one-eighth Chinese and proud of her heritage, travels frequently to remote parts of China for research and relies on poignant tales about family members and the obstacles they overcame. Her two previous novels, Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, were also bestsellers. She is writing a sequel to Shanghai Girls, which takes some of the characters back to China during the period of the Great Leap Forward. “Lately there’s been a lot written about the Cultural Revolution, but very little about the Great Leap Forward,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I think it’s time.”
Were you surprised by the book’s immediate success?
I'm always surprised when someone buys the book and this is the highest [that] one of my books has been on The New York Times' book list. It's wonderful.
This book is the one that is closest to my heart. Although it's not about my own family, there are a lot of things that came out of my family, the emotional core of the book, and Los Angeles Chinatown and China City and the experiences of women in arranged marriages in America. But I also love that jacket so much.
It’s quite stunning.
I was just a couple of months into writing the book when I talked to my editor. I didn't think he quite understood what I was talking about when I would refer to Shanghai girls, beautiful girls, so I just did some color Xeroxes and mailed them to him with a note saying this is who my girls are, Pearl and May. And then, 18 months later, that jacket came in the mail.
You are of Chinese descent?
I'm only one-eighth Chinese, on my father's side. My great-great-grandfather was the first one to come to this country, to work on the building of the railroads. My great-grandfather became the kind of patriarch, godfather, of Los Angeles Chinatown. He had four wives, and one of his wives was a Caucasian woman back when it was against the law for Chinese and Caucasians to marry in California.
My own parents were only the second couple in our whole extended family to be married legally in the United States. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, great aunts and uncles in our family store in Chinatown. This is a very large family—today there's something like 400 relatives. There are about a dozen who look like me, the majority are still full Chinese, and there's a spectrum in between…. My great-grandfather really got his start in California manufacturing crotchless underwear for brothels. That was first in Sacramento and then in Los Angeles. By 1900, he was selling Chinese antiques and that business is still there today.
Do you speak Chinese?
I grew up hearing Cantonese and then I studied Mandarin for a while. When I go to China, I spend a lot of time in the countryside in small villages and I always hire someone who speaks that very local dialect.
I see why this is a bestseller—it’s not just a story of two women. You have interwoven a fascinating history that suddenly evaporated.
This is the final moment in Shanghai before everything really started to change in a very dramatic way. I think most of us in our daily lives, we don't really question what's around us, we just take it for granted. So for them, it's all they really know, rickshaw pullers and night stool collectors, and all of the food vendors, and dead babies on the street. I remember my editor, and a couple of early readers, were sort of disturbed [by people] just walking past these dead babies. But that was something they would have seen their whole life, it wasn't anything extraordinary.
Pearl and May, your main characters, had what sounds like a very glamorous lifestyle.
Yes, I think for them it was, but that wasn't everyone's experience. You had the White Russians who had escaped out of Russia seeking refuge. You had Jews already leaving Germany, the first wave—things were not going to go well in Germany, and that's where they went, to Shanghai. So there was this great power, great desperation, extraordinary poverty—and extraordinary wealth. I didn't use this in the book, but they used to have people who would check the bank's basements. There was so much money and Shanghai is built on sort of silty soil, so they had to keep adjusting the gold to keep the buildings from tipping. That's how much gold they had, it could actually cause these buildings to tilt one way or the other.
Do you consider yourself Chinese?
I don't look Chinese, but I did grow up in this very Chinese family and how do you identify yourself? It's by the people who are around you, they are really your mirrors, and so much of the culture and the food and our traditions were very traditionally Chinese.
Do you think that part of the interest in your book is that China is such a topical subject right now?
I've been writing about China for a long time so I have the family memoir, and then I wrote three mysteries that take place in contemporary China and they did well. Have we come to a place where there is more of an interest in China? I actually don't think that that's why people read my books. I think that they will come away at the end thinking, I learned something that I didn't know.
Also, you write about strong women.
Yes, women who go through an awful lot, they endure a lot and yet they are survivors, up to a point. I think what does set these books apart maybe from other books about women is that I'm actually very interested in the dark shadows side of women's relationships. But I'm also I think pretty forgiving.
What are you trying to do in this novel?
I really wanted to write about sisters and what is that difference between actual blood sisters and friends who are just like sisters. What holds sisters together, even when they do really terrible things to each other. I also really wanted to write about Los Angeles Chinatown in a way that I hadn't before.
What do you want a reader to get out of this novel?
Open the pages, step into another world and you can learn things along the way. But really what you do in a novel is you connect to the characters and you're connecting to your own life, and in a larger way to the human condition. I would hope that happens for other people, that they are transported into another time and another place, that they can connect to these two sisters, good or bad, whether you like them or not, and think about your own life, the things that have happened emotionally, your own sister, husband or ungrateful daughter— whatever it is that will make people think, oh, yeah, I went through that too.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.