Two sisters escape war-ravaged Shanghai, only to face discrimination and the threat of deportation in the United States.
See’s latest fictional exploration of the lives of Chinese women (Peony in Love, 2007, etc.) begins in 1937 Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city under imminent threat of Japanese invasion. As oblivious to rumors of their beloved city’s collapse as they are to their family’s circumstances, Pearl Chin and her younger sister May continue to shop, frequent nightclubs and pose for illustrator Z.G.’s advertising calendars featuring “Beautiful Girls.” However, Papa Chin, having lost his fortune to gambling debts, has sold his daughters into marriage to Sam and Vern, sons of Chinese-American entrepreneur Old Man Louie. After hasty weddings (only Pearl’s union, with Sam, is consummated), the brides refuse to accompany their husbands to California. When Shanghai is bombed and Papa abruptly disappears, the women and their mother join the stream of refugees fleeing the Japanese on foot. Along the way, Pearl and her mother are brutally raped by Japanese soldiers, while May hides. Their mother does not survive, but the Chins reach Hong Kong and embark for the United States, having decided, in desperation, to join their husbands. At San Francisco’s notorious Angel Island immigrant-internment center, May, pregnant by a boyfriend, prolongs the sisters’ already extended quarantine until she is able to give birth in secrecy. Pearl claims May’s daughter Joy as her own and Sam’s. Once reunited with their spouses in L.A.’s Chinese district, the former Shanghai princesses must acclimatize themselves to a life of drudgery, toiling in the Louie family’s curio shops and restaurants. Despite engrossing complications involving immigration issues and the impact of the ’50s Red Scare on Chinese-Americans, the Chinatown section, spanning 20 years, seems overlong. The final chapters, however, wherein Z.G.’s Beautiful Girl artwork resurfaces as Maoist propaganda and the FBI stalks the family, are worth the wait.
The close suggests See’s next setting may be the People’s Republic, a development sure to please her readership.