Shanghai, 1937, Pearl and May are two sisters from a bourgeois family. Though their personalities are very different - Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true sheep, adorable and placid - they are inseparable best friends. Both are beautiful, modern and living a carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away the family wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to two 'Gold Mountain men': Americans.
As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, the two sisters set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of southern China, in and out of the clutches of brutal soldiers, and even across the ocean, through the humiliation of an anti-Chinese detention centre to a new, married life in Los Angele's Chinatown. Here they begin a fresh chapter, despite the racial discrimination and anti-Communist paranoia, because now they have something to strive for: a young, American-born daughter, Joy.
..... From the outer back cover.
FIRST SENTENCE: "Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him.
MEMORABLE MOMENT: A funeral is the most important event in a person's life - more significant than birth, a birthday or a wedding.
From my review of this book anyone would be forgiven for thinking that I hadn't enjoyed Shanghai girls and yet I did - quite why I don't know. Probably because of the historical content, the finding out about another culture rather than the characters who, apart from the odd exception, I was passionate about even though I found them truly awful (if that makes any sense).
Quite an eye-opener, I found several aspects of this story quite shocking and found myself constantly have to mentally remind myself that this was a story set in another time, another place. Apart from the casual racial abuse and the way we were constantly reminded that women were most definitely second class citizens, the thing that I found incredibly disturbing were the scenes in which Pearl and May's mother's foot binding was mentioned.
..... but the odor suffocating us comes not from spilled nightsoil or day-old shrimp but from her. Since we don't have our servants to keep the air moving in the room, the smell that rises from the blood and pus that seep through the bandages holding Mama's feet in their tiny shape clings to the back of my throat.
Well written and obviously well researched, Shanghai Girls is a fascinating read that gives a real insight into how life must have been at this time, difficult. And yet I can't help but think how overly depressing it all was and found myself wishing that the author would bring some joy into the lives of the characters as every time something potentially good occurred, it nearly always turned out to be for the worst.
As I said an interesting read with an ending that is left wide open (perhaps with another book in mind?) - I'm sure the story of Pearl, May and Joy is likely to continue. Would I read any such book? Probably though I certainly wouldn't buy a copy.