Study Guide

Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls Summary

Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Beautiful Girls

Baba loves to insult Pearl and tonight he comments on the ruddiness of her cheeks. Years of being rubbed with pearl creams have not kept Pearl’s face from looking like a peasant's. Baba loathes his daughter for being taller than him and he does not miss an opportunity to remind her that, as Confucius says, she may be educated but she is still worthless. The family of four sits around a square table, and because the hired help is not present to fan them, the air is sweltering. Mama begins her daily criticisms, and as she berates the basket repairer for having charged her too much that afternoon, Pearl thinks about how lucky her mother really is. Mama wed Baba through an arranged marriage that has seemingly worked out for the best, and Mama spends her days reading Buddhist sutras and playing mah-jongg with friends. Baba interrupts her complaints by saying that he needs to talk to Pearl and her younger sister May after dinner. May with her charming ways distracts Baba and asks him and Mama whether they are curious about what she did that day. May prattles off her daily adventures of buying a new dress and pipes that Baba’s rickshaw business has made them wealthy enough to afford such luxuries. Meanwhile Pearl falls out of the eye of criticism and is grateful. May says that the room is too hot and that she and Pearl must leave to get ready for the evening, and although Baba pounds his fist on the table demanding that they stay to hear what he has to say, May and Pearl disappear to their bedroom.

Pearl and May are as different as two sisters can be. Mama says that this is on account of their being born different signs—Pearl the stubborn dragon, and May the complacent sheep. Pearl has learned several dialects and languages while May only knows two. But May shines in her parents’ eyes, and Pearl knows that May is the favorite child.

In their bedroom, May slips out of her dress, and Pearl...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

Gold Mountain Men

May laughs at Baba’s proposition, but Baba says that he is not joking. Pearl tries to reason with Baba by claiming that the feudal days are over, but Baba says that no one, not even he, marries for love. Baba blames the girls and their mother for the financial downfall that has occurred, and Pearl notices that in fact a shabbiness has overcome the house and that most of the servants have disappeared. Pearl challenges Baba, and he reveals that he has lost all their money to gambling debts and that he must sell the girls—his only capital—to Old Man Louie to be wed to his two sons who live in Los Angeles. Pearl and May know Old Man Louie, a creepy man in his sixties who always looks at May inappropriately. Baba says that he will arrange a time for the girls to meet the Louie sons.

Meanwhile, Pearl goes to meet Captain Yamasaki, a Japanese man whom she tutors in English. He continues to try to get Pearl to set up a marriage between him and May, but Pearl always re-directs his lust to his studies. When she gets home, she wakes her sister so that they can dress to meet their future husbands. After selecting floral patterned rayon dresses, Pearl and May hire a rickshaw to take them to the Old Chinese City. Here there are ugly sights of old times—beggars made to look more pitiable by their own families, dripping laundry, rotting meat for sale. The girls find the Louie sons at the gate of the Yu Yuan Garden. The elder Sam is somewhat attractive, but the younger Vernon is only a boy of fourteen years. He scampers up a rock wall and May tries to talk him down while Pearl and Sam chat. At the end of the meeting, Sam says that he will tell his father that they will be happy together. May takes a rickshaw home, but Pearl decides to go see Z. G. and confess her love to him. She thinks she is prepared for all possible responses, but she is not prepared for Z. G. to tell her that she must be obedient and...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

A Cicada in a Tree

Pearl and May retreat to their room. The air is sticky and hot, and the sisters only wear thin pink slips. They do not try to clean up the mess of clothing that Old Man Louie has made in their room and other than eat the food that Cook has left on a tray outside their door, Pearl and May do nothing because they are too shaken to put words to all that has happened. Eventually, Pearl asks May what happened between her and Vernon the night before, and May cries that she just could not do it. Trying to distract her sister, Pearl asks May if she remembers having watched the opera when they were little. The sisters reminisce over their childhood belief that they could perform a better opera themselves and the shows that they produced for their parents. They also reminisce over the tricks that they played on Mama and the scoldings they received from Cook. Their laughter over times past makes them feel better. Baba and Mama try to get the girls to come out of their room, but the sisters feel stronger and more united in their private space. They stay in their bedroom for two days.

When Pearl and May emerge, they see the abrupt changes that have been made in the house. Walls have been quickly erected to separate sections of the house to accommodate boarders. The rents will help the family raise some money, but the girls know that it will not be enough. Cook begins to make meals that frequent the tables of poorer families and Baba goes out everyday to try to find work. Pearl and May also try to find work, but without connections, finding work is nearly impossible. May continues to sit for Z. G., but Pearl’s broken heart keeps her away from his studio. But Pearl begins to notice the signs of poverty around her and decides to give in and go back to sit for Z. G.

When she arrives at his studio with May, Z. G. shows her a new kite of orioles that he has made. He does not seem to be bothered by...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

White Plum Blossoms

The next morning, Pearl and May awake to see hoards of people walking past their house. But the girls are not at all curious because they have their minds set on something else—shopping. Old Man Louie left them few items of clothing, so they must go to the shops and maximize their dollars. Fashion is of ultimate importance in Shanghai, and the girls must try to predict what Western designers will bring into fashion each season. Carrying parasols to protect their skin from the sun, Pearl and May head into town, walking through crowds of people who carry all their earthly possessions. Soon May asks her sister who these people are, and after some consideration, Pearl tells her that they are refugees. The Japanese, whom the Chinese refer to as “monkey people,” have already fired shots in northern towns and villages, and now they are making their way south. But in Shanghai, people believe that what happens elsewhere in China will not happen in their beloved city.

As Pearl and May stroll up Nanking Road, they run into Tommy Hu, a boy on whom May has a crush. Pearl crosses the street to give the two some privacy. Suddenly a plane drops artillery fire, and before it crashes, it unloads two bombs. Debris showers the street. Pearl immediately thinks of May and rushes to find her. Injured people scream and run, and there are many dead in the street. Across the street, Pearl finds Tommy’s body decapitated, but there is no sign of May. Soon, Pearl finds her sister buried under fallen plaster. May regains consciousness, and Pearl tells her about the bombs. May asks about Tommy, and Pearl must tell her that he is dead.

The girls lurch home, and when Mama sees them, she bursts into tears. Baba puts his arms around May, and the others in the parlor cluster around her. May tells everyone how brave Pearl was during the disaster. Then there is a knock at the door. Three men from the Green Gang have come to see Baba on behalf of Pockmarked Huang regarding his gambling debts and his agreement with Old Man Louie. Baba stands weak and silent, and Pearl is angry with her father for allowing this to happen to them. Mama reveals that she salvaged the boat tickets from the trash, and Pearl and May tell the men that they will exchange the tickets for new ones and fulfill their obligation to Old Man Louie and his sons. The men tell them that they have three days to complete their orders. Once the men are gone, Mama tells the family that they will use the tickets to flee Shanghai to Hong Kong where the Green Gang cannot find them.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

Moon Sisters

The next morning, Pearl and May go to the Dollar Steamship Line’s office to try to exchange their expired tickets. Refugees continue to crowd the city while the city’s residents flee to home villages. The girls wait for hours in a long line at the office, but by the end of the day, they have not been able to talk to a clerk.

The next day, Mama gives Pearl some money to buy better food for breakfast since it is the day of Tommy Hu’s funeral. Pearl takes the money, but instead she goes to Z. G.’s studio to see if he will help her and her family. But when she gets there, the landlady tells her that Z. G. has fled, leaving all his things behind. Upset, Pearl goes home and...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary

Soaring Through the Night Sky

The next morning, the woman gets the family ready for their continued journey by boiling water for them to wash themselves, preparing more jook to eat, and smearing the girls’ feet with more medicinal cream. Mama tries to pay her, but the woman waves her off and, insulted, does not look at her again. The wheelbarrow pusher starts off, and the girls follow. They walk all morning. The girls do not have hats and the sun bakes their skin. They eventually tire and climb into the wheelbarrow with Mama, and the pusher does not complain. In the late afternoon, he turns down a path and they come upon a small, poor-looking farm. The husband sees Mama’s bound feet and assumes that...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 7 Summary

Eating Wind and Tasting Waves

Pearl wakes to May wiping a wet towel across her face. They are on a boat of some sort and Pearl can feel the pull of the water. She cannot tell how many days they have traveled. Once she lifts her hand to shield her face from the sunlight and her mother’s jade bracelet falls down her arm, she ascertains that Mama must be dead. Later Pearl is lifted from the boat and taken into a hospital. In her daze, she hears the doctors and nurses chatting around her. When Pearl finally wakes fully from her delirium, she sees May sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, her hands covered in bandages.

Over the next few days, Pearl learns that on the day she was raped,...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary

Shadows on the Walls

The night before the boat lands, Pearl takes out the coaching book that Sam gave her so that she can review the Louie family’s history. Some of the entries do not quite make sense to her—she thought that Sam and his brother came with their father to China to take the Chin girls as brides, but it turns out that Sam was already living in China. Pearl, however, cannot concern herself with these lies right now.

The next day, Pearl and May put on good dresses so that they will look appropriate for arrival. When the inspector looks at their papers, he tells another crew member to point them in the direction of the line for Angel Island Immigrant Station. From there, Pearl...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary

Isle of the Immortals

May sobs into her pillow to stifle the sound. She tells Pearl that she was not able to have sex with Vernon on their wedding night, and that neither is Tommy Hu the baby’s father. Pearl has never met the baby’s father, just a random boy that May herself hardly knew. Apparently, May has been pregnant for months and has hidden her budding form under the peasant clothing. May tells Pearl that they cannot go to Los Angeles right away because the Louies will know that May has not been faithful to Vernon. It dawns on Pearl that May has been lying to the interrogation team on purpose to prolong their stay at Angel Island. May tells Pearl that once the baby is born, she should claim it...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary

A couple weeks pass since the interrogation, and Pearl wakes from a nightmare. May is not in the bunk across from hers. Pearl knows that lately, May also has been having trouble sleeping because the baby's kicking often causes her to have to use the bathroom. The sisters have made a pact to never go to the toilets alone, but this time, May has not kept her promise. Pearl shoves her “pillow baby” under her jacket and gets up to go find her sister.

May is not in the toilet area, so Pearl goes to the showers where May is on the floor with her pants off, her private parts bulging and exposed. May had not realized that her labor had gone so far and she tells Pearl that the baby is on the way. Pearl and May have spoken...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

A Single Rice Kernel

Sam meets Pearl, May, and Joy at the dock and claims that the Louies thought the girls were dead. From inside the streetcar, Pearl looks at the buildings and notices that they are not magnificent like the ones in Shanghai. When they get off the streetcar, they walk through dark streets and passageways until they climb a set of old wooden stairs to the apartment. Pearl is struck by how poor and shabby the place is. Then her mother-in-law Yen-yen squeals in Sze Yup, welcoming them home. Old Man Louie says gruffly from another room that he will come see the baby. When he sees that Joy is a girl, he is angry and says that he would not have prepared a banquet had he known the child was...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

Dreams of Oriental Romance

It is June, two months after Pearl and May arrived in Los Angeles, and they dress in cheongsams to attend the Grand Opening of China City. There are parades, firecrackers, dancers, and celebrities and dignitaries giving speeches. Pearl cannot help but feel incredibly foreign among all the American women who have come to attend the festivities. Christine Sterling, the creator of China City, gives a speech to the crowd asking them to leave behind their troubles and enter this world of tranquility and enchantment. Pearl is amazed by the rouse.

When the speeches are finished, the restaurants and shops will open for business. In the bustle, Pearl loses Yen-yen in the...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary

Scents of Home

Rather than plotting their escape, Pearl focuses on her own loneliness as she laments the loss of delicacies that she loved in Shanghai. At the café, Pearl tries to learn cooking methods from the uncles. Every Sunday night, the uncles come to the Louies’ home for dinner, and once Pearl asks Yen-yen if she can cook, she ends up cooking every Sunday dinner. But Old Man Louie is not pleased, and he blames Pearl for wasting his money, which is ironic because the uncles pay for the food. Old Man Louie claims that the uncles should be saving their money to return to China. However, soon Old Man Louie reveals that he actually likes Pearl’s cooking by announcing that he will give her money...

(The entire section is 775 words.)