What role does place—Shanghai, Angel Island, China City and Chinatown—serve in the novel? What do you think Lisa See was trying to say about "home"?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As May and Pearl, the protagonists of Shanghai Girls, find themselves bouncing from place to place throughout the course of the novel, it is clear that they have no real home. Places, including Shanghai, Angel Island, China City, and Chinatown, serve as only temporary homes, as historical events and racism displace or threaten them everywhere they go.

In Shanghai, the sisters learn not to ask about the past, "because everyone in Shanghai has come here to get away from something or has something to hide" (page 5). There, they are distanced from their home village, and Pearl speaks four languages (American English, British English, the Sze Yup dialect, and the Wu dialect). Like China at the time (the 1930s), the sisters are torn between competing powers, and then they are forced to leave Shanghai when the Japanese invade. Shanghai never offers them a comfortable identity or a peaceful home. 

They flee to America, which does not offer them an open welcome. While passing through Angel Island, the immigration center off San Francisco, Pearl says that "our whole lives up to now have been lost to us" (page 95). They try to pass through immigration, where whites and Asians are processed in different lines, and to create a story of their past that will be coherent and pass muster with the immigration officials. 

The sisters' lives in Chinatown and in China City are also subject to constant upheaval. China City, the tourist center where they work, is itself a fabrication, a place where "dreams of Oriental romance are woven like silk threads through the fabric that is China City" (page 145). China City is a romanticized dream of China rather than a real place, and Chinatown becomes a problematic place to live as the United States eventually suspects that all Chinese have ties to Communism. Later, the sisters must contend with the American authorities cracking down on Chinese immigrants who they suspect are "paper sons," or people who made up lies about having American parents to get through immigration. In each place, the sisters are uprooted and threatened, and Lisa See suggests that one's sense of place comes not from one's physical location but from connection to loved ones and family.