Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

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What role do various locations play in "Shanghai Girls", and what does it say about "home"?

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Lisa See has stated that this novel was partly autobiographical, and she wanted to tell the stories of a few characters in each of her novels. As she says in an interview, "My own experience really comes from being the daughter of immigrants, but I'm also interested in what happens when you come to America and have these dreams and then your dreams are shattered by racism." In a piece for NPR , See writes about how she decided what to include in the novel: In 2010, I started doing research for my next book. I was drawn back to Angel Island because it's such a magical place — cast with shadows of sorrow and redemption. There is so much history there. It'

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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. 

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