The events of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See can be divided into global events that affect the characters in the book and ones specific to the narrative itself. The most important global event that determines the characters' actions is the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, which causes the sisters to flee via Hong Kong to California.
The main events specific to the central plot line of the book begin with the father Baba incurring gambling debts and arranging marriages for Pearl and May to the sons of Old Man Louie. Next, after their marriages, the girls and their mother flee Shanghai in advance of the Japanese invasion. They are raped by Japanese soldiers. The two young women sail to San Francisco but are held for interrogation at Angel Island, where May gives birth to a child, but they pretend that the child is Pearl's. Eventually they are released and begin an unhappy married life in San Francisco.