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'Shanghai Girls' Details A Chinese-American Odyssey

In Shanghai Girls, a new novel by Lisa See, sisters May and Pearl Chin glide around Shanghai in rickshaws wearing gorgeous, tightfitting silk dresses.

It's 1937, just before the Japanese invaded China during World War II, and their lives are about to be upended.

May and Pearl are what are known as "beautiful girls" — models for artists who use their images on posters and calendars to sell cigarettes, soap and baby milk. One of those romanticized ads was an impetus for See's novel.

The ad, part of a collection See has accumulated, shows two girls sitting together in beautiful summer dresses. It's an advertisement for bug spray, so dead insects fall around them.

See says she looks at the ad every day. "Over the years, I have thought about, 'What were those girls like? What were their lives like?' " she tells NPR's Melissa Block. "That time period in China was very glamorous on the one hand, and yet war was coming, there was a lot of turmoil politically."

In Shanghai Girls, See writes about how Shanghai was a city of extreme contrast, where babies were left to die on the sidewalk as people stepped around them. The smell of death and decay collided with the smell of French perfume.

"This is a final moment of Shanghai, when it's really at its height as the 'Paris of Asia' before things start going downhill," See says.

In the novel, the girls eventually take a boat to America, and they land at an immigration station outside San Francisco on Angel Island. See says it was "supposed to be the West Coast version of Ellis Island" in New York. But while Ellis Island was thought of as welcoming, See says Angel Island was "designed to keep the Chinese out." See says immigration officials tried to catch anyone attempting to sneak in, in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. At Angel Island, immigrants had to answer between 200 and 1,000 standard questions, See says.

"Everything was designed to trick immigrants into making a mistake so they could be sent back," she says.

But in the book, the sisters eventually make it off of Angel Island and to Los Angeles. They end up living close to China City, a square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall that was built using the leftover set from the movie The Good Earth.

And then the political nature of being Chinese in the United States flips. With World War II under way, the Japanese become the enemy, and the Chinese population tries to make it clear they aren't Japanese: They wear arm bands; at the Chin family's diner, they tape a sign to the cash register that says, "Any resemblance to looking Japanese is purely occidental."

But after 1949, when the Communists take over China, it's the Chinese who are suddenly viewed with suspicion in the United States. One of the novel's key plot points focuses on a program that targeted the Chinese.

"What the confession program asked was for people who had come to the United States illegally...to confess that they were here illegally," See says. "And, in exchange, they would be given their citizenship. That sounds pretty easy and like everyone should do it. The government was asking people to not just confess about themselves, but also rat out their friends, their neighbors, their family members, their business associates. Better yet, if you could say that someone else was a Communist and you knew they were a Communist, then for sure you would get your citizenship.

"The people that I talked to, I just can't tell you how nervous they were — even after all of these years — to talk about it," See says. "One man, I think, really summed it up. He said, 'We haven't told our children, we haven't told our grandchildren what we went through, because we aren't dead yet and we aren't safe yet.'"

See says she is not done with the story of May and Pearl Chin — and she'll write more to see "where they go next."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.