History is a delicate and often abused thing, most often used for today rather than taken in its own sake. Shanghai Girls is a book which is much more a reflection on the present than belonging to its ostensible past: it takes what it needs from history, from time, from places to provide the background, but what it reflects on is the present, unerringly and shamelessly. Do all books do these? I'm sure to some extent - books are written to convey something to us, and so in a sense all of them are present-centric, since every reader exists in the present.
But Shanghai Girls' takes it further since Pearl and May, the main characters of the book, are positioned as urban, middle, upper class, sophisticated, spendthrift, fashionable, individualistic, foreign-mad, English speaking, like Americans transplanted in China, and completely different from the peasants and the working people who made up the vast majority of China's population. Sure, the girls may pay deference to their parents when push comes to shove, and as women they may demand it from the daughter, but both are far closer to the American mentality and way of life than most Chinese people.
Which would not be objectionable in of itself, save for that this enables Pearl in particular to see the world through eyes which have but a passing resemblance with a Chinese person of the era, and how it lines up precisely with contemporary social disputes and debates. Pearl's individual, personal fixation is on the indignities that her class brings her in the United States, as she has fallen to the humble working people rather than belonging to the Shanghai upper class that constituted her social milieu. This is her greatest humiliation, the way that she must contemplate her poverty, her reduced status, her new position as a menial cafe worker. Even her outlook on her own people becomes dramatically different: in China she had never thought of the suffering, pain, poverty, ignobility, of the rickshaw pullers: only when she has a class position similar to them does the shame reveal itself. But her collective concern focuses on broader racial concerns about how Chinese are portrayed in the US, things which are true about the objectification and cultural garishness that the Chinese are painted with, but which read like something lifted verbatim from contemporary American arguments about cultural authenticity and exoticization of foreign cultures. Scenes in "China City" as Pearl reflects on this show a contemporary fixation on the subject that seems oddly out of place for the 1940s: the entire world feels like the present, and only the absence of cell phones and computers makes it feel like the 1930s to 1950s.
The story it tells is the typical American immigrant story, up until the very end, with its woeful tale of immigrant abuse, their difficulties assimilating, making their way in America, and then finally being assimilated, finding prosperity, a place - with the major difference of course, being that in Shanghai Girls this all collapses with the final burst of anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. Again, these are all contemporary issues, with the fears of anti-immigrant sentiment (at the time it was written, it was probably thought about in terms of Muslim or Mexican immigrants, but now of course this has been joined by increasing anti-Asian sentiment over the course of the last year and the Coronavirus pandemic) which would marginalize and exclude immigrants. This is a perfectly legitimate cultural node for discussion: but Lee's book feels as if it is entirely the present, and that she simply selected 1937. The same story could have been written today, minus the Japanese atrocities in China: leaving China due to financial insecurity, coming to the US and living in a mostly cloistered Chinese community, working one's way up through life, and then facing collateral damage of anti-China sentiment with it all coming tumbling down. There's nothing wrong about using the past as a parable for today, but Shanghai Girls feels self-serving in its usage of the scene it has selected.
But this has mostly dealt with the setting of the scene and the history behind it. What about the story and the characters? This is better, built upon the relationship between May and Pearl, and if it drags on for much of the book, the ending is a wonderful ride of emotion and drama. Pearl and May are a story which is rich in the mutual sacrifice and exchanges they make, a relationship which is complex, built upon an intricate system of shared losses and trauma, whose effects echo down throughout the decades and across the pages of the book, entwining them deeper in falsehoods, deceptions, and tragedy, a storm building until it finally breaks. Everything that is built for them, from children to husbands to the city they live in is fake, a fake world where one has to carve out one's own meaning and life. It is on the basis of the excellent ending and the strong relationship between the two girls that the book is tolerable: the rest of it drags this down.
Certainly, other characters could have been improved. There is little in the way of exploration of other characters other than the sisters, their mother, their husbands, and to some extent Joy, the daughter. The various "uncles" in the US receive little focus and description of who they are and their stories, and Old Man Louie's transformation from a harsh, rough, and thoroughly tyrannical dictator to a just but fair patriarch is far too rapid, leaving one uneasy and rushed with the change of character. But then, all of the characters feel somewhat forced, with ennui that constantly grips Pearl, May's passive-aggressive efforts to raise her sister from her slumber that skirt constantly around the edges of actually doing anything, the flat and dull narration and description that lacks flair and charm, the tiny bubbles which the story moves through, hiding from the world. To a certain extent, the small cast of characters that surrounds them is reasonable: after all, the world which they lived in in the United States really was small, tiny, and cramped, in both space but also in people. But in such a world their links to each other should have been even stronger.
It is my suspicion that Shanghai Girls only really shines when it is read with the sequel. I have not yet read the companion book, Dreams of Joy, which completes it. Perhaps Dreams of Joy would put Shanghai Girls in a better light, completing the élan of emotion that is found at the end of the first book. But on its own, Shanghai Girls is just a mediocre book: a decent, if long-maturing character drama that tries too hard to combine its moment of history with lessons for today, and comes off as cheap.