'Shanghai Girls' Details A Chinese-American Odyssey Lisa See describes the lives of Chinese girls who move to Los Angeles during the World War II era in her new novel, Shanghai Girls. As Chinese immigrants, See's characters endure a shifting political climate once they make it to California.
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'Shanghai Girls' Details A Chinese-American Odyssey

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'Shanghai Girls' Details A Chinese-American Odyssey

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Two sisters, May and Pearl Chin, glide around Shanghai in rickshaws wearing gorgeous, tight-fitting, silk dresses. It's 1937, and they're what's known as beautiful girls. They model for artists who use their images on posters and calendars to sell cigarettes, soap, baby formula, and their lives are about to be upended.

May and Pearl are the captivating main characters in Lisa See's new novel, titled "Shanghai Girls." Lisa See told me she's accumulated a pretty big collection of those romanticized ads, including one she looks at every day.

Ms. LISA SEE (Author, "Shanghai Girls"): I actually have a poster in my bedroom. It is of two beautiful girls. And they're really lovely, and they have these beautiful complexions, and they're wearing these very lovely summer dresses, and they're sitting together posed so beautifully, and around them are falling these dead bugs and insects because this is an advertisement for Earth Bug Spray. And so one of the girls is holding one of those old-fashioned bug sprayers, you know, with the pump. A lot of the posters have this kind of whimsy to them.

BLOCK: Did this novel spring in some way from that poster? Were you wondering who might those girls be?

Ms. SEE: Over the years, I have thought about, well, what were those girls like? What were their lives like? That time period in China was very glamorous on the one hand, and yet war was coming. There was a lot of turmoil politically.

BLOCK: This is Shanghai, 1937, just before the Japanese invasion, and you describe it as a city of just extreme contrast, of, you know, babies being left to die on the sidewalk, people stepping around them on their way, these girls stepping around them on their way to elegant nightclubs. You talk about the smells of death and decay colliding with the smell of French perfume.

Ms. SEE: That's exactly right. This is the final moment of Shanghai, when it's really at its height as the Paris of Asia - before things start to go really downhill.

BLOCK: I'm going to jump ahead in time here because a lot happens to May and to Pearl before they get here. But eventually, they are on a boat to America, and they land outside San Francisco at the Angel Island Immigration Station. And why don't you talk about what happened to both these characters, but also to many, many Chinese who would have landed there at this time period.

Ms. SEE: The Angel Island Immigration Station was supposed to be the West Coast version of Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was a place that I think is still, today, seen as sort of welcoming. It had - you know, you went by the Statue of Liberty, and so many people were processed through there.

Angel Island had a very different purpose. It was designed to keep the Chinese out. That was why it was opened. The immigration officials at Angel Island, they were looking to catch anyone who was coming in as a false merchant, anyone who was coming in as a paper son, someone who has bought a paper falsely claiming American citizenship, and anyone who's trying to sneak in as a laborer.

At Angel Island, immigrants had to answer between 200 and 1,000 standard questions. Everything was designed to trick immigrants into making a mistake so that they could be sent back.

BLOCK: And you describe some of these questions when you write about the interrogations that May and Pearl go through. They're asked, you know, how many trees are in your husband's yard? And was it overcast or was it drizzling when you buried your child?

Ms. SEE: How many steps to your neighbor's front door? And here's the thing. A lot of immigrants were coming from the same towns and villages. And so the people who came before, they were already leaving a record. Sometimes, they would draw a map of the village that would have things like how many trees or how many houses, or where was the ancestor temple for that village. So that anyone else who came from that village had to try to answer questions that were appropriate to that map drawn by an earlier immigrant.

BLOCK: The two sisters, May and Pearl, eventually do make it off Angel Island and make it to Los Angeles, and they end up living very close to something called China City, which is just fascinating. And it's a window into, I guess, what America perceived China or the Orient to be at that time.

Ms. SEE: Yes. China City was one square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and inside, it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of "The Good Earth." So it had a lot of charm, but it wasn't very authentic, and people used to go there to ride in rickshaws. And you could nibble China burgers. You could go to the Chinese junk cafe and drink pirate grog. All the people who worked there dressed up in costumes, peasants during the day and a little more glamorous at night. And it was seen as this kind of Hollywood Chinatown.

BLOCK: At some points in the narrative, when the Japanese are the enemy, the Chinese population takes great effort to make it clear that they're not Japanese. They wear arm bands. The family runs a sort of a diner, and they have a sign taped to the cash register that says: Any resemblance to looking Japanese is purely occidental.

But then, things change dramatically after 1949, when the Communists take over China. And now, it's the Chinese who are viewed with suspicion.

Ms. SEE: Yeah. So, that was a time when the Chinese, and anyone who could be suspected of being Communist, it didn't matter what their background was, was in danger.

You know, you saw that with the House Un-American Activities and the Hollywood blacklist. But there was also a whole program targeted specifically at the Chinese. It was called the confession program.

And what the confession program asked was for people who had come to the United States illegally, as paper sons, to confess that they were here illegally, and in exchange, they would be given their citizenship. That sounds pretty easy and -like everyone should do it.

But the government was also asking people to not just confess about themselves, but to 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 that 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 these years, to talk about it. And one man, I think, really summed it up. He said, you know, we haven't told our children, we haven't told our grandchildren about what we went through because we aren't dead yet, and we aren't safe yet.

BLOCK: Wow, after all this time, he still felt unsafe.

Ms. SEE: Mm-hmm. Right.

BLOCK: The end of your book is, well, it's open. It's unresolved. And I get the feeling after reading it, that you're not quite done with these two Shanghai girls, May and Pearl.

Ms. SEE: Well, I'm not quite done with them. I don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And they're not done with you.

Ms. SEE: And they're not done with me. And I'm very curious to know what's going to happen to the daughter. So yes, I am going to be writing about them to see where they go next.

BLOCK: Lisa See is the author of the novel "Shanghai Girls."

Lisa, thanks very much.

Ms. SEE: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: And you can hear more from my interview with Lisa See, and read an excerpt from "Shanghai Girls," at npr.org.

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