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Double Review of Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls

Shanghai, 1937, Pearl and May Chin are two beautiful, modern, carefree sisters, who are leading glamorous lives working as models, especially for calendars, in Shanghai – until their father tells them that he has gambled away the family wealth. In order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to two ‘GoldMountain’ men: Chinese Americans.Pearlwas 19 and May was 15. As Japanese invaded Shanghai, they must travel across Southern China, in and out of the clutches of the brutal Japanese soldiers, and across the ocean to a new, married life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The sisters then make a pact that they vowed to keep in order to retain their honour in their new family in LA….

To know that Lisa See is born with the culture, Lisa See writes in the tone and mentality of the Chinese. The dialogues that jumped out from the pages are typically what you would expect from a Chinese mother or father. I’m not particular excited about the writing and I have my suspicions if the plain English used is meant to dumb-down to suit the characters, a more dumb-down version than that of Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls which I am going to read next. Then again it is just me, if I wanted a flowery prose, I would have read Oscar Wilde. In the public sector workplace, plain English is good! 🙂

It’s obvious that See has extensively researched the conditions that the sisters faced – the Japanese invasion, immigration ordeal atAngelIslandwhere they are kept for several months and the living conditions of LA Chinatown in the late 30’s. Lisa See is very acute observation of the scenes and speech of her characters and milieu. The early immigration experience of the sisters especially gripped me and it turned out that the streets ofAmericawere not, in fact, paved with gold, rather people live here from hands to mouth. By whose standards that we are comparing whenever someone visiting from overseas, the Chinese always regard them more affluent than the locals?

The Shanghai calendar girls

The history of Los Angeles’ Chinatown is shown via the struggles of one extended family, the Louie, who indicate a desire to assimilate with American ways, yet hold tight to their Chinese traditions. I heard this before and can therefore now confirm that the early Chinese migrants to the land of the Free was treated less of a human than their fellow migrants such as Italian or the Hispanics. They are not allowed to own lands, they are the least preferred tenants, they are asked to exude and display their cultural characteristics inChinatownas a parade for exoticism and some of them are cast in Hollywood movie in stereotypical roles. Lisa See captured it all very well. Political changes in both countries play a role, and Lisa See captures the impact to the family with every major historical change toAmericaandChina, most vividly whenChinabecame a Communist country and Chinese Americans were subjected to interrogation to weed out the Communist sympathisers and the spies. Looking back from where the Chinese Americans are today, their ancestors have suffered and they have come a long, long way to achieve the social standings of today.

The plot span is 20 years andPearl’s daughter Joy’s growth is charted in the story.

The Shanghai Girls ended with a cliffhanger and the poor readers have to wait 2 years before the sequel is published.

Dreams of Joy

So the 19-year-old Joy has grew up and decided to run away from her home in 1950’s America, fuelled with a misguided ideology, wanted to start a new life in Communist China (How stupid!) and also in search of a truth in her family past. Idealistic and unafraid, she believes that Chairman Mao is on the people’s side, despite what her family keeps telling her. How can she trust them, when she has been lied to for her entire life?

So with her new-found close family member, Joy arrives in Green Dragon Village in countrysideChinato teach art and reinforce the China Red Propaganda. The countryside is so stripped back from her life in LA but she didn’t seem to mind because she fell in love with a young handsome comrade.

…. Meanwhile,Pearlreturns to theChinashe had fled 20 years ago in an attempt to persuade her daughter to come home – only if she can because once you are inChinait is almost impossible to get out back then. As Mao launched his Great Leap Forward (with no consideration for the common people’s welfare, an ideology not dissimilar to the power hungry and insane), and each passing season brings ever greater hardship to cities and communes alike. BothPearland Joy have to find a way where they could meet again and chart an escape route.

As the horrors of the Commies’ rule escalates, the whole setting feels like scenes out of a dystopian future and the only way is to get out of it. I must say the last part of Dreams of Joy reads like a thriller.

Pearl, born in the Year of the Dragon, is very protective of her younger Sheep sister, May. Throughout the story it’s obvious that May and Pearllove each other but there’s also a lot of jealousy and resentment – something more serious than normal sibling rivalry – that threatens to damage their relationship. I didn’t like either of them, the only character I like was Sam, Pearl’s husband. A good outcome that came out of Pearland Sam’s arranged marriage that proves when two people “decide” to love each other, it is possible to do so. As the first-person narrator of the novel,Pearl was the sister I sympathised more as May is too spoilt and selfish and left all the burden onPearl.

However, I must honestly say that reading these two books has made me gone out of my comfort zone.

First, I hardly read female or chick lit. By that I mean I can’t stand women being conniving and plotting against each other and talks about male-female relationship in a gigglish sort of way. And this book contains elements of that.

Second, I am disturbed to read about women who have no grasp of their own destiny and are not free to choose. Worse than that is to read about women who have no brain nor will but kept making one big mistakes after another; but I think it is the nature of the characters of those days when they succumb to whatever lives thrown at them. May is the pea-brained one, then it gets passed on to her daughter (or niece, a big mystery here I shall not spoil the plot for you) Joy, who has the right to choose in her days and yet she made one big mistake after another. It almost feels as if these multiple mistakes are made so that it fuels the page-turning effect of the plot!

Third, because of the vivid descriptions and dialogues that I knew Lisa See has captured the real dynamics of a Chinese family relationship. No matter how close Chinese family members are to each other there are moments of suppressed angers or jealousy that simmers under the surface and ready to explode with torrents of hurtful words or behind the back plotting to hurt one another. Once they are found out and once it simmers out to the surface, very quickly again because of the piety and filial relationship one feel towards their family members and elderly, all these ugly matters are forgiven and forgotten and everyone get on with their lives as if nothing happened. I am not saying all families are like that but the ones who operates in the traditional principles and suffers prolong hardships tends to display this characteristic. The next thing is that in a Chinese family, members do not communicate and talk openly what they feel, in fact most have a hard time expressing themselves so misunderstandings and second guessing are always at the back of their minds. I know the stories are fictional, yet I cringed to read about it and want to say it out loud, “Why can’t you guys TALK to each other in a open way to avoid this tragedy from happening??!!!”. The final tragedy that happens to Pearl’s husband, Sam, was one typical example that I thought the family should snap out of it. Oh and the constant references to Chinese Zodiac, “He is a dog, therefore he is more tricky.” “She is born a pig and more extravagant.” “I’m born a dragon, I should be strong and wilful and my sister is a sheep, I should protect her.” “A sheep and a rabbit make good match.” COME OFF IT! (I’m talking to myself, I know these references to the Chinese Zodiac was just part of the plot to add more Chinesey element of the story, but it feels like a plot to rile me to think if only life was that simple to box people up in 12 stereotypical blinking Zodiac signs without looking at each person as an unique individual!!!

Fourth, oh and so many hardship and tragedies!!! One after another, just when you think there is going to be a respite then come another big calamity! The book does make an uncomfortable read.

Fifth, as you may conclude from my rant above that that I found both Pearl and May very frustrating at times and I am trying to recall when did I read about a frustrating character? Probably none.

I immediately proceed to read Dreams of Joy after Shanghai Girls, and this is proof of how gripping the story as plot upon plot spawns out from daily events. I can see the appeal of Lisa See’s books. One other book I read is the Peony’s Love, and I hope to read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan one day. Of the good things that I took from the book, it is about family relationships, it is about the power of perseverance, it is about rising above personal tragedies, it is about keeping our traditions.

Some of my favourite passages:

And Pearl’s thoughts about May, her moy moy  (little sister):

May and I are sisters.  We’ll always fight, but we’ll always make up as well.  That’s what sisters do: we argue, we point out each others frailties, mistakes, and bad judgement, we flash the insecurities we’ve had since childhood, and then we come back together.  Until the next time.

What stays with me most are the feelings of loss, unsettlement, unease, and a longing for the past that cannot be relieved. – page 133, Pearl.

Words from Sam to his wife, Pearl:

I would rather be married to broken jade than flawless clay. And my father used to say that anyone can add an extra flower to brocade, but how many women will fetch the coal in winter? He was talking about my mother, who was a good and loyal woman, just as you are. On the bench in Yu Yuan Garden, I said I liked you and I asked if you liked me. You only nodded. In an arranged marriage this is more than we can hope for. I never expected happiness, but shouldn’t we try to look for it? – page 171

Thousands upon thousands of years for China. Being Chinese and carrying that upon your shoulders and in your heart can be a heavy burden but also a source of pride and joy. – page 371 spoken words of Joy.

And her mother’s jade bracelet, which reminds her that family ties that last forever:

I focus my eyes on my jade bracelet.  All these years and for all the years after I die, it will remain unchanged.  It will always be hard and cold – just a piece of stone.  Yet for me it is an object that ties me to the past, to people and places that are gone forever.  Its continued perfection serves as a physical reminder to keep living, to look to the future, to cherish what I have.  It reminds me to endure.

The Dreams of Joy is a review copy and I thank the people at Bloomsbury for sending it to me and made me compel to read Shanghai Girls. It is true, you have to read the first before you read the second, otherwise it makes less sense.  Did I love these two books? No I don’t but I kind of like them. It is a good change from the recent genre and stuff that I read and also a nice trip down a different culture that allows me to stand as an outside observer and pick flaws and merits of it. I wouldn’t be able to do the last bit if it wasn’t for Lisa See’s vivid descriptions and examples.


I’m reading both for the Chinese Literature Challenge hosted by Chinoiseries.

Have you read any of Lisa See’s books? Which ones did you liked the most?

Other views:

Shanghai Girls

She is too fond of books: The fictional Pearl and May, like many actual Chinese in America during this period, endured.  Shanghai Girls is a work of historical fiction that both entertains and teaches.

She reads novels: This is the second of Lisa See’s historical fiction novels I’ve read. The first was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a story set in 19th century China, but I liked this one a lot more than Snow Flower.

Dreams of Joy

Helen’s Book blog: The story flows well and, since it is based on history, is believable, even when I didn’t want it to be. At 19 and idealistic Joy makes such awful decisions that have a huge impact on herself and those around her. But a family’s love and devotion eventually win and that’s what I want to have happen.

Mel U@Reading Life: I am glad I read this book.   I think you should first read Shanghai Girls and  if you like it a lot then I would endorse Dreams of Joy to you.

My reviews of Peony in Love and Lisa See’s author’s profile.

Shanghai Girls

Paperback. Length: 314 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2010. Source: Reading Library. Setting: Shanghai, China and LA, USA. Finished reading at: 19th November 2011.

Dreams of Joy

Premium Paperback. Length: 144 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2011. Source: Review copy. Setting: China. Finished reading at: 23rd November 2011.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


14 thoughts on “Double Review of Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

  1. I enjoyed Shanghai Girls and was eagerly anticipating Dreams of Joy, but none of the reviews have made me want to read it! I like the quote from Sam though and about the bracelet. But I’m thinking I’m glad I haven’t read Dreams of Joy! :–)

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | November 26, 2011, 12:19 pm
  2. I enjoyed both of these, but my favorite by Lisa See, by far was Snowflower and the Secret Fan – just awesome. Ho[e you are doing well; sorry I haven’t stopped by to comment in a while, but I have been reading your posts.

    Posted by Diane@BibliophileBytheSea | November 26, 2011, 5:36 pm
    • Diane,
      I’m glad you are still here. I long to read Snowflower and the Secret Fan soon. So that I can say I read all her books and the best one and rest my judgement about them. Thank you so much for dropping by. It means a lot!

      Posted by JoV | November 28, 2011, 10:50 am
  3. I haven’t read either but they sound very good.

    Posted by Mystica | November 26, 2011, 11:14 pm
  4. I haven’t yet read DREAMS OF JOY (it’s on my shelf!). Thanks for linking to my thoughts on SHANGHAI GIRLS .. I wonder if I should revisit (reread/skim) the novel before going on to DREAMS OF JOY … it’s interesting that you were so compelled to read one after the other (strong writing/plot, even though you didn’t care for the characters and it was an uncomfortable read).

    Posted by Dawn - She Is Too Fond of Books | November 27, 2011, 1:21 am
    • Dawn,
      It may be worth the skimming so that you could continue where the last book ends. I have Dreams of Joy from the publisher but I thought I may as well read Shanghai Girls in entirety before getting onto the next book, yeah, even when I didn’t really care for the characters but is is a strong writing and plotting that kept me going.

      Thanks for your first comment here! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | November 28, 2011, 10:55 am
  5. I have one of Lisa See’s books unfinished on my shelf :-(. I must pick it up again. I loved your observations on these two books though – I think, at risk of making a broad, fatal generalization, that many Indian families are much the same too in terms of communication. Things must be hidden, family honor protected at all costs, and hurt/anger/disappointment/joy/surprise all cloaked in layers of silent masks sometime. Talking is often the LAST resort to resolve things – :-)/

    Posted by Soul Muser | November 27, 2011, 2:41 am
    • Soul,
      It’s good to generalise though. It’s just the way our brain makes sense of the world. I tend to generalise then I’m glad to be proven wrong. 🙂 I think we need to promote more talking and not harbouring anger in silent masks!

      Posted by JoV | November 28, 2011, 10:48 am
  6. Sounds like a fascinating read nut not so sure I could face reading about quite SO much tragedy. I find I invest far more emotionally into books so can easily be pulled down. Good review though.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | November 30, 2011, 8:39 am


  1. Pingback: It’s wrap-up (although a little late!): October and November 2011 « Bibliojunkie - December 7, 2011

  2. Pingback: Book review: Dreams of Joy | reyoflight - October 5, 2013

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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