Monday, February 4, 2013

Shanghai Girls AND Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Two Sisters, Two Countries, Two Books: (Chinese Week)

Chinese New Year is almost here. I thought it would be a perfect week to look at books relating to China.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See got thumbs up from our book club. Growing up in Shanghai, May and Pearl Chin are both models for Z.G. Li, a painter and photographer, whom they both fall in love with.  As “beautiful girls” the sisters live a life of parties and glamour until their father loses the family fortune and sells the girls to prospective husbands.  The girls refuse and during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, they attempt to cross the countryside to make their escape.  Along the way they have a horrific encounter with Japanese soldiers. Brace yourself. It’s a disturbing scene that’s not for the faint of heart. 

Eventually they make it to America and are interned at Angel Island for a long time. In order to stay in America, the sisters marry the Louie brothers who are strangers to them. In Los Angeles Chinatown, under one roof they find that life is very challenging with racial and financial struggles. Slowly they assimilate to their new family and carve out very different lives.  Pearl is the responsible one.  She and her husband raise baby Joy while still meeting the familial obligations to Louie’s parents.  May’s new husband is mentally impaired, very childlike, and she seeks out a more self-centered lifestyle.

The book is fast paced enough, but at the very end, hang on for a ride, because it goes at warp speed.  There’s a lot going on with when now grown-up daughter Joy discovers past cover-ups and lies, false family ties, and the identity of her real parents. It ends with Joy running off to communist China.  At that point our book club smelled a sequel, and sure enough a couple years later Dreams of Joy was published.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is the sequel to Shanghai Girls.   It picks up when nineteen-year-old Joy, daughter of Pearl and Sam Louie, runs off to communist China to aid in the communist cause.  There she finds her birth father and quickly realizes her disillusion in the utopian society of communism. She lives in a farming village and soon develops a relationship with a young man.  All the while Pearl is frantic and gives up her life in Los Angeles to search for her missing daughter.  Times in China are tough and they get even tougher as Mao Tse Tung launches his Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward promoted “collectivism,” where people worked collectively for the good of China.  Farmers were no longer allowed to grow what they wanted and in the manner they were accustomed.  Mao Tse Tung strictly enforced planting crops extremely close together in an effort for greater production.  However, this crowded out the plants and caused many crop failures.  Although other factors may have contributed, a devastating famine resulted and millions of people died during the late 1950s and early 60s.  Like everyone else, Joy struggled with hunger and shocking conditions.  A few extremely disturbing instances in the way they dealt with hunger made all the eyebrows in our book club rise “collectively.”  I’m sure you’ll know just what I’m talking about when you read it.

I am not a history buff and barely remember this chapter in history being taught in school.  Oh sure, I can vividly picture Mrs. Merckel with her blond curls and those oversized black rimmed glasses in my eighth-grade Social Studies class mention Mao Tse Tung (or Mao Zedong as he’s now known). But after saying his name, things seem to go black.  My brain flatlined. I do not recall any of the atrocities, the persecution, or even the cannibalism. 

That’s what I enjoy about historical fiction. As a kid history was not my favorite subject.  I glazed over most history classes in school. Mainly I just remember having to memorize dates of significant wars which I quickly released from my mind.  Historical fictions, however, bring the human aspects to life.  The people become real, not just statistics. Historical fictions and memoirs push emotional buttons that a sterile history class just can’t do. I'm not sure if technically this book is a historical fiction since the story itself is not based on fact, but the circumstance surrounding the famine are. 

Although this book was a sequel, occurrences in the first book were woven into the story, so the book can stand alone.  I would recommend reading both, Shanghai Girls, then Dreams of Joy. Both are excellent. Both got thumbs up from my book club.

Click to read news article about current-day famine which sounds eerily familiar to Dreams of Joy. 

What about you?  What’s a good book with a setting in China that you have enjoyed? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer

What did you think of these books? Post a comment or email:


  1. I read both books, thumbs up. The reader will not forgett the struggle with hunger and living conditions.
    Anyone want to read more about China, my pick would be "The good Earth" by Pearl S Buck. The book is "old" and won her the Nobel Price. On my have to read list. ( The list is getting longer and longer)

  2. I loved these books - it is hard to believe that I did not know much about this modern historical event. These kinds of books make me realize how good we have it and the hard struggles other have to endure.