As usual, I have read this novel a day ahead of our Third Tuesday Book Club Meeting tomorrow (April 18th, 2017) to discuss the book. It is novel about China and the Chinese people, both in China and in the Los Angeles area, and it is also about family relationships, what can happen during wartime, and family secrets. I very much enjoyed the book.
It is 1937, and Pearl Chin and her sister May Chin are living the good life in Shanghai. Both girls were born near Canton; Pearl is twenty-one (born in the Year of the Dragon), and can speak American English, British English, the Sze Yup dialect of Mandarin spoken near Canton, and the Wu dialect of Mandarin spoken only in Shanghai, and May, because she is three years younger (she is eighteen, born in the Year of the Sheep), speaks American and British English and the Wu dialect of Mandarin, but does not speak Sze Yup. Their father is a well-to-do manager of a rickshaw business, their mother has bound feet and is a lady of leisure, and they have seven servants. The girls are gorgeous, May more so than Pearl; although Pearl has just graduated from college, and May has just graduated from high school, they spend their time on their clothes and on modeling, mostly for the painter Z.G. Li; after putting in several hours of modeling for commercial products and for calendars, they habitually then enjoy the cosmopolitan nightlife of Shanghai, which has the reputation of being the Paris of Asia. Besides modeling and partying, they have not a thought in their heads, certainly not of politics or possible war. The book is narrated by Pearl, who knows that May is her parents’ favorite child; she also knows that, both because of her position as the elder sister and because of their birth signs, she will always be responsible for her younger sister.
This idyllic life comes to a screeching halt when they find that their father has lost all of his money (and the money set aside for their dowries) gambling with Old Man Louie; the father informs the girls, in no uncertain terms, that as part of the deal with Louie to repay the debt and to allow their father and mother to continue to live in the house (which now has only two servants), the girls are to marry Old Man Louie’s sons (both Chinese, and both born in America), and that the ceremony will take place the day after tomorrow. The girls are only able to insist on meeting their intended grooms before the ceremony; they find that Pearl will be marrying the older brother, Sam and that May will be marrying the younger fourteen-year-old brother Vern. After the ceremony and the wedding night, Louie and his sons leave for Hong Kong and California; the girls are to follow them via steamship to California. However, the girls have no intention of going anywhere, and intentionally do not get on the ship. This has unfortunate repercussions, and at this moment the Japanese military makes its move into China from Manchuria and toward Shanghai. Eventually the girls end up in San Francisco, living with Old Man Louie and his sons and working for the family concerns.
This book starkly shows the prejudice that the Chinese people found in Los Angeles (and by extension, the rest of the United States). Immigration is strictly controlled, and since one of the only routes to immigration is being the son of a U.S. Citizen, many men enter the country as “paper sons” – not actually the son of a citizen, but buying the status of “son” from a citizen in place of a child who died. Even before getting into the United States, Chinese are taken to Angel Island to be interrogated for days, weeks, or months before being admitted or deported, and once in California, Chinese are confined to the Chinatowns. Once World War II starts, the Chinese are prejudiced against for being Asian (the average lo fan (white person) in California cannot tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese). And after the war, when China is taken over by the Communists, the Chinese are caught in up in the Red Scare, accused of being spies or worse for the Communists.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, and anticipate a great meeting tomorrow night to discuss the book with my Third Tuesday Book Club. There is a sequel to this book (which ends on a cliffhanger) titled Tears of Joy, which I will probably start reading soon.