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Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls Book Cover

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is set in 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—where twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

Book Club Party Ideas for Shanghai Girls


“Your father named you Pearl Dragon,” Mama says, as she soothes my hair, “because you were born in the Year of the Dragon and the Dragon likes to play with a pearl.” When talking to Pearl, Mama also says “You’re a Dragon, and of all the signs only a Dragon can tame the fates. Only a Dragon can wear all the horns of destiny, duty, and power (page 76).”

Decorations for your book club party for Shanghai Girls can include a dragon, a pearl and other Asian decorations.

tea pot, chinese dragon, pearl

Here are some cool dragon teapots that, in addition to serving tea, would make beautiful decorations. Click on the picture for more information from Amazon.

“Platters of hard-boiled eggs dyed red to represent fertility and happiness are set on a table just inside the entrance” (page 130). Instructions for Making Red Eggs

Red Hard Boiled Eggs


Phases Of The Moon: Traditional Chinese Music can be played for your book club party for Shanghai Girls.

Book Club Menu for Shanghai Girls

“At the beginning of October 1949, Pearl’s Coffee Shop opens, Mao Tse-tung establishes the People’s Republic of China and the Bamboo Curtain falls.” The menu at Pearl’s combines American and Chinese-American specialties including sweet-and-sour pork, almond cookies and tea (Page 236).

Sweet and Sour Pork

red peppers, onion, pork, pineapples, rice

Almond Cookies

Chinese Almond Cookies

Remind your guests about the chopstick etiquette mentioned in Shanghai Girls. Be sure not to set out any uneven pairs, which would mean the person using them will miss a boat, a plane or a train. Dropping chopsticks brings bad luck and leaving them upright in your rice bowl is something that is only done at funerals (page 255).

Other Menu Options

  • In Shanghai, the girls are served “shrimp with water chestnuts, pork stewed in soy sauce with dried vegetables and bamboo shoots, steamed eel, an eight-treasures vegetable dish, and rice.” It was sweltering so Pearl would have rather had ” chilled sour plum juice, cold mint-flavored sweet green bean soup, or sweet almond broth (page 4).”
  • In the streets of Shanghai, food vendors call out their special treats including ginkgo nuts, stewed plums besprinkled with licorice powder and watermelon (page 16).
  • Pearl takes her American friend “into alleys for hsiao ch’ih – little eats, dumpling of glutinous rice wrapped in reed leaves or cakes made from cassia petals and sugar (page 18).”
  • “Instead of soy milk, sesame cakes, and fried dough sticks for breakfast, Cook makes p’ao fan – leftover rice swimming in boiled water with some pickled vegetables on top for flavor (page 41).”
  • While a detainee, the girls talk about foods they miss in Shanghai: roast duck, fresh fruit and black bean sauce (page 111).
  • A banquet at a wedding reception included a cold platter with jellyfish, soy-sauce chicken, and sliced kidneys, bird’s nest soup, a whole steamed fish, Peking duck, noodles, shrimp and walnuts (page 130).
  • “I miss things like honey-covered dough confections, sugared rose cakes, and spiced eggs boiled in tea (page 152).”
  • Pearl mentions dishes that she never saw or even heard of in Shanghai- sweet-and-sour pork, cashew chicken, and chop suey (page 157).
  • “Yen-yen has no desire for something better to eat, because she doesn’t have memories of shark’s fin soup, crisp Yangtze River eel, or braised pigeon in lettuce leaves (page 182).”
  • “We make a quick stop at a butcher shop on Broadway to pick up two pounds of fresh char siu, the fragrant barbecued pork that’s the secret ingredient in Sam’s chow mein (page 240).”
  • “As soon as the fire is ready, we give the men trays of chicken wings marinated in soy, honey, and sesame seeds, and pork ribs steeped in hoisin sauce and five spice (page 253).”
  • When Pearl’s daughter comes home from college, her parents serve her steamed pork with salted duck eggs, curried tomato beef lo mein, chicken wings with black beans, almond tofu with canned fruit cocktail, barbecued duck, whipped-cream cake with fresh strawberries and pork bao (page 273).

Book Club Resources for Shanghai Girls

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.9 stars (104,648 ratings)
Amazon: 4.2 stars (930 ratings)
Library Thing: 3.8 stars (1,233 ratings)
My Rating: 4 stars. Having 4 sisters of my own, I love reading about the relationship between sisters. The personalities of Pearl and May are well-developed and are in line with their birth order, as anyone with a sister can attest to. The overall mood of the book is fairly depressing, but there are a few positive, hopeful occurrences in the girls’ lives. The ending came a little too abruptly, but predicting how things will turn out for the various characters could be a great starting point for a book club discussion.

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. Pearl’s narration is unique because of its level, calm tone throughout – even when the events she describes are horrific. One is reminded of Wordsworth’s reference to “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It is almost as if Pearl is writing in a diary. What was Lisa trying to accomplish in setting up this counterpoint between her tone and her narrative?
2. Pearl is a Dragon and May is a Sheep. Do you think the two sisters are true to their birth signs in their actions in Shanghai Girls?
3. Which sister is smarter? Which is more beautiful?
4. Each sister believes that her parents loved the other sister more. Who is right about this? Why?
5. Pearl says that parents die, husbands and children can leave, but sisters are for life. Does that end up being true for Pearl? If you have a sister, to what extent does the relationship between Pearl and May speak to your own experience? What’s the difference between a relationship that’s “just like sisters” and real sisters? Is there anything your sister could do that would cause an irreparable breach?
Read more . . .

6. Z.G. talks about ai kuo, the love for your country, and ai jen, the emotion you feel for the person you love. How do these ideas play out in the novel?
7. Shanghai Girls makes a powerful statement about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants to the United States. Were you surprised about any of the details related to this theme in the novel?
8. How would you describe the relationship between Pearl and May? How does the fact that both are, in a sense, Joy’s mother affect their relationship toward each other? Who loves Joy more and how does she show it?
9. Pearl doesn’t come to mother love easily or naturally. At what point does she begin to claim Joy as her own? How, where, and why does she continue to struggle with the challenges of being a mother? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of motherhood?
10. There are times when it seems like outside forces conspire against Pearl—leaving China, working in the restaurant, not looking for a job after the war, and taking care of Vern. How much of what happens to Pearl is a product of her own decisions and choices?
11. Pearl’s attitude toward men and the world in general is influenced by what happened to her in the shack outside Shanghai. To what extent does she find her way to healing by the end of the novel? Did your attitude toward Old Man Louie change? How do you feel about Sam and his relationship with Pearl and Joy? Did your impression of him change as the novel progressed?
12. The novel begins with Pearl saying, “I am not a person of importance.” After Yen-yen dies, Pearl comments: “Her funeral is small. After all, she was not a person of importance, rather just a wife and mother.” How do you react to comments like these?
13. Speaking of Yen-yen, Pearl notes: “When we’re packing, Yen-yen says she’s tired. She sits down on the couch in the main room and dies.” Why does Pearl describe Yen-yen’s death in such an abrupt way?
14. After Joy points out the differences in the way Z.G. painted her mother and aunt in the Communist propaganda posters, May says, “Everything always returns to the beginning.” Pearl has her idea of what May meant, but what do you think May really meant? And what is Pearl’s understanding of this saying at the end of the novel?
15. Near the end of Shanghai Girls, May argues that Pearl and Sam have withdrawn into a world of fear and isolation, not taking advantage of the opportunities open to them. Do you agree with May that much of Pearl’s sadness and isolation is self-imposed? Why or why not?
16. How do clothes define Pearl and May in different parts of the story? How do the sisters use clothes to manipulate others?
17. How does food serve as a gateway to memory in the novel? How does it illustrate culture and tradition both in the novel and in your own families?
18. What influence—if any—do Mama’s beliefs have on Pearl? How do they evolve over time?
19. Pearl encounters a lot of racism, but she also holds many racist views herself. Is she a product of her time? Do her attitudes change during the course of the story?
20. What role does place—Shanghai, Angel Island, China City, and Chinatown—serve in the novel? What do you think Lisa was trying to say about “home”?
(Discussion Questions from Random House)

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The Author

author Shanghai Girls

Lisa See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family.

In addition to writing books, Ms. See was the Publishers Weekly West Coast Correspondent for thirteen years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Vogue, Self, and More, as well as in numerous book reviews around the country. She wrote the libretto for Los Angeles Opera based on On Gold Mountain. She also served as guest curator for an exhibit on the Chinese-American experience for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Ms. See then helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry Museum.

Ms. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority. She was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in Fall 2003. Adapted from

Other Works by Lisa See

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for Shanghai Girls? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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