In the midst of giving a tour a few years ago of places intrinsic to her books — an outing intended to give her fans more understanding of her work — Lisa See was struck with an unsettling insight of her own:
“I realized in the space of that two hours that all these places and people, older relatives who’ve made me who I am, all of them are going to be gone in a couple of years. I was devastated,” she says. “That feeling, that knowledge of this looming, irrevocable loss, became the heart of the book” she was then working on.
She’s referring to her novel, “Shanghai Girls,” which just came out in paperback.
The Los Angeles-based author, 55, says her family has seen plenty of the kind of upheaval that she depicts in “Shanghai Girls.” Her great-great-grandfather on her father’s side came to America to help build the transcontinental railroad. That didn’t work out so well for the family back in China.
“He was a womanizer and a gambler, and he didn’t send money home,” See says. “His wife was so poor in her village that she carried people on her back to make money.” The original immigrant’s 14-year-old son eventually came to America to fetch the errant dad, but the son remained in America, and over time claimed four wives — one Caucasian (who begat See’s line of the family), the rest Chinese.
As with her last two fiction best-sellers, both set in China, “Shanghai Girls” burrows deep into the heart of women’s relationships. 2005’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” explored the lives of 19th-century women who were lifelong best friends, while 2007’s “Peony in Love” delved into 17th-century arranged marriage, telling the story of three women all married to the same man.
“Shanghai Girls” is about biological sisters — “which is very different from a friend, even someone you claim as a sister,” she notes — who live a privileged life as “beautiful girls” (models for poster art) in 1930s Shanghai, then known as the “Paris of Asia.” A deception by their father and the invasion of the Japanese bring both Shanghai’s golden days and the sisters’ to an end.
The young women flee to America for arranged marriages, becoming part of a family that runs shops in L.A.‘s enormous tourist attraction-marketplace China City — the same place where See’s family had a store, which is still open to this day, although it moved to Pasadena, Calif., after China City shut down.
In addition to the themes of sisterhood and loss, See says, she wanted to write about little-known historical places such as Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco, an immigration station where some 1 million Asians came into the United States.
“It’s amazing to me that people, even in the Bay Area, have no idea of the history of Angel Island. Everyone knows Ellis Island, but Angel Island?” See asks with a sigh. “It’s a place where you go to have a picnic. ... But those places, and those people, we carry them in our hearts. That’s the only place we can.”
Or perhaps in a book: See’s next project tells the story of Joy, the daughter and niece of the two sisters in “Shanghai Girls,” carrying the story forward into the latter part of the 20th century.