Shanghai Q and A

What inspired you to write Shanghai Girls?

Four things, really. First, I’ve been collecting Shanghai advertising images from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties for many years. The so-called Beautiful Girls, women who posed for commercial artists, were right in the heart of the excitement in Shanghai. The charming and captivating life illustrated in advertisements is one thing, but I was interested in seeing what real life was like for those women. I also wanted to write about what it was like for Chinese women who came to America in arranged marriages. (We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. I know how hard life was for the women. They’d had servants in China, but they lived like servants in America.) Third, I wanted to write about China City, a short-lived tourist attraction in Los Angeles. And finally, I wanted to write about sisters.

What is it about Shanghai that so captures the imagination?

In part it’s the juxtaposition of extreme opposites—dire poverty amidst flamboyant wealth, upstanding English gentlemen going to the same nightclubs as the most corrupt gangsters, the lowest prostitutes plying Blood Alley competing, in a sense, with the Beautiful Girls who graced magazine covers—that is somehow delicious and sinful, like having a big juicy hamburger with glass of champagne. In the 1930s, Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—was one of the world’s most modern cities. It was glamorous. It was fun. It was a place where everything seemed possible, and, in fact, was possible. And, of course, that entrancing moment was about to end, which also adds to its appeal.
The Japanese invasion in 1937 was the beginning of Shanghai’s fall. The Sino-Japanese War melded into World War II, which was followed almost immediately by civil war. When Mao took over the country in 1949, Shanghai’s nightclubs were closed, beautiful clothes were put away, and street vendors and all their tasty treats almost entirely eliminated. Writers and intellectuals were sent to the countryside, labor camps, or executed. Artists were forced to follow new precepts that said art must be subservient to politics and communicate political and social messages about Communist ideology. Years ago, during my first trip to Shanghai, I saw art-deco buildings, marble lobbies, and ornate villas wrapped in a world gone grey. Communism had mummified the once enchanting city. But as May and Pearl might say, everything returns to the beginning. Now, in the 21st century, Shanghai has reclaimed its status as the Paris of Asia and is once again considered not just one of the great cities in the world but a true economic powerhouse.

Everyone knows about Ellis Island, but many people have never heard of Angel Island. What is it? And what was it like for the immigrants who passed through it?

Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, is often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West. The Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910 to1940. Over one million immigrants from eighty countries passed through the station, of which 175,000 were Chinese. We think of Ellis Island as a welcoming place, the gateway to a new life in America, with the Statue of Liberty in view. But Angel Island was far from welcoming. It was designed to be a barrier to Chinese immigration, which is why it was often referred to the Guardian of the Western Gate. At Ellis Island, immigrants were asked twenty-nine standard questions; at Angel Island, Chinese detainees were subjected to between two hundred and over one thousand questions. Some Chinese immigrants stayed as little as a few days; some stayed for two years. Many were deported and many committed suicide.

Did any of your relatives go through Angel Island?

At the National Archives, I found over 500 pages of interrogations, photographs, boarding passes, and health certificates related to my family members who passed through Angel Island. I’ve also heard many stories from people in my family, as well as from family friends, about their experiences at Angel Island. Pearl’s interrogations in Shanghai Girls are pulled directly from the hearing transcripts for Mrs. Fong Lai (Jung-shee), the wife of one of my great-grandfather’s paper partners, and for my great-grandfather and his brother.

What’s Angel Island like today? Have you ever visited?

In addition to the Immigration Station, the island also has a garrison dating from the Civil War, a fort that was active during the Spanish-American War, a quarantine station, a World War II staging facility, and a Nike missile site. Today people love to take the ferry to the island to picnic, hike, and bike.
The Immigration Station itself was closed to the public for several years for an extensive renovation and conservation project. (It opened to the public again in February 2009.) In 2008, I was invited on a private tour of the station. I have never questioned for a moment how brave people were—and still are—to leave their home countries to come to the United States, but I cannot express how deeply I was affected by wandering through the dormitory and strolling the grounds, where my own relatives were held and interrogated. The conservators have done a wonderful job with the barracks in particular. It’s amazing to see the lines of poetry—kind of like graffiti—that Chinese and other immigrants left on the walls. They speak of homesickness, hope, yearning, loneliness, and bitterness at being treated so badly. For example:
What can one person say to another?
Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate.
Gain or lose, how is one to know what is predestined?
Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of heaven?
Why should one complain if he is detained and imprisoned here?
From ancient times heroes often were the first to face adversity.

What were paper sons?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred the immigration of all Chinese, except for diplomats, ministers, students, merchants, and those who were the sons and daughters of Chinese-American citizens. (If you’re an American citizen and you have a child in another country, then that child is also an American citizen.) But Chinese weren’t allowed to become naturalized citizens until 1943, so how could they possibly enter the country as American citizens before that? During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, all birth records for California were destroyed. Suddenly those Chinese, who were already here, could state that they’d been born here—because there was no documentation to prove them wrong (or right)—and thus claim citizenship by having been born on American soil. So when a Chinese man—whether an actual U.S. citizen or one claiming false citizenship—went back to China, he could report that his wife had given birth to a son in the village. He would receive a certificate stating that he had an American-citizen son, which he could then sell to a total stranger—but often a nephew or friend of the family—and then bring him to America as a citizen.

Obviously, a lot of secrecy surrounded paper sons. One mistake could cause not just one person to be deported but a whole family, friends, and business associates to be deported too. The fear of being caught has never gone away. When I was working on On Gold Mountain, in the early 1990s, several people in my family told me they didn’t want to be interviewed because they were still afraid they might be deported back to China. Even now families don’t tell the second, third, or even fourth generations about the origins of their citizenship status. Two years ago, a young man wrote to me asking why his grandparents didn’t treat his father and him the same way they treated their other children and grandchildren. I hinted that his father might be a paper son. It turned out I was right. When I met the young man a few nights later, he was devastated. The people he thought were his family were not related to him at all. Everything he thought he knew about his grandparents, his parents, his uncles and aunts, and his cousins was a lie.

Shanghai Girls is one of the few novels to tackle the Confession Program. Even today great secrecy surrounds the Confession Program. What was it, how did you get people to talk about it, and what did you learn?

The Confession Program ran from 1956 to 1965. The government asked Chinese to “confess” their paper-son status. They were also encouraged to reveal the people they knew in their own families—fathers, sons, brothers, wives—that they knew had come in using false status. But it didn’t stop there. People were also asked to name neighbors, business associates, and anyone else they suspected might be a Communist. By the time the program ended, 13,895 people had confessed, exposing 22,083 others. Considering that the Chinese-American population in the United States (without Hawaii) in 1950 was only 117,629, the effects on people and families were far-reaching. The program caused, among other things, a retraction from assimilation and American politics.
If people are still nervous about revealing paper-son status in their family trees, then they’re far more anxious and secretive when it comes to the Confession Program. The Confession Program is still considered a terrible secret and disgrace, not only by those who confessed or were ratted out but by our own government too. During one of the interviews for this book, I was told, “There were a lot of suicides, a lot of suicides. It’s hard to remember these things because of the pain.” Another person said, “I don’t know that we’ve ever mentioned any of this to our kids.” He then added, “We aren’t dead yet, so we aren’t safe yet.”

What was China City exactly?

China City was a tourist attraction developed by Christine Sterling, who also developed Olvera Street, a Mexican marketplace here in Los Angeles. Mrs. Sterling started both of these projects during the Depression as a way to give poor immigrants a chance to start small businesses. Chinese City was intended to look and feel like an “authentic” Chinese city. It was one square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall. Inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth. The people who worked there were required to wear Chinese costumes. Those who came to visit rode in rickshaws and nibbled on Chinaburgers. China City was also home to the Asiastic Costume Company, where movie studios rented props and costumes, and also hired Chinese extras to work in films. I think it’s safe to say that China City wasn’t terribly authentic, but it did have a lot of charm. And it’s really lived on in the memories of the people who worked there. My great-great-uncle had a shop there. His children—my cousins—have wonderful memories of playing and working in China City.

You focus on close friendships between women in all your books. You wrote about the lao tong relationship in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; you wrote about so-called sister-wives in Peony in Love. This time you’ve written about sisters. What’s the difference between a relationship that’s “just like sisters” and real sisters?

It is said that the sibling relationship is the longest we will have in our lifetimes. A sister is the person who should stand by you, support you, and love you no matter what. And yet your sister also knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. I think the biggest difference between sisters and best friends who are like sisters is that actual sisters are for life. You share the same experiences growing up. You share the same family secrets. You protect and defend each other. Much later, you watch your parents grow old and die. This links us in ways that we just don’t have with a friend. That doesn’t mean the sister relationship is always easy or fun. Far from it! But blood is thicker than water, and the closer we are, the more we experience together, the more fraught and difficult the emotional relationship, the more grudges and hard feelings we harbor, the more we actually come to rely on and trust each other. As I said earlier, sisters are for life, and that leads to some interesting dynamics that can play out over many decades.

It sounds like some of Shanghai Girls comes from your own experiences. Is this where the emotional heart of the novel comes from?

Absolutely. I’m a sister myself, so there’s that. (There are some arguments and silly feuds between Pearl and May in the novel that really made my sisters laugh when they read them. We lived some of those things!) But with Shanghai Girls I also wanted to capture the people (and places) who are gone now, who meant so much to me, who in so many ways made me the person I am today. When I was a girl, I lived with my mother, but I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents and my great-aunts and great-uncles in our family’s antiques store in Los Angeles Chinatown. The F. Suie One Company was located in a building that had once been part of China City. Two stone lions guarded the store’s moon gate. Every morning my grandfather used to roll a rickshaw upholstered in purple velvet to the curb to entice customers to enter. Inside the store, there were upturned eaves, hidden nooks, and a room that held the remnants of China City’s wishing well. In 1981, the family store moved to Pasadena, where it is still in operation. Several years later, the old China City building was torn down. Since then, many of the other stores and cafés along Spring Street have also been closed and the people have moved or died. The same thing is happening now in New Chinatown—the old curio shops are being replaced by trendy art galleries, the pioneer Chinese-American families are being replaced by hipsters. Writing about the past allows me to be with the people and places I loved so much as a girl a little while longer.