nightsoil or day-old shrimp but from her. Since we don’t have our servants to keep the air moving in the room, the smell that rises from the blood and pus that seep through the bandages holding Mama’s feet in their tiny shape clings to the back of my throat.
Mama is still filling the air with her grievances when Baba interrupts. “You girls can’t go out tonight. I need to talk to you.”
He speaks to May, who looks at him and smiles in that beautiful way of hers. We aren’t bad girls, but we have plans tonight, and being lectured by Baba about how much water we waste in our baths or the fact that we don’t eat every grain of rice in our bowls isn’t part of them. Usually Baba reacts to May’s charm by smiling back at her and forgetting his concerns, but this time he blinks a few times and shifts his black eyes to me. Again, I sink in my chair. Sometimes I think this is my only real form of filial piety, making myself small before my father. I consider myself to be a modern Shanghai girl. I don’t want to believe in all that obey, obey, obey stuff that girls were taught in the past. But the truth is, May—as much as they adore her—and I are just girls. No one will carry on the family name, and no one will worship our parents as ancestors when the time comes. My sister and I are the end of the Chin line. When we were very young, our lack of value meant our parents had little interest in controlling us. We weren’t worth the trouble or effort. Later, something strange happened: my parents fell in love—total, besotted love—with their younger daughter. This allowed us to retain a certain amount of liberty, with the result that my sister’s spoiled ways are often ignored, as is our sometimes flagrant disregard for respect and duty. What others might call unfilial and disrespectful, we call modern and unbound.
“You aren’t worth a single copper coin,” Baba says to me, his tone sharp. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to—”
“Oh, Ba, stop picking on Pearl. You’re lucky to have a daughter like her. I’m luckier still to have her as my sister.”
We all turn to May. She’s like that. When she speaks, you can’t help listening to her. When she’s in the room, you can’t help looking at her. Everyone loves her—our parents, the rickshaw boys who work for my father, the missionaries who taught us in school, and the artists, revolutionaries, and foreigners who we’ve come to know these last few years.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I did today?” May asks, her demand as light and breezy as a bird’s wings in flight.
With that, I disappear from my parents’ vision. I’m the older sister, but in so many ways May takes care of me.
“I went to see a movie at the Metropole and then I went to Avenue Joffre to buy shoes,” she continues. “From there it wasn’t far to Madame Garnet’s shop in the Cathay Hotel to pick up my new dress.” May lets a touch of reproach creep into her voice. “She said she won’t let me have it until you come to call.”
“A girl doesn’t need a new dress every week,” Mama says gently. “You could be more like your sister in this regard. A Dragon doesn’t need frills, lace, and bows. Pearl’s too practical for all that.”
“Baba can afford it,” May retorts.
My father’s jaw tightens. Is it something May said, or is he getting ready to criticize me again? He opens his mouth to speak, but my sister cuts him off.
“Here we are in the seventh month and already the heat is unbearable. Baba, when are you sending us to Kunming? You don’t want Mama and me to get sick, do you? Summer brings such unpleasantness to the city, and we’re always happier in the mountains at this time of year.”
May has tactfully left me out of her questions. I prefer to be an afterthought. But all her chattering is really just a way to distract our parents. My sister catches my eye, nods almost imperceptibly, and quickly stands. “Come, Pearl. Let’s get ready.”
I push back my chair, grateful to be saved from my father’s disapproval.
“No!” Baba pounds his fist on the table. The dishes rattle. Mama shivers in surprise. I freeze in place. People on our street admire my father for his business acumen. He’s lived the dream of every native-born Shanghainese, as well as every Shanghailander—those foreigners who’ve come here from around the world to find their fortunes. He started with nothing and turned himself and his family into something. Before I was born, he ran a rickshaw business in Canton, not as an owner but as a subcontractor, who rented rickshaws at seventy cents a day and then rented them to a minor subcontractor at ninety cents a day before they were rented to the rickshaw pullers at a dollar a day. After he made enough money, he moved us to Shanghai and opened his own rickshaw business. “Better opportunities,” he—and probably a million others in the city—likes to say. Baba has never told us how he became so wealthy or how he earned those opportunities, and I don’t have the courage to ask. Everyone agrees—even in families—that it’s better not to inquire about the past, because everyone in Shanghai has come here to get away from something or has something to hide.