Lisa See returns to Chinese history
with Shanghai Girls
By J. Rentilly
PENNING HISTORICAL FICTION, an author is
bound to dance with ghosts. Sometimes those
phantoms bow from that author’s bloodline, which
is the case for Shanghai Girls scribe Lisa See.
In the 1990s, she wrote a trilogy of thrillers, then
returned to Chinese history with Snow Flower and
the Secret Fan in 2005, intending to “cut to the bone.”
“Writing these books, it’s often like spending just a
little more time with people who are no longer here,”
she says en route to Thailand for a 30th wedding
anniversary with her husband. “Telling their stories
is a way to honor their deep personal
commitment and discipline and sacri-
fice and heroism, while enjoying the
privilege of their company just a little
No one, including See herself, expected the book to
sell more than 5,000 copies, a healthy number for
historical fiction from a relatively unknown author.
“When we sold 10 times that, and then 50
times that, thanks in large part to the support of
Born to an American mother and a
Chinese father, See spent much of her
youth in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, which
her great-grandfather, self-made immi-
grant Fong See, helped to establish a
century ago, earning him the handle
Costco, it was really, really nice,” she says. “A lot of
writers might become anxious about
‘Can I do it again, how do I repeat
that, what do the fans want?’ but suc-
cess didn’t make me nervous at all. It
only allowed me to go deeper, and
then deeper into everything I truly
China is finally very much on our minds, with the
Olympics and the global economy and the travel
that’s opened up in that part of the world, and it is
such a privilege to be able to share the stories and
the histories now that for centuries were lost or for-
gotten. I think they connect with all of us, whether
we are Chinese or not.” C
“Godfather of Chinatown.” She cherished the days spent with her Chinese relatives, not
only learning their customs and traditions, but
hearing the heart-rending and triumphant stories of
their personal journeys.
While enjoying some unlikely
benefits of sudden best-seller status—
giant posters for her book in the Paris
Metro, an invitation to judge L.A.’s
annual Miss Chinatown pageant
“I realized that, if it didn’t happen in America or
Europe, most of us don’t know anything about his-
tory,” she tells The Connection. “There were all of
these stories from the East that were, essentially, lost,
and I wanted to tell them.”
(“Kind of like being asked to judge American Idol, if
you’re a member of my family,” she laughs)—See
returned to her roots once more with Shanghai Girls,
weaving a heartfelt and universal tale of sisters Pearl
and May leaving the darkness and danger of 1937
Shanghai for arranged marriages and uncertain
futures in America.
She began her spiritual homecoming in nonfic-
tion after a 1989 sojourn in China, penning On Gold
Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My
Chinese-American Family, later adapted into a
beloved, nationally touring museum exhibit and,
improbably, an opera that was performed at L.A.’s
“I was able to go out and find people, some in
my own family, who had experienced this time in
history and told no one—not even their children or
grandchildren—what they’d been through,” says
See. “I feel very strongly a responsibility to tell these
lost stories in a time and way that honors these peo-
ple while they are still alive, if possible. I want to
catch these stories before they disappear.”
Japan America Theatre.
Though See was deeply satisfied with the bittersweet conclusion of Shanghai Girls, she was inundated with demands for a sequel—first from her
publisher, then from “virtually every single reader I
met on tour,” she says—and so Dreams of Joy will
hit bookstores in June.
“I’ve been writing about China for a long time.
I’m not new to the rodeo,” See smiles. “But today,
COSTCO HAS 50 COPIES of Lisa See’s
Dreams of Joy with signed book plates to
give away. For a chance to win, send an
email with your name and mailing address
email@example.com, with “Lisa See” in
the subject line. Or print your name,
address and daytime phone number on a
postcard or letter and send it to: Lisa See,
The Costco Connection, P.O. Box 34088,
Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes is sponsored by
Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019. Open to legal residents
of the U. S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the time of entry.
One entry per household. Entries must be received by June 1, 2011. Winners
will be randomly selected and noti;ed by mail on or before July 1, 2011. The
value of the prize is $26. Void where prohibited. Winners are responsible for
all applicable federal, state and local taxes. Odds of winning depend on the
number of eligible entries received. Employees of Costco or Random House
and their families are not eligible.
Signed book giveaway
I HAVE BEEN a fan of Lisa
See since I read her novel
Snow Flower and the
Secret Fan and made it my
December 2006 book pick.
Then I read her 2009
novel, Shanghai Girls, and
fell in love anew with
See’s talent for telling a
story so transportive that
closing the book feels like
waking from a dream.
Never in my life have
I been so eager to ;nd out
what happens to a set of
characters as I was with
sisters Pearl and May and
the young Joy. I contacted
See, asking for more. It’s
little surprise that I wasn’t
the only reader to do so.
We’ll get the rest of the
story in June in the sequel,
Dreams of Joy. If, like me,
you’ve already read Shang-
hai Girls, I imagine that
you too are searching for
a way to strike a balance
between tearing into it and
savoring every last word.
Shanghai Girls is
available in warehouses
now. Watch for Dreams
of Joy next month.
For more book picks,
see page 65.
J. Rentilly is a Los Angeles–based journalist.
More in archives On Costco.com, enter “Connection.”At Online Edition, search “Lisa See.”
Pennie Clark Ianniciello,
Costco book buyer
MAY 2011 ;e Costco Connection 63