Author Lisa See explores China, Chinese immigration experience

The West Coast writer's new book went to the bestseller lists immediately.

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Lisa See

The West Coast writer's new book went to the bestseller lists immediately.

In her bestselling novel, Shanghai Girls, published two years ago to wide acclaim, Lisa See chronicled the lives of two sisters, Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, and their privileged life in pre-World War II Shanghai, then known as the Paris of Asia.

Pearl, the alluring older sister, and May, her docile sibling, made their living by posing for commercial artists.  Sold as wives to suitors following the demise of their father’s lucrative rickshaw business, the sisters endured an arduous journey to the U.S. and the interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station before making their way to their new life in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.

In Dreams of Joy, See’s sequel, the family saga continues. The story begins in Los Angeles in 1957 when Pearl’s daughter, Joy, makes the fateful discovery that her real mother is not Pearl but her aunt, May, and her father is not Sam, but a famous artist in Shanghai named Z.G. Li.

Caught up in the hysteria of the McCarthy era, Joy’s political activities in a civil rights organization as a university student in Chicago lead FBI agents to investigate May’s husband, Sam. Fearful that they might uncover the fact that he is an illegal immigrant [or paper son], Sam commits suicide. Distraught by his death and angered by the revelation about her parents, Joy runs away to China to find her birth father.

So begins a riveting story of family loyalties, trust, love of country, and displaced dreams. Headstrong like her aunt Pearl, Joy is driven not only by her determination to find the enigmatic Z.G., once May and Pearl’s romantic interest, but also her desire to participate in Mao’s New China, a place she had only known about through her political activism in college.

The historical context of See’s new story is China during Mao Tse-Tung’s disastrous experiment in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when his ambitious attempt to kick start industrialization and agricultural collectivization resulted in mass starvation and political mayhem.

Dreams of Joy takes place during a period of unprecedented political upheaval in China following the 1957 Hundred Flowers movement, Mao’s national rectification campaign to brand Chinese intellectuals as rightist elements. See’s story allows readers to reimagine the harshness of that time and relive its horrors.

As in all her previous novels, See’s creates a portrait of China that is compelling and an unforgettable cast of characters deftly drawn. Contrary to her idealistic visions of Mao’s utopian society, Joy discovers Shanghai to be anything but the wartime Chinese metropolis that May and Pearl left (a city of garish wealth, teeming with nightclubs, corrupt gangsters, and prostitutes plying their trade). The grimness of urban and rural China’s police state notwithstanding, Joy throws herself into the rigors of her new life as an artist-in-training under her father’s tutelage. Z.G. takes Joy to the countryside to Green Dragon Village, a remote village 400 kilometers from Shanghai, where she experiences firsthand the harshness of life in the communist regime. Z.G.’s mission is to instruct peasants how to paint posters.

Buoyed by her heady idealism, Joy revels in her newfound work and falls in love with Tao, one of the young farmers in the collective. After marrying him, Joy discovers the onerous, dispiriting realities of life in the Great Leap Forward, among them mothers swapping babies, severe famine, and other sobering truths. The plot thickens when Pearl returns to Shanghai —her first trip back in 20 years — in search of her daughter.

Although See’s earlier novel, Shanghai Girls, traced Pearl and May’s fortunes in California, their struggles also mirrored the racial hostility that Chinese immigrants endured throughout the Pacific Northwest and West Coast. Decades earlier, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had barred the immigration of all Chinese except for merchants as well as those who were sons and daughters of Chinese-American citizens.

Unlike the first novel, which focused on the jarring experiences of two Chinese women who came to America in arranged marriages, Dreams of Joy explores the changed political landscape of Maoist China. While many of See’s earlier novels are set in China, her newest story is the first to provide a glimpse of China through the prism of Chinese-American women set against the backdrop of the McCarthy era.

Readers seeking a fast-paced summer read will not be disappointed. In many respects, See’s newest book is even more satisfying than her earlier novel. It is nimbly plotted and skillfully crafted. With this second installment in May and Pearl Chin’s family story, See’s vision of recreating a turbulent era in China’s quest for modernity has been fully realized.

Among the signature accomplishments of See’s storytelling is her fidelity to historical detail. Not only did she undertake exhaustive research of the Great Leap Forward period, she also went to China to interview survivors of the campaign. See acknowledged the generosity of author Amy Tan and her husband, Lou DeMattei, who invited her to visit Huangcun Village in Anwei province, which informed her fictional depiction of Green Dragon Village.

In the first week of its release, Dreams of Joy topped The New York Times bestseller’s list and was selected by Time magazine as 2011 Best Summer Read. In a recent interview, See admitted to being amazed by the novel’s reception. Culminating with the release of the movie "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," adapted from her 2005 novel and now playing in Seattle at the Landmark Metro and the AMC Pacific 11, this has been a banner year for the Los Angeles author.

Asked about her next project, See disclosed that she has begun research for a novel on Chinese-American women nightclub performers in the 1940s. See also is the author of Peony in Love, Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones as well as her memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year.

This story originally appeared in the International Examiner and is reprinted with permission under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.