Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is divided into three parts: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Here is a summary of the entire book.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS IN THIS SUMMARY
Pearl and May Chin are two sisters who work as beautiful girls in Shanghai. They live a privileged life; until events unfold that change their lives forever. Their father looses their fortune to gambling, and arranges marriages for his daughters, the only things of worth he has left. After the arranged marriages commence, Pearl and May are supposed to get on a boat that will head to Los Angeles, where they will live with their new family. However, the sisters disobey orders and stay in Shanghai. This proves to be the wrong choice, as the 2nd Sino-Japanese War starts right after they stay, and they confront the consequences for not going to Los Angeles. The girls and their mother end up fleeing Shanghai to try to get to Hong Kong, where hopefully they can catch a ship to San Francisco. Along the way, their mother tragically ends up getting raped and killed. Pearl also becomes a rape victim. Pearl eventually heals, physically, and they are able to get on a ship that sails from Hong Kong to Angel Island in San Francisco. When they arrive at Angel Island, they find leaving is not an easy task. They are questioned by the government in case they are spies, and end up staying at Angel Island for a significant amount of time. Later, Pearl finds out May has been giving wrong answers to the officials to make them suspicious about Pearl and her. When Pearl confronts her, Pearl receives shocking news: May is pregnant.
Pearl and May come up with a plan for the baby. Pearl will take the baby as her own child, but until the baby is born, they must stay in Angel Island. Both sisters stall their time in Angel Island until the baby, a girl they name Joy, is born. Once the leave Angel Island, they head to Los Angeles, specifically Chinatown, and meet up with their new family. They find out that while the head of their family is rich in China, he is poor in America, and has everyone in their family working to make money. He runs many shops in Chinatown, and plans for Pearl and May to work there. May finds a passion for Hollywood, and soon brings Joy into the Hollywood spotlight. Joy grows up as well, with everyone thinking Pearl is her real mom. Pearl and May plan to run away once they collect enough money from their jobs. Eventually though, Pearl and May find out there is more to their family than meets the eye. Both girls discover that Sam, as well as most of his ‘brothers,’ are paper sons; and the only real child of Louie is Vern, May’s husband. They end up confronting Old Man Louie about their situation, and decide ultimately not to run away, but stay with their new family in Los Angeles.
Joy continues to grow into a bright young girl, and has no idea of the struggle going on between her aunt and her mother. The struggle looks like it is about to end when Pearl finds out she is pregnant. Tragedy again hits, when the baby is stillborn, and Pearl finds out she will never be able to successfully have children. Also, the U.S. becomes suspicious of all Chinese because of the Communist movement in China. They are evicted from their home, and this is the last straw that kills the grandmother of the house. Eventually they do find a new place to live, and life goes on. Pearl and May are surprised when they see their pictures on a Communist magazine. The artist is none other than Pearl’s past love, Z.G. This magazine is the only thing that gave comfort to Old Man Louie, who developed cancer, in his final months. He also passes away. Joy is now 18 years old and on her way to college. She becomes obsessed with China and the communist movement, falling in love with its ideals. Meanwhile, someone has tipped of the government officials that Sam is a paper son. They come for several days to question their family. Sam, who became the man of the household, ends up hanging himself to save his family. Pearl is consumed by grief, and when May finally tries to snap her out of it, Pearl is horror struck when she finds out May was the one who tipped off the government. May had good intentions, but arguments ensue, filled with anger that had been bottled up between the sisters for many years. Joy overhears this and finds out that May is her real mother, and her real father is Z.G. Pearl walks away from the situation, and May tells Joy everything. The next morning, they find Joy gone, with a note saying she is heading off to China to find her real dad. Pearl plans to follow after her, and the book ends with Pearl’s journey to save her daughter.