Lisa See, Shanghai Girls, and China’s Wings

I finished Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls on a Houston-bound airplane last week. I greatly enjoyed the novel, and I got a huge kick out of her treatment of the two “Bloody Saturday” bombings in Shanghai on August 14, 1937 (which killed 1,740 civilians, most of them Chinese refugees). Reading her account of the bombs that fell between the Cathay and the Palace Hotels where Nanking Road meets the Bund (pages 50-54 of Shanghai Girls), I was certain we’d read the same sources, and sure enough, in her acknowledgments section, she mentions Hallett Abend, the New York Times  correspondent who covered the bombing, along with Stella Dong and Harriet Sergeant, both authors of books on Shanghai. (Stella Dong, Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949 and Harriet Sergeant, Shanghai).

The Bloody Saturday bombings are on pages 96 and 97 of China’s Wings, and Hallett Abend is the author of the two New York Times articles I cited in my endnotes (along with nods to Walter “Foxy” Kent, a CNAC pilot who wrote an article for The Atlantic that describes the bombing, Percy Finch, Rhodes Farmer, Florence Allison’s diary, and several contemporary photos). Ms. See and I latched onto some of the same details — the silence after the bombing and the slow return to life, the tinkle of glass falling to the sidewalk from the hotel windows, the shattered body part, and unimaginable carnage… if Ms. See has made any historical error, I think it’s in the amount of time that she has pass between the Nanking Road bombing and the bombs that hit The Great World Amusement Building at the corner of Edward the VII Avenue and Tibet Road. She has Pearl, her heroine, hear the second bombing “a minute or two later.” I think closer to 15 minutes passed between the two events.

But that’s a minor quibble, and in no way undermines the essential truth of how she described the event in her novel — which I wholeheartedly recommend.



  1. I had stumbled upon “Shanghai Girls” in our local library on audio, and thought I’d give it a try. From my own perspective, I greatly enjoyed the narration of the sisters’ immigration experience, coming through Angel Island and their lives in Los Angeles. Many aspects of course struck a chord with my family’s own experiences. The story continues with its sequel “Dreams of Joy” which takes you into what it was like during the Mao Era.

    1. I’m hoping to knock out the second one soon, Don. I’m glad to hear that it ran true to a family of Chinese immigrants. Cheers, Greg

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