Two years later, "Dreams of Joy" debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
"Readers weren't ready to let go of the characters," said Susan Kamil, publisher and editor-in-chief of Random House. "May and Pearl's honesty about getting out of China in 'Shanghai Girls' and establishing a life (in Los Angeles) was so powerful that readers had to know what happened to them."
"Dreams of Joy" picks up directly where "Shanghai Girls" ended. The character Joy, now college-aged, has fled to China to find her real father after the man she thought was her father committed suicide. Pearl, who raised Joy as her daughter, follows her.
It's 1957, and Mao's Great Leap Forward — an economic and social movement that resulted in tens of millions of deaths — is about to begin.
See, with her red hair and freckles, identifies with Chinese-American culture because of the time she spent with her father's Chinese family.
"I am an eighth Chinese, and I come from a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles," See said. "I have about 400 relatives, and there are about a dozen that look like me."
This contrast between her appearance and the way she identifies herself is part of why she's drawn to write about Chinese-American culture.
"Some of what I am doing when I am researching is looking for things people in my family have done and finding out what those things mean, why they did those things and seeing how I fit into them," See said.
See intensively researches her books. She also talks with readers who have experienced what she is writing about.
"People write to me all the time, and I write back," See said. "A woman emailed me and said she was born in Shanghai to German parents and she happened to have lived there during the time frame of 'Dreams of Joy.' Every day I would write her these lists of questions: How did you make bread? What was in the shop windows? And she would send me answers and I would write her more questions back."
At the heart of "Dreams of Joy" is the relationship between mother and daughter, following Joy's growth from a stubborn, idealistic college girl to a grounded, realistic young mother. It's a change See is not unfamiliar with.
See, 56, is a lifelong Los Angeles resident. After studying for two years at Loyola Marymount University in L.A., See traveled Europe. She swore she would never marry, have children or become a writer like her mother, Carolyn.
Two years later she moved back home and collaborated on two Chinese-themed mysteries with her mother and a friend. Today, she is happily tied down with a husband and two sons.
See is working on another book that will take place in 1940s America and focus on the Chinese-American performers who played what was known as the chop suey circuit.
The book will no doubt be written with the same vibrant characters and attention to historical detail as her earlier works.