Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, is set within the Chinese immigrant community of Maryland, USA. Jimmy and Johnny Han run the Duck House restaurant having inherited it from their late father, Bobby. He established the popular eatery, thereby making the family fortune. Long time employees, Nan and Ah-Jack, continue to work the long, punishing hours required despite their advancing years as they struggle to support their dependents. Nan’s seventeen year old son, Pat, has recently been expelled from school so now works a lowly job at the restaurant where his mother can keep an eye on him. Ah-Jack’s wife has cancer so he must cover her medical bills.

When the story opens Johnny is in Hong Kong and Jimmy is scheming to abandon the Duck House and open his own restaurant. To fund this he has turned to the wily Uncle Pang who is an associate of the Han family. It was Uncle Pang who helped Bobby set up his restaurant. Now he is offering a similar deal to the son, which would put Jimmy in debt to a man whose tentacles he would prefer to escape.

Pat is attracted to Annie, Johnny’s daughter. Both resent that the restaurant demands their parents’ time and attention and that now they are expected to work there. When Uncle Pang offers Pat a heap of money to carry out a small but illegal task, Pat takes Annie along to enjoy the spectacle. Things don’t go as they anticipated and the two young people are sucked into events that will horrify both them and their parents.

Sibling rivalry and a deep seated need to prove themselves drive Jimmy and Johnny to pursue their personal agendas. They still need the family money and this means involving their mother who now lives alone in her dusty mansion. The sons underestimate her strength and influence, reluctantly turning to each other, as they have always done, to cope with the challenges they end up bringing down on themselves.

Meanwhile Nan and Ah-Jack must finally deal with an attraction they have felt for each other since they first met. Pat needs his mother more than ever but she is distracted. Annie cannot fathom how to gain support from her father who has given up trying to interact with his truculent teenager. Wrapped up in their own concerns the parents do not notice as their children unravel.

This is a story of the resentments and ties of a demanding family that has mythologised its own success and expectations. It skilfully portrays the disconnect between generations who understand each other only in relation to themselves. Little is told of those who do not frequent the restaurant – it serves as a microcosm of the society and culture being portrayed.

The writing flows around a plot that offers a sticky, dark humour alongside the characters’ self inflicted difficulties. Although the supporting cast felt largely two-dimensional, serving to demonstrate key players’ continuing self-absorption, they added to the colour and shades of the depiction. I found it hard to like the protagonists but their situation is written with a degree of sympathy.

This was an interesting if not always satisfying read offering a window into the world of immigrants and their offspring. I enjoyed the insights offered of the inner workings of a busy restaurant. Mostly though it is a story of family that is universal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One (an imprint of Pushkin Press).

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