Monday, September 29, 2008

Review: Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse

When your entire family works in restaurants, food becomes a family album—an heirloom that triggers memories. [pg 4]

Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse
Ebury Press, 2007
Nonfiction; 279 pgs

One of my best friends during my childhood was a girl whose family owned and ran a Chinese restaurant. I remember once attending a birthday party at the restaurant and being awed by the Asian themes and decor—it was all so glamorous to me. It never crossed my mind to think of all the hard work my friend’s family must have put into the restaurant. Reading Sweet Mandarin, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if they too faced some of the same struggles. I wish now that I was still in touch with this particular friend and that I had thought to ask her about her family’s background. But, at the time, I was a child interested more in the present than in the past.

Growing up, most of my friends were Asian-Americans, in fact, although it was not really something I thought much of until one day a friend commented about my being her only white friend. Suddenly my whiteness stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or honored. It never really dawned on me that I should care. The truth is, it shouldn’t and it doesn’t.—but in that split moment, it did. I cannot know the prejudice that she or any of my other friends may have faced because of their ethnicity. I would like to think that they didn’t face any at all, but that isn’t very realistic, is it? In my life, I have faced other forms of discrimination whether it be because of economic status or gender—and even in the form of reverse ageism.

I cannot really say why immigrant stories interest me so. Being a Heinz-57 (or as I like to call myself: a mutt), I always envied those who knew where they came from and could identify their roots so specifically. The older I got, however, the more I came to appreciate the diversity of my own family. We too had once been immigrants—at least my ancestors had. They worked hard and made a life for themselves just as so many others have had to do. They wanted the best for their children, to survive and prosper.

Helen Tse tells the story of her grandmother’s life journey in Sweet Mandarin, mapping out the path that led the author and her sisters to open their own restaurant in Manchester, England, leaving behind lucrative careers and reconnecting with their heritage. Lily, Helen’s grandmother, is an amazing woman. She knew poverty and success, love and betrayal. She worked hard for everything she accomplished, saw it destroyed by greed and ill-fortune on more than one occasion, and not once did she think to give up. She did what she had to do to survive.

Lily was born in a small village in China, moving to Hong Kong when her father’s soy sauce business began to take off. With her father’s early demise, Lily’s mother and her sisters stayed on in the city and struggled to make a living as best they could. They lived in abject poverty, dependent on others to keep a roof over their heads. Lily had always been a planner and she knew what she must do to survive. She worked as an amah, a maid and nanny, to the wealthy European families who settled temporarily in Hong Kong. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong during World War II, she became a translator for the Japanese, burdened by the horrors she saw, and yet she somehow hung on. She left behind her children and husband to work in England, hoping for a better life. Her daughter and son would soon follow her, and eventually the family would settle in England, where Helen and her sisters and brother would call home.

Throughout this time, food played a particularly important part in the family’s history. From Lily’s father, Leung, whose ambition and foresight brought prosperity to his family with his soy sauce business, to Lily’s eventual opening of her own restaurant in England, which people would flock to from far and wide. The author’s mother, Mabel, would also find solace in the food industry. It was the family livelihood, their pride and joy. The children grew up surrounded by food. And even in their frustrations and wish for something more and different, they still always seemed to come back to it—it is a tie to the past, but more importantly, an honor to those who came before them, an appreciation of their struggles and hardwork as well as a bridge between the past, the present and the future.

Sweet Mandarin is an inspiring story. Lily is truly an admirable woman. I do wish the author had been able to delve more deeply into life in Hong Kong during the Second World War, but I also understand that it was a difficult time for her grandmother to talk about and therefore not something the author could easily write about. I was amazed at the amount of research the author did to learn more about her grandfather—his is a story that is both moving and tragic. Helen Tse honors her family with this book. Her love, respect and admiration for her family shines through on each page. If I ever find myself in Manchester, I will make a point of stopping at Sweet Mandarin and ordering Lily Kwok’s Chicken Curry.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Check out the author's website for more information about her restaurant and book.

Read what others had to say about this book:
Cheryl's Book Nook
Medieval Bookworm
Not Enough Books


  1. It's interesting how some books trigger such vivid childhood memories. I was the opposite. I knew very few non-white people growing up, and looking back now, I feel like I sadly missed wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. I feel I have a lot of catching up to do as an adult. This book sounds really good!


  2. I enjoyed your review. This book sounds very interesting.

  3. Great review, Wendy! I can't wait to read it when I receive the book. Once again, thank you for hosting the giveaway for the same book title.

    I have Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves and two other titles in my collection. I am keen to start on those really, really soon.

  4. When I was younger my family often frequented a small restaurant run by a Korean family. They were all present- the children waiting tables, parents at the counter, grandmother in the back cooking. The food was delicious. I often wondered what life was like for their family. It would be interesting to read this book and get a view of another asian family's life in the food buisness.

  5. I love how you add something of yourself to your posts, Wendy :) I really enjoyed reading this one. The book sounds wonderful, and since I too am very interested in immigrant stories, it sounds like one I can't miss.

  6. Oh this sounds too good to pass up. Great review Wendy!

  7. Wendy, I love reading immigrant stories.

    I'm currently listening to The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan and particularly enjoy that aspect of the story.

    I think I would really like the restaurant-family business element in Sweet Mandarin too.

  8. Great review! This really does sound good. I like immigrant stories, as well. Not sure why, though.

  9. This is on my wishlist and I am so glad to see that you liked the book. I enjoy Asian fiction and this looks like a great book!

  10. I have this book at glad to hear you enjoyed it...maybe I'll move it up on my tbr list.

  11. I didn't know that many Asian-Americans growing up in a town outside of Atlanta, Georgia but since I'm a mutt too the idea of a lineage (a traceable one anyway) has always fascinated me as well. That's a beautiful cover. Really great review!!!

  12. I have seen a number of reviews of this book, and was very pleased when I just checked my library catalogue and found that they now have it in! I've added it to my list.

  13. I love it that you share a little personal stuff of yourself in your posts, Wendy!

    Great review (as always)! :)

  14. Melody - Thank you! :-)

    Marg - Oh good! I am glad you will be able to read this one.

    Jen - Yes, you understand exactly! Thanks!

    Kris - I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one when you get to it!

    Bonnie - I hope you will enjoy it when you read it!

    Lisa - I'm not really sure why I'm drawn to them either. I do find them inspirational--and maybe that's a part of it.

    Shana - I enjoy Amy Tan's books, including Bonesetter's Daughter. I hope you like it!

    Amy - Thank you!

    Nymeth - This one probably has a little too much self-disclosure. Haha!

    Jeane - I do that too--wonder what the lives of the people I see around me sometimes. We sure do get a chance to be exposed to quite a bit through books, don't we?

    Alice - Thank you! I hope you will enjoy this one as much as I did, Alice. I got your copy of the book in the mail on Friday. :-)

    Sandra - Thank you. It was interesting. I especially liked the historical bits, which seems to be a pattern I'm developing in books like this. :-)

    Lezlie - Isn't it though? I'll be reading along and suddenly will remember something I thought I had long ago forgotten.

  15. I too love the immigrant story. The town where I grew up was 99% white; the only non-white kids I knew were the Chinese boys whose father owned the local Chinese restaurant and two black families. I feel that I missed out since everyone I knew was in exactly the same situation as myself; perhaps that's part of the reason I like to read about families who are so completely different.

  16. I would love to visit the restaurant too! I know so little about Asian culture that I am vowing to read more about it in the coming year. I've really started to enjoy nonfiction this year, and I'm eagerly trying to find some more to read!

  17. Wendy - I like how you made the connection to your friend from childhood, and the perspective you had (toward their restaurant) then as a child, and now as an adult reading *Sweet Mandarin*

    Great review!

  18. I enjoyed your review Wendy! I'm adding this one to the pile. I love immigrant stories as well... I like to read them to find the similarities. So often we think of the differences that it's good to remember that we are all one.

  19. I had tried to get a review copy of this one but no luck. It does sound good. I'm not entirely sure why either but I love immigrant stories too!
    And I always enjoy your little asides, when you add personal stories to your reviews. :)

  20. Meghan - Wanting to learn and experience different lifestyles and cultures is a big draw for me too.

    Laura - I could taste the food as I read the book. :-) Yum.

    Dawn - I love how books sometimes tug at those memory strings. :-)

    Iliana - That is so true! Stories like this really do show how much we are alike--our experiences may be different on an individual scale, but on a greater one, they are very much the same. And it certainly helps build a stronger bond with those around us, regardless of background.

    Nat - Thanks! I hope you are able to get a copy of this one to read.

  21. I've always been interested in immigrant stories, mainly because my mom came to the U.S. from Germany when she was a child. I've also been interested in Asian cultures since taking Asian American and World Lit in college. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for the great review and for sharing your story!


  22. Anna - Thank you! I think you would like this one, Anna. It's definitely an interesting story. I think the overall immigrant experience is similar for so many.

  23. Wonderful review! I received this book as an ARC and just took it off my bookshelf today. I look forward to reading it.

  24. Teddy Rose - I look forward to reading your thoughts on the book once you finish it!


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