Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West by Helen Tse - 279 pgs
In Sweet Mandarin, Helen Tse gives us the intelligent multi-generational saga of three enterprising and resourceful Chinese women who faced incredible odds to make their dreams and fortunes come to fruition. The story begins with Lily, Helen's grandmother, in a rural village in China. Facing incredible poverty and with a family to provide for, Lilly's father, Leung, has the initiative to break away from his traditional role as a farmer and strikes out to create his own business, which soon begins to prosper. Moving his family from the destitute village to the more bustling city of Hong Kong, Lily and her family seem to be moving upwards. Then an unspeakable tragedy occurs, leaving the family penniless and at the mercy of inhospitable relatives. Lily realizes the situation she and her family face and searches for employment as a housemaid to the affluent British expatriates in China. Soon Lily immigrates to Britain and restarts her life as a small business owner, the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant. Through the struggles of operating the business and raising her children alone, Tse acquaints us with this remarkably strong woman who must face overwhelming trials in order to give herself and her children a better life. The story continues through the tale of Mabel, Lily's daughter, who is raised mostly in Britain, working long hours from childhood at her mother's restaurant counter. Eventually, Mabel takes up the family business and creates her own Chinese restaurant with her husband Eric. Interspersed with these two women's stories is the story of Helen, Mabel's daughter. Helen begins her career as lawyer but ultimately finds her happiness in opening her own Chinese restaurant, Sweet Mandarin, from which the title of the book is based. In elegant prose, the three women's stories are woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of a bold and valiant family of women who never let their struggles get the best of them.
Of the stories in this book, Lily's was featured most heavily. We see the whole picture of her life, from her humbling situation as a child to her rise as a beloved housemaid, the triumphs and ordeals are painted with compelling energy. I was particularly struck by her forced involvement in the Japanese occupation of China in the 1940's, and her eventual departure from China, where she left her family while she built a new life for them. Though sometimes reserved in her expressions of love for her children, her outward resolve to give them a more hopeful future was inspiring. Sometimes it seemed as though she was a tough nut to crack, but in reality, had she not had the boldness to act as she did, her family might not have survived some of the situations that they faced. Some parts of Lily's story were more difficult to digest, for Lily was not always the admirable woman that some would wish she would be. The situations regarding the loss of her first restaurant were upsetting, but I appreciated the author's candor in addressing the fact that her grandmother was just as human as the rest of us, with flaws that any of us could have had. Much less was revealed about Mabel and Helen, and I choose to see this book as Helen's tribute to the sacrifice and success of her grandmother Lily. The legacy that she built for her family sustained them and drew them closer together as a group.
One of the wonderful things in this book was the description of various foods that were a hallmark to the family's home and restaurants. The intricacies of Lily's Curry recipe, and the depiction of Mabel's Claypot Chicken were indeed mouthwatering. I also liked the way the narrative shifted between the stories of the three women. It made the story less choppy and episodic, while still describing the aspects of all three's lives. The author did a very good job of painting the political and societal aspects of China from the 1920's to today, including the focus on why male children are particularly valued above female children in that part of the world. As I was reading, I really felt I understood the sacrifices and joy of the main characters, which is a true measure of success in any book.
This book was an involving story spanning many years and situations. I very much enjoyed the peek into a story that I think many would enjoy. There are many books about China and it's culture, but this book is unique, not only in the story it tells, but in the spirited strength of it's characters. Great book. I have included a link to a television interview with the author, who talks about the inspiration for this book and gives more information.