Monday, July 21, 2008

I'll take one order of Lily's Chicken Curry to go, please...

Review - Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and their Journey from East to West by Helen Tse

What would make a Cambridge-educated lawyer, winner of the Young Accountant of the Year Award in 2006, decide to open a restaurant in Manchester, England with her two sisters? That is what Helen Tse did in 2005. Sweet Mandarin is the name of the restaurant, as well as the book in which she chronicles the journey her great-grandfather, grandmother, and parents made to eke out a living in the food business, and raise their family up out of poverty.

Tse's great-grandfather, Leung, was living in destitution with his family when he had his big idea - he would manufacture homemade soy sauce from a small portion of his tiny soy bean farm. He eventually became profitable enough to allow his wife and 6 young daughters to stop working in the silk factory and move to Hong Kong, where he continued to grow his business. Soon, an established competitor began to notice how profitable Leung's business was becoming, and hired thugs to burn down the factory, and eventually kill Leung. Left alone without a man to support them, Leung's family, including Lily, the author's grandmother, quickly became dependant on the grudging support of his family.

At age 12, Lily began working as a junior amah, or maid, to wealthy British famililes in Hong Kong to help support her mother and sisters. This was an excellent job for a young Chinese girl at the time, and Lily learned quickly how to do it well. Eventually, she found a place with a family that would take her with them to England. Heartbroken at leaving her family behind, including her daughter Mabel, the author's mother, Lily knew this would be the chance she needed to change their lives for good. Once in England, she opened a restaurant, Lung Fung, that was soon a resounding success. Lily and Mabel turned their restaurant into a city gathering spot, and later Mabel and her husband, Eric, would open their own fish and chip shop not far away. So of course for the author, growing up in the food business, opening a restaurant with her sisters seemed to bring the family full circle, with their goal of serving family recipes in a neighborhood environment.

This book is truly an homage to the women in the author's family. She stresses over and over again how much they each sacrificed to give their children a better life. Each of them were faced with instances of seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet they always managed to come out of the bad situations stronger, with greater resolve to reach their goals. It is also a memoir of growing up in two different cultures, and learning how to respect and cherish each. The author is able to paint a picture of flawed, imperfect women who still command the reader's respect. As she takes us back and forth between modern times and past events, the author never loses site of the connections between the eras - good food and family. This book shows that family love and good cooking might just be able to conquor the world, and it is a great read as well!

Finished: 7/21/08
Source: St. Martin's Press
Rating: 8/10

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