Monday, March 29, 2010

Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse

I think that Americans often forget that ours is not the only country that has drawn immigrants from all over the world. That's my explanation for being so surprised that Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is set in China and Great Britain - not in the U.S. As soon as I heard the audiobook reader with the British accent, I knew my misreading of the promo tag "Journey from East to West." Great Britain is West to Asians. It also has some of the same problems with discrimination as the U.S. That's a topic that certainly comes up in Sweet Mandarin in the second half of the book.

Sweet Mandarin is Tse's family memoir, telling the long story of how she and her two sisters opened a Chinese restaurant in Manchester in 2005. The long story starts with her great grandfather who developed his own recipe for soy sauce which he produced in his Chinese village but marketed to the restaurants in Hong Kong, a rapidly growing city in the early twentieth century. The success of a peasant upset established soy sauce makers who had the upstart murdered. Because Chinese law of the time did not allow women to inherit property, his business and home were given to relatives, and his wife and children were left penniless. His daughter Lily, Tse's grandmother, became a domestic in the British enclave in Hong Kong. Her ambition combined with her love of cooking and good fortune of working for a rare British family actually concerned for their employees eventually gets her to England.

Because people of the greater British Empire were legally welcomed in England, Lily was able to stay and open her own Chinese restaurant once her job with her English family ended. Her 1950s shop was a bit of a novelty at the time and was mostly supported by the locals who enjoyed a tasty and inexpensive meal. She had some trouble with hooligans wrecking her shop, but she always just cleaned up and started again. She taught the business to her children, who in turn taught Tse's generation.

Tse tells her story with humor and warmth, sometimes expressing her regret for ever being the typical teen ashamed of her parents for not being everyday Brits. In a period of economic hardships, Sweet Mandarin is a very encouraging read. It should be in more libraries.

Tse, Helen. Sweet Mandarin. BBC Audiobooks America, 2008. ISBN 9780792757634.

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