When Cambridge-educated Helen Tse and her two sisters opened their trendy pan-Asian restaurant Sweet Mandarin in Manchester, England in 2004, many (including their family) were taken aback to see three accomplished British-born young women turn their backs on hard-won careers in law, engineering and executive recruiting in favor of the wok. But as this sweeping family memoir reveals, their entrepreneurial spirit upheld four generations' tradition in the business of food, which eventually lifted the family out of brutal poverty in southern China to hard-won stability in England.
Grocery shopping for Chinese ingredients with her grandmother Lily, the author gradually teases out the anecdotes and, later, the painful buried secrets of Lily's Chinese childhood that are the most compelling parts of this story. Born in 1918, Lily was one of six daughters of Tai Po and Leung, the rare Chinese man who did not consider his daughters "subhuman" --- a burden and a curse. The early days of industrialization in China saw silk factories employing children like Lily, as young as five. In a breathtaking glimpse of the mores of the day, Lily fainted on the factory floor, and a ruthless foreman thrust her hand into a vat of boiling water to make an example of her for the other workers. Lily's father broke out of poverty by becoming a soy sauce producer, finding modest success as an entrepreneur selling his product in Hong Kong restaurants.
When jealous rivals murdered Leung and burned his factory, Chinese tradition forbade his wife or daughters from inheriting, leaving them at the mercy of an obscure nephew who announced he would only support the women of the family if one of the sisters became his cousin's concubine. To escape that fate, and the nightmarish Hong Kong slum her family was forced to live in, 13-year-old Lily found work as an amah, a servant for British families living in luxury on the Peak in Hong Kong. Scrubbing floors, nannying youngsters and waiting tables, Lily still managed to marry and have children. In Hong Kong, she saw them for literally minutes each week; when her employers took her with them to England, they were separated for years. By the time she brought her kids to England, they were nine and eleven, and her husband was an opium addict, involved with the Triads (China's criminal gangs), bankrupting her while living with a prostitute.
Perhaps the only reliable source of comfort, identity and life-affirming pleasure throughout the story is food. From her great-grandfather's soy sauce business, to her grandmother Lily's special chicken curry recipe, perfected during the six-week ocean liner trip to England, to hours spent working in her parents' fish-and-chips shop, to her own authentic and innovative creations at Sweet Mandarin, financial freedom and a sense of self all flow from cooking, feeding others and enjoying food. As Tse puts it, "cooking is at the heart of the Chinese family and for a Chinese woman it is at the very core of her identity." Lily taught her that "when you cook you are sharing your heart, so cook enthusiastically."
The journey from hunger in the rural village of Guangzhou to stylish abundance in Manchester in three generations offers a tantalizing glimpse into China's journey and the amazing resilience and sacrifice of an immigrant family, through the lives of the tough and talented women of the Tse family.
Reviewed by Elliott Walker on April 26, 2011