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Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of…

Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese… (edition 2008)

by Helen Tse

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Title:Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West
Authors:Helen Tse
Info:Thomas Dunne Books (2008), Hardcover, 296 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:April 2008, 2008, Read, Library, NF, Memoir, China, Meh

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

@n (1) ARC (2) audio (1) autobiography (1) biography (2) biography/memoir (1) BN (1) China (12) Chinese (1) country (1) Daniel (1) EW (2) family (2) first printing (1) food (2) food writing (1) Hong Kong (3) immigration (1) JGC (1) meh (1) memoir (12) multi-generational (1) non-fiction (11) own (2) poverty (1) read (3) to-read (8) UK (2) unread (1) women relationships (1)

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Reviewed by JodiG. for TeensReadToo.com

For Lily Kwok the world did not seem to offer much hope. In addition to being a female in a male-dominated society, she was also born into a severely poverty stricken village in rural China. In 1918, there didn't seem to be much of a chance for a different life. SWEET MANDARIN is the story of how three generations of women, beginning with Lily, made their way out of the oppressive confines of culture and poverty to become successful businesswomen in their own right.

Lily was born in a small farming village near Guangzhou. She had one thing that many other young girls of the time didn't-- a father who cherished his daughters. He also had the desire to provide a better life for his family and set about to improve their lives by making and selling soy sauce. While Leung was very successful, he also drew the envy of others in his village. Before he had the opportunity to secure a completely comfortable life for his family, Leung was murdered, leaving his wife and daughters to the mercy of family.

Lily worked hard to help provide for her mother, sisters, and eventually her own husband and children. Through a twist of fate, Lily had the chance to make a difficult choice for her family. She would follow her employer to England, and be away from her children, in order to secure them a better future in the West.

When Mabel and her brother, Arthur, finally joined their mother, Lily, in England, they were strangers to both the country and their own mother. Lily opened a take-out restaurant in Manchester. Not only were they the only Chinese family in the neighborhood, they also offered a service that nobody else did-- a fast, affordable, and tasty meal that could be taken home to the family. The work was hard and the hours long and Mabel learned the skills and recipes that she would one day pass on to her own daughters.

Helen and her sisters grew up under the wings of both Lily and their mother, Mabel. The two generations of women that preceded them gave them opportunities that a young Lily may have only dreamed of. Helen grew up to go to an ivy-league school and become a lawyer, and her sisters shared similar successes. But they found that their heritage called to them and they opened Sweet Mandarin, a restaurant that serves the recipes that guided the lives of all three generations of successful, Chinese women.

SWEET MANDARIN is an inspirational account that proves that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles like poverty, murder, addiction, and oppression, if you have the determination, you can achieve your dreams. ( )
  GeniusJen | Oct 13, 2009 |
This was a great biography/autobiography of three generations of Chinese women and their stories of working as restaurateurs in England. Helen Tse is a great writer and the stories are interesting, poignant and quite captivating.

With her vivid descriptions, sights and sounds jump off the pages and the book is equally filled with smells and tastes that leave readers as hungry for Tse's recipes as for her prose! I would highly recommend this book to fans of Amy Tan novels, as the multi-generational story is similar to much of her work, but I enjoyed Sweet Mandarin all the more because it is nonfiction. ( )
  elbakerone | Jan 22, 2009 |
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. ( )
  LiteraryFeline | Nov 2, 2008 |
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. ( )
  zibilee | Aug 12, 2008 |
For three generations of Chinese women, a restaurant is the key to their livelihood. It starts with Lily, who is born in a small Chinese town, moves to Hong Kong, and eventually to Great Britain to make her fortune for her two small children. Lily’s daughter Mabel opens her own restaurant in an attempt to recoup family fortunes, so her daughter Helen, the author of this book, grows up in a takeaway. Though she graduates from Cambridge and earns a law degree, Helen and her two sisters decide to open a restaurant of their own - Sweet Mandarin.

I enjoyed the story of these three women. More of the book is dedicated to Lily than to Mabel and Helen, but that seems almost the way it should be, since it was Lily who really made the biggest changes in her family’s fortunes. Lily’s story is also the most interesting, because her life reads like a novel, full as it is of twists and turns of fate. Beyond that, it is absolutely fascinating to witness the changes in China, Hong Kong, and British imperialism in general throughout the book. It is astounding to witness the vast differences in some areas of the world, while other ways of life in China remain basically the same as they were when Lily was a child. For this reason, my favorite part of the book was their visit to Hong Kong towards the end.

Helen Tse writes the story of her family’s fortunes as a memoir, which made it a pleasure to read. I felt for Lily, Mabel, and Helen throughout their stories and really enjoyed the way cooking and restaurants tied the whole book together, with the exception of some of Lily’s experiences (although I enjoyed those too, and they’re necessary to set up the rest of the book). The common thread of food ran through and it’s admirable that Helen and her sisters have embraced and retained their heritage in this way.

I’d recommend this book, especially to people who enjoy memoirs. It has a solid, interesting story and Helen’s family is a memorable one.

http://chikune.com/blog/?p=172 ( )
  littlebookworm | Aug 6, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312379366, Hardcover)

Spanning almost a hundred years, this rich and evocative memoir recounts the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women.

Their extraordinary journey takes us from the brutal poverty of village life in mainland China, to newly prosperous 1930s Hong Kong and finally to the UK. Their lives were as dramatic as the times they lived through.

A love of food and a talent for cooking pulled each generation through the most devastating of upheavals. Helen Tse's grandmother, Lily Kwok, was forced to work as an amah after the violent murder of her father. Crossing the ocean from Hong Kong in the 1950s, Lily honed her famous chicken curry recipe. Eventually she opened one of Manchester's earliest Chinese restaurants where her daughter, Mabel, worked from the tender age of nine. But gambling and the Triads were pervasive in the Chinese immigrant community, and tragically they lost the restaurant. It was up to author Helen and her sisters, the third generation of these exceptional women, to re-establish their grandmother's dream. The legacy lived on when the sisters opened their award-winning restaurant Sweet Mandarin in 2004.

Sweet Mandarin shows how the most important inheritance is wisdom, and how recipes--passed down the female line--can be the most valuable heirloom.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:22 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

'Sweet Mandarin' follows the lives of three generations of Chinese women from the same family, all of whom have struggled to pull themselves out of the most horrific situations, and have succeeded in turning their fortunes around.

(summary from another edition)

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