BOOK REVIEW Ė HELEN TSE Ė SWEET MANDARIN. 2007 Ebury Press.
††††††††††† Manchester has always taken pride in its past, and rightly so. The Central Library in the city centre has one of the biggest local history departments in the world, but few of the books there deal with the lives of the thousands of the Chinese communities who have settled here, though Manchesterís Chinatown is one of the biggest and best in the World.
††††††††††† Helen Tzeís book redresses that balance with a deeply loving history of three generations of the women in her own family. .
††††††††††† The story begins in Guangzhou, China in the early 1900ís with the early life of the authorís grandmother, known affectionately as Lily.
††††††††††† The daughter of a poor farmer, Lily was sent to work in a tightly disciplined silk factory as a child. Falling asleep on the job, she had her hands pushed into boiling water to force her to wake up and work harder. It seemed for a time as if her whole life would be like this. However, her father, (the authorís great grandfather was able to produce an exceptional crop of Soya bean which he used to produce Soy Sauce for the Chinese restaurants which were rapidly rising up to cater for the English gentry who ran the nearby island of Hong Kong.
††††††††††† New found prosperity enabled Lily to move to Hong Kong, but the familyís good fortune was due to be shattered quickly (a cycle that repeats throughout the book). Lilyís father Leung was successful, but other Soya producers were less so, and they became jealous of his success. He refused to sell off the business to his competitors, and after an arson attack on his factory failed to destroy his trade, he was brutally murdered one night during a second attempt at sabotage.
††††††††††† Lily was distraught and plunged into instant poverty. The business could only be handed down to a male heir, bi-passing her and her sisters for a male nephew who immediately disowned the women without a penny.
††††††††††† Lily could have starved had she not proved to be extremely lucky and resourceful. She got herself a job as a maid in the house of one of the colonial families occupying Hong Kong.† The job was demanding, the rules strict and the slightest mistake could have led to instant dismissal. Lily proved to be extremely adept in her duties, and she moved from family to family working as maid, nanny, teacher, translator and local guide, gaining immense respect. She nevertheless lived in extreme poverty at her own house between shifts.
††††††††††† One day, Lily found a half-drowned young man washed up on the beach. He had thrown himself into the sea to escape from the police, after getting caught up in a Triad gangland shooting.† The man would later reunite with Lily and become her husband. He used his Triad contacts to help find out the identity of the men responsible for Lilyís fatherís death some years before.
††††††††††† Lily got pregnant, which could have destroyed her career as a maid. In sheer desperation, she sold her daughter, Ah Bing, to another family to give her a better chance of growing up happy. She always stayed in touch though, and introduced the author to her in later years in a very moving chapter of the book.
††††††††††† It was Lilyís skills as translator that kept her safe during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong when many other Chinese people were brutally murdered.
With time, Lily had another daughter, Mabel, and a son, Arthur. Soon after this, her husband drifted back into petty crime and alcoholism, and threw his wife out of the house she actually owned, to shack up with a prostitute. Despite his failings, Lily still respected him. He would later come to England to die with his family around him. In the 1950ís Lily was faced with another heartbreaking choice. The family she was serving had come to love and respect Lily a great deal, but now they were moving back to England, and invited her to come with them to continue to work as their maid. The main catch was that she would not be able to bring her children with her right away. Lily chose to come to England, (Somerset originally), where she worked hard to save money to bring her children to England with her, as she was desperately missing them.
††††††††††† The lady who owned the house Lily served died, and to Lilyís surprise, she left her lot of money in her will. Lily used the money to buy herself a restaurant property in Manchester (Somerset being too small a community) and she was now able to bring Mabel and Arthur to England at last.† Lilyís restaurant was not in Chinatown, but in Middleton, North Manchester. Lilly called it Lung Fung, but most people called it Lilís. Lilyís cooking was proving exceptional, and in the book, Helenís precise descriptions of food prove invariably mouth-watering. Twice in the course of reading the book I felt obliged to dine on Chinese food. Itís not surprising that rock stars like Cliff Richard went to eat at Lilís after their gigs.
As Mabel grew and took in a Chinese husband, a new crisis threatened to destroy the lives of these remarkable women Ė Lily became increasingly addicted to gambling in the rising casino industry in Chinatown. The Chinese community grew at this time because of Manchesterís airport expansion, and increasingly cheap airfares. The Chinese were fleeing their native land to escape the worst privations caused by Maoís cultural revolution. Unfortunately Triad crime culture travelled with them. Before long, Lily was indebted to loan sharks, and she had to sell Lung Fung to pay off her spiralling debts.
She was able to keep control of a small take away, Lung Fung Too, which is still operating in Middleton today. The story now however shiftís in focus to Mabelís twin daughters, Janet, and Helen, the author of the book. Though raised in the restaurant trade, Helen was to gain a legal degree at Cambridge University, and for a time, tried to establish a life of her own. However, in the early 21st century, a journey to Hong Kong, to visit Lilyís friends and relatives and meet Ah Bing, who was still living there changed Helenís mind. She had begun to realise how incredible her grandmother Lily really was, and slowly, she discovered more details of her amazing life, which became the basis for her beautiful book.† Helen and Janet also decided to carry on the family tradition for catering with their own restaurant, Sweet Mandarin.
Going for natural ingredients and avoiding Monosodium Glutamate saturated food, the girls wisely avoided setting up their restaurant in Chinatown itself, but found a corner of High Street in the Northern Quarter of the city itself, where many flats and apartments were being built. They kept their grandmotherís special curry (which customers had travelled from as far away as Spain specially to sample) on the menu.
††††††† The book ends with the women of Helenís family united by a fresh crisis, after Sweet Mandarin was robbed and severely vandalised. The ladies are last seen clearing up the damage ready to open up as usual the very next night Ė theirs is a story of incredible affection, courage, and optimism written with a great deal of warmth and honesty. The times when the family fortunes collapse are shocking and leave you wondering how they can survive, but each time they manage it, and always maintain a loyalty and love for each other, which undoubtedly reflects in their cooking too.†
My review of the Sweet Mandarin Restaurant is online at /manchester.food-sweet.mandarin.htm
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