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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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Tse knew she was honoring her Chinese family's tradition when she and her sisters opened the Sweet Mandarin restaurant in Manchester, England. She had inherited many delicious family recipes, which had been perfected by her mother and grandmother. What she didn't fully realize was the path her ancestors had paved for her success, built with backbreaking work, ingenuity, and sacrifice. As her mother and grandmother help her prepare for the restaurant's debut, they also share with her their own journeys, revealing many details for the first time.

Tse learns of her family's triumphs: the successful soy sauce business started by her great-grandfather back in China; her immigrant grandmother's move to England and the opening of her restaurant; the secret family recipe for curry paste. But there were also difficult times, including a murder, crippling gambling losses, racism, and painful family separations. Before Sweet Mandarin's opening, the three generations travel back to China to visit family they hadn't seen in decades. Upon arriving at her grandmother's childhood home, Tse meets her great-aunt Mui for the first time and is presented with a family dish they all know and love, Buddha's Golden Picnic Basket. Despite the distance, language barriers, and many years apart, it is the love of cooking good food that continues to unite this Chinese clan. (Fall 2008 Selection)
From the Publisher

"Sweet Mandarin is a banquet of family stories… a memoir of survival and victories, luck and determination." – Amy Tan, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club

"Read this book. It is the story of an amazing family and their sweet and sour, hot and bitter lives."

—Xinran, author of The Good Women of China

"An amazing story."

Manchester Evening News

Publishers Weekly

For Tse, looking ahead to her future meant taking a step back into family history. In 2004, Tse and her two sisters all abandoned promising professional careers to follow a family tradition and opened a family restaurant. "My sisters and I were immersed from birth in the Chinese catering business-the fourth generation of our family to make a living from food." Tse begins with her grandmother's birth in 1918 in a small farming village in southeastern China. Each successive chapter chronologically follows the family's struggles and triumphs from peasant life to prosperity and heartache in Hong Kong in the 1930s, the horrors of the Japanese occupation, life in England from the 1950s to today. Tse poses a question that serves as the core of this delightful, well-written and at times painful memoir: Why would three young, successful 21st-century women, Tse an attorney, one sister an engineer, the other a financier, return to a family business they struggled to escape? In answering this question, Tse engagingly tells the larger story not only of her grandmother's and mother's struggles but the shared story of the many Chinese immigrants who made the journey from mainland China to England and "who also carved out a place in their new homeland through the catering trade." (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This memoir by Tse, a finance attorney who studied law at Cambridge University, tells of three generations of Chinese women but focuses on the triumphs and hardships of Lily Kwok, Tse's grandmother. Lily's story is nothing short of remarkable. Tse recounts the early death of Lily's father, her work as a wet nurse and maid to wealthy British families in Hong Kong, and her disastrous marriage. The benevolence of Lily's British employers ultimately enabled her to open her own Chinese restaurant in England. Mabel, Tse's mother, followed tradition years later when she, too, opened a restaurant with her husband. Sweet Mandarin is the name of the restaurant Tse and her sisters opened in 2004, bringing the narrative full circle. Wrapped in the cultural and ancestral mystery of food, this memoir will be appreciated by general readers and students of Asian and women's studies. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Stacy Russo

Kirkus Reviews
An intimate, unhistorical, uneven synthesis of the stories of three generations of Chinese wives, mothers and daughters. The author, a Chinese-British financial lawyer who now runs a restaurant called Sweet Mandarin with her two sisters in Manchester, England, begins her affectionate, family narrative with the hardscrabble story of her grandmother Lily, born to an entrepreneur and his wife in Guangzhou who only wanted sons but got six daughters instead. Despite a growing business making and selling soy sauce, which took them to Hong Kong in 1925, the family's fortunes turned sour when Lily's father was murdered in his Guangzhou factory by a jealous local gang. Due to the nation's patrilinear traditions, his widow and daughters were essentially turned out of their home. Lily's job as a maid/nanny to the wealthy British Woodmans in Hong Kong eventually brought her to England in the early 1950s. By then estranged from a philandering gambler of a husband, she saved up to bring her children to England and was able to start a Chinese takeout restaurant in Manchester with the money Mrs. Woodman left Lily in her will. Lily's daughter, Mabel, was brought up working in the business and in the late '70s started her own "corner chippy" in Middleton; the author and her siblings toiled there during their growing-up years. Although she belonged to one of the first Chinese families in Middleton, Tse did not feel herself a victim of racism and became thoroughly assimilated into British life. She offers interesting takes on her family's gambling, gang culture in Hong Kong and the stunning misogyny still rampant in Chinese society. An easy-flowing tale that subsumes historical changes in personal histories,especially the plight of the author's grandmother.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312604813
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

HELEN TSE grew up in Manchester, UK. She studied law at Cambridge University and went on to work as a finance lawyer in London, Hong Kong, and Manchester. She opened the restaurant Sweet Mandarin with her two sisters, Lisa and Janet, in 2004, following the culinary footsteps of her mother and grandmother. Helen Tse is the first British born Chinese author and SWEET MANDARIN is her debut.

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Table of Contents

Preface     1
The Little Sack of Rice - Guangzhou, China 1918-1925     7
Soy Sauce Delight - Hong Kong 1925-1930     29
Bitter Melon - Guangzhou, China 1930     53
Jade and Ebony - Hong Kong 1930s-1950s     77
Firecracker Chan - Hong Kong 1930s-1950s     103
Lily Kwok's Chicken Curry - Somerset and Manchester, UK 1950s     147
Lung Fung - Manchester, UK 1959-early 1960s     179
Mabel's Claypot Chicken - Manchester 1959-1974     199
Chips, Chips, Chips - Manchester 1975-2003     217
Buddha's Golden Picnic Basket - Hong Kong 2002, Guangzhou 2003     243
Sweet Mandarin - Manchester 2003-     263
Afterword     273
Acknowledgements     279
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Reading Group Guide


1. Throughout Sweet Mandarin, the story of the old man and the mountains being leveled re-emerges. Why is this story used and how is it relevant to Helen and her family?

2. Does Lily's father, Leung, seem to behave as a typical Chinese father of his time? Do you think some of his beliefs and values are embodied by Helen and her siblings? If so, which ones and how?

3. How do you think Lily was influenced by the events of her early life? Her father's success, the move to Hong Kong and then the loss of her father?

4. Lily feels she has no option but to let her daughter, Ah Bing, be raised in another family. How do you think they both wound up dealing with the separation? Can you think of similar situations in contemporary American culture?

5. How would you compare and contrast the kinds of challenges faced by Lily, Mabel and Helen, each in their own time? How does the changing landscape affect the characters?

6. Tradition plays an important role in Chinese culture. How do you think the author feels about tradition and what or who do you think may have influenced her perspective?

7. How do you feel about the amount of work in the restaurant which was required of Helen and her siblings as they were growing up? Would you be willing to work with your own family in such a way? Why or why not?

8. What kind of role does food seem to play in Helen's family? What other kinds of thing might be passed down in a family, the way that recipes are handed down in hers?

9. Helen had to piece some of her family's story for herself, getting information from different sources, sometimes unable to get the answers from family members involved. Was the communication in her family influenced culturally, or is this a typical family issue? Why do you think she felt such a strong need to know?

10. How does the author seem to feel about modern day China?

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