Sweet Mandarin is a memoir about the lives of three generations of the same Chinese family; Helen herself, her mother Mabel and grandmother Lily. Although all three women are mentioned throughout the course of the book, the focus is on Lily, the one who left a hard life in Hong Kong behind to start afresh in the UK. After working non-stop only to find that her husband has drained all of her money for gambling, Lily grabs the chance when her British employers invite her to join them in the UK as a carer. Her love of cooking leads her to eventually start a restaurant, and this love of Chinese cuisine and catering is the link between the three generations. Helen Tse and her two sisters own a restaurant in Manchester called Sweet Mandarin.
Sweet Mandarin was very successful as a memoir. It gave just enough historical detail to enable the reader to put the family in context, but the real story was the story of the three women. Lily's life had many twists and turns and she had to rebuild things from scratch numerous times both in Hong Kong and the UK. The admiration that Helen feels for her grandmother clearly came through in the text and as a reader it was easy to empathise with Lily and want her to succeed as no matter what happened to her, she never gave up.
Tse also portrays Chinese culture very well. She doesn't ever explain that Chinese culture is x, y or z but instead it permeates the whole book. Some parts about the value of men over women and the role of wives were difficult for me to relate to but fascinating to read about. The Chinese village that Lily comes from and Helen eventually visits almost jumps off the page and the description of food in particular was very vivid.
This is quite a brief memoir and not one to read if you want in-depth historical observations (try Jung Chang's Wild Swans for that) but the lives of the women are interesting and well told. Recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about another culture.
Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2007
Score: 4 out of 5