St. Martin’s Press|October 13, 2009|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-312-60481-3
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 1930’s Hong Kong and finally to the UK. Their lives were as dramatic as the times they lived through.
A love of food and 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 1950’s, 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.
Helen Tse’s grandmother, Lily was born in a small village in Southern China in 1918 and is said to be a stubborn woman, but at 88 years of age she is still fit and intelligent.
Helen and her sisters were immersed from birth in the Chinese catering business – the fourth generation of her family to make a living from food. Although Helen became a lawyer, her sister Lisa a financier, and Janet an engineer they all gave up their well-paying careers to open a restaurant they named Sweet Mandarin in Manchester, England. All their friends thought they were crazy to give up white collar jobs for the long, arduous and unrelenting hours that go into running a restaurant. They viewed it as taking a step backwards in their lives. However, the older generation understood.
The business brought the sisters closer together and allowed Helen to test her entrepreneurial streak and also set the path for the sisters to be reintroduced to their beloved grandmother and mother by opening up a bridge between them that crossed East and West, uniting the past and the present.
Each Saturday morning, Helen, her mother, and her grandmother shopped at the Chinese grocery store. They purchased stock for the restaurant and their own home cooking. In the past, Helen had only known the barest of facts about her grandmother’s long life, but the weekly shopping trips allowed Lily to begin to reveal her real story to Helen, bit by bit.
Helen had only been aware of the odd anecdote or funny character who made up her family folklore – but now the detail and scale of what Lily had gone through began to emerge. Each bottle or package Lily picked up in the store was tied to a different chapter of her life.
Sweet Mandarin is a courageous true story about a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter: three generations of independent Chinese women whose lives take in Guangzhou in southern China in the 1920’s, colonial Hong Kong in the 1930’s, the horrors of the Japanese occupation and a changing England from the 1950’s to the present day.
This was an excellent memoir that was remarkable and one I just couldn’t put down. If only all of us had such in-depth knowledge of our family’s from four generations back. The women in Helen Tse’s family were definitely survivors.