SOUR SWEET by Timothy Mo


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The Chens are immigrants from Hong Kong living in London. Chen, the husband and father, is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant at the start; but when goaded by spunky wife Lily, he makes a risky leap and opens his own take-out kitchen in an old garage--and is soon catering to lorry drivers who are insatiably hungry for the sweet-and-sour dishes that no self-respecting Chinese would touch. Chen and Lily have a small son, Man Kee--who grows up attracted to gardening and vegetarianism; also sharing the meager quarters behind the kitchen and front counter is Lily's fat older sister Mui--a household nonentity who seems to have a livelier life elsewhere in London (her pregnancy soon becomes too advanced to be hidden); later, the family group is joined by Chen's old father, who is shipped to England when his other children don't want him. And eventually, to meet previous obligations back in Hong Kong, Chen is forced to borrow money, then loses it in a foolish attempt to double it by gambling; so, through misadventure, is he unwittingly used by a fellow-waiter as a front for the other man's drug-running for a local criminal organization, the Hung family. Chinese/British writer Mo, new to the US, intersperses the daily doings of the Chens with the mores and martial-art savageries of the Hung gang. (""The man went for the knife in his belt. Jackie Fung threw his pall over the swordsman's face, found the socket with his long thumb, and gouged into the eyeball. The man fell back with a cry, covering his face."") But this technicolor, Kung-Fu sinisterism is not nearly as effective as the immigrant-adjustment comedy of the earnest Chens: first acquaintance with the tax man; a trip to the Channel; driving a banged-up van only Lily masters, the ""Infernal Carapace""; killing a live turkey. Deft and affectionate, then, when focusing on the family, but less successful in its melodrama and Chinese-gang sociology.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Vintage/Random House