Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurantby Katharina Smundak
Number One Chinese Restaurant
Lillian Li (Henry Holt and Co., 2018)
In the “Fried Rice” episode of Ugly Delicious, the show tackles the subject of Chinese-American cuisine, the extent to which it has permeated American culture, and the limitations placed upon it by people’s expectations and prejudice. In it, Jennifer 8. Lee, a food historian, describes the pervasiveness of Chinese food in America: “There are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined.” The food served in these Chinese restaurants, especially the chains like Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s, don’t serve the Chinese food you find in China. “Dishes like General Tso’s chicken and egg rolls are completely indigenous to America.” And though this cuisine is labeled Chinese, it is perhaps the epitome of a hyphenated identity, deeply American: “364 days of the year, Americans eat Chinese food, and one day of the year, they eat turkey. Thanksgiving is the number one day for Chinese weddings in America. If our benchmark for American is ‘as apple pie,’ you should ask yourself how often you eat Chinese food versus how often you eat apple pie.”
The Chinese restaurant is an archetype, from the decor to the menu. Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant opens with a description of the Han-family-owned Duck House which fits the bill: “A deep matte red colored everything. From the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of the taller customers.” First-generation Chinese-American Bobby Han, with the help of the mafioso-like Uncle Pang, opens the Duck House in 1985 in Maryland, and bequeaths it to his children, Johnny and Jimmy. The restaurant has made the family’s wealth and position in society possible (the family owns a mansion in Potomac), but it also represents the yoke of familial obligation and duty, particularly for Jimmy.
In a bid to break free from the Chinese restaurantness of the Duck House, Jimmy pays Uncle Pang to find the financing for his new venture—the Beijing Glory, a restaurant “as polished as the silver chopsticks he’d already bulk-ordered,” which will be on the Georgetown waterfront instead of off a highway, and whose waiters will speak unaccented English. When Jimmy realizes that Uncle Pang plans to set fire to the restaurant to collect the insurance money and tries to renege on his agreement so as to escape from Uncle Pang’s hold over the family, Uncle Pang pays one of the restaurant busboys to set fire to the Duck House anyway as an act of vengeance. The rest of the novel traces the consequences of that summer for the Hans—and for some of the poor employees who have been drawn into the orbit of the Han’s machinations: Nan, her son Pat, and her long-time friend and colleague Ah-Jack.
Li’s novel sits on a rich vein of worthwhile themes, among them the question of the kinds of assimilation possible for Chinese-Americans. Just as Jimmy’s father used the Duck House as a point of entry into the U.S., so Jimmy, as the next generation, seeks to do the same through the Glory, an updated Chinese restaurant. In his iteration, the waiters are all white and the menu has items like kimchi nachos and bulgogi burgers, the kind of generalized trendy Asian fusion beloved by (a certain class of) Americans. Yet at the same time, Jimmy seems out of touch with current trends. Though he staged at a restaurant serving haute cuisine where he discovered that good food comes from good ingredients, he refers to ingredients as “materials” and resents that the nice restaurants on the Georgetown waterfront buy from farms and not from wholesalers. He asks why they won’t just “play the game” when it comes to food providers when in fact that is how the game is played. He despises the stories that his brother has woven about the dishes on the menu—“it turned out their homemade garlic sauce wasn’t a cheap way to use up ancient garlic, but an old family recipe from his mother’s side”—lashing out at them as fake, but that is the tritest current culinary trope: our cooking tells a story (see: every episode of every documentary cooking show). The reader gets a story from Jimmy’s past, his time at the restaurant Koi, which is meant to explain Jimmy’s ambitions, but it’s never clear why Jimmy doesn’t go to culinary school if he’s so passionate about food nor why he’s clueless about industry basics.
Li gives every character one or two scenes in the past that are meant to explain who they have become, as though a person is the sum of one or two experiences, as if it’s enough to create a three-dimensional character. The deeper motivations for many of them are opaque. Uncle Pang and Feng Fei, the Han family matriarch, seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever: the former seems to be omnipotent and omnipresent force of corruption the latter, a manipulative, spiteful, power-hungry Lady Macbeth type who exhibits no love for her children. Jimmy, yes, is trapped, but he is also vengeful, angry, impulsive, selfish. His mother lauds him for the fact that he forces the employees to take one week unpaid vacation a year. If Jimmy Han or his mother are meant to be antiheroes—he because he’s a fighter, she because she was the underappreciated driving force behind her family’s success—they are unsuccessful ones.
The parallel storyline revolving around the Duck House’s long-time employees Nan and Ah-Jack is more rewarding. Nan, friends with Ah-Jack for thirty years and in love with him for about the same amount of time, hopes to recover her relationship with her son, Pat, and save him from his nascent delinquency by having him work at the Duck House, the place that turned her into an absent mother. Pat, in turn, resents the constant presence of Ah-Jack, who is, for the first time, available to Nan romantically. The triangle in which Nan finds herself allows for an exploration of the obligations that familial relationships impose on us and the extent we are bound by them. It also highlights that extra strain of intergenerational communication in immigrant families. As she scolds Pat, she deliberately chooses to do so in Chinese. When she returns home after a fight with him, “she’d spoken her most careful English [...] She had lowered herself in this uncertain tongue to let him know how sorry she was.” Speaking a language you don’t know fluently is a sacrifice, specifically of one’s complexity as a person. Li makes sure to note the times her characters choose to make it or deliberately decide not to.
Li’s writing is at its most effective when she writes about the physical. She repeatedly mentions the torture of the two flights of stairs in Ah-Jack’s house when he returns from a long shift at work, his body bent over, scarred by the years of waiting tables. More interesting is the link that several characters believe exists between the body and moral justice. Johnny believes that his father’s death from stomach cancer indicates that “his body did not let him get away with his own greed,” while Ah-Jack’s wife, dying from cancer, thinks that her leaving her husband is a wrong “in no way inconsequential, [but] impossible to scale against the great wrong her body had dealt her.” Unfortunately, a lot of the book’s writing is mired in unnecessarily overwrought figurative language. Jimmy, for example, “had believed he wanted someone fun and ditzy, a girl as transparent and colorful as stained glass. But Janine was like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a masterpiece that loomed above him” Later, Jimmy’s anger “should have been a straight line, but it seemed bent at an unnecessary angle.” Such similes are not only unnecessary; they are, at times, clichéd: “It was as sexy as it was maddening, like watching a woman in a crisp dress shirt suddenly lose all her buttons.” The dialogue, too, suffers from being, at times, pseudo-enigmatic and feels, as a result, artificial.
Ultimately, the novel’s real problem is that the characters are so unlikable and incomprehensible that they are obstacles to exploring the fertile setting the author has chosen. So much of the novel’s energy is devoted to moving the plot forward that there is no space for adding the depth that the novel could have had space for. In the end, once all the plotlines have been neatly resolved, “no one would remember the fiery summer that threatened to topple their little Han dynasty.” The question is, why should they?