When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.
The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.
I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.
Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.
It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)
Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.
The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.
One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles. The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.
Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.
This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.
I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.
On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.
Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.