Number One Chinese Restaurant stumbles over some of its elements, but Li as an author shows promise with an interesting, colorful premise.
Disaster shakes the controlled chaos of a generations-old family establishment, forcing its employees to reflect on their desires and face the obstacles blocking the way. Packed with conflict, scheming and interpersonal drama, Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant tests the ties that bind family, friends and coworkers and unearths how a singular, human need that’s satisfied or unmet can shape relationships.
Respective owner and general manager Jimmy and Johnny Han clash as brothers and business partners who’ve inherited their late father Bobby’s Duck House restaurant. Johnny wants to preserve its legacy. Jimmy wants to escape it, and a suspiciously-timed arson expedites his plans to start the Beijing Glory. The family’s eely benefactor Uncle Pang bribes delinquent teen dishwasher Pat. Wanting to financially assist and treat the women in his life, he does the deed while, in the process, snaring his hostess girlfriend and Johnny’s daughter Annie as an accomplice and growing volatile while hiding his secret from his mother, staff manager Nan. She and long-time waiter Jack juggle mutual feelings logistically complicated by familial obligations.
The narrative is splintered into difficult to track threads amongst an ensemble cast. (The family tree infographic helps, at least.) If some characters come to a tenuous truce, others are arguing. Moments of heightened tension ironically provide welcome reprieves from this plot fatigue. During Glory’s faltering debut, Jimmy realizes, in his haste to prove himself, he failed to train the staff properly and attract clientele beyond his father’s cache with the Duck House. Pat’s arrest at work pits everyone against each other to save who and what’s dearest to them. Where other scenes seem written for intrigue, these synthesize how the characters simply want to be acknowledged and understood when the very institution that binds them professionally also strains their connections.
Gaps between predecessors and progeny also contribute to relational discord. The parents, who immigrated from China to carve their American dream, value loyalty and hard work, not realizing it’s at the expense of quality time with their children outside of their shared workplace. What the offspring consider distance and misunderstanding, their parents see as love through financial support and a family dynasty in which to take pride. Characters code switch between Chinese and English of varying proficiencies depending on scenario, masterfully demonstrating their cultural differences and level of agency in each scenario.
This examination of blended identities unfortunately brings up racial insensitivity. Jimmy fleeing the family restaurant for his own feels like an attempt to “ascend” his Chinese heritage, particularly in his mandating English in the dining areas, pushing the new “upscale” menu items despite customers preferring the originals, and blaming the unsavory food on unseasoned cooks “fresh off the boat.” The Latino staffers have little relevance, are mostly called “amigos” rather than by name, and are in one case described as “poor and dirty.” These observations aren’t a big part of the novel, but they feed into the pervasive “Model Minority” myth Asians-Americans have been fed and are uncomfortable to read.
For all of Chinese Restaurant’s amped up drama, Li quickly wraps it up with another of Pang’s assumed, undescribed mob deals, an example of using him as a convenient plot driver rather than innovating a structured story. The epilogue hastily concludes the book, and Jimmy and his perceptions haven’t evolved — a disappointment after a soap opera of a story.
Where plot falters and characters sometimes grate the nerves, Li’s descriptive prowess shine through with keen, funny imagery. Food isn’t just her cast’s livelihood but a means of communication and retaliation. During a confrontation Feng expected from Jimmy and prepared his favorite meals for, he wolfs his entrees down to disgust her, and she barks back by trashing what’s left despite their good condition and the hours of labor behind them.
Number One Chinese Restaurant stumbles over some of its elements, but Li as an author shows promise with an interesting, colorful premise that explores a microcosm of love, anger, confusion and human connection in a steadfast cultural, culinary backdrop.