Regardless of whether it’s true, they say the sidewalks of America are paved with gold. It’s the best story and as Lillian Li writes, “In a world without fairness, the best stories rose to the top.”
Li’s debut novel “Number One Chinese Restaurant” is about the best story: the American dream — a hard-working Chinese family who opens a successful D.C.-based Chinese restaurant, makes The Washington Post, buys a mansion.
The Han family’s American dream is paved with gold, but beneath those gilded surfaces are fathers who died from cancer without his children by his side because they were instructed to keep the restaurant open during the holidays. It’s about parents who took their children to movies at theaters and slept through them because they were so tired from working all the time. It’s about the abandoned mansions that never felt like home because the family spent all their waking hours working at the restaurant. It’s about mothers who fished dumplings out of the trash and ate them to show their children to never waste food. It’s about children begrudgingly working in their family’s restaurant while growing up (“Every day at a Chinese restaurant was bring – your – kid – to -work day,” jokes one of the characters), embarrassed by their relatives’ poor English, mannerisms or jobs.
In that way, the family’s restaurant becomes both a dream and a curse — the thing that prevented them from becoming a “normal” American family who went on scheduled family vacations, sat for family dinners at dinner hours and talked about anything other than work.
Chinese parents toiled at the restaurant for the sake of their ungrateful children, who saw the restaurant as the “monument to his father’s greed” and wished their family had a “job with a larger purpose than filling a bank account.” Parents worked to build their children’s futures, telling Chinese parables their children didn’t understand.
Li tells her own parable with “Number One Chinese Restaurant” — that of Han brothers Johnny and Jimmy years after their father, Duck House’s founder Bobby Han, died from stomach cancer. The Han siblings keep the Duck House running between the two of them, but Jimmy’s ambition is to start his own restaurant — a Chinese fusion place separate from the one his father started.
This is costly, Jimmy learns, and to build his own Chinese American dream, he has to set his father’s on fire.
“Number One Chinese Restaurant” isn’t the best place you’ve ever eaten. The food is cooked with too much oil and MSG. But Li cooks with a lot of heart, using ingredients you don’t always see. Your stomach feels full after this meal even as your heart yearns more more.
Disclaimer: I received a free ebook of “Number One Chinese Restaurant” by Lillian Li from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.