While it is certainly no longer enjoying its heyday, the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, remains integral to the lives of the family who own it, its many employees, its regular patrons and the wider city community, whether they like it or not. When Chinese immigrant Bobby Han opened the restaurant, several decades ago, he did so in pursuit of the American Dream and in the face of a number of significant obstacles, not least the dodgy intentions of his (not quite) silent (enough) partner ‘Uncle’ Pang. Despite (or perhaps because of) the dubious deals that occasionally took place on the premises, the restaurant’s business boomed and it became a hangout for presidents, celebrities and the local moneyed types. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s lucky streak ended with Bobby’s death, leaving his two quarrelsome sons, Jimmy and Johnny, with an increasingly non-viable business.
While Johnny has a head for business and a desire to keep the family enterprise going, Jimmy is more of a dreamer and his current dream is to escape from under his father’s shadow and to open his own modern Asian fusion restaurant. To achieve that dream, Jimmy is willing to strike a deal with Uncle Pang, although he doesn’t really appreciate what becoming beholden to the man who has leeched onto his family for years will mean. Uncle Pang has his own methods for getting things done, and he’s quite willing to let others do the dirty work and take the fall for him. Jimmy’s dream isn’t only going to come at a cost to him, since the fate of the Beijing Duck House is also tied to the fate of both its long-term staff, especially Nan and Ah-Jack, who have a complex personal and professional relationship to untangle, and its more recent employees, such as Nan’s son, high-school dropout Pat, and Jimmy’s niece, Annie, who have their own fledgling relationship to navigate.
With Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li explores the lives of a disparate bunch of characters united by the environment they principally inhabit, that is, the Beijing Duck House, which is so much more to them than a standard business/place of employment, however much they might like to pretend otherwise. Jimmy isn’t really a very sympathetic character, although he’s certainly not the kind of villain that Uncle Pang is, but it’s still possible to appreciate his desire to stand on his own two feet and to launch his own successful restaurant business. He makes some undeniably bad choices and he gets into some peculiar and often rather amusing scrapes, but Jimmy’s actually more complex than he initially appears to be, and even he’s surprised by the comradery and worry that he feels in relation to the Duck House’s staff when things start to go very wrong.
As for the staff, it seems that the restaurant is the one thing providing stability in their lives. Nan is the manager of the Duck House, having worked her way up from waitressing (which some of the current waitresses won’t let her forget), but it hasn’t really done her much good and she believes that she has no opportunity to advance further and improve her situation. It’s an open secret among all the employees that she’s in love with Ah-Jack, although the pair aren’t having an affair, they just have an unusually close and possibly rather co-dependent relationship. Nan would do anything to help Ah-Jack and she’s the only reason he still has a job, since ageing waiters who can no longer carry plates of food aren’t in much demand in the restaurant trade. As for Ah-Jack himself, it’s not so much that he wants to work as that he has to work. He has an ill wife to support and, anyway, he probably couldn’t manage his daily life properly if Nan weren’t there to support him when needed. Nan got her son, Pat, a job at the restaurant in the hopes that it would help straighten him out, but like many of the other waiters and busboys, it seems that the wish to make some quick money will cause him to become caught up in the machinations of Uncle Pang.
Number One Chinese Restaurant is a novel about relationships, relationships between parents and children, between siblings, between friends, between lovers, between employers and employees, between crooks and those who are beholden to them, and between people and the places they inhabit. Lillian Li has skilfully created a cast of generally unlikeable characters, set them down in difficult circumstances that are often of their own making, and still caused the reader to care about them. Despite all their lives being so thoroughly enmeshed with the business of the Beijing Duck House, the characters frequently find themselves divided by seemingly insurmountable barriers ranging from straightforward language barriers, to the divide between first-generation and second-generation immigrants, to the impossibility of overcoming unrequited love. It all makes for a great story about ordinary folks living through peculiar and deeply troubling times.
Erin Britton 4/4
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Pushkin One 9781911590071 hbk Feb 2019