June 2024
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Sweet Mandarin, Helen Tse

For three generations of Chinese women, a restaurant is the key to their livelihood.  It starts with Lily, who is born in a small Chinese town, moves to Hong Kong, and eventually to Great Britain to make her fortune for her two small children.  Lily’s daughter Mabel opens her own restaurant in an attempt to recoup family fortunes, so her daughter Helen, the author of this book, grows up in a takeaway.  Though she graduates from Cambridge and earns a law degree, Helen and her two sisters decide to open a restaurant of their own – Sweet Mandarin.

I enjoyed the story of these three women.  More of the book is dedicated to Lily than to Mabel and Helen, but that seems almost the way it should be, since it was Lily who really made the biggest changes in her family’s fortunes.  Lily’s story is also the most interesting, because her life reads like a novel, full as it is of twists and turns of fate.  Beyond that, it is absolutely fascinating to witness the changes in China, Hong Kong, and British imperialism in general throughout the book.  It is astounding to witness the vast differences in some areas of the world, while other ways of life in China remain basically the same as they were when Lily was a child.  For this reason, my favorite part of the book was their visit to Hong Kong towards the end.

Helen Tse writes the story of her family’s fortunes as a memoir, which made it a pleasure to read.  I felt for Lily, Mabel, and Helen throughout their stories and really enjoyed the way cooking and restaurants tied the whole book together, with the exception of some of Lily’s experiences (although I enjoyed those too, and they’re necessary to set up the rest of the book).  The common thread of food ran through and it’s admirable that Helen and her sisters have embraced and retained their heritage in this way.

I’d recommend this book, especially to people who enjoy memoirs.  It has a solid, interesting story and Helen’s family is a memorable one. Buy this book on Amazon.

You can also view an interview with the author on YouTube or visit the book’s website.


4 comments to Sweet Mandarin, Helen Tse

  • excellent review! This is on my TBR list. Memoir is one of my favorite genres (personal memoir, not celebrity memoir); *Sweet Mandarin* looks very inviting.

  • Meghan, this sounds like a great book!

  • I thought about cold requesting this one and now I’m sorry I didn’t :) I’ve added this to my giant TBR list.

  • I would have commented earlier, but I wanted to read and prepare my review before reading your review. I really enjoyed this book–especially the historical elements. The author did such a good job with filling in the cultural details. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read this one.